Marsha Bell isn’t quite sure it was a bear.
She heard something big grunting in the bush, but she didn’t actually see it. She’s pretty sure it was a bear. Let’s say it was a bear.
Bell was running up a mountain on the last leg of the 161-kilometre Sinister 7 ultra-marathon when she noticed another competitor scrambling the opposite way. She stopped Bell and said a bear had growled at her on the trail atop a mountain near Blairmore, Alta.
Bell could hear it, too. “I took her word for it that there was a bear there,” she said.
So they waited for 10 minutes, all the while Bell knowing the bear was ruining her race. The Kamloops native was competing with the Kootenay Krush in the seven-person relay event, which ran July 9 to 10. Three Krush runners are Nelson natives, and they’d built a four-minute lead when Bell took over for the final stretch.
When another runner arrived Bell and the pair decided to go on together. They made a lot of noise and never saw the bear, if it was a bear (it was probably a bear).
“I never saw it, thankfully, because I think I would have turned around and ran back down the mountain,” said Bell.
By the time Bell continued on, the evening light had faded and she was running in darkness. She couldn’t see where she was going and went straight when she should have turned. It was about eight minutes before she realized she was lost.
Meanwhile at the bottom of the trail, her teammates — Heather Weberg, Julia Ransom, Arden Young, Chantal Orr, Kelsey Derzak and Brittany Boyer — were waiting and watching the live results. The race had started at 7 a.m. and the team was hoping for a better result than their third-place finish last year.
Weberg, Orr and Boyer grew up together in Nelson and have been running under the Kootenay Krush monikor for three years. The trio used to skirace with Thomas and Ransom, who is Weberg’s cousin. They needed a seventh runner for the event, so Thomas enlisted Bell.
Weberg doesn’t understand the appeal of running ultra-marathon solo.
“I think we really enjoy that collegiality and supporting one another throughout the day, making sure people are at transitions,” said Weberg. “It takes a bit of the pressure off every person because it’s a team effort as opposed to one person starting and finishing the race.”
The Sinister 7 started off well for the Krush.
Weberg ran the first leg and opened an early lead. Their best runner was Boyer, who finished the sixth stage in three hours 41 minutes 1.6 seconds, or 10 minutes faster than the next closest runner.
“Last year I think [Boyer] ran two hours in daylight and two hours in the dark,” said Weberg. “Because we were that much farther ahead this year, she started her leg an hour and a half earlier, and that resulted in her totally blowing her record from last year because she was going the whole time.”
Each stage ranged in distance from 10.7 to 36.2 km, and after Boyer’s performance Bell just needed to coast through a relatively short final stage to win the race for the Krush.
And she would have, if she hadn’t been held up by the bear (it was totally a bear, guys).
By the time Bell realized she was off the trail, she figured she had lost the race. She double-backed and barrelled down the course, reaching the finish line shortly after 11 p.m. When the final results came in, the Krush were in second place with a total time of 16:18:01.8 — 24 minutes behind the winning team.
“We were really excited and we were happy [Bell] was safe because we knew there was a bear, however it was a little bit tough to lose the gold by such a small margin,” said Weberg. “In the course of a 16-hour race, to be 20 minutes out of first is actually very, very close.”
The team were disappointed, but have reason to be optimistic. They would have won if it weren’t for unseen wildlife, which gives them hope for next year’s event.
Bell returned home feeling bad for her teammates, although she doesn’t regret the decision to avoid becoming bear food in order to win a race.
“It would have been a really close race if I hadn’t run into the bear,” she said. “We wouldn’t have lost our lead standing up at the top and it was really unfortunate for our team because we kind of got screwed over by an animal.”