There’s always a reason to postpone an adventure, but resist the urge. This one would have gotten off to a much slower start had it not been for a push from a little watch – or rather, a medium-sized watch. Inspiration to get out there and explore didn’t come from magazines or documentaries in this case. Instead, it came in the form of a recently-released 36mm Marathon mechanical watch dubbed the “Arctic MSAR.” I had been putting together the framework for a trip meandering through the Southeastern United States, but the fickle nature of life’s routines, and of course a number recent of circumstances that no one could have ever predicted, made it difficult to execute. Or maybe I was just waiting for the right companion.
Then the Arctic MSAR showed up.
A few weeks ago, I packed up my truck and set out on the road to hit some muddy trails in the Ozarks, experience the soul of the Mississippi Delta, and soak in the Gulf Coast vibes. The Arctic MSAR wasn’t just along for the ride, it was part of the reason for it.
Somewhere along the southernmost quarter of the 444-mile-long Natchez Trace Parkway, I stopped cycling and looked down at my watch to check the time. Darkness was closing in, and the now-visible soft glow of the tritium tubes on the Marathon Arctic MSAR only made it more apparent that I needed to get back before nightfall. No streetlights, no cell service, and a lack of personal lighting would mean a tricky ride back to the car in a pitch-black night, unable to see any obstacles in the road. Any traffic wouldn’t be able to see me either. I did the rough calculation and accepted that I might not make it back in time, but something funny happened. Along with a slight sense of unease, dopamine and nostalgia started swirling around inside my head. However trivial, the watch was actually being used as a tool, just as it was intended.
The Old Natchez Trace played an important role in the development of America. It was first used by the Choctaw and Chickasaw Native Americans as a route connecting the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi rivers. When early Europeans arrived, it was frequented by explorers and soldiers as a link between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. Now, it serves those looking for a scenic drive, and it happens to be a great place for a proper bike ride. Despite the Arctic MSAR’s unconventional size at 36mm and its brutalist looks, it was on the trail that the watch made more sense. We horology enthusiasts spend hours in a whimsical reverie thinking through a watch, but rather than pondering the nature of the beast, sometimes it’s best to just slap it on the wrist and put it through the paces in order to reveal its true nature. In the case of the Marathon, the harder I pushed it – and myself – the more I understood what it was all about.
A lot of watch writing takes place in an imagined world – a world where we theoretically place the watch in certain situations that test its operational limits. It’s an exercise in taking the minutiae surrounding tool watches, like specs and technical features, and adding meaning to the numbers in some way, even though most of us will never experience anything remotely close to the edge of the performance envelope these tool watches are capable of. How many folks buy a modern Rolex Submariner, a watch steeped in nautical history and undersea exploration lore, only to wear it to the boardroom? And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s worth understanding the Arctic MSAR is simply not that type of watch. There’s no duality at work here; it can’t effortlessly breeze from being paired with a suit to T-shirt and jeans. The watch expresses a singular focus on usefulness. Durability and ergonomics take precedence over style and design.
Marathon watches have been a mainstay in the EDC, or “everyday carry,” community for years. Marathon’s wares have a reputation for being no-nonsense, tough-as-nails tool watches issued to military forces, priced between $ 600-$ 1,500. The Arctic MSAR rings in at $ 850. The models are often characterized by chunky cases and tritium gas tubes as a source of luminescence. The brand doesn’t actively advertise, and the watches aren’t distributed through any physical retailer. Marathon has a very loyal following, but it occupies a corner of the watch world that certainly isn’t mainstream. The watches aren’t made for enthusiasts, and to put it bluntly, the folks behind the brand don’t really care much of what the enthusiast community thinks of the watches, anyway. They’re made for a variety of very specific tasks, like aerial navigation and aquatic search and rescue. They produce watches to fulfill NATO Stock Numbers 6645-00-066-4279 and 6645-01-304-4308 as well as US Military Standard W-46374G; in other words, they’re watches qualified for military field use. But that’s probably why the company has found a loyal following among folks who use these watches for desk duty. If Marathon’s watches are built for the battlefield in a war zone, then our own small personal battles, like racing against the setting sun on a bicycle, wrenching on a truck in the middle of the woods, and everything that comes with living a life in isolation, should be a breeze for such a watch, right? It’s built to stand up to anything.
