With 98 miles behind her, ascending the final twisting canyon trail to Auburn in darkness, Ellie Greenwood knew she had the women's title of the 2011 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in the bag.
Barring disaster, that is.
Neither hamstring twinges nor stomach problems had derailed the 32-year-old Canadian on her trek from Squaw Valley to Placer High School. Flashlight in hand, she ran with abandon up a narrow dirt path before the final switchbacks to civilization.
Suddenly, her beam picked up a set of eyes on the trail, vague and menacing.
"Then I saw this massive black hump," she told a reporter from the blog irunfar.com after the race. "Oh, it's just a bear. I live in Banff, and there are bears everywhere."
Wildlife encounters, from rattlesnakes to bears to mountain lions, are an accepted hazard for elite ultrarunners, who traverse forests, canyons and deserts hour upon hour. It's both one of the joys and challenges of the sport, communing with nature and occasionally battling it.
Rarely, though, does an animal threaten to affect a race's outcome, as it did last year in the final miles on the Western States course.
In this instance, squaring off with a large brown bear, Greenwood stopped in her tracks. She yelled. She stomped her feet. She aimed her flashlight directly at it all the things the experts say to do. But this bear wasn't moving. It bared its teeth. It hissed in ursine irritation.
Greenwood fretted, then backed off. She worried not just for her welfare but also that second-place runner Kami Semick, whom she had passed four miles earlier, would overtake her. With one eye on the bear and the other on a runner's headlamp approaching from below, Greenwood turned and screamed in her distinctive Scottish brogue, "A bear! A bear!"
"What?" David La Duc yelled back.
"A bear! What do we do?"
La Duc, hoping for a top 20 finish among men, was so tired that he admitted to "reduced faculties." Still, he had the presence of mind to start screaming at the bear and even to make sounds resembling a rifle shot, anything to scare it away. The bear stood firm. La Duc heard a rustling and followed the sound with his light. A smaller dark blob scurried up a tree that canopied the trail.
"Oh, (bleep), a cub!" La Duc said. "This is bad."
But then the two caught a break. Mama bear followed, lumbering up the tree with bark and branches flying.
"Do we run?" Greenwood asked.
Greenwood took off in a sprint. La Duc backpedaled up the trail, making sure the bear didn't pounce. It stared at him, 4 feet above his head. Finally, he turned and ran as fast as he could.
"I thought, 'Bleep it, if she wants to get me, fine. There's not much to chew on.' "
The two runners had escaped.
But Semick and others were fast approaching.
And mama bear seemed poised for a rematch.
When the 39th running of the Western States begins at 5 a.m. Saturday in Squaw Valley, runners will have read and signed a Participant Guide detailing hazards that might befall them heatstroke, kidney failure, falls from rocky single-track trails.
Here's what the guide states about wildlife: "Rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions and other potentially hazardous forms of wildlife live on the course and have surprised runners in the past. Keep alert and be careful where you place your feet and hands, especially at night."
Greg Soderlund, longtime race director, also briefs runners about how to respond if confronted information gleaned from wildlife officials.
"If they encounter a mountain lion, they should remain facing the animal at all times, raise their arms over their head to make themselves look as large as possible and slowly back away from the animal," Soderlund said.
"Bears aren't nearly as aggressive, but they should be treated with great respect, and never place yourself between a mother bear and its cubs. (It) seems like most of the bear sightings on (Western States) race weekend involve a mother and her cubs."
Before last year's bear incident, the only time the Western States race had a true critter crisis at the front of the pack was in 1995, when Tim Twietmeyer was leading Ann Trason by five minutes. Then he and his pacer ran across a recalcitrant skunk at mile 95.
"I was just about having an anxiety attack," Twietmeyer recalled. "We couldn't run around it without getting sprayed, which would've been really nasty. I might not have even finished. After two or three minutes, the skunk wandered off. Maybe he thought I smelled worse than him."
At least the skunk didn't chase Twietmeyer, who held on for the win that year.
In the 2009 Bighorn Mountain Trail 100, in Wyoming, leader Karl Meltzer, all of 5-foot-8, 142 pounds, was chased repeatedly by a 7-foot moose. Meltzer ran from tree to tree, using them as shields against the beast. At one point, near an aid station, the moose was 4 feet behind Meltzer, who could feel the breath from the moose's nostrils on his neck.
Eventually, the moose lost interest, and Meltzer set a course record. "For the next 20 miles," he wrote in a blog post, "I was shaking while running as I kept turning around thinking something was coming after me."
Most encounters end well, with the runner emerging safely and with a ripping yarn to impart. Occasionally, though, it can end in tragedy.
In 1994, trail runner Barbara Schoener of Placerville died after being mauled by a mountain lion during a training run on the Western States Trail near the Auburn Lakes Trails. It reportedly was the first death by mountain lion in the state since 1909.
