‘Coldest marathon on the planet’ in Cochrane funds ice rink for girls in Afghanistan

WATCH: It's being dubbed the coldest marathon on the planet this New Year's Eve. As Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, an annual event in Cochrane was not cancelled despite the brutal cold reaching -36C when the runners started their long journey.

On a day many people in Alberta refused to go outside at all, around 30 runners took part in a marathon west of Calgary on Sunday.

The Cochrane New Year’s Eve run is an annual charity fundraiser. This year, the goal is to raise $5,000 to build an ice rink in a remote Afghan town for girls and women to skate on.

The event was started by local running legend Martin Parnell, known as the marathon man.

“I am so pleased. There was a little girl I saw about 11 years old and she did three loops outside. She’s amazing!” Parnell said.

READ MORE: Veteran Alberta marathoner bounces back from serious setback to bring kids joy

“I just love it. Folks are coming out and doing something for themselves, it’s kind of crazy but it’s good. And then we’re giving back and helping girls to ice skate in a country thousands of kilometres away in Afghanistan.”

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The runners at Sunday’s event began at 9 a.m. with a temperature of -36 C. With the wind chill, it felt like -46, according to Environment Canada.

Participants ran various distances from a few kilometres to an ultra marathon.

READ MORE: Calgary under extreme cold warning as ‘very cold wind chills’ forecasted

Parnell said cancelling the run was not an option despite this likely being the coldest New Year’s Eve marathon in the world.

Runners were given the choice of running on the indoor track at Spray Lake Sawmills Family Sports Centre instead of going outside. But at least 30 runners braved the cold, doing laps around the facility.

Tara Paton of Calgary was planning to do 21 kilometres. She never considered not participating because of the cold.

“There is no bad weather, just bad clothes,” Paton said.

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Michelle Mills was running with a group of five friends. The Calgarian said it’s definitely doable but you have to have the right gear.

“It’s for a great cause and it’s a beautiful day out so why not come out and run?”

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“I feel good. We are bundled up and we are strong Canadian runners. We know how to layer,” said Mills.

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Hiro Watanabe took a break after running 25 kilometres and had plans to do 50 km before the end of the day. It’s his eighth year of doing the run.

Ally Johnson of Calgary was bundled up for her 17 km run. Like the other runners, the only part of her that was exposed were her eyes.

“You can’t have any part of your body exposed. It’s brutal. It’s definitely cold but I have to say it’s probably the prettiest that it can be,” Johnson said.

“My feet are cold. They are frozen. I thought my socks were balling up and really, it was my toes that were frozen,” laughed Johnson “They feel like blocks of wood.”

READ MORE: Cancellations and delays at Calgary International Airport as facility struggles with de-icing

Funds raised will go to Free to Run. It’s a worldwide charity that uses outdoor sports and adventure to empower girls affected by war.

Parnell got the title of marathon man after finishing 250 marathons in a single year.

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He took part in a so-called secret marathon over a year ago in the remote Afghan town of Bamyan to help raise funds for a skating surface.

A small rink was built this January for the girls and young women and for the first time ever, they got a taste of gliding on ice.

Parnell said one young woman in the skating program said, “for me, ice skating was amazing because when I started skating, I was wondering, ‘How is it possible to stand on a small blade and keep our balance?’ It’s another reason we can have confidence; if I can stand on ice with a blade, then anything is possible.”

Last year, funding was provided by the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan, however the money is not available this year.

With the funds raised at the Cochrane event, the plan is to build and flood the rink again and to cover the cost of around a dozen girls to travel to Bamyan for a special winter sports event.

“I just feel that each of us can do something and it may not be a big thing in our world but possibly it could change and transform things in the world around us,” Johnson said.


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