Real Life Superhero #34

I have lots of running heroes. And almost all of them are women.

Laura Perry running

There’s one: Laura Perry, from Ottawa.

A couple of years ago, Laura was running a 100-mile race near Haliburton, Ontario. It was early in the race. She’d run maybe 20 miles, when she suddenly met a black bear on the trail.

bear on trail

This happens from time to time in these races. And Laura knew what she had to do. She yelled at the bear to scare it away. But instead of running away, the bear began walking towards her.

This was bizarre. Black bears are typically scared of humans. Usually they’ll bolt if you so much as sneeze.

Laura hollered at the bear, but it refused to back down. When it got too close for comfort, Laura lay down on the trail and played dead. The bear came right up to her and started sniffing her shoes. It walked around and around her curled-up body. It poked her back and arms with its snout.

Finally the animal got bored and walked away. It lumbered down the trail, and disappeared into the woods.

Terrifying, right? If that had been me, I would have dropped out of the race right then and there. But Laura didn’t drop out. Instead, she jumped to her feet and started running. And 16 hours later, she won the 100-mile race.

Laura Perry mountaintop

(By the way, Laura told me later that the bear smelled horrible: a combo of rotten cucumber and vomit and wet dog!)

Anyway, I love sharing this story with kids in schools. Some girls have found Laura’s bravery so inspiring, they’ve drawn pictures of her little encounter on the trail:

Laura Meets the Bear

I should mention that Laura recently won another 100-mile race – setting a new course record at the Sulphur Springs Trail Run. Laura finished in a blistering time of 17 hours and 48 minutes. Happily, she didn’t run into any bears that time around.

Anyway, all this to say, if YOU are going hiking or running in bear country, be sure to go with a friend, and make lots of NOISE. Give those bears plenty of time to get out of your way. Better yet, check with the local park warden if the area is safe for runners and hikers. You don’t want this to happen to you: (WARNING: Language alert!)


The Freakishness of the Long Distance Runner (Video)

So there I was, bouncing around in an Ontario classroom, talking about my novel Ultra, and sharing some of my craziest running stories. A brilliant documentary filmmaker happened to be there, and she made this little video about me:


Many thanks to Lisa Lightbourn-Lay for making that video. The still images were provided by my photog brother Andy.

Real Life Superheroes, Part 38

I just discovered this. One of the best short films ever! And it’s built around the improv storytelling of 6 year-old boy.

Asa Baker-Rouse (age 6) wrote this. And his bubbly personality reminds me an awful lot of a certain character in my novel Ultra (okay…twist my arm…he reminds me of Quinn’s little brother, Ollie.)

Click the link. Be not scared!


Ultra-Running on the Radio


It’s always fun to share the weird world of ultra-running with a national audience. So just before Christmas, it was my pleasure to be interviewed by the brilliant Shelagh Rogers on her CBC Radio program, “The Next Chapter.”

In case you missed it, you can catch it here:

Friends tell me I spent too much time talking about the bears and hallucinations other trail demons, and not enough time promoting the book. Oh well. At least I got to repeat my mantra: “Once you’ve run 100 miles in a day, everything else you do seems a lot easier.”

My First Book Interview

My novel is going to the printer TODAY.  Synchronize your watches – it’ll be hitting the bookstores in ten weeks.  

Ultra cover

I had my first book interview today.  Strange experience.  I work for the media, so for years, I’ve been the one asking the questions, not answering them.  Role reversal!

Still, it was fun to talk about these characters who’ve been making a racket inside my head for the last three years.

Here are the first five questions I was asked as an author:

Q: What is the best part of being an author?

I love that the gear is so cheap!  If I wanted to be a professional snowboarder, I’d have to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment.  The board, the boots, the bindings, the jacket…  Pricey!  But all an author needs is a pen and some paper.  What does that cost – maybe $5?

Also, I never get hurt, writing books.  That’s a definite plus for me.  If I was a hockey player in the NHL, I’d probably get hit a lot.  I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to getting hit, so that wouldn’t be much fun.  As an author, the worst thing that can happen is I get a paper cut.

The best thing about being an author, however, is that the job is dead easy.  The alphabet only has 26 letters.  So all I have to do is arrange those letters in such a way that they tell a good story.  How hard could that be?

Q: What inspired you to write Ultra?

Five years ago, I did an insane thing.  I entered a hundred-mile footrace.  For 24 hours – all day and all night – I ran through a forest.  Some runners saw bears along the route, and all through the night I heard wolves howling in the distance.  It was a terrifying and exhausting experience.  But when I crossed the finish line, my life had changed.  I’d always thought it was impossible to run 100 miles in a day, but now that I’d done it, the whole world seemed different.  I’d changed the goalposts of what I believed was possible.  So I decided to try something else that I’d always thought was impossible – writing and publishing a novel.  And voila!

Q: What was the hardest part of writing this book?

Deciding whether or not the main character, Quinn, should win the race.  For the longest time, I had him crossing the finish line first.  But then I decided that he shouldn’t win; that something else – something dramatic – should happen instead.  So I rewrote the ending.  But then I gave the book to family members to read, and they complained about the ending.  So I rewrote it again, and then again.

I went back and forth, rewriting that ending for a year.  I can’t even remember anymore whether Quinn wins or loses the race.  But I will say this.  Most 100-mile races don’t give prizes to the winners.  Usually the winner just gets a pat on the back, a warm blanket, and a bowl of vegetable soup.  Almost nobody runs a 100-mile race in order to win.  They do it for other, much stranger reasons.

