It was a cold and hazy afternoon when Travis Kauffman set out on a scenic run through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado.
The 31-year-old runner told reporters that he ran up a nature trail earlier this month near Fort Collins and made his way to the top to take in the sights. But on his way down, he said, he ran into some ice on the trail, so he took a detour and hopped on West Ridge Trail at Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, a 2,700-acre park known for its hiking, biking and horseback riding trails.
Moments later, he said, he heard pine needles rustle behind him.
Then a stick snapped.
“I turned around and was just pretty bummed out to see a mountain lion chasing after me,” Kauffman said Thursday during a news conference.
Officials with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said earlier this month that Kauffman had been mauled by a “juvenile” mountain lion as he was running Feb. 4 on the West Ridge Trail. Officials had not publicly identified Kauffman at that time but said that he had fought free from the lion, managing to suffocate the young animal in self-defense.
Kauffman appeared at a news conference Thursday to tell it in his own words.
“Hey, everybody,” he greeted the reporters in the room. “Just a show of hands — who all is disappointed that I’m not, in fact, Chuck Norris?”
The runner recounted the terrifying moment the mountain lion lunged at him.
“I stopped, and I threw my hands up in the air, and I started shouting,” he told reporters, adding that he was not able to deter the animal. “So it just kind of kept running and lunged at me."
Kauffman said the lion lunged toward his face, so he threw up his fists for protection. But, he said, it did not work; the animal grabbed onto his hand and his wrist, then started to claw his face and neck, stabbing one claw through his lip.
"That’s when my fear response turned into more of a fight response,” he said.
He said he tried to throw the animal off himself, causing the two to take "a little tumble down the south side of the trail,” where they had a “wrestling match.” He said he climbed on top of the animal and was then able to "pin its back legs.”
At the same time, he said, he was grasping at sticks that were on the ground.
“I only had my left hand free; my right hand was still locked in its jaws. I tried to get at its neck to see if I could stab it in the neck to get it to release," he said. “That wasn’t working — the sticks were breaking.”
He grabbed a rock — one so heavy that “it was kind of hard to wield,” he said.
“I tried to give it a few bashes in the back of the head," he said. "Unfortunately, I just had a tough time swinging it with my arm still locked into the cat’s jaws.”
During his fight for survival, Kauffman said he could feel the lion’s tooth inside his hand — pressing on nerves and making his fingers feel “electric.” He said he could also feel its jaws grinding around his wrist and he could hear ligaments and tendons “shifting” in his arm.
Kauffman said that he knew he needed to do something drastic, explaining that he tried to shift his weight so that he could get his foot on the animal’s throat.
“I stepped on it, on its neck with my right foot,” Kauffman said, noting that each time he thought the animal was about to give up, “it’d start thrashing again.”
But eventually, the animal stopped moving.
“Then, jaws opened — and I was able to kind of scramble back up the hill and get the heck out of Dodge,” he said.
Following the incident, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) released tips for surviving mountain lion attacks — as well as important advice for the big cats.
“Don’t mess with Colorado trail runners,” he said in a statement at the time. “A runner near Fort Collins killed an attacking mountain lion with his bare hands. Don’t try this yourself on purpose, as it is likely to end poorly for you. If it does come to a fight, Target the eyes and nose. This gentleman managed to suffocate the attacking cat.”
Mountain lions are described as “calm, quiet and elusive,” and although attacks are not common in Colorado, their interactions with humans have increased in recent years because more people are moving into their habitat and using trails in those areas, according to information from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
In response to reports about aggressive mountain lions, state wildlife authorities trapped and killed three of them last month in Glenwood Springs, about 175 miles southwest of Horsetooth Mountain, according to the Citizen Telegram.
Over the past century, fewer than a dozen people have died in attacks in North America and, over the past several decades, only three people have died in Colorado, according to the agency.
“Most of the attacks were by young lions, perhaps forced out to hunt on their own and not yet living in established areas. Young lions may key in on easy prey, like pets and small children,” the agency said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife urges people to travel in groups when visiting lion country and to never approach a mountain lion in the wild.
If a camper, hiker or runner is confronted by a mountain lion, he or she is advised to “stay calm,” “stop or back away slowly” and “do all you can to appear larger,” such as raising your arms or opening your coat. Never run, crouch down or turn your back on the animal.
“Fight back if a lion attacks you,” the agency noted on its website. “Lions have been driven away by prey that fights back. People have fought back with rocks, sticks, caps or jackets, garden tools and their bare hands successfully. Remain standing or try to get back up!”
More than a week after Kauffman survived the brutal mountain lion attack — thrusting him into a national spotlight and earning praise from wildlife authorities for doing what he needed to do to make it out alive — he said Thursday the attention has been “pretty weird.”
“It’s kind of weird to feel kind of famous for an unearned reason,” Kauffman told reporters. “It’s very much like a situation of happenstance."