Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Dangers of Trail Racing – Part 1

This blog post is brought to you by popular demand. After my little adventure down into Buck Gully, a couple of my twitter friends/bloggers and I started talking about some of the dangers of trail running. Of course, the discussion quickly centered around that which makes us the most uncomfortable – wildlife. And I don’t mean party animals.

I thought I would dedicate a few posts to dealing with some of the dangers of trail running. I come at this not from an expert trail runner’s perspective, but from the years spend hiking, climbing, fishing, hunting and backpacking.

In today’s episode I’ll talk about the thing waaaaay least likely to happen – an encounter with a wild animal. Face it. Wild animals aren’t common. Heck, when I was a young’un and went hunting, I never had an animal get close enough to me to require me to take the rifle off my shoulder. Yet for some reason, we are all deathly afraid of coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and bears.

Coyotes and bobcats: My last coyote encounter was on El Moro Ridge about a year ago. We have a family of bobcats that live in the Back Bay, and we had mom bobcat on our back yard deck about four months ago. These are animals that look for easy pickings. Fido’s food bowl. Princess’s dry cat food. Trash that didn’t quite make it into the trash can. Or if they’re lucky – Fido and/or Princess. They aren’t looking for you and me. They will attack us only if they are cornered and have no other options for flight. So, if you run into one of these beasts on the trail, just make a lot of noise and make sure they see you. They will run a lot more willingly than your neighbor’s pit bull.

By the way, here’s a recent (5/21) story about our family of Bobcats here in Newport Beach:,0,2470898.story

Bears: I’ll start with a caveat emptor here. In California we have wimpy black bears. No grizzlies. Grizzlies *are* serious animals that can and will lay the hurt on. If you are running/hiking where there are grizzly bears (e.g., in the Rockies), check with the local authorities about grizzly sightings. In places like Yellowstone National Park, warnings will be posted and trails may be closed if the grizzlies are active.

That being said, I’ve had four bear encounters in my life. One was from the comfort of my car (although I almost hit the dang thing as it ran across the road). The other three though were face to face encounters. And I’m still here to talk to you all. But with bears things can get a little dicey. These guys are bigger than Wiley or Bonkers. They will stand up to you to protect their bounty – whether  it’s your ice chest or trash they’ve dragged out of the dumpster (I once encountered Yogi face to face when I went to throw away our household garbage in a condo’s dumpster in Mammoth).

In those cases where they stand up to you – your action is pretty simple. Stop, face the animal and back away slowly. If you are carrying trash, drop it. They are after an easy handout. Don’t make any threatening moves. Don’t run away. Don’t make eye contact (bears consider eye contact a threat). Do yell or scream. Do puff up and become “big”. Lift your arms. Throw rocks and sticks while backing away. These are all normal responses to being scared. Keep your wits. Yogi is not interested in eating you – he is just interested in protecting his hard earned  bounty.

There is an exception to this though. Mother bears are very protective of their cubs. Try to avoid getting between a mother bear and its cubs. If you see a cub, you can be sure that the mother is close by. Stop. DO NOT continue moving. Survey the situation. Mother bear is close by. See if you can find mother bear. If you see her, try to determine if you have an escape route. If you are on a trail move off the trail and away from the two (or three – bears often have litters of multiple cubs).

Talk about feeling uneasy – one of my bear encounters was seeing a cub while backpacking in Yosemite. We never did see mother bear. We slowly backtracked a mile or so, where we stopped for an hour. Seemed like a good point for a lunch break.

