Friday, March 18, 2011

Who Said We Can't Run On Water - The Polar Bear Run 2011 Edition

Nicole, Gail and Colin Prepping For the Start of Polar Bear Run March 13th ,2011 in Siglavik, Manitoba

If I could summarize my experience on Sunday to one word, it would have to be W-O-W!!!

It is really hard to express the thoughts and feelings that were going through my head as I proceeded to tackle this new challenge. It brought not only myself, but my wife, two other running partners and a number of others brave (but slightly insane) souls to the mercy of Mother Nature and all the havoc that she could muster.

This was the Polar Bear Run, a point to point run across Lake Winnipeg, the 14th largest lake in the world, from Siglavik (just south of Gimli) to Grand Marais on the east side of the lake. Distance according to the Garmin of just under 18 miles, but some of the hardest 18 miles I have ever run. To put it into perspective my legs felt better after finishing 48 of a 50 km Ultra Marathon barefoot last year - see previous blog post Post Vulture Bait and Groin Pulls, then they did after this gruelling run. This all being said, I would of not missed this experience for anything and I am proud to say I am in a limited group that have achieved this goal.
This all being said and prior to me going into the run details, let's quickly explore why this run is so difficult, and also what makes this run so different from the majority of the others out there
First and foremost the biggest factor is 'Mother Nature', depending what type of mood she is in will determine what type of conditions you will need to endure.
  1. The Ice: Here you are relying on the diligence of the run organizers to ensure it is safe, and for this part Jeff Badger (the run director) did a fantastic job constantly reviewing the ice and keeping all the runners updated up to and including the day before the run.
  2. Mental: Don't forget you are running over a frozen lake in March, even though it is frozen it is still unpredictable where a crack or a ice shelf might develop.
  3. The Trail: Even though the snow mobile trail that is utilized is clearly marked and well travelled creating a decent base, any wind or snowfall will create havoc for footing and endurance. In short it will feel like you ran a lot farther and harder then you actually did, finishing time can not be a factor in this race, just the experience.
  4. Clothing and equipment requirements: What to wear, you need to be prepared for anything, so you layer up, and hope you plan appropriately for the conditions. Sunglasses or ski goggles are a must as the glare off the ice and snow can be blinding. Footwear is also a important decision, you need warmth, but also traction, and keeping your feet as dry as possible is very important (there would be no barefooting this one for me), therefore the footwear of choice for both myself and Nicole was a set of mukluks, more on these later on. Nicole was also totting a backpack with a bunch of supplies including extra clothing, 2 water bottles, homemade power bars, etc. As I typically do not run with anything other than what I need at the moment, I was carrying a compass, my ipod, my garmin and an extra pair of gloves just in case.
  5. Did I mention 'Mother Nature', it's not like you can find shelter in the middle of the lake if the wind picks up and the temperature drops, you can quickly loose your way in a white out condition, and with this you could be in a lot of trouble really quickly.

    To further express this point, I have added a quote from a friend of mine who I admire and respect, and something that kind of makes you stop and think about the adventure that you are about to embark on. It goes like this:
    "If it's clear out, you can see the finish line from the start line!" says Hasher Denzil Feinberg, a.k.a. The Tin Man. But, he adds, "if there's a whiteout, you could get lost and die." (Runners World, January 2003)

    We read this quote the day before the run, nothing like being blunt and to the point.

Gail Cutting Spare Laces Colin Checking Out His Water Bladder

Nicole laughing off the Pre-Run Jitters

Now on to the run itself, as this is a point to point run, preparation is a must, you have to ensure you have not only a ride to the start, but also a ride from the finish back to the start so you get your vehicle or arrange for someone to drop you off at the start and pick you up at the finish. To tackle this little detail the four of us (Nicole, Gail, Colin and myself) decided to take two vehicles and drive out to Grand Marais and drop a vehicle off at the finish prior to proceeding off to Gimli for the start of the race together. This meant a very early start of 5:00 am (also taking into account the time change (DST) where we lost an hour) and about 3 hours of sleep to work with for the day, today would be a day of working off adrenaline. We arrived in Siglavik at the start at around 8:20am, with a start time of 9:00 am, we decided we should find a bathroom, as there would be no facilities out on the ice, nor any trees or bushes to hide behind to do your business. With these details out of the way, we headed back to the start area, to finish final preparations, and get ready for the run. It was great weather at the start, overcast (thus reduced snow and ice glare), approx. -17 degrees Celsius (on land) and a very light wind (it was actually eirre how calm it was), this would change a little bit by the end of the run for some of us.