After surviving about a month of abusive duty on my own wrist, I can see why it’s become a favorite of folks serving in roles that would subject it to even more significant abuse. To understand how the watch is tested to meet those demands, I put in a request to speak to the top brass at Marathon.
The manufacturer produces a range of dive watches called the “SAR” line – an abbreviation of Search and Rescue – the mission they’re designed to support. The watch comes in quartz and automatic versions, two dial variations, and three sizes. The nomenclature is rather complicated, but here’s the breakdown: The largest iteration is 46mm; it comes in both quartz (JSAR) and automatic (JDD). The JDD employs tritium tubes while the JSAR uses Maraglo, Marathon’s proprietary luminescent compound. There’s a single chronograph variation of the 46mm case that uses a Valjoux 7750. That’s called the CSAR. All current versions of the JSAR, JDD, and CSAR use black dials. Next is the range of “Large” watches with a case size of 41mm. The TSAR is the quartz version, while the GSAR is automatic. Again, only black dials with tritium tubes are used. Lastly, there’s the MSAR at 36mm. These are considered “Medium” sized watches, and the MSAR designation applies to both quartz and automatic variations, but the MSAR also comes with a white dial. In May, Marathon released their most recent watch: a version of the 36mm MSAR Automatic with a white dial and a Sellita SW200 movement. That’s the watch I’ve been wearing. The small watch inspired a big adventure.
I was winding through the backroads of the Blue Ridge Mountains when the phone rang. My request to learn more about Marathon had gone up the chain of command and landed on the desk of vice president Mitchell Wein, the grandson of Morris Wein, the founder of Marathon Watches. Now he was on the line, ready to talk in detail about the mission of the company and the Arctic MSAR Automatic. That’s the sort of operation Marathon is. There are no layers to cut through, no PR agencies or middlemen involved. The get-it-done attitude around Marathon is perhaps a reflection of the sort of clients the company serves. It’s certainly reflected in the watches.
Marathon’s Military Origins
Marathon has flown under the radar – sometimes quite literally – for some time now. When Wein joined Marathon, the family business, in the ’80s, his father Leon Wein pulled out a stack of checks that had bounced. He told Mitchell that “this is why you don’t do business with jewelry stores” like traditional watch manufacturing companies did. Since World War II, Marathon has been in the unique position of selling its watches directly to governments as opposed to jewelry stores. In 1939, Mitchell’s grandfather, Morris Wein, founded Marathon watch company in Ontario, Canada. The nascent Marathon Watch Company was located in the same building as a restaurant where officials from the Department of National Defence dined. Wein naturally became friends with them, and when Canada needed watches for soldiers shipping off to Italy to fight in World War II, Marathon was called upon. Canada entered the war in 1939, much earlier than the United States. Canadian troops joined the British Expeditionary Forces that were present throughout the European and Pacific theaters. By 1941, Marathon general purpose watches were delivered in sealed watertight cans to Canadian soldiers across the globe.
Today, Marathon still supplies various armed forces of the world, but it has since expanded to other non-military governmental agencies. Enter Canada, and you’ll see a Marathon clock hanging on the wall at the Customs Office. The National Research Council laboratories use Marathon clocks as well, and most recently, Marathon clocks could be found in quick-build hospitals set up for the fight against COVID-19 in the United States. Wein reported that roughly 90% of the current production is dedicated to government contracts. The rest are sold through Marathon’s website mainly as a service to the community and a handful of small online operations. There’s no Marathon advertising outside of a social media presence that a younger crop of employees had to convince Wein to let them create.