And just in case you think we don’t have bears in Los Angeles – this article from 4 days ago:

Mountain lions: Here things get even diceyer. Mountain lions are capable predators that are at the top of the food chain. In the right situation (for them) they will view us as food. Luckily for us, mountain lions are solitary animals that require large ranges to support themselves. A typical cougar may travel and defend a range of up to 100 square miles. They do not take kindly to other cougars in their territory. The bottom line is because of their solitary nature and need for large ranges to support themselves, the probability of running into one in the wild is *extremely* rare. In fact, many people who *say* they have run into a mountain lion, most probably ran into a bobcat. There is some resemblance:

114527960-25112659 cougar

There are three big differences. #1 the tail - a bobcat (on the left) has a short stubby tail compared to a mountain lion’s long bushy tail. #2 color – the bobcat has a mottled appearance compared to a mountain lion’s sandy coloring. #3 – sleuth – a mountain lion is probably stalking you – it is just so *highly unlikely* that you would ever see one. He would see you – size up whether you are worth the trouble attacking (driven primarily by how hungry the cougar may be), and then leave for easier prey, before you ever realize that it was there.

So, how do you protect yourself or someone when confronted by a mountain lion? If you actually see the lion, then it’s as surprised as you are. Stop. Don’t turn and run. Yell. Make yourself bigger. Stare the sucker down and make eye contact. Then slowly back away – facing the cat the entire time. When safe to do so (after the cat has turned itself), backtrack your steps. Let the authorities know about your encounter.

What happens if you are attacked and you’re alone? Make sure you roll onto your back and face the attacking animal. A cougar kills its prey by placing razor sharp teeth in between its victim’s vertebrae and slicing the spinal cord. Your only chance is rolling on your back and facing your attacker so it can’t get to your spinal cord. Ladies – if you’ve taken a self defense course go back to your training. Gouge eyes. Rip noses. Kick gonads. Scream. Then once the cat is off you – try the best you can to leave the area and look for help. If you simply lay there, the cat will be back for what it thinks are easy pickings.

It’s also important to know what to do if a cat attacks someone in your group. There is one word. Fight. The second cyclist’s friend was able to get the cat off her riding friend by hitting it with a log. Multiple times. In another case, a man’s wife was able to beat the cat off her husband (wow, she must really love the guy) by taking a ballpoint pen and jabbing the cat in its eye. Bottom line is a lion is not going to give up a meal easily. Use what ever is there to beat it into submission. Rocks. Sticks. Make the meal more trouble that it’s worth. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Your friend’s life depends on it.

As runners we have another thing going against us in lion country. The fact that we are running may entice a mountain lion to attack. Mountain lions have an instinct to chase. Watching an unsuspecting runner *may* trigger the instinct to attack. In fact, the last mountain lion attack here in Orange County occurred in 2004 when a mountain biker was attacked and killed and another attacked and injured within hours the same day by the same lion. In the first case experts theorized that the cyclist was bent over his bike fixing a chain when the cat attacked. In the second case, the cyclist was riding past the hidden body when the cat attacked to probably protect his prey.

Why was one killed when one survived? Rider #1 was alone in mountain lion country. He didn’t stand a chance. Rider #2 on the other hand was riding with a friend who was able to fight the cat off her friend. There’s a message here. If you’re in mountain lion country, it behooves you to *not* run alone. And parents – if you are herding your small kids – you *are* alone.

And yes – we have mountain lions here in orange county:

In Summary

It’s not my intention to scare you out of trail running so I can have them to myself. But here’s the honest truth - since 1890, 16 people have been attacked and 6 killed by cougars in California. Forty were taken to the hospital in the 2010 L.A Marathon and 3 died in the Detroit Marathon in 2009. Are mountain lions really the threat we all imagine them to be?

Also – ask all of your friend who are trail runners when the last time they faced up with a mammal larger than a rabbit and smaller than a human. Some may have run into a cow at one point in time…..

But, by taking a few precautions, we can make ourselves safer on our local trails. Unlike what I did in Buck Gully last week. And yes. The thought *did* cross my mind. Rawrrrr!

Next in this series – smaller than a shoebox and probably more dangerous than a cougar (and guys – not the single 40 year old kind).


  1. That's a lot of good info. So I guess it is always good to "puff" oneself up to appear larger when confronted by an animal but never turn and run. Also, is that not look a bear in the eyes but do look a mountain lion in the eyes. I can see where I could get in trouble if I mixed the two up.

