24 April 2014

Predator attacks, pacers and ultramarathons

I am very happy that there have been some reactions on my post regarding pacers in ultramarathons. I just today got a great reply from Robert which puts the difference between the US and Europe into a better perspective . The reply is definitively worth sharing, not only as a comment to the post, but also here as it deserves better space. I am very grateful for being able to share his thoughts and copy the reply below. He points out that the original purpose with pacers in mountain ultramarathons in the US actually was protection against predators like the North American Cougar, and that such animals are not the same threat in Europe.  This was something not apparently clear to me and I can definitively understand and agree and think that safety of course is paramount in all competitions. I would definitively not like to be stalked alone on the trail by such an animal.

I am not familiar with the predators in the Alps, but here in Sweden and the Nordics we have, besides the Eurasian Lynx mentioned by Robert, and which is quite small and harmless, the Wolverine and Grey Wolf, but both are mostly trying to avoid humans and there are no reported attacks or deaths to my knowledge in recent years. However, in Alaska a young teacher was killed by a flock of wolves while out running alone ac ouple of years ago. More dangerous, in particular during this time of the year when they are waking from the winter hibernation and when the mothers are particularly protective of their cubs, are the Brown Bears. During 1977 to 2012 there were 31 humans injured and 2 killed during bear attacks in Scandinavia (figures found in Veronica Sahlén’s PhD thesis “Encounters between Brown Bears and humans in Scandinavia – contributing factors, bear behavior and management perspectives” from 2013 at Department of Natural Resource Management at Norwegian University of Life Sciences. It is freely available in English in a pdf format at the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project webpage). I am uncertain if there were any runners among those attacked by Brown Bears, but I would not think it unlikely.

A Scandinavian Brown Bear. This particular bear is not wild but living at Orsa Bear Park
I can also think pacers would be beneficial for safety of other reasons such as prevention of navigation mistakes in strenuous long ultramarathon races and avoidance of other objective dangers in technical mountain terrain. However, in those cases it might be better to organize the race as a team event, like what is done for Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), one of the UTMB races. It is a new and very stimulating experience for me to plan for this year’s  race together with Otto Elmgart and it will be great to run this long and hard race together in particular as there are some glacier crossings and technical passages where I would have hesitated to be alone even in a non-sleep deprived and exhausted state.

The inspiration to my statement that pacer’s should not be allowed in “normal” ultramarathons was when I saw that there were pacers allowed in the Swedish 100 mile race Täby Extreme Challenge (TEC 100). There are certainly no predators or other dangerous animals present at this location just outside Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, and as the race consists of 16 laps of 10 kilometers and is rather flat without any technical passages there are no safety reasons for allowing pacers. Indeed, reading the race report from the winner of TEC 100 this year it is clear how helpful pacing was in particular during the last laps. I am concerned that having pacers like this is a trend not only in the US as Robert mentions, but also in Europe.

“Hi Peter,

I agree with your sentiment with respect to utilization of pacers in ultramarathons. Here in the US there are real concerns about safety in some ultramarathons (mostly the mountainous, remotes ones in the Western US) as it concerns predators. Predators were exterminated in the Alps sometime after about 1800 and have only recently (1990's) been reintroduced. Even so, there have never been nor are there now any large cats (cougars) in the Alps. The Slovenian Alps have successfully reintroduced the Eurasian Lynx but this cat is not considered a real threat to human life as is the North American Cougar (Puma concolor couguar). There were 5 confirmed human killings in the decade 2001-2010, including a cross country skier just outside Canmore AB (site of the 1988 Olympic Cross country Skiing events). There were dozens of non-death injury reports as well and probably thousands of sightings. So we take interaction with this animal very seriously. Most attacks upon humans are of solo individuals as is the preference of such a predator. Numbers really matter when dealing with such a large dangerous animal, even just two will have a much better chance of scaring the thing off than a lone individual. Read this harrowing account by Joe Grant when he was stalked for 5 miles on a solo 100 miler in Washington state a couple of years ago:

There are many ultramarathons in the US where such safety issues are either non-existent or so minimal as to not be considered a risk, yet pacers are encouraged by race directors. I find this unfortunate but seemingly cultural for US ultramarathons. Karl Meltzer is one US-based runner who eschews pacers and is quite vocal about it- he has had nary a dent in the practice. I think that pacers should be allowed when there is a documented safety concern, otherwise they should not be allowed or at least have different classes where the real winner is the one who do not use a pacer. Interestingly, USA Track and Field do not allow pacers (or music) in their ultramarathon championship events.”