Marathon’s expertise is in developing watches that meet the specific needs of contracts. “Governments are good to work with. They have the money, and they’re not fussy. It’s black and white,” Wein says about contract production. The process goes like this: Governments issue the quantity of watches needed, the date they need to be delivered by, and the specs to which the watches need to be built. Marathon then carries out the engineering and production to meet those orders and timelines. Wein says that typical contracts call for roughly 7,000 to 50,000 watches, and the watches are sold at a 10 to 17% margin. Marathon is audited by the Canadian government, so pricing must be fair and transparent. Margins and production practices are often closely guarded secrets in this industry, so the transparency that comes with government contract work is particularly interesting.
Marathon started producing watches for the United States government in the 1970s, and the watches were tested at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, then the site of many of the Army’s research and development programs. According to Wein, the watches were produced with a scheduled 5% profit margin, but during the production phase, the value of the Swiss franc climbed, eliminating the profit margin and actually costing Marathon instead. Even though the watches were produced at a loss, the contract and relationship with the United States government were secured. The fluctuation of Swiss franc had a significant impact on business because Marathon owns its entire production facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The watches, to this day, are designed and conceptualized in Canada, but are produced and assembled in Switzerland.
Taking a loss on the watches paid off when the United States responded to Saddam Hussien’s aggressive invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, with Operation Desert Shield, a massive force build-up in the Persian Gulf that involved a total of coalition forces representing 35 nations. There was a surge in the need for mil-spec wristwatches, and Marathon answered the call with General Purpose wristwatches as well as a model called the Navigator, a watch specifically designed for military aviators. On November 29, 1990, the United Nations Security Council gave Hussein-led forces a deadline of January 16, 1991, to leave Kuwait. After diplomatic negotiations failed, George H. W. Bush issued the order to commence Operation Desert Storm. General Norman Schwarzkopf led a coalition campaign to liberate Kuwait, the largest military alliance since WWII. The operation ended in a ceasefire and the surrender of Iraqi generals on March 3. Marathon watches were issued to American and Canadian troops that participated in this chapter of modern military history. After the conflict, Mitchell Wein and his father Leon were awarded a Best Value Bronze Medal recognition by the United States at a ceremony in Richmond. The award recognized Marathon’s timely delivery and great value.
When it comes to government contract business with the United States nowadays, Wein explains that there are two distinct paths for a Marathon watch to reach the end-user. Oftentimes that’s a soldier, sailor, or airman – but it’s certainly not limited to those roles. Scientists and other professions that involve field work are often issued Marathon watches as well.
The first pathway is a direct contract with the Department of Defense. A watch is created to meet the needs of a set of specifications put forth to do a specific job for a branch of the armed services under the DoD. These watches are then issued to soldiers, sailors, and airmen directly by the branch. The money for these watches comes from the Department of Defense’s budget, and there’s not much room to experiment with the design, given the nature of the specifications. Spec sheets are available to the public and hosted on the ASSIST database, and you can access them by searching for “watch.”
The second way watches are distributed is through the General Services Administration, an independent agency of the U.S. government that oversees procurement and contracts with suppliers. The GSA has a list of pre-authorized vendors to purchase from, of which Marathon is one, that can supply any governmental agency (including the armed services), as well as sell to foreign governments. The Arctic 36mm MSAR is only sold through the GSA, as it doesn’t meet the traditional military specifications that are stringent and exacting, like the requirement for a black dial only. This certainly doesn’t make it any less of a watch, however. Rather, it points to the static nature of U.S. mil-spec requirements. Theoretically, it is certainly possible for a U.S. service member to be issued a 36mm Arctic MSAR if their branch turned to the GSA instead of contracting Marathon directly. This can happen if demand exceeds the allocated budget, or if there is a unit-specific need. While the United States is certainly a very important customer of Marathon’s, they do work with many military and government organizations around the world. Wein cited the Israel Defense Forces and the Taiwanese Navy as two of many organizations Marathon is currently producing watches for. He also noted that a government organization in Japan had recently put in an order for the Arctic MSAR Automatic.