  2. Here's what we have local in Colorado on our trails: Rattlesnakes, Coyotes, Bobcats, Bears, Lynx (up higher), and Mountain Lions. We see the first 4 frequently enough to be on alert for them. Came face to face with a sow and 2 cubs in our park near home on a run - laundry time!! Most likely, though, our biggest threat is the rattlers but because of our altitude, there are only a couple of trail areas where they are prevalent. Nice post!

  3. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Why I mostly stay in the concrete jungle.

  4. GREAT post! Thanks for writing! You did have me terrified until you put it into perspective at the end. Looking forward to the next installment!

  5. diamondbacks, gilo monster and scorpions are the must to avoid running trails here. although I have stepped on a few scorpions while running the concrete. they make a pretty noticable crunching sound when stepped on. much smaller than you expect as well. have yet run into snake here. eastern washington while hiking and fishing two on seperate occasion. plus one sasquatch siting.

  6. the most I've encountered in all my time of trail running were coyotes, deer, hare and a shitload of lizards. but my biggest fear is a mountain lion. probably crap my pants.

    this is all good stuff Glenn. thanks for sharing.

  7. Great info - in Maine we have Moose, bear, coyotes, bobcat, Lynx ...depending on who you talk to, we have mountain lions...or we don't. I think it is more scary to see a moose than a bear or anything else - I have been charged by a moose more than once (during their rut in the fall usually), and have seen many bear (black bear) who have always turned tail and ran. When coyotes pack up, it is a bit unnerving when they seem to be following you. Your point about the number of folks who died in the LA marathon vs Mountain Lion attacks is a great one.

  8. Great post, Glenn!

    Some more innocuous trail encounters - just yesterday on my run, I was dive-bombed by nesting red-winged blackbirds (they are harmless, but they think they are tough), and I had to dodge a few large snapping turtles that were up on the trail looking for places to lay their eggs (these guys are scary, but I know I can outrun them!).

  9. We used to see a lot of coyotes in our prior neighborhood, but they were looking for food, not us.

    This gave me plenty to thing about. There have been mountain lion attacks in our county. It's scary, but it's good to always be on the defense.,

  10. THanks for all of the cool animal information Glenn. I have since, slackened on my trail running since there are mountain lions in my area. Not the only reason, as I am training for marathon now. No time for trails except as to hike or whatever. The only animal I see on my runs now are cows. lol. Take care and thanks again.

  11. Great post, Glenn. I live next to popular trails and see a lot of coyote and deer but not any bobcats or mountain lions, thankfully. You're right too - I think most people confuse the two cats. I also lived in Alaska and had a couple of bear encounters. Man, those animals are big.

  12. Thank you very much for putting this post together for us, Glenn. Great information and a lot of things I'd never considered.

  13. Hi Glenn,
    If I came face to face with several of those mentioned critters it would scare the crap out of me. I would not know what to do...I would need to take a class:) Interesting post Glenn! Take care:)

  14. Wait, is this supposed to make me want to trail run because I like animals? Or make me scared?

    I HEARD YOU RAN THE L.H. 1/2?!??!?
    How did you do?!

  15. this is definitely one of my fears of trail running... although one of my biggies is snakes! gross.

    course then you also hear about people being kidnapped/etc on trails and that's not all that settling either.

    if only i was a guy.... so much easier :)

  16. Thanks for the great post. I have starred it in my Google reader so I can pass it along to friends.

    I have encountered my share of coyotes and one bob cat. I was just talking with a friend about mountain lions. We agreed that we should probably run together on the trails around here. I hope that they like rabbits because there are a TON of them, which should be easy pickin's for hungry lions.

  17. haha!!, wimpy and bears should never be in the same sentence. That is sort of like saying... "Yeah, he got shot, but it was only with a small bullet"

    IN az I'm more worried about snakes. Everything else I'm confident I could fight off.

  18. Great post! Closest I have ever got to any of these was a coyote although there are frequent sightings of a mountain lion around here...I am about a mile from the Santa Monicas.

    Plenty of snakes though...I guess that's part 2?