|Mark Entzminger (right) is preparing to receive water from a volunteer at an aid station during the Top of the World Marathon in Barrow, Alaska.
It was an unusually cold July 20th day - or night - even by Barrow, Alaska, standards. With scattered snow falling and temperatures dipping into the low 20s (with the help of a sharp wind coming in off the Arctic Ocean), even those who call Barrow home noted the chill.
Yet, Mark Entzminger, senior director of Assemblies of God Children's Ministries and interim National Youth director, was toeing the starting line of his first-ever and Barrow's first-ever marathon - a marathon that he organized with the help of Mark Roseberry, the youth pastor at Inupiat AG in Barrow and Alaska District Youth Director Mark Zweifel - to raise money for a BGMC (Boys and Girls Missionary Challenge) missionary project (Hosanna Plan) in Russia.
With Barrow being 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it offers 24-hour-a-day sunlight during July. So, the "Top of the World" marathon is officially the northern-most U.S. marathon, but with an 8 p.m. start time, it could also be one of the latest starting marathons in the world. Two shorter races (half marathon and 5K) began at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., respectively. All told, more than 100 people registered for the races.
Running a race at midnight, in sub-freezing temperatures, in the middle of summer, with a stiff breeze coming in off the Arctic Ocean and polar bears periodically spotted in the area (maybe looking for a seal . . . or a runner down with a cramp, perhaps?) may not make everyone's checklist of fun things to do, but the marathon caught the attention of the community and won the mayor's approval.
"You have to understand, Barrow is a small community of about 4,300 and is very isolated - no car dealerships, no fast food restaurants," Entzminger says. "People from all walks of life participated in these events because, as some put it, 'it was something fun to do.'"
However, of all participants, Entzminger perhaps had the biggest challenge. In addition to flying for 15 hours to arrive the day before the race, he had spent his spring and summer training for the marathon in record-temperature heat - going from temperatures of around 100 degrees in the Midwest one day to temperatures in the low 30s in Barrow the next.
"I tried to sleep through the flights," says Entzminger, acknowledging the time difference and the need to rest before the marathon. "But as far as the cold air was concerned, it wasn't a problem for my lungs during the race."
Unfortunately for Entzminger, the icy Arctic winds would still have their say.
Only three people signed up to join Entzminger in taking on the marathon - a flight attendant who was an avid marathoner, a biologist from Montana and a Coast Guard swimmer. Ten others took on the half marathon while more than 80 signed up for the midnight 5K.
|Entzminger had this photo of the "current" temperature in Barrow taken about two hours before the race started. It was going to be a chilly run!|
"I felt great, everything felt great - my pace, my heart rate, I was hydrated - everything was going great," Entzminger says, "but then at nine-and-a-half miles, my legs started cramping . . . and the cramps just wouldn't go away."
Despite the cramping, Entzminger pushed on, traveling the marathon route alongside the Arctic Ocean. "It was surreal," he says. "I was running alongside the Arctic Ocean, filled with big chunks of ice, the scenery was like nothing I'd ever seen before - very rugged, very beautiful." But at mile 15, the course turned and the beauty faded as Entzminger found himself running head-on into the Arctic wind.
"At that point, my cramping had me more walking than running," Entzminger says. "My feet and hands were already numb, but I could really feel the wind cutting into me and I wasn't moving fast enough to stay warm."
"For runners, few things are more physically defeating than cramps or more mentally defeating than a strong head wind," states Dan Van Veen, a trainer for the Marathon Mission program based in Michigan. "But when you add debilitating cramping and a sub-freezing head wind together, any runner is in a lot of trouble at that point - your body just can't produce enough heat to stay warm. If you stay out in that kind of cold long enough, you risk hypothermia."
Entzminger battled on for a mile more before finally coming to grips with reality and dropping out of the race at mile 16. "I wondered if I had someone there, running with me, encouraging me, if I could have made it," Entzminger reflects. "I knew I had so many people back home pulling for me - it was a tough decision."
|Despite the freezing weather, Entzminger was struck by the rugged beauty of the Barrow landscape and the ice-filled Arctic Ocean.|
"But Mark made the right decision," observes Van Veen. "Sometimes runners let their competitive natures - or just pure stubbornness - lead them into making poor decisions that can turn costly. It's better to swallow your pride and concede one race to 'mother nature' than spend the next two or three months - or longer - just wishing you had."
Even though the race didn't go the way he expected, Entzminger says that in the long run, the marathon was highly successful.
"The marathon was part of a week of Impact training events being held for high school-age students in and around Barrow," Entzminger explains. "The marathon brought a lot of attention to the training event, and we had a great turnout for that. In addition, we raised about $5,500 for the BGMC project in Russia."
With this first effort concluded, Entzminger says that the experience had a learning curve, but he plans on making the marathon an annual event. "We hope to get the course certified and possibly even have chip timing for next year's race," Entzminger says. "I've already heard from a Houston running club that wants to bring their whole club up next year and from a church in New York that wants to participate and do outreach to the community as well!"
Although Entzminger fell a few miles short in his personal race, the results of his efforts will be making a positive impact in Russia as well as in Barrow for years to come. For more information about the 2013 Top of the World Marathon, keep watching its website.