Field Report: The Arctic MSAR Automatic
This watch forces us to reframe how we think about case size. It’s not built to satisfy the current trend of downsized watches. Instead, it’s created as a tool to tell time that’s been engineered to withstand the rigors of abusive military duty and best fit a variety of wrist sizes. An appropriately-sized watch is a more effective tool, and even though the notion of macho-type figures in the military is pervasive, it simply isn’t true. Wrists of all sizes are present in the armed forces. Think of it like a rifle: There isn’t a rifle for men and a rifle for women in the armed services; instead, it’s a tool engineered for the end-user irrespective of gender. It comes in different designs for different applications. It’s simply a part of the kit to get the job done.
On my 7.25″ wrist, the 36mm watch wears like a charm. The watch is thick, ringing in at just above 14mm. That has nothing to do with the SW200 inside or the water resistance of 300m, however. It’s designed to be tall enough to be easily operated with gloves on. The elevated case puts the bezel in an optimal position to grab, and the notches on the bezel are large and chunky; they’re shaped like oversized crenellations at the top of a castle’s towers. Wearing it made a case for smaller tool watches, because the compact case meant it didn’t get in the way of whatever I was doing. A good tool just does what it’s supposed to and doesn’t stick out.
When the watch serves as a tool rather than jewelry, you don’t need to take it off when you get into the thick of it. Even after much deliberation over my Two-Watch collection, wearing the MSAR on this extended trip made me realize that I would never willfully wear either of the Two-Watch picks, a Tudor and a Grand Seiko, for the duties that I’d forced the MSAR to suffer through. The “everyday” of a HODINKEE editor just isn’t the “everyday” of a military operator. I made a vow to myself to put this watch through the paces, and that meant never taking it off for fear of damaging it. We often refer to inexpensive watches that we subject to conditions we wouldn’t want our more prized pieces to face as “beaters.” The Arctic MSAR is the ultimate beater.
Camp duty was just a warm-up for what the MSAR would have to go through next.
Right around 25,000 RPM, the 2.5-liter diesel motor in my truck vibrated at the right frequency to cause a disturbing clatter resonating from somewhere in the frame of my rig. I had ditched paved roads for the dirt trails that stitch together various mountainous forests in northwest Arkansas. As the clatter from the truck got louder, I thought to myself that I must have run over something that bent one of the skid plates, and it was now hitting the frame at a specific resonance from the motor. That’s bad news, because if the plate got torn off, it would expose elements of the drivetrain that, if damaged, would leave me stranded. Normally, I’d take off my watch and chuck it in the console before getting underneath the truck, but this little exercise with the MSAR meant it stayed on the wrist. Luckily, the damage wasn’t as bad as I thought. A piece of thin metal that served as a dam to vent air to the radiator had come loose. I pounded it into place, a stopgap solution. I was afraid solving one problem would cause another one: jarring the SW200 movement and scrambling it up from striking the metal frame of a truck with force. I checked the next few days for accuracy and all readings were nominal. My biggest concern was that small particles from the mud would work their way underneath the bezel and ruin that satisfying 60-click action, so I took off the watch and rinsed it off in a nearby stream. Crisis averted.
When I reached the Gulf Coast, I finally had the chance to get the Arctic MSAR properly wet. Strapping on a Marathon over a wetsuit felt refreshing and familiar. In 2010, I wore a TSAR, the full-sized quartz iteration of Marathon’s Search and Rescue watch, during dive training in the Gulf of Thailand. I wore it on an orange NATO and treated it like a piece of the dive kit I donned every day. I only wore it diving and didn’t find that it transitioned to an everyday wear watch like the Arctic MSAR does.
The watch accompanied me to a small man-made reef in about 30 feet of water off the coast of Pensacola, Florida on an afternoon of spearfishing. The water in this region of the Gulf of Mexico is a cool shade of blue-green, and because the sand is a powdery creme color, the water glows on a sunny day. It also makes the dial absolutely pop underwater. The legibility of the Arctic MSAR when submerged is one of the most surprising things about it. It may have been made for snowy environments, but it just works so well in subtropical aquatic environments. To my eye, the white dial is simply more legible than the black dial underwater. Even despite the smaller diameter dial, the white is unequivocally easier to read.