Pre Run gathering to go over the route and well wishes for a good run

I am not sure how many runners there were in total, I am guessing about 30 to 40, including 6 runners that decided to run a out and back (starting in Grand Marais at about 5:00 am and running across prior to turning around and heading back with us), all I have to say is amazing, and I am now inspired to complete a out and back in the next couple of years. After a quick role call to ensure that all participants were known to and accounted for with the organizers and a quick run down from Jeff Badger on the route that we would be taking, we headed out towards the lake.

Nicole and Bob Prior to the Run (Yes we are wearing matching Mukluks)

Now this would be the longest I have run since October, so when I committed to this run, I decided that there would be no looking for a PR, no competitiveness would be allowed to rear its ugly head. I wanted to run the entire way with my best friend and partner in life and just enjoy the experience and day, and that is exactly what we did. Nicole was concerned she was going to slow me down, as generally I am a little faster, but on this day I think she surprised herself as well as me with her strength, more on this later on.

Nicole heading down the drainage channel towards Lake Winnipeg

As was expected the faster runners took off quickly down the path onto the drainage channel towards the lake, Colin being the faster of our group was quickly off as well keeping up with the main group of front runners. It was interesting to see everybody jockeying for positions to find the best hard pack area of the trail as footing was not the best, kind of like running thru deep sand on a beach, easier said than done. Gail, Nicole and myself held back a little bit to let the first wave take off, prior to heading out ourselves, as for me this was not about placing or a good time, just finishing and the experience. It was amazing how calm it was as we entered the drainage channel, it was like the world just stopped around us, and it was just waiting for us to finish this undertaking before starting back up again, it was surreal and overwhelming all at once. I guess you could say the calm before the storm.

I found the footing to be a little loose, but manageable, there was a bit of slipping, but as my running style is a little different with more of a lifting motion than a swinging leg motion, I think I was having a little less trouble with the drifting snow and loose pack, at least at the start and my new Mukluks my wife made were performing really well (who needs running shoes to run). It was interesting to see the majority of the runners take off as quickly as they did, with the terrain as it was. It was not to long before Gail started to pull away from us as well, as Nicole and I had the two compasses, I figured it would be smart for me to get one to Gail just in case the weather turned bad and we got separated. So I picked up the pace to catch up and do the hand off prior to slowing back down to let Nicole catch up. I was determined to not let my competitive nature take over and just enjoy the experience with my wife.

It was interesting to see this sign as we were almost out of the drainage channel, almost like it was trying to tell us something!

Once we exited the drainage channel and turned south towards the snowman trail, it was a little overwhelming to see what we would be running. Due to the overcast conditions, you could not see the other side, it was just white and a dull grey sky everywhere you turned (except back towards the start of course). There were some ice fishing huts to the north and a long line of orange poles that marked the route that we would be taking towards the east and of course a line of runners heading that way. Once we got onto the snowman trail, you could definitely see the difference in the hard pack trail - no slipping, but where the snow had drifted over the trail it was not easy to run. Between the drifts (which were actually quite frequent) and where the snowmobiles tried to go over them to repack the trail, the snow was loose and it was more and more difficult to run through the more tired you got. Conditioning is a must for this run, there is a big difference between running 18 miles of road and running 18 miles of this trail.

Nicole and Gail heading onto the lake proper nothing like running into a great mass of unknown

Nicole and I were going along at a slower pace, trying not to wear ourselves out and also take in the experience, for the first 8 to 9 miles the trail was surprising decent, the wind for the most part was calm, the only areas of concern were where the snow drifted across the trail as mentioned earlier. In the first half of the run, we saw some interesting things which I have included below in pictures with descriptions. After we hit the halfway point things started to get a little more interesting.

