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As one of Canada's top female biathletes, Mary Beth Miller was accustomed to the gruelling challenges of her high-performance sport. But she didn't stand a chance against the adversary she confronted in the woods on Sunday.

Some time between 9 a.m. and noon, while running on a gravel path, Ms. Miller was attacked from the side by a black bear. Yesterday, a coroner said that the young athlete tried to escape her predator, but ultimately fell prey to it.

Ms. Miller, 24, died of neck injuries inflicted by a wild animal, by all accounts a black bear, coroner Yvan Turmel said.

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Autopsy reports indicate that Ms. Miller, a competitive athlete in peak physical shape, tried to run for her life.

"She obviously defended herself and tried to escape," Dr. Turmel told a news conference yesterday. But she weakened, and the bear caught up with her.

"She had no chance of getting away alive, absolutely no chance."

Ms. Miller had been in training with the Canadian biathlon team on the Valcartier military base north of Quebec City, where officials had warned athletes about bears in the woods. At the time of the incident, she was running alone and wearing a Walkman.

The bear first attacked Ms. Miller on the leg, but she managed to free herself "from the bear's claws," Dr. Turmel said. She fell a few metres farther on, and was fatally mauled in the neck.

Dr. Turmel said her body had been dragged a "certain distance." A vertebra in her neck was broken, and she suffered scratch and bite wounds.

"When she was attacked, she was alive. She wasn't unconscious," the coroner said. "Her wounds were fatal."

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The animal involved in the attack remains at large, and wildlife officials believe it's still in the forested area. A black bear captured on Tuesday was released in another wildlife reserve north of Quebec City after officials determined it was too small and calm to fit the description of the bear involved in the mauling.

Ms. Miller's body was found with teeth marks on the neck, and bear tracks were left in the gravel around her body.

Officials hope to use DNA to match a bear with the killing, and were left yesterday to search for plausible causes for the highly unusual attack. Gilles Lamontagne, a biologist with the Quebec government wildlife agency, speculated that a bear may have pursued Ms. Miller to remove a perceived "intruder" from its turf.

The bear may also have targeted the woman as human prey, but that would be considered "extreme behaviour" for a bear, he said.

Ms. Miller, a resident of the Northwest Territories, won a bronze medal at the North American biathlon championship last year in Alberta, and performed for Canada at the 1997 World University Winter Games in South Korea. She was the top Canadian in the competition.

The last bear attack in Quebec claimed the life of a 12-year-old boy in 1983. He was part of a group that had gone camping in the La Vérendrye Provincial Reserve in western Quebec, north of Ottawa. A bear ripped into the boy's tent in the middle of the night, dragged him away and killed him.

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