Deaths from black bears in California are rare, as well. (Fatalities from attacks by grizzly bears in the Rockies are more common.) Most trail runners have a bear story or two to tell with a chuckle, but the few who have encountered mountain lions feel the chill even years later.
In June 2008, Mo Bartley, a five-time Western States finisher and member of the 1998 U.S. 100K team, was alone on the Olmstead Loop in Cool when she saw a large, fluffy, tawny tail 20 feet away.
"It is a rather weird sensation that comes over you which I had never experienced before fight or flight," she said. "Your body is telling you to run, and my mind is telling me to stay still, look big and make noise.
"It became a stare-down on both of our parts. He was curious, and I was very nervous but amazed at what a beautiful animal he was. He finally moved on down the trail and turned around a few times; he then popped into the canyon. I started back up the same way I came down, walking backward until I got back up into the meadows."
Bartley still runs those Cool trails but tries not to do it alone. She has not seen a mountain lion since.
But others have. Last May, while training to be a pacer for competitor Karl Hoagland in the 2011 Western States, Kim Dunbar headed up Auburn Canyon one morning. When she made a turn, she saw the profile of a mountain lion on the trail, 25 feet uphill.
"I turned and hoped it hadn't seen me and just ran, ran all the way back down," she said. "I went to a sporting goods store and asked what I could buy to protect me for pacing Karl (at Western States). The guy recommended a strobe light, 5 inches long and a half-inch wide, that could fit in your hand. The guy said it's the same type cops use at drug busts. It's supposed to disorient animals. They can't see you, so you can get away.
"It cost $100. But I bought it. I thought I might need it."
About that bear
Ellie Greenwood had blown by Kami Semick a few miles before the final climb to Placer High, but Semick's spirits were still high. She wanted at least a second-place finish and to break 18 hours.
Her pacer, Prudence L'Heureux, led the way across No Hands Bridge and up the single-track.
"Stop! Bear!" L'Heureux yelled back to Semick.
Mama bear was on the branch hanging over the trail, her cub tucked in near the trunk. When the two women started making noise, as Greenwood and La Duc had done minutes earlier, it riled the bear.
When Semick took a few steps forward, mama bear jumped down to the trail and made noise of her own.
"I have never heard a bear hiss," said Semick, who grew up in rural Washington and Idaho and knows bears. "But it's a sound that, as a human, one instinctively knows means danger."
They beat a hasty retreat. A minute or two later, they were joined by the third-place runner, Canadian Tracy Garneau, and her pacer.
"Why are you stopped?"
"Bear and cub, and she's angry," Semick said.
"Oh, bears, we have those in Canada, let's go."
The four women began running up the trail. Mama bear started after them, so the women retreated.
"You were right," Garneau told Semick. "She is angry."
Along came Hoagland, hoping to beat his best time of 18 hours, 16 minutes, 26 seconds from 2011, with pacer Dunbar behind him. Semick and Garneau blocked Hoagland's path, screaming "Bear!"
"(Bleep) that, I'm going to Auburn," Hoagland said.
Semick tried to physically restrain Hoagland, but he juked her and took off up the trail, with Dunbar several yards behind him. He ran right at mama bear, shining his flashlight at her.
"I have this theory about wildlife, which is, on the trail at night, if they see a light and it's shined in their eyes, they will always back down," Hoagland recalled. "Animals don't know what natural light is, other than fire. So they think it's hot and they'll run away from it."
Hoagland got within 10 feet of mama bear, then 5 feet. She now had reared up on her hind legs, with her back to the tree where her cub was resting. Hoagland's thoughts at the time: "I'm entering this moment of truth where either that bear is going to go away or it's going to come toward me. In an instant, I'm scared."
But here came Dunbar on the left, flipping a switch with her thumb, unleashing the brightest beam of light Hoagland had ever seen.
The standoff ended there. Mama bear, appearing dazed, went up the tree, and the five women and Hoagland didn't look back.
"In an extremely unchivalrous manner," Hoagland said, "I took off and thought, 'I can't let those women catch me.' "
Semick, for her part, wrote in a post-race blog: "I am ashamed to say that my only instinct was to make sure that I am not the last person. There is no camaraderie when you've got a bear chasing you uphill."
Mama bear, apparently calling it a night, bothered no subsequent runners.
WESTERN STATES ENDURANCE RUN
What: More than 500 runners compete in a 100-mile race from Squaw Valley to Auburn.
When: The race begins at 5 a.m. Saturday in Squaw Valley. The first runner is expected to reach the finish at Placer High School between 8 and 9 p.m. The course will remain open until the 30-hour cutoff at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Who: 2011 women's champion Ellie Greenwood returns to defend her title. Defending men's champ Kilian Jornet withdrew, leaving the men's race wide open.