Additionally, the size shines when analyzed as a piece of diving gear. The case is tall, but a diameter of 36mm makes it balanced and unobtrusive. For spearfishing, gloves are essential, and the tall case just makes sense when operating the bezel with them on. It’s easy to grab, easy to turn, and the notches in the bezel can be felt even through thick gloves. Freediving doesn’t allow for extended bottom time, but the bezel is such a pleasure to operate that I found myself timing sub-three minute dives just for the hell of it. Because of the unobtrusive size, the decision whether or not to add another piece of gear to the kit is made easier. In other words, it isn’t a burden to wear.
Early on in the learning curve of diving, the tendency is to favor more gear because it simply feels cool. But that gets old. The further along the learning curve you go, the less gear you realize you need. You pare down to only what’s absolutely essential. That’s where the MSAR fits in best. Telling time is essential in the field. Something about the size and the simplicity make it a watch that one might prefer when they’ve reached the point that they’d rather take less gear on an outing. It fits in with quite literally “downsizing.” After spending the afternoon in saltwater, I took the watch off, gave it a quick freshwater rinse, and then threw it back on and wore it for the rest of the day. It’s a dyed-in-the-wool tool watch, but it’s not a watch that tries so hard it becomes a parody of what a tool watch should be. It’s discrete. And because of that, it pulls double duty in and out of an aquatic environment.
The benefit of a mechanical watch in military scenarios is that it’s impervious to electromagnetic pulses, which can easily disable a quartz watch. This can happen from a NEMP, or Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse, but in that case, the wearer has much bigger problems to worry about than timekeeping. More likely is the threat of something like an E-bomb, which was used in 2003 to knock out Saddam Hussein’s television propaganda machine. In this scenario, electronics, including battery-powered watches, may fail. A mechanical watch would be unaffected.
Hand the watch to someone who doesn’t have much background on Marathon watches, and chances are they’ll ask why there’s a radioactive icon, called a trefoil, prominently displayed on the dial. It’s something one would expect to see on a uranium reactor, not a wristwatch. But flip the watch over, and it starts to make sense. Among the text engraved into the caseback is a line, “NRC ID: 54-28526-01E.” That’s a code, issued by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that identifies the manufacturer as being licensed to “Possess, use, process, export and import nuclear materials and waste, and handle certain aspects of their transportation.” In the case of the Arctic MSAR Automatic and many other Marathon watches, the tritium tubes used as indices make it necessary for Marathon to display the radioactive sign on the dial and register with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Marathon was an early adopter of tritium radioluminescence, and the technology has come to characterize a large portion of their current line up, including the Arctic MSAR Automatic. The advantages of using tritium tubes are that it’s constantly emitting light, and it doesn’t rely on any source to “charge.” Tritium emits electrons as it decays over time, and when these electrons interact with a phosphor material present in the tube, light is emitted. This reaction doesn’t continue indefinitely, however; over time, all of the tritium decays, and light is no longer visible. The “half-life” of the tritium used in Marathon watches is between ten and fifteen years, meaning that half of the radioactive atoms will decay in that time and the watch won’t glow quite as bright, but the useful life of the tritium is far from over. Tritium provides a constant, dim, glow. It takes some getting used to if you’re used to the brightness of traditional LumiNova, but the advantage is that even long after a LumiNova dial has lost its glow, tritium gas tubes can still be read in the middle of the night. That’s exactly the sort of property the military would appreciate. I found the brightness of the glow to be near perfect. The 12 o’clock marker is orange, while the rest glow the sort of green that Hollywood has trained us to associate with radioactive material. The variation in color allows for easy orientation.
