Grizzly bear steals runner's lead in annual Whitehorse marathon

Marathon front runner lost his lead after an encounter with two grizzly bears during the Yukon River Trail Marathon on Sunday.

Bear charge leaves lead runner ‘terrified’; race director says organizers don't adjust race times for detours

After he was charged by what he describes to be a grizzly bear, Brendan Morphet lost his lead in the marathon. It was not a good race for him, he says. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

Brendan Morphet did not have a good race, even though it started off well.

"I had a sizeable lead," he said.

Morphet was running in the marathon division of the Yukon River Trail Marathon on Sunday. He rounded a corner in leg three of the race, beside Chadburn Lake. There was a steep hill on one side of the trail, a sharp drop to the lake on the other and two bears in front of him.

Jody Eikelboom, right, pictured with her husband David and baby Elaida, was the first to encounter Brendan Morphet as he backtracked away from the bears. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

After the race, he used his hands to describe the humps he remembers seeing on the backs of the bears — grizzlies.

"I yelled and yelled. They wouldn't go anywhere," said Morphet, who said he backtracked to get out of the bears' line of vision.

"I figured, 'Eh, maybe I'll go yell again, maybe it buggered off,' and as I came around again, I could see it making its way toward me, kind of doing a little run, and then I just, I was gone."

The race follows the many trails surrounding the Yukon River, near Whitehorse. It can be run as a 42.2-kilometre marathon, a 21-kilometre half-marathon, or it can be done as a relay, with teams of two or four.

Bear detour

Jody Eikelboom split the race with her husband. They each ran two legs. She was just starting leg three when she saw Morphet running toward her.

"I thought, hmm, that's strange," said Eikelboom. "And he was like, 'Turn around, Jody. Bears on the trail.'"

Eikelboom, Morphet and another relay runner detoured onto a nearby road. They returned to the trail, continuing to backtrack.

Denise McHale figures she was about 15 minutes behind Morphet when he came upon bears on the trail. She ultimately beat his time by two minutes. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

They ran into Denise McHale. She was running a full marathon too. At that point, she had been second to Morphet.

"I had just started the first kilometre or two of leg three," said McHale, "Then there were three of them coming back toward me, the runners, so I'm like, 'What are you guys doing? Are you lost?'"

McHale says Morphet was probably 15 minutes ahead of her when he ran into the bears.

"So he kind of got ripped-off a little bit," she said.

McHale was the first marathon runner to cross the finish line at three hours, 24 minutes and 52 seconds.

Morphet was second at three hours, 26 minutes and 51 seconds.

Try to sneak by bears

Ken Sylvestre was this year's race director. He says they don't adjust anyone's time to account for detours.

"Well, it's a wilderness race. There are bears. We've had bears before," he said.

Sylvestre says they tell runners upfront that if they should encounter a bear, they should not approach it.

"Try to sneak by it on the race and wait until it's safe to go by," was Sylvestre's advice.

The crowd at the finish line was abuzz with stories of the bear encounters. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

Morphet says the bear encounter was terrifying.

"They say never run from a bear, but based on the adrenaline that I had, that bear was never going to get me. I was gone," he said.

After that, Morphet says he had a full breakdown on the course. He fell multiple times and was all out of liquids.

"I was totally spaced out," he said.

After the race, Morphet said he planned to sleep, maybe go lay in the river. Then eat pizza and drink beer.