The first ice shelf we came across, doesn't look like much but it still made me mighty nervous as we went over it.

Caution, Who Needs Caution, We are Running In the Middle of a Lake in March and the Ice Had Broken Open Only a Couple of Weeks Again Right Behind Me To Form That Little Ice Shelf, No Worries At All.

We were a little surprised when we were about 5 miles in and a dog went flying by us (owner in tow), it looked like it was not his first lake crossing and boy was he having fun. He trotted next to each of us with a enough time for a quick pet before taking off to lead the way. You can just barely make out the line of the horizon, this was pretty typical throughout.

This is me immortalizing the half way point of the run, I tried to knock the ice off of my face and completely missed one side. The goggles and the neoprene mask that I wore around the lower part of my face were definitely needed accessories for this run.

Nicole waving as she reaches the half way point, the gentleman behind her is walking the whole thing wearing steel toe safety winter boots and heavy winter work gear. He left a couple of hours before us and was making pretty good time. Yes there were still some runners behind us.

This was at the half way point, the ice shelf in the middle of the lake, from what i understand it was open water about a week or two ago where the ice cracked. Not sure how thick it was or if we were suppose to go around or not (it travelled for quite a few miles in both directions), I swallowed my fears and ran through it as quickly as I could (did I mention I have a major fear of deep water and I can't swim).

I arrived at the half way point of the run a couple of minutes before Nicole did, I must of picked my pace up a little bit and didn't realize it, thus the little bit of separation. So as I waited on the other side of the ice shelf, I took the time to look around me in every direction, how surreal it was to be at this point and just see grey everywhere, as I noted before the wind was calm, and there were no sounds just peace and quiet. For those couple of minutes I just stood there and took it all in. I could see some of the runners in the distance ahead of me (just little dots on the horizon) to the east, and Nicole and a few others beyond the ice shelf behind me to the west. Looking to the north and to the south all I saw was a vast nothingness, just grey and it was hard to see where the ice ended and the sky began, one big grey backdrop.

Once Nicole arrived, I could see she was having trouble with her backpack, lugging that around especially the way my wife packs, I was not completely surprised this was some pretty rough terrain. Note, she runs with this everywhere, when ever she does a long run so she is quite used to the extra weight, etc. This is where the fun begins, in all my wisdom I offered to take the pack and carry it for a while to give her a break. I am feeling good, not bad for running 9 miles over a lake (I would honestly compare it to a 15 to 18 mile road run at this point), I also didn't think it would be that much of an adjustment to run with a pack. N-O-T, I ran at the same pace as before for about a mile or two, and the extra weight was killing me, I had to go to a walk, my legs were burning and my back was killing me. Now, I know, yes I am whinning, but in my defense, I have never ran with a pack before, I usually run with no supplies period (heck I usually leave the shoes behind too), so this was uncharted territory for me, and I can honestly say I will never do it again at least not until I have too. I have also gained a lot of respect for the strength and determination of my wife, because she runs with this thing all the time, and even after my grumbling after carrying it for 4 miles (I swear it weighed 40 pounds), she took it back and wore it the rest of the way to the finish. Nicole is amazing in my eyes.

Besides the backpack issue, the last half of the run was proving to be more difficult as the wind had picked up and had blown more drifts over the trail and the footing was getting worse and worse. The running on hard pack was getting less and less, and at one point I was running off the trail a little bit hoping to get a little bit more traction when I heard a series of cracking noises. Let me blunt, it is not good to hear cracking sounds when you are running on a frozen lake, a whole bunch of thoughts go through your head at once including, "Oh Crap, I hope that wasn't what I thought it was" and "I'm Going To Die". Luckily, I figured out it was the hard crusty snow on top of the ice that was snapping, and I was able to breathe again, and I quickly decided it was better for me to stay on the trail.

