Outrunning the Polar Bears

The Spitsbergen Marathon: where winning means not getting eaten by a polar bear.

At 71 degrees north, the race boasts itself as the northernmost land marathon in the world. The sun doesn’t set between April and August, and the race draws a quirky crowd of challenge-seekers. On somewhat of a whim, I register for the half marathon; I figure 13.1 miles is perfect for maximizing the scenery and minimizing opportunities to become a bear’s lunch.

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, in between Norway and the North Pole. With ice fields, icebergs and a surface area of over 60% glacier, this is the most accessible taste of the polar north.

The marathon director sends us an informational newsletter a week before the race. It contains headings like: distances and starting times, water posts, age categories, and polar bear guards. The gist of the latter is that yes, polar bears exist here, but there will be armed guards along the length of the course. Still, I can’t pretend to be entirely at ease.

The race will take place in Longyearbyen, a gritty former coal-mining town. It is, in fact, Svalbard’s only town, with around 2,000 permanent inhabitants and double that many polar bears. Ordinarily, people take a gun or a guide (preferably both) if venturing out of downtown, because unlike the shy brown bear or the generally-leave-you-alone-if-you-do-the-same grizzly, the polar bear is actively bloodthirsty! I consider this good motivation to maintain a sprightly tempo during the race.

I learn that the Norwegian word for polar bear is “isbjørn,” literally ‘ice bear.’ For some reason, this sounds even more ferocious to me. My dad reminds me that I don’t need to outrun the bear, just the guy next to me. This is his pre-race inspiration. Thanks for that, Dad.

And the gun goes off.

We start in downtown Longyearbyen, with its smattering of supermarkets, a few cafes and art galleries, a Thai restaurant, bar, post office, pharmacy, and an outdoor equipment store on basically every block—often more than one bordering each other on the same block. Perhaps this makes sense; people don’t come to Svalbard for the nightlife; they come for the outdoors, to be blown away by the sheer, stark beauty. Or, if they are crazy enough, to run a race in the midst of it all.

At the first junction stands a neon-vested traffic director, gun slung over one shoulder.

“Any isbjørn yet?” I ask as I run by.

“Nope!” she replies, filling me with optimism. “Not yet.” Optimism reduces dramatically.

The Norwegian way to cheer is to chant “heia, heia!” (pronounced hi-yah!, somewhat like a karate chop sound effect). Actually, to cheer, as a verb, is toheia, and this I do liberally as my path crosses with other runners.

We run through the colorful neighborhoods and then down to a gravel road extending along the fjord. Snow-streaked mountains rise on both sides of the flat river valley. We pass a dog kennel with huskies trained to pull tourists on dog-sledding excursions. They bark some heias of encouragement.

Eventually, we pass a warning sign with a polar bear on it. “Gjelder hele Svalbard,” it reads. Applies to all Svalbard. Needless to say, this reminder causes my pace to pick up noticeably.

And so, I spend a fair deal of time scanning the horizon for ice bears. Simultaneously, my brain is occupied trying to convert from kilometers to miles to figure out what sort of pace I’m holding. When I pass other runners, I heialoudly, but forget my calculations.

Isbjørn?” I ask the armed guard at the turn-around point.

“No, sorry.”

I tell her that there is certainly no need to apologize.

As we head back the other direction and towards the tiny airport we all flew into over the previous days, we pass a giant red postbox labeled ‘Christmas mail.’ Presumably this is for when the postal service gets too lazy to deliver all the way up to the pole (we’re still a hair over 1,000 km away).

Somewhere around mile 10, it happens. I forget about the polar bears entirely. I am thinking only of keeping my legs in motion, re-oxygenating my left side cramp and keeping up with the neon pink jacket in front of me. I stop stealing glances to the sides; I am only running, focused on the pure act of motion. Maybe on Svalbard, runner’s high means forgetting about polar bears.

Which is why I’m caught completely off-guard when I stagger across the finish line and nearly run into the arms of an isbjørn! At this point, I’m too tired to react. Lucky for me that the bear is merely a costumed child; it dances around and high-fives the finishers. I heave a sigh of relief and later subject the poor actor to all sorts of staged photos with me. (“Pretend that you’re about to eat me,” I tell it, while I feign horror that is not too dissimilar from my real emotions an hour earlier.)

And then I stand next to the polar bear--I never thought I would actively subject myself to this--and cheer and cheer for the rest of the finishing runners. Heia!

 I had to ask really nicely to get the bear to pose like this with me

I had to ask really nicely to get the bear to pose like this with me