The Whistler Half Marathon’s official tagline reads: “Immersed in Nature.” It doesn’t get much more immersive than a close encounter with a 300-pound female grizzly bear.
Event organizer Dave Clark and his team were aware of the animal’s presence in the valley after recent BC Conservation Officer Service (COS) and RCMP reports as well as civilian sightings in Rainbow Park. They took their usual precautions, pre-riding the racecourse and looking for tracks and scat. According to Clark, the risk level seemed to be well within normal parameters—until the morning of Saturday, June 3, when the bear moved onto the Fairmont golf course.
An unexpected guest
According to Clark, the COS was relatively unconcerned about the sow’s behaviour based on days of prior observation. Yet when it approached the Valley Trail, an audible needed to be called.
“A very quick-witted volunteer out on course at that particular point, along with a few of our staff, were able to make a very quick decision to divert runners in consultation with me … by about 250 metres, to keep them a safe distance away from the grizzly,” Clark recalled.
Fortunately, the race unfolded without further incident while COS and RCMP personnel safely captured and relocated the bear.
Whistlerite Torren Davis, who won bronze in the 30-kilometre discipline, is familiar with the track from last year’s event. Initially perplexed by the sudden reroute through Blackcomb Greens, he did not catch a glimpse of the bear (nor did the runners he spoke with). In hindsight, Davis feels that Clark and company did a good job adjusting the course while maintaining a similar overall length and terrain throughout.
Half Marathon organizers have experience dealing with black bears and other animals in the general vicinity of the contest, but a grizzly has never factored into the equation before. Clark has lived in Whistler for more than two decades, and does not recall another year in which multiple grizzly sightings have been reported in the valley. The goal has always been to minimize encounters with local fauna—be it a bear or a deer.
Clark and his teammates also strive to educate runners about wilderness safety. “Ultimately, if you see a bear, you stop. Look to see if there are young cubs around. If it’s in your path, the race time you’re trying to achieve is nowhere near [as important] as your safety and the bear’s.
“At the end of the day, we're dealing with the unpredictability of nature, and there's no way to predict it all and contain it all, so we just do the very best that we can.”
Furthermore, Clark praised the volunteers who show up year-in, year-out to make the Half Marathon successful—and not just because they helped avert a potential wildlife incident on Saturday. He speaks highly of volunteerism in general, and strives to foster a culture attractive to those who are generous with their time.
“It’s about how we make a meaningful experience that [people] want to come back to and leave at the end of the day feeling like they were part of something bigger than them,” said Clark. “It's not just about the runners—it's an opportunity for everybody and volunteerism, in whatever form it takes, is truly philanthropy.”
A sense of adventure
The Whistler Half Marathon showcased plenty of talent across its four races. John Dean of Squamish claimed victory in the 30-kilometre event, notching a time of two hours, eight minutes and 21 seconds. He was joined on the podium by Vincent Pagot of Chilliwack (2:11:19) and Davis (2:12:59).
Davis, who is originally from Queensland, Australia, emerged on top of the 20-29 age group and shattered his prior personal best by more than 10 minutes.
“My goal was just to beat my time from last year, and I did that,” he said. “I felt strong, I did a good race, and I was happy to come away with third.”
Victoria’s Carley Gering posted the best 30km time among women (2:28:37), followed by Samantha van Diemen of Kamloops (2:35:06) and Sechelt’s Jeanelle Hazlett (2:39:12).
On the other end of the spectrum, Ellis Gray crushed the 5-kilometre race (19:20) to snag gold ahead of fellow Vancouverite Jamie Burke (21:04). Local athlete George Hallewell earned bronze (21:16). Whistler’s Joanna Hanson posted the top 5km time among women (24:07), narrowly edging Brackendale’s Maelle Hetherington (24:20) and Celia Munoz of Vancouver (25:17).
In the actual half-marathon, Nicholas Lightbody from Victoria prevailed (1:18:18) over Abbotsford’s runner-up Kris Warkentin (1:20:00) and third-place competitor Nicholas Marty from Vader, Wash. (1:24:20). Catrin Jones of Victoria posted the top time among the women (1:31:04), followed by Marilyn Arsenault of Victoria (1:35:55) and Marina Lovell of Winnipeg (1:39:15).
David Jackson from Abbotsford stood atop the 10-kilometre podium (37:49), next to Richmond silver medallist Mantas Jarusevicius (39:03). Xavier Gilbert of Quebec City rounded out the top three (40:45). Cumberland’s Hanna Stoddart was best among women, followed by Madeline Wiseman and Tracy Dabbs, both of Vancouver (45:46 and 46:49, respectively).
Needless to say, individual race performances were overshadowed this weekend by talk of the grizzly. By and large, athletes kept their cool during the unprecedented turn of events, and Clark thinks their rare visitor added a unique element to the weekend’s festivities.
“People come to Whistler for adventure, right? No matter what that adventure looks like,” he opined. “But the one common denominator in adventure is your connection and association with nature—and particularly wildlife. I think that this grizzly bear and the uniqueness of it brought an element that we could never have expected or could ever have tried to create ourselves.
“There wasn’t fear of the grizzly. It was this connection to nature that we have when we adventure … and that was the feeling I got from people. They were aglow with the fact that this magical creature chose to be with us.”
Full results are available at startlinetiming.com/en/races/2023/whistlerhalf/event/30K.