  1. Peter,

    Greetings from Montana!

    I tend to agree with Speedgoat Karl; pacers are a lot less necessary than people think. They tend to be a psychological crutch. We’re supposed to be tough-as-nails ultrarunners. No crutch needed. I’ve only used pacers when a friend is present at the race and wants to run with me. In that case, why not? I’m no threat to win anything, paced or not! But it does demonstrate to me that a pacer is definitely additional assistance.

    There are a couple of ultra events that don’t allow pacers. Two that I’ve participated in are the Plain 100 http://www.cascaderunningclub.com/plain100.html and Devil’s Backbone 50 Mile http://www.math.montana.edu/~thayes/Runs/Runs.html . Plain also does not use aid stations or course markings, and allows crew access/drop bags at only one location (at 55 miles). Devil’s Backbone was started by two runners who finished Plain, liked the format, and found an out & back course where the turnaround would be the crew access/drop bag point.

    Both courses consist largely of remote back country trails. Water is retrieved out of whatever natural sources the runner can find. Everything else is carried.

    Wild animals are present in both events. One year at Plain, I saw the race director at about 11 PM. No one was around the drop bag point, so I reloaded and headed out. I saw no other people until I saw the RD again at a road crossing about 7 AM the next morning. An hour before I got to that point, I was walking along the trail. I heard a grunt off the side of the trail, then some scratching noises. I glanced over to see two young bear cubs scrambling up an old, dead tree, as mama bear had instructed. I never saw mama. These were black bears http://fieldguide.mt.gov/detail_AMAJB01010.aspx . I’m very sure mountain lions are present in the area as well.

    At DB50, the entire course is in grizzly (brown bear) country http://fieldguide.mt.gov/detail_AMAJB01020.aspx . These bears have been spotted along the course but have never been a factor. I heard that one year, a runner spotted a mountain lion on the trail ahead and waited until other runners came along before proceeding. Another year, a runner tweaked an ankle early and turned back to the start. He was harassed by a moose http://fieldguide.mt.gov/detail_AMALC03010.aspx much of the way down. I think the race literature may include a warning that moose will be patrolling the course should anyone want to drop out too early. OK, just kidding.

    While a pacer may have been helpful in some cases, there are usually ways to deal with situations.

    Martin Miller
    Helena, Montana

    1. Hi Martin,

      Thanks Martin! Another great comment! Yes, I forgot the moose :-) Not like being hunted by a cougar and certainly no predator, but quite scary to encounter during your trail run due to their size and, again, this time of the year the mothers tend to be very protective of their young ones. Running in Swedish forests you will certainly encounter one rather sooner than later, there are around 400,000 Eurasian Elks in Sweden towards the end of each summer and the population is steady despite there being around 100,000 shot during the annual hunt each fall. I have myself being too close to a moose for my own comfort a couple of times. I guess this all shows that most of us at least are just guests in the back country wilderness during our runs.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Just wanted to add that although predators are a primary reason for pacers in some ultramarathons in the US, other reasons given are around the safety of the competing runner w/r/t their lucidity and ability to continue in the later stages of the race. I find reasons such as this to be a "crutch" and anti-athletic. Should there be real safety concerns as it applies to skill (e.g. crossing snow fields/glaciers, class 4 scrambling, etc.) then the race director should require some sort of qualification or other evaluation to ensure that the runner has the skills necessary for a nominally safe race. Using another person to actively "support" your race seems contrary to the concept of individual athletic competition.

    Concerning the reality of predators here in the Western US, you might enjoy this post from the Montana Trail Crew in Missoula, Montana: