‘Stop running!’: How this black bear diverted an Anchorage marathon

The Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage last weekend included some of the typical elements along its 26.2 miles: There were the runners, of course. The cheering onlookers. The mosquitos. 

And then there was:

(Video taken by Ian Marks during the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon on Saturday, June 19.)

A black bear on the trail.

In the video, you can hear Ian Marks warning runners about it. Marks is the assistant director of athletics at the University of Alaska Anchorage, one of the organizers of the annual race through the city. 

He joined Alaska Public Media’s Tegan Hanlon on Thursday to talk about his — and dozens of runners’ — weekend bear encounter. 

Listen here:

This interview is part of Alaska Public Media’s summer series on bear encounters. Have a story you’d like to share? We want to hear it. Send us your Alaska bear stories here.

[The following transcript has been lightly edited.]

Tegan Hanlon: Take us back to that moment on the trail when you saw the bear. What was going through your head? What were you doing?

Ian Marks: I originally showed up at the Goose Lake area, there’s a 13-mile aid station there. And my job of the day was just to shoot video of the runners to make a little promo video. And shortly after I walked on the trail, I was alerted by Sarah Thomas, who was the head of the aid station there, that there was a bear in the area. And the first thought was, ‘Okay, you know, this is Alaska.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder, did it run off? Where exactly is that bear?’ And then a good 10 seconds later, I was looking right at it.

Hanlon: What did you do next?

Marks: I kept the visual on it. And then my next thought was, ‘We have runners coming down the trail.’ And so I was yelling to the runners: They need to stop — or you know, anybody in the area — that there’s a bear. And it was kind of an uncoordinated event. We expect the opportunity of wildlife. But until you’re really in that situation, it was a real think-on-your-feet moment.

Hanlon: I bet. Which runners were you trying to stop and what was their reaction?

Marks: I would say the top 20-25 runners had actually encountered the bear, but they had gotten through that section. So we were still early on in the race. But we had to stop the race immediately because the bear was sitting right on that path. And anybody who’s been through that area knows that it’s a heavily wooded area. So the path is really the only way through. So I made the decision immediately to stop all the runners. And that delay went on for a good 20 to 30 minutes, and about 100-plus runners were just standing around waiting, not knowing what to do.

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Hanlon: So you’ve got this group of runners waiting, you’ve got this black bear that’s stubborn and not moving from the trail. What did you decide to do? How did the race continue?

Marks: So I’m pretty fortunate, as one of the race organizers. I have communication with my other colleagues with the race. And I run through that area, I work in that area. So I made the decision with the race director to reroute the course. We were fortunate in that area that we could just have the runners go out to a drive and then take a left through some parking lots and return to the course. So I also had my mountain bike on the back of my car, took it off. And I was like the Pied Piper leading 100-plus runners through a detour of a race, right in the middle of the race taking place.

Hanlon: And what happened to the bear?

Marks: So the Anchorage Police Department and the state troopers responded to the scene. They handled the bear. I never saw the bear leave. But police officers said once the runners had quit coming through and everything calmed down, that it was a mama bear. She got her cubs out of the tree and then left the area. And once that happened, and it was safe, we reopened the course. And the later runners did the original marathon course.

Hanlon: A lot of us in Alaska have encountered a bear on a trail or while hiking, you know, one way or another. And sometimes there’s takeaways or lessons learned. Is there anything you would share any lessons from this bear encounter during a marathon?

Marks: I’ve only been up here five years, and I’ve already had a few bear sightings. But this was by far the closest I’ve ever been to a bear. And my advice to everyone is just stay away. You can never give a bear too much space. Looking back on it, it’s fortunate that no one had an incident with the bear and everyone made it out safe.