“If I don’t get up I’m dead.”
That was my thought as I lay on my back, one dog biting into my calf and another circling around toward the back of my head. I had to get up. I had to fight. Fortunately, when the two 140-pound dogs attacked me, my mountain bike fell on top of me. I punched the dog above my head in the nose, pushed the other one back with my bike, and then got to my feet and started swinging the bike at the dogs until they retreated. As I limped away with deep puncture wounds to my arm and leg, I was scared but alive. Fortunately, that attack was a few years ago, but it led me to reflect on the vulnerabilities endurance athletes face as we train, and how to prepare for them.
Perspective is the most important thing. Animal attacks are exceedingly rare. The vast majority of animals you encounter will either be friendly pets or wildlife that doesn’t want anything to do with you. In over 40 years as a road cyclist, mountain biker, and hiker, I can count the number of dangerous animal encounters I’ve faced on one hand. The risk is very low, but it still pays to learn what to do – and what not to do – in those rare situations when you are in danger.
As a result of my run-in with the dogs, I decided to compile a handy resource guide to dealing with a wide range of animal encounters, for myself as much as for you.
Dogs can be territorial and protective of their owner, and they love a chase. As an athlete, that puts you in their crosshairs. Virtually all road cyclists have been chased by a dog as you pass its yard, and typically the chase ends at the property line. They’ve done their job, protected their territory, and you can go on your way. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. The dogs that attacked me were unrestrained on the owners’ property and ran to where I was on the public dirt road to my cabin.
Sometimes on trails dogs get aggressive when you approach their owner at high speed. They are being protective. In this instance slowing down and getting the owner’s attention is the best way to show the dog you are not a threat and get the owner to take control of the animal.
The most problematic scenario is encountering an aggressive dog when you cannot outsprint it (going uphill) and the owner is nowhere in sight. At this point, offense is your best defense. Summon your loudest yell. Bark back at it (weird, but it works). Squirt it with a water bottle. If those tactics don’t work you will most likely also be out of breath and subsequently unable get away. Now it’s time for weapons.
The goal of using your bike, frame pump, backpack, stick, or rocks is not to injure the animal; your goal is to maintain space between you and dog. Get off your bike and keep it between you and the dog. Continue to assert yourself. In my research I have found conflicting advice as to what to do in response to a full-on attack. Some say fight back and others say play dead so the dog loses interest. It appears to be a matter of degrees: if you are able to fight, fight. But if the attack is overwhelming, play dead.
I’ve heard and read about people using all manner of strategies against aggressive dogs, including frame pumps, air horns, pepper spray, and even guns. Honestly, in my experience, I’ve never had time to reach for anything more than a water bottle, and I’m not inclined to carry an air horn, pepper spray, or a gun on the unlikely chance I might encounter an aggressive dog.
I hit a deer while descending a mountain bike trail last year and broke my collarbone. Deer are rarely aggressive, but next to dogs they are probably the animals you’re most likely to encounter. Bucks can be aggressive during mating season (fall) and does can be aggressive if fawns are threatened. The biggest threat from a deer is a collision, and the best way to avoid a collision is to see the deer as early as possible. That’s why it is important to maintain a long sight distance down the trail or road, and to scan side to side. Dropping your head or staring at the white line on the road ahead is not a good idea in deer country.
Mountain lion attacks hit close to home for me for two reasons. I live in an area where there are a lot of mountain lions, and about 16 years ago a friend and former CTS employee was killed by a mountain lion while mountain biking after he moved to California. Mountain lion attacks are far more rare than dog attacks, and typically only sick or old mountain lions bother with humans. If you encounter a mountain lion, the standard guidance is to continue facing the animal, make yourself appear as large as possible, make noise, and slowly back away. Don’t run, don’t crouch down, and don’t turn your back on the lion. If the lion advances, throw rocks and sticks, and continue yelling at it. If you do get attacked, fight like hell.
