Local elite Masters runner Mark Murray saw his heart-rate unexpectedly shoot up while making the long climb up from El Dorado Creek to Michigan Bluff last Friday - his last long run before his first Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run later this month.
The reason for the spike?
A black bear emerged on the trail about 20 yards ahead of him.
That freaked out Murray a tad. We presume the bear also was freaked out, since those Western States ultra-runners are well-known as hardcore badasses.
To explain: It was a weird day overall for Murray. He got a late start on his long run last Friday, then found two trail runners (friends Jenny Hitchings and John Blue) begging for a ride because Blue had left his keys in Hitchings' car. By the time he dropped them off, he still wanted to get in a solid seven-hour effort along the second half of the Western States course before the sun went down.
I reached Mark afterward for a full recap, so I guess you know now that he lived to tell the tale. But there were some dicey moments because (a) Mark was alone on the trail, and Sierra rangers don't recommend that; (b) he didn't make a lot of noise, as rangers also recommend; and (c) he didn't give the bear a 50-foot buffer, another recommendation. But let's cut the guy some slack. It was a freakin' bear!
(Click here for the "bear encounters" tips on sierrawild.com.)
Anyway, as we pick up the story, Mark is running up toward Michigan Bluff and remembered that he'd planned to meet his pacer, Ed Randolph at Foresthill to do a loop.
"I had my cell with me," Murray says. "As I'm running up Michigan Bluff, maybe a mile up from El Dorado Creek, I heard some cracking of branches. When I hear things like that, I always think mountain lion. I've never seen one running. I'm thinking, 'Geez, this would be bad. There's nobody on the trail.' But I'm rational enough to think it's not likely to happen.
"So I'm halfway up and I decide to check the cell phone while running to see if I have coverage. I put the phone back and notice I have only one of my hand grips. I'm halfway up Michigan Bluff. I thought, 'Oh (darn), I've got to run back down and try to find this grip.' I go down three minutes, find it and backtrack up.
"On the way back up, I ran into a beautiful snake with a red belly. I'm thinking, 'Wow, that's neat. A little wildlife. How nice to be out here and experience wildlife.' On a good day for me, it's a 45-minute climb from El Dorado Creek to the top. I'm waiting to see the manzanita. When you pull out of the oaks and get to the manzanita, then you know you only have a half-mile to go to the top. I'm staring up ahead, looking for it.
"Right at that moment, this bear comes from the trail's left side. He's going uphill, as well, from the ridge side. Or she. I think maybe it was a she. So the bear is looking up trail, not at me. I was smart enough to stop. I'm just staring at this thing, saying, 'Oh my God, what can I do?' I don't want it to notice me, so I don't want to make noise. I'm closer than I'd like to be, maybe 20 yards.
"I must have made a noise or it smelled me or something, but at that moment it really slowly turns around. I see its face, full-on. There's a scar, a line down the right side of the face. As soon as the bear registers that it's a person, it just bolts. But there was a split-second there when I was thinking, 'Gosh, I wonder what kind of encounter a bear like that must've had to get a scar like that.' Within that next split-second, this bear is off the trail and barreling (downhill) through the manzanita. All I'm hearing is just this crashing of branches. Then I realize, that's probably how it got the scar, jamming down that steep downhill.
"At that point, I decided I was going to go up (the trail). You know, bears definitely have a robust smell to them. When I got to that spot, you smell this funky, animally aroma. I was actually pretty happy that I was only a half mile from the top."
What was the bear doing out at 3:30 in the afternoon - not usually bear hours?
"I don't know," Murray said. "It was clearly scared. Once you get to the top of Michigan Bluff, there are a bunch of houses there. Maybe (it was hungry)."
This wasn't Murray's first bear encounter. Last year, on an evening trail run in Soda Springs, Murray saw two cubs frolicking with a dead-tree stump. The problem was, Murray couldn't locate the mother right away. He gingerly took off.
So, for those keeping score at home, it's Mark 2, Bears 0.