Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | September 10, 2010

Woman versus Beast

A few weeks ago, in a comment on this post, my friend Heidi challenged me to write about my strengths in my blog, instead of lamenting the fact that I was last in a race, was beaten by a dog, thought I was going to drown, etc. As I stand here looking down the barrel of the gun known as a Half Ironman Triathlon, I have decided that reflecting on my strengths might be a good idea, a sort of confidence-booster. And by strengths, I assume Heidi means something other than my Athletic-Event Related Psychosis TM, which causes me to optimistically sign up for events (like the Half-Ironman) that I really have no right to be doing. Over-estimating ones abilities and having a warped sense of what constitutes “fun” can hardly be considered strengths.

However, I had trouble picking a topic to write about (does indecisiveness count as a strength?). One of my greatest strengths is that I am a prodigious sleeper, but that talent doesn’t make for a particularly interesting blog post.  I am also great at procrastinating, but I knew I would never get around to writing about that. Finally, it dawned on me that one of my strengths is my ability to remain calm in the face of danger.

OK, perhaps I am overstating that talent a little bit, but I do a lot of running and biking, and as a result I’ve had many opportunities to feel more than a little nervous out on the road. Cycling and running present their fair share of hazards. Some, like potholes, are expected. Some, like bears, are not.

I spent a lot of time this summer in and around the Flathead Valley in Northwest Montana. I found many wonderful running routes, including ones that pass some pretty impressive real estate along Flathead Lake. One of my favorites was a 7 mile loop around Finley Point, just outside of Polson. It is a simple loop on a lightly traveled road, offering nice views and a conveniently located state park with bathroom. What more could a runner need?

I was running there several weeks ago, about 5 miles into the loop, having just crested a large hill and looking forward to the easy two-mile jaunt back to my car. Suddenly, about 50 meters ahead of me, a bear ran out of the woods and across the road. I stopped. I took off my headphones. I thought for a minute. I reviewed the bear advice I’d heard in the past: “Stop and back away slowly.” Back away? To where? I was at mile 5 of 7, and although I am a disciplined runner, I never add unnecessary miles.  There was no way I was going to turn back and repeat the five miles I had just done. Besides, it was a loop. There was no guarantee the same bear wouldn’t accost me on the other side of the point.

I figured that since the bear had been moving at a good clip, by the time I got to where he had crossed, he would be long gone. So I continued forward, slowly and calmly. Just then, a car came up behind me. Emboldened, I picked up my pace a little. Just seconds after the car passed me, the bear came tearing out of the woods back across the road, just feet in front of the car. The car screeched to a stop. I stood frozen. The bear climbed a tree just off the road. I watched in amazement as he jumped down from the tree and rolled on the ground. Then he seemed to hop up and down a little bit. It almost looked like he was break-dancing. He climbed another tree and jumped down again. Just my luck, I ran into a bear that apparently was on a bender and had been out partying all night. I stood wondering what to do. The best option I come up with was to go to the nearby state park and talk to the ranger. But what was the ranger going to do, escort me on the rest of my run?

As I debated my options, I noticed the car had started to back up towards me. The window rolled down. A pleasant woman sat behind the wheel.

“Where did he go?” I asked.

“He’s just off the road behind those bushes,” she replied. “He seems a little full of beans, sort of like he’s showing off.” She paused for a second. “Would you like a ride, just to get past him?”

I thought for a minute. My inner seven-year-old-girl said “Don’t take rides from strangers!”  My inner wise adult said “Who is more dangerous, a kindly looking middle-aged woman or a jacked-up bear?” I thanked her kindly and hopped in the car. She drove me to well past where the bear had been. I thanked my good Samaritan profusely and continued on my run, happy that I was less than two miles from my car.  I ran slowly and continually scanned the woods on the sides of the road, keeping an eye out for anything moving. At one point, a squirrel darted out of a bush and scared the daylights out of me. I screamed like a banshee. So much for keeping calm in the face of a scary situation.

Friendly neighborhood bear

Several days later I had another animal encounter of a different kind. I had spent the morning riding the bike path that extends south out of Polson, a pleasantly flat ride through open farmland, with majestic mountains rising to the East. It was a sunny day, and I wanted to add a few more miles, so as I got back to the beginning of the bike trail, I decided to take a detour to bike around Turtle Lake, a small lake tucked up in a low hill just south of town. I pedaled along, taking in the scent of the hayfields around me, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back. As I turned toward Turtle Lake, I passed a woman ushering some dogs back into her house. I gave a friendly smile and continued on my way. Then I heard the woman cry “Abner! Abner! Come!” I turned to see Abner, a dachshund, tearing straight towards me.

Now, I have to clarify that getting chased by a dachshund named Abner is much more frightening than it sounds. Really. Yes, I know dachshunds have three-inch long legs, and they can’t go very fast because the drag of their bellies scraping the ground slows them down. But this dachshund had a look in his eye: Abner was determined to get me.