With the wind picking up and the trail becoming harder and harder to run on, we ended up doing more walking then running. We starting running a number of pole marker lengths and then walking a few, and then running a few. I was seriously getting tired, my quads were burning, and I was having an issue with breathing through my nose. It was interesting, at the start of the race, Nicole was worried she would hold me back, and here we were three quarters done the run and she is encourging me along to run another pole length. Now don't get me wrong, I am a stubborn, determined individual and I would of finished the run or died trying, but it would of included more walking than running. Nicole encourged me to push on with running when I did not think I had anything left in the tank.

We continued with the run/walks for a while, then we looked to the northeast and saw a welcoming site (or so we thought), a piece of land looked to be a short distance away. So that meant we were close to the east side of the lake, and Grand Marais, boy were we wrong, we continued to run /walk for about another 4 miles and the darn piece of land got no closer. It was really frusterating, it was a cruel joke that was being played on us and neither of us were laughing.

This was the piece of land that we saw just ahead of us for about 4 miles but it appeared to get no closer till we veared off to the south towards Grand Marais.

Another mile or two and we started heading a little south and up ahead we saw Grand Marais and we picked up the pace knowing the end was near. We walked a little quicker, and we ran a little quicker when we saw the snow covered sand dunes off in the distance. Almost there was the only thing going through my head. My thoughts went back to what a friend of mine said to me, "Just think of the great breakfast at the end when you finished", this really helped because I was getting darn hungry by this point. Nicole encouraged me on, and we headed up the little rise to the parting in the sand dune, we could see the finish line, only about a half mile to go. At this point I said to Nicole we should run it in, and with a nod we were off. I was moving a little faster than her, as I found some untapped adrenoline that I didn't know I had for the final kick to the finish line. As we got across the finish line we were given no medal, no shirt, nothing but a 'Finisher's Hug' by the organizer's wife and that was perfect for the occasion. Nicole finished a minute or two after me and I gave her a big hug and said we finished, we did it.

After all the reservations through out the weeks leading up to the run, not knowing if we would be able to finish due to limited milage and health problems, we perservered and finished. What a feeling it was, we are a couple of a limited number of runners who can say they have ran across Lake Winnipeg, the 14th largest lake in the world in the winter. This run being in its 19th year and 17th crossing (2 cancelled due to weather), averaging between 30 runners per year will be a run that I will never forget and will have no equal (until the next time)

Just some final stats on this years race:

  • 43 participants, (18 miles or 30 km)

  • 6 attempted the double crossing, 5 finished. (36 miles or 60 km)

  • Fastest Time-2 hours 24 minutes

  • Last finisher - around 5 hours

  • Wind picked up to above 50 km/hr on the lake shortly after the last runner was in.
  • Temperature at start of race: Land: -17 degrees C / On the Ice: -25 degrees C before windchill.

  • One great brunch smorg at the end of the run

  • Fun had by all.

A great thanks go out to all the volunteers who ran back and forth between first and last (on snowmobiles) to make sure everybody was fine, and deliver water and energy bars when needed as well as support if requried. Also a great thanks to Paul McKeen, who was gracious enough to photograph the run for posterity and memories.

But the biggest thanks goes to Jeff Badger and his wife for putting on a great event, your attention to details to make sure it is a safe and fun event was greatly appreciated. Making us feel welcome and giving us that little extra bit of encouragement to push the limit to give this great run a try. For anyone out there that wants a challenging run, and a great experience to boot, this is a run for you.

Until next year, at the 2012 Polar Bear Run, I will leave you with a few more candid shots.

See we were not the only ones taking pictures along the way

Grand Marais In the Distance

More Ice Shelf Pics from the Centre of The Lake Can You See The Wind Picking Up

Are these Runners in the Distance Or Are They Ice Fishing Shacks

From Back to Front,Left To Right: Colin, Gail, Bob and Nicole
After the Run in Grand Marais, I Think My Face is Still Defrosting


  1. I absolutely MUST do this run. I've been sitting on the fence for three year. You have painted a brilliant picture of the event. Thanks so much. Amazing run! Amazing post! Mike

  2. Awesome race Bob...Like you said, it sounds very similar to the race report I wrote the year I ran across the lake...Your description brought me right back there and I was running it again!

    Looking forward to congratulating you in person!