She’s decided it was her CamelBak that saved her life.
The backpack Karen Williams wore for an ultramarathon through the Valles Caldera in June 2016 intervened when a mother bear attacked her. Teeth sunk into the front of her neck, but the bear couldn't get around the straps and bag in the back. That also prevented the bear from getting a firm enough grip to shake Williams, which spared her some injury—not that her injuries were minor.
A broken orbital lobe from where the bear swiped her meant it was seven weeks before she could blow her nose. When she jumped back into an Ironman in October, her arm still wasn't working well, and she struggled to get it out of the water while swimming. Cosmetic surgery to replace a partially lost eyebrow is ongoing.
So, too, are the races—a triathlon in April, and the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic from Durango to Silverton, Colorado, in May. SFR caught up with her after CrossFit and before the pool lanes were set for her laps. The afternoon ahead of her included a run and constructing an 8-foot wall in her backyard to help her train for obstacle course races.
Did getting mauled by a bear slow her down?
"Not really, no," she says. "I'm lucky."
Williams was out running the trails again four days after her attack. It was kind of hard, she concedes: Two black eyes, one of them still swollen shut, made it tough to see.
"There was lots of walking so I wouldn't trip and fall and break something else," she says. And there was more to it, of course. A hole that could have provided a bear den freaked her out a little, she says, and so too did the moment last fall she realized she was running through an area littered with acorns: "not ideal," she calls it. She carries bear spray now.
"You're allowed to be afraid, but you shouldn't let being afraid change what you do," she says. "Just change the way you do things so you don't have that issue again."
Williams started running and biking competitively shortly after watching Julie Moss famously drag herself across the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman in 1982. She said to her then-boyfriend, "I'd like to try that," she recalls, to which he said, "You could never do that." She laughs, retelling it. "So he didn't last."
She bought her first bicycle—financed to fit her Army private's salary—and started on duathlons. That led to joining a friend for the Mount Taylor 50K, her first ultramarathon. Most of her runs, particularly during the six years she lived off-grid, half a mile from her closest neighbor, were on elk trails. Encounters with wildlife—the mountain lion that fell out of a juniper tree while stalking her or the bear her two dogs alerted her to—come with the territory.
A portion of her time now goes to educating other people on avoiding conflicts with wildlife, and working on legislation to change the policy that led the New Mexico Game and Fish Department to track down and kill the bear that attacked her to test it for rabies. The test was negative, and Williams insists that bear was just defending her cubs. The bill failed in committee this year, but she'll try to bring it back again.
The bear's cubs were captured and raised at the Cottonwood Rehabilitation Center in Española, some of six cubs veterinarian Kathleen Ramsay spent her summer rounding up acorns and bushes laden with rosehips to feed. Given the fact that bears can get rabies and that even with the vaccine, a human is not guaranteed to survive contracting rabies, and the litigious environment we live in, she says it's human behavior that needs fixing.
"What we need to take from this lesson is not trying to change a law over one bear, but to educate a whole population base in the entire United States about how to live with bears," she says. That means running in pairs and without headphones, curbing dogs, and not feeding wildlife or allowing them to access food in dumpsters.
Video of the cubs' release back into the wild in November showed them on a brave race of their own—bounding away among the junipers.
Lions and Hikers and Bears, Oh My!
A lecture from Daryl Ratajczak,
wildlife biologist for the US Forest Service in the Santa Fe National Forest
7 pm Tuesday May 2. Free.
Los Alamos Nature Center,
2600 Canyon Road, Los Alamos,