“Go away, Abner,” I yelled. “Go home!”  I thought about getting out my pepper spray, but he was so darn little I wasn’t sure my aim would be good enough to hit him. “Go away, Abner!”

Fortunately, I knew Abner’s micro-legs could move only so fast. I pedaled. Hard. “Go away, Abner!”  Abner came within inches of my ankles, barking furiously. I pedaled as fast as I could, and finally managed to leave him in the dust. “Ha, take that Abner!” I laughed as I sped off.  Sue 1, vicious dachshund 0.

Don't let those sweet eyes fool you. (Not Abner. Trust me, Abner looked much more dangerous.)

I carried on, but quickly encountered more dogs. I wondered briefly if Canine Monthly had run a “Wanted Dead or Alive” advertisement with my photo on it, because they seemed to be out to get me. I love dogs, I have two myself, but for some reason the canine world has a vendetta against me. Around every corner was another dog looking to chase me. Fortunately, none were as persistent as ‘lil ol’ Abner had been. Most simply barked halfheartedly. Until, that is, I was just about done with my ride.

I had completed the loop around Turtle Lake and was headed back towards my car, when I crested a small hill and stopped. In front of me, right in the middle of the road, were three large dogs.  These were no ‘lil Abner dachshunds, they looked like they might be Rottweiler-mixes, and they were right in front of me. I was not happy. They spotted me and started to come towards me, barking. At the bottom of the hill, gleaming like a beacon, was my car, waiting patiently for me. To one side was open farmland, and to the other was thick forest. There was no house nearby, so I had no hope of a sheepish owner coming to rescue me. Suddenly retreating back to where I had encountered Abner seemed like a nice option.

I knew these dogs already had me in their sights, so trying to quickly pedal away would only encourage their chase instincts. I got off my bike and got out my pepper spray. Since outriding them was out of the question, I decided I would just stand there and hope that they wouldn’t find me very interesting (many people don’t find me interesting, so I figured maybe it would translate to dogs, too). I took my bike and placed it in front of my, trying to make myself appear bigger. They didn’t seem to be fooled. They kept right on coming. I got increasingly concerned when I saw one of them dart into the woods off to the right and reappear a few seconds later behind me.

Now, I am no expert in animal behavior, but I watched my fair share of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom when I was growing up, so I knew I was being circled. I lifted my bike up a little, as if to say “Be gone, creatures! Or I will shake my bike at you! It is carbon and very light, but you don’t know that because you are dogs so it makes me appear strong and brave. Ha!”

One of the dogs in front of me stopped, as if unsure what to do. Either my menacing bike-shaking was working, or he simply thought I was insane. Once again, I lifted my bike. “Here I am, oh so strong, shaking my bike at you! Be very afraid!  Perhaps I will throw my bike at you. Of course, I would never do that, because I love my bike and it is delicate, but you are dogs and you do not know that. Ha!”

Dog #1 in front of me gave a bark and then turned away. It was working!  The other dog in front of me, Dog #2, seemed confused. He kept looking at Dog #1, who was now moving off, and then back at me, and then over at Dog #3, who was behind me, just beyond my right shoulder. I turned towards Dog #3 and lifted my bike up again. “Same goes for you, buddy! I will shake my bike at you relentlessly and never give up!” He just stared at me, nonplussed.

I turned back to Dogs #1 and #2. Dog #1 had moved almost halfway down the hill, and Dog #2 was clearly disappointed that today would not be “Shred a Cyclist into Teeny Tiny Pieces” day. I shook my bike again. “Ha ha! Go home doggie! Or I will continue to shake my bike at you in a very menacing manner!”

Dog #2 gave a last bark my way and then turned to follow Dog #1 down the road. I looked over my shoulder at Dog #3 who was still staring blankly at me. I took a few steps away from him. He didn’t move. I figured the worst was over. Dog #1 was now out of sight, and Dog #2 was beating a quick retreat. Still clutching my pepper spray tightly, I hopped back on my bike and I hightailed it down the hill to my car, vowing never to bike on Turtle Lake Loop again.

So, clearly I have some magic power over the animal kingdom. I have successfully evaded a bear, escaped from a killer attack dachshund, and scared off three large dogs with my skillful bike-shaking. Now if I could just find a way to way to harness that power in the Half-Ironman, I’d be all set. Guess I’ll have to work on that one.


  1. trying to follow you on twitter but cant find your name

  2. Haha! LOVE your posts! You are a very talented writer.

  3. Nice!! Great post. I too sign up for races I have no business doing, but I bet you’ll kick butt at your 1/2 ironman.

    The dog story is pretty terrifying! I’ve also had a few leash-less dog encounters and they always shake me up.

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