A woman from Steinbach literally ran with the bears last weekend in Churchill.
Shannon Sawatzky was one of 14 runners to take part in the 10th annual Polar Bear Marathon, organized by Albert Martens of Steinbach. Because of the mild fall, the shoreline along the Hudson Bay has not yet frozen over. That means the polar bears have not yet left town for the winter. And, for the marathon runners, it meant close encounters.
"I only got, I would guess maybe one hundred metres from the closest bear," says Sawatzky.
However, Sawatzky says she definitely saw tracks along the road and notes some of the other runners got close enough that the Canadian Rangers had to chase them away. According to Albert Martens, in none of the previous nine years of this marathon did they see as many bears as they did last Saturday. He notes it also ended up being one of the toughest marathons they have ever run because of the weather.
The temperature itself was not the problem. Martens notes it was -6 degrees and snowing when the runners took their marks Saturday morning. The marathon sees competitors run out 21.1 kilometres, before turning around and heading back into town.
"We ran out for twenty-one kilometres with the wind at our back," recalls Sawatzky. "And I knew as soon as I turned around to come back, then the work would begin and that was exactly it."
Each runner is paired with an escort vehicle, which is used not only to provide relief in case of an emergency but also to fend off any polar bears that might want to get a closer look. Sawatzky says for the second half of the race, she used her escort vehicle, driven by her husband Dale, to help shield the wind.
"It was just driving wind, pushing the ice into your eyes and the road was very slippery," she recalls. "So Dale was trying so hard to drive it right beside me to kind of give me a little wind pocket, but if I ever got out of that it would just blow me across the road."
Sawatzky says the other big challenge was the solitude. She says looking back at the photos taken from Saturday, there are a lot of photos where she is the only runner for miles around.
"It was just me and the Hudson Bay and this clunky old van driving keeping me safe from the elements and the bears," she says.
According to Martens, the wind really picked up the next day, gusting to 90 kilometres per hour, producing blizzard conditions.
Now that the race is over and she is back in the comforts of her warm home, Sawatzky says there are a few things she will take away from the experience. First of all, she says there were great connections made with other runners from around the world. The 14 runners came from places like Lithuania and Italy, and then across Canada. She adds so many races have been cancelled over the last year and a half because of the pandemic and it was great to finally be on a course again with other runners. Sawatzky says this marathon was also a great reminder that she can do hard things. And finally, she says it was a real pleasure to support Albert and Edna Martens and their work with Athletes In Action.
As mentioned, Sawatzky's husband Dale came along to drive a support vehicle. But, he also helped set up the course a day earlier and served as the guest speaker at the evening banquet. Sawatzky says he used the opportunity to compare the Polar Bear Marathon to the Christian race, but also tied in the theme of reconciliation.