In the US, there are probably more than two types of bears but there are really only two categories of bears: grizzly bears and everything else. Your standard black bears don’t want anything to do with a person. Give them a wide berth and they’ll go on their way. A mother with cubs is a different story, but still a wide berth is your best bet. For an endurance athlete, the greatest risk is surprising a black bear as you run or ride on a trail. With rare exception, a black bear will take off running. If that doesn’t happen, stop and make yourself as big as possible, stand your ground, and make noise.
Grizzly bears are far more dangerous than black bears, but thankfully they are only found in the northern Rocky Mountain region. If you’re wondering what kind of bear you’re dealing with, look for a hump at the shoulders. Grizzlies have the hump, black bears don’t. This guide from Outside Magazine provides concise guidance about dealing with different grizzly bear behaviors.
Moose and Elk
If your only experience with moose is “Rocky and Bullwinkle”, I have news for you: they’re no joke. A bull moose or elk is a 2000-pound animal with hooves and antlers, programmed to assert dominance over his territory and females. They are fast and can be very aggressive, especially with calves around or during mating season. The guidance around moose and elk encounters is the opposite of encounters with predators like mountain lions or bears. They are herbivores and just want to be left alone. Give them plenty of space, including backing away, and they are likely to leave you alone. Watch for signs of stress, including raised hackles, like on a dog, and pinned back ears. They may also toss their heads and swing their antlers in a show of force. If a moose or elk approaches in this manner, run for cover to get something like a tree or rock between you and the animal. If you are attacked, curl into a ball and try to protect your head and spine. You may get stomped and raked by antlers, but the animal will stop when you are deemed to be no longer a threat. Stay down once the attack has stopped, as getting up too soon may lead to a renewed attack.
In Colorado we have our share of rattlesnakes, one of four types of venomous snakes found in the United States. The others are cottonmouths (water moccasins), copperheads, and coral snakes. Overall, the risk of a snakebite is extremely low, and the risk of death is even lower. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are 7,000-8,000 venomous snake bites per year, but on average only about 5 people die from snakebites annually. A higher percentage (10-44%), however, sustain lasting injury or disability as a result of the bite.
The greatest risk to endurance athletes is encountering a venomous snake on a trail or when scrambling or climbing off trail. They are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, meaning they need energy from the environment to warm up. As a result, runners and cyclists often encounter snakes in the morning, basking in the sun on roadsides, bike paths, and trails. The good news is that they also move slowly when they’re cold. They spend the warm parts of the day in the shade, which is why people get bitten while climbing, scrambling, and moving rocks and branches.
The best defense against snakes is to leave them alone. Give them a wide berth, and don’t attempt to move them. Although it’s an old study (I didn’t find anything newer), researchers found that more than half of rattlesnake bites occurred when people were handling the snake, and that 85% of bites were to the hands and fingers, with only 12% to the ankle or foot. So, just leave them be.
According to the CDC, the best things to do if you’re bitten are to stay calm (to keep heartrate low) and get to a hospital so they can administer antivenin. They explicitly do not recommend cutting the wound, sucking out the venom, applying a tourniquet, or using ice. Remove constrictive clothing, as the wound site may swell, and keep the wound at or below heart level.
Most of all, be aware
Getting out into the wilderness is one of the greatest pleasures of being an endurance athlete, and awareness is your greatest defense against an unpleasant encounter with wildlife. If you are in an area populated by wildlife that could pose a threat to you, the best thing you can do is notice an animal before it notices you. This gives you the best opportunity to give it the space it desires and back away whenever possible. Situational awareness is the biggest reason I discourage athletes from wearing headphones. Hearing is perhaps the most important sense of all when it comes to road cycling, mountain biking, running, or hiking. If I can ride up to within three feet behind you on a mountain bike without you hearing me, you are oblivious to anything going on around you. That puts you at significantly greater risk, not from me, but from an animal, or even a person who wants to do you harm.
Be aware, be safe, and have fun.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS