Berlin based Sven Henkes, 35, recently took part and won the Polar Bear Marathon in Churchill, Canada. Situated on the edge of the Arctic Circle in the Province of Manitoba, the town of Churchill is also popularly known as the "polar bear capital of the world". In this age of extreme running events, it's tough to beat this marathon held at the top of the world, where temperatures recorded at the starting line were -20 degrees below zero. Besides braving extreme temperatures, there were also dangers of running into polar bears. Taking the approach of safety in numbers, the 14 race participants had to run in groups. Six vehicles served as mobile aid stations, carrying food, drink and extra gear, as well as bear stun guns. Sven won the race with a time of 4 hours and 14 minutes.
What motivated you to take part in such an extreme running event?
Actually, it was quite a spontaneous move. I trained really hard to run the Berlin Marathon in September under 3 hours which I managed to do successfully. Combined with the different Ultra-runs I ran before, my achievements at the Berlin Marathon encouraged me to try something crazy this time. Only two days after the Berlin Marathon, my wife caught me looking for new challenges.
How do you prepare for such a marathon?
Well, after training very hard for the Berlin Marathon, I had to reduce the intensity of my workout a little. But I never found myself exercising in cold temperatures or similar conditions. All I‘ve ever experienced was the Berlin winter with about -10 to -15 degrees Celsius.
Last year in winter I wore three layers of clothing and it worked out very well. This got me thinking that an additional 2 layers will definitely keep me warm enough.
In preparation for the Berlin Marathon I trained 4 to 10 times a week on average and ran around 90 km’s a week. I also tried to vary my training as much as possible and to integrate Interval-Runs and work on my overall fitness.
Was there a point in the race that you felt was the toughest?
The first part of the marathon went very well with my running partner. We ran into the sunrise, had very interesting conversations and we couldn't stop thinking about all the different animals, like wolfs or polar bears, that could possibly cross our way. After about 20 km’s, we were still in very good spirits - joking and enjoying the banter. Things changed abruptly when we reached the half-way and started running the street back in the other direction. The strong head wind turned the windchill factor from - 26 degrees Celsius into -41 degrees Celsius. At the beginning I was still trying to cheer up my running partner to motivate him and me to keep on running, but I got no chance at all. The head wind took all the energy out of our legs and we had to fight mentally against this situation. My glasses had already fogged up 500 m after the start and froze shortly afterwards, so that I could only use them as additional wind protection on the hood. Due to the strong wind my eyebrows started to freeze slowly. As I kept on running I could feel that even my eyelids started to freeze as well and I couldn't see properly anymore. My first thought was that I am feeling dizzy but after I started rubbing them and trying to heat them up I realized that my eyelids just froze and I started to see properly again. After a very "easy" first part of the marathon, it was from the mid mark that the real challenge started.
Did you ever think of giving up?
Not really. The first part of the marathon went very well, only the way back was very challenging. I also had to leave my running partner behind because he had to slow down his speed and started walking. On the last kilometers I was completely on my own. Every hill transformed into an unconquerable mountain so that I had to set small goals in order to climb them. The next sign, the next iceberg… That was the only way to motivate myself again and again and I finally managed to be the first runner to cross the finish line.
How did you keep yourself warm – what did you wear during the marathon?
All I knew from last winter in Berlin is that 3 layers would work for at least -15 degrees Celsius. But now I had to manage -26 or even a windchill factor of -41 degrees Celsius, so I decided to put on 2 more layers and wear special windbreaker jackets. One night before the competition I counted all my clothing - I had about 20 items! Overall I was wearing about 5 layers.
Although I had other clothes in the support vehicle, I never felt like putting them on. The sweat that came out fortunately - formed some kind of an ice cap over my clothes - not like some other runners. This kept me warm enough.
What was the first thing on your mind when you crossed the finish line?
I was extremely happy to finally cross the finish line! Despite being marathon distance, it felt like a 50-km run. Actually, I wanted to eat a piece of cake, drink hot chocolate and have a beer, but first of all I had to give an interview for Canadian TV. It made me feel proud of my achievements.
What really impressed me was the unique bond and spirit amongst the group of runners. The wife of a fellow runner was dressed as a polar bear and welcomed us all at the finish line.
Have you got another challenge planned already?
The incredible thing about the run was that it showed me what my body is capable off, if I put my mind to it. I'm using the inspiration from the Polar Bear Marathon to look for new challenges in 2014. Having completed a marathon in extreme cold, i'm looking to test my limits with a marathon in extreme heat.
I have my eye on the Sahara Marathon in Algeria in February 2014.
Sven Henkes was talking to us in Berlin, Germany.