Q: In what ways are you like Quinn, the protagonist in your book?

I share Quinn’s determination.  Once I get an idea into my head, I’ll stick with it, no matter how much it hurts.  That’s why I can run 100 miles in one go.  Also, I love being outside, and I’m okay with being alone sometimes.  I’m a bit of an introvert, and I think Quinn is too.

And finally, like Quinn, I have a really solid friend.  And an amazing family that supports me – even when I do crazy things.

Q: What was your favourite book growing up?

“Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome.  It’s about a group of kids who climb mountains and race sailboats and survive shipwrecks and explore the high English moors.  Their parents are nowhere in sight, and the kids are always outdoors, facing the elements.  My dad read that book aloud for my whole family when I was a kid.  He’d read one chapter each night before bedtime, and the next morning me and my brother would race for the book so we could read on ahead.

“Swallows and Amazons” was the first in a long series, and Dad read us every single one over the course of a long, magical summer.  And that’s saying something, since there are twelve books in the series, and each one is 350 pages long.  Looking back, I think that experience cemented my love of reading.  Dad reading those books out loud.

OK, So You’ve Run Into a Bear. Now What?

A few days ago I wrote about running into bears while on the trail.  It’s a daunting prospect, and there are lots of things you can do to prevent it from happening (like making lots of noise).

But suppose you do run into a bear.  What then?

No single strategy is guaranteed to work in all situations, but you can minimize your risk by doing the following:

First, keep your distance from the bear and remain calm.  Don’t run away.  In most cases, if you make some noise, the bear will leave.

Don’t be surprised if the bear rises up on its hind legs.  Bears are curious animals, and often stand up to get a better view, or to catch your scent.  Back away slowly and speak in a firm voice.

A bear that swats at the ground, swings its head from side to side, snorts or huffs, pops its jaw, or bares its teeth is likely stressed and is asking for more space.  Give it to him.  Bears may also bluff their way out of an encounter by charging, then turning away at the last second.  Stand your ground.

A bear that follows you, circles or cuts you off is likely displaying predatory behaviour.  This is more common in black bears.  Face the bear and act aggressively.  Throw rocks and sticks.

If a Bear Charges:

If it’s a Black Bear, stand and fight.  Grab the closest stick and bash him across the nose.  Throw things.  If you’re carrying bear spray, use it.  Any of these actions may convince the bear to leave you alone.

If it’s a Grizzly Bear, play dead.  Protect your face, and the back of your head and neck with your arms.  The typical grizzly attack happens as a result of surprise, so non-aggressive behavior generally works.

Here’s an easy way to remember: If it’s black, fight back.  If it’s brown, lie down.

Another Burden to BEAR

Patricia Sommers was having a great race.  Until she ran into the bear.

Sommers was running her first 100-miler, in the Haliburton Forest, back in 2000.  She was keeping a good pace, the weather was good, and her husband was waiting for her at the 75-mile turnaround.

One mile shy of that aid station, Sommers heard a noise.  It was eleven at night, and she could hear a large animal crashing down a hill towards her, on the left hand side of the trail.  “I hoped it was a moose, but it wasn’t,” she explained. “It burst onto the path 100 meters ahead of me.”

Sommers shone her headlamp at the animal.  It was an adult black bear.  It rose up on its hind legs and roared.

Black bear

I’ve run into a number of bears on the trail.  It’s gets your heart pumping, that’s for sure.   Given that these animals are large, with claws the size of steak knives, I’ll found myself wondering: am I crazy to be running in a forest?

The answer, according to Bart Hillhorst, is no.  Hillhorst is a Forestry Technician with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.  He deals with a lot of problem bears.  “There’s always a danger with animals of this size,” he explains, “but in general, black bears are programmed to be scared of humans.  Ninety percent of the black bear’s diet is vegetation – grass, berries, nuts.  The other ten percent is meat, but that’s mostly larvae and ants.  The reality is, bears don’t like dealing with people.  It’s not in their personality.”

Statistics back this up.  Since the early 1900’s, fewer than 70 deaths in North America have been attributed to black bears.

“When you see a bear on the trail, your first reaction is to be scared,” Hillhorst says.  “That’s perfectly natural, but fear is the wrong thing to show a bear.  You want to be calm.  You want to look at the bear and figure out her situation.  What’s the bear doing?  Is it aware you’re there?  Is it feeding on something?  Are there cubs nearby?  Then you can figure out your best response.”

“Once you know what the conditions are, then it’s just a matter of risk tolerance,” explains Dr. Stephen Herrero, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary.  “There is risk associated with bears, so you have to decide if you’re comfortable with that.  I’m a runner myself, and I love running in nature.  But there are some places in North America where I wouldn’t dare run right now.”

If you do decide to lace up in bear country, you can take steps to increase your safety.

1) “Run at a more leisurely pace than you otherwise might.  Bears hate surprises, that’s a major cause of aggressive behaviour, especially with Grizzlies.

2) Keep an eye out for bear tracks, spoor, fresh diggings, torn up logs and scratched trees.  If you see any of those, find another place to run.

3) Above all, make lots of noise, particularly when you’re running in dense forest, or rounding blind corners.

Carrying a can of bear repellent doesn’t hurt either.  Just be sure you know how to use it.

“When you’re staring at that bear, and your heart is racing, and the wind is blowing, how good do you think your aim is going to be?” Hillhorst says.  “Bear spray is good because it gives you confidence, but practice using it a couple of times before you head out.”