Polar Bears metres from racers at Churchill's annual Polar Bear Marathon

A couple of low-key polar bears attended the annual Polar Bear Marathon in Churchill, Man., on Saturday, unbeknownst to all 24 of the runners who likely passed them.

Photographer captures two bears keeping a low profile in the snow while runners pass

A polar bear basks in the sun as runner Mike Pasloski ambles by. (Keith McDougall)

A couple of low-key polar bears attended the annual Polar Bear Marathon in Churchill, Man. on Saturday, unbeknownst to all 24 of the runners who likely passed them.

Keith McDougall captured a photograph that shows two polar bears crouching in the snow as runner Mike Pasloski runs past.

"I think all the runners have gone past these bears and none of the runners were aware of it," said Albert Martens, who organized the marathon.

He said McDougall sent him the photos after the race, not knowing at the time of taking the bears' picture that a marathon was going on.

"They were hunkered down, head forward in the snow, sleeping...but I don't know, I don't think they were sleeping, because apparently they can smell seals 32 kilometres away," he said.

"They must have known we were there. Absolutely."

Martens said when the photographer sent him the photo yesterday, he showed it to some of the runners.

They said, "Oh my goodness...that's unreal."

But Martens said it's something they were prepared for, especially this time of year in Churchill, when polar bears are migrating through on their way to the ice floes and their winter seal hunt.

"You have to be aware of it that the bears are there because you see the fresh bear tracks," he said. 

"We all were told there's lots of bears around here."

Martens said the local polar bear alert team went out along the route before the runners did to scare any away. Once the race started, 12 vehicles trailed behind the runners, equipped with guns and flares to haze the bears if necessary along the 42-kilometre route.

"They would've known what to do to scare 'em away," said Martens, adding that the notion of being in bear territory adds to the thrill of the race for participants.

"We see the white-covered rocks and then the runners … some of them, they envision the bear behind every rock. [It helps your time] a little bit," he said, laughing.

As exciting as the photograph is, Martens said he was much more captivated by the day's conditions.

"I love the beautiful scenery, the Hudson's Bay, one time it's ice, next time it's water, and then with the sun shining so beautifully," he said.

He says it's an idyllic setting for a run.

"It is beautiful to start at eight o'clock in the morning … and then run east towards the sun rising, it's just gorgeous. And then overlooking the Hudson's Bay on the left and then a curvy road, up and down gently, with these little wind-blown trees on the side," he said.

The bears are just part of the scenery, said Martens, adding he doesn't have much concern to the potential danger of the situation, given how close they were to the runners.

"That's a close call for anybody walking out the doors here in Churchill I think," he said.


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