Adventuring through the polar bear capital

  • by Rich Atkinson

Bundled in a maple leaf jacket with CANADA spelled out in large letters, Albert Martens took his place beside 14 other runners in Churchill, Manitoba – the polar bear capital of the world.

After a prayer and “Oh Canada,” the runners clad in multiple layers jog eastward toward the sunrise for the start of the third Polar Bear Marathon.

In just 30 minutes, the runners are moving silhouettes with the red sun rising over the horizon in front of them. This event has three categories of distances: the ultra marathon 50 km (31 miles), 42 km (26 miles) and 21 km (13 miles).

The course takes runners along the Hudson Bay coastline and polar bear migration routes. Five runners decided to brave the ultra marathon in the 14.8-degree temperature that became -42 degrees with the wind chill. Four runners opted for the full marathon, while five runners chose the half-marathon.

Today, Albert, who serves with Athletes in Action in Canada, a ministry of Power to Change, the name of Cru in Canada, is not running in the competition that he has organized since its inception in 2012. Instead, he is part of the support crew.

The event is in support of the AIA First Nation ministry work including baseball camps in Tadoule Lake, Pauingassi and Poplar Hill. The marathon included an international flavor with runners from Germany, Switzerland and the U.S. Canadian participants included First Nation runners.

“Each runner was assigned to a vehicle escorting them with the energy food, drink and fruit, as well as a bear watcher with a gun, to protect the runners from polar bears,” Albert said. “The road was very icy and slick; in fact one runner used running shoes with spikes.”

Albert grew up in a large family with six brothers and four sisters living on a farm on the Canadian Prairies. After he finished high school, Albert struggled with meaning and purpose in his life.

At 19, he moved out and got a job in a bank. He started going through a Bible correspondence course and began asking his pastor questions. He said his pastor had a couple questions for him too, “Had he ever placed his faith in Christ and would he like to?”

Albert knelt by his bed and trusted in Jesus. Since that day, his life has been about sports and ministry.

He started running to relieve stress and gradually went from running 4 km to running his first marathon in Switzerland in 1980. Albert has run 49 marathons and has competed in ultra marathons including BADWATER® 135, billed as “the world’s toughest footrace.”

During the Polar Bear Marathon in Churchill, a few runners did not finish because they didn’t dress warm enough. And four of the five ultra runners suffered from mild frostbite on their faces. Gerald McIvor of Cross Lake, Manitoba posted the fastest marathon time at four hours and 25 minutes.

Albert encouraged a struggling First Nation runner to finish and had an opportunity to have a spiritual conversation with him while running beside him.

“He talked openly about his mom and his upbringing,” he said. “So I was able to ask him if he knew about Christianity.”

The runner was not a follower of Jesus, and they talked more as they ran. Next summer, Albert hopes to see him in Tadoule Lake and talk further.

“It helps to have a deeper purpose behind your running,” he said. “I think each person has a different reason why they run, but I’ve done it primarily for fun, to raise money for charity and to share my faith with other runners.”