Wein noted that during the Persian Gulf era, the USA was quick to embrace the application of tritium radio-luminescence in wristwatches while Canada was not. He was filling orders for both and said that Canada was very hesitant to adopt tritium gas even after it had become a standard among the U.S. Forces. And that’s not entirely surprising. In the 1970s, large tritium tubes were used to outline aircraft landing sites in the far north of Canada where power grids don’t reach. One such site was in the small town of Kashechewan First Nation, in the northern reaches of Ontario. The tubes were placed at nearby helicopter landing sites without warning the local population of the danger associated with a sizable volume of radioactive material present. In 1994, local youths vandalized and broke six of the 15 tubes present, creating a situation in which children, nurses, and a janitor were exposed to dangerous doses of radiation, according to Risky Business, Nuclear Power and Public Protest in Canada, a 2005 book by Michael D. Mehta.
The radioactive warning symbol on the dial of the Arctic MSAR at 3 o’clock isn’t just there to look neat – although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t add to the appeal.
Department of Defense specs call for a black dial, but that’s mainly for American forces. This watch isn’t technically created for them; instead, it was developed with the Canadian Rangers in mind. This force of roughly 5,000 reserve soldiers is a sub-component of the Canadian Armed Forces, and they operate in territories on the fringe where a traditional presence isn’t needed, like sparsely settled isolated communities in the far north. To get an idea of what the Rangers do, consider that part of the duty of the unit is the protection of the local communities against polar bears. The Artic MSAR is issued to them along with a C19 rifle and a red winter outer jacket as part of the official kit.
Marathon claims that in snowy conditions, it’s easier to read a white dial than a black dial. I’d take that a step further and say that it may even be easier to read in most conditions. Thousands of miles south from the region where the Canadian Rangers operate, I was watching the landscape change drastically. In a matter of hours, the verdant hills of the Ozarks gave way to large open expanses drained of color along the Mississippi Delta. No matter the landscape, the white dial was easy to read at a glance, even if time became less relevant the longer I was on the road. The Arctic MSAR is sized more appropriately for me than the larger TSAR, and its white dial is more legible to my eye. That’s why Marathon makes a range of different case sizes and dial variations: Nuts and bolts come in different sizes, and it’s up to you to grab the correct size wrench out of the toolbox.
Over a month of hard wear, the Arctic MSAR has proved to be the right tool for the job. Living out of a truck and exploring the varied landscape of the American Southeast presents its own unique challenges, and through taking it out of imaginary scenarios and putting it to real-world use, it’s proven to be a worthy piece of kit. Have I subjected it to the same sort of stress that operating an M119 howitzer every day would cause? Most likely not. But this brings up an interesting point. Service members are issued the watch; it’s a piece of kit that’s expected to be used and ultimately disposed of. Historically, some contract-produced watches of the Vietnam era were designed with top-loading movements and cheap plastic cases, namely spec W-46374B models. Even variants with parkerized cases were not designed with future servicing in mind and utilized top-loading movements and poly crystals. These models suffered from poor water resistance as well. They traded robustness for cost-saving and the capability of mass production. Even the highly collectible Benrus Type I, considered one of the finest military watches used by early Navy SEALS, uses a top-loading design that, given the difficult nature of servicing this design, wouldn’t be produced today. The Arctic MSAR, in contrast, is generally designed with longevity and serviceability in mind. The Sellita SW200 inside is ubiquitous and easy to service, and there aren’t any cost-saving measures in the case design that compromise the ease of servicing.
Individual sales to civilians are ancillary to the contract work at Marathon, and most companies that perform this type of work don’t bother selling to the public at all. The closest the public can get is purchasing through surplus stores that sell equipment that’s been phased out. Given the extensive research and development costs, and the stringent standards that have to be met when making something that requires certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there’s a good bit of value in the Arctic MSAR. After all, purchasing the watch is a whole lot less complicated than training as a Canadian Ranger to get the watch. But if these last 4,000 miles have proven anything, it’s that purchasing the watch as a civilian doesn’t mean you won’t be in for any less of an adventure.
The Marathon Artic MSAR is available from Marathon. It’s medium-sized at 36mm and features tritium gas tubes as a source of luminescence. A Sellita SW200 powers the watch. A rubber strap and bracelet are available. Price: $ 850