Travis Kauffman knows if he had been wearing headphones on his run to Horsetooth Rock, he never would have heard the rustling of pine needles that made him turn his head.
He never would have locked eyes with the mountain lion that had been trailing him and he definitely wouldn't have been prepared for the fight that left him badly slashed and the young cat dead.
Kauffman told his story at a packed press conference in Fort Collins on Thursday. The event was arranged by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Kauffman, who is 5’10” and 150 pounds, joked that people would be disappointed to discover he isn’t built like Chuck Norris.
On Feb. 4, Kauffman had planned a 12- to 15-mile run from Lory State Park to Horsetooth Rock. Six miles into that route along the ice-covered trails west of Fort Collins is where he heard that rustling.
"One of my worst fears was confirmed," he said Thursday, recounting the moment when he turned his head and spotted a young mountain lion about 10 feet from him. "I was pretty bummed out."
Though he tried to make himself big and loud, the lion just came closer, finally lunging as Kauffman put up his hands to protect his face and began to scream his “barbarian yell.” The cat buried its fangs into Kauffman’s right wrist and clamped down. Kauffman’s efforts to throw the animal off his arm sent the two barreling off the trail and into a frantic wrestling match.
"There was a point where I wasn't sure if I was going to make it out of there," Kauffman said.
Kauffman said he was then able to harness a calm that he believes likely saved his life. He took care to avoid its hind legs when it fell on its back and began thrashing — something he’d learned from his house cat, Obie. After attempts to stab the lion with sticks failed, he grabbed a rock instead.
"After I hit it on the head with a rock, it started grinding its teeth," Kauffman said, adding that he could feel one tooth puncture his palm and hit a nerve "over and over again." It was then that he realized he would have to kill the animal to get away.
With his right wrist still caught in the lion’s jaws and his left leg pinning its hindquarters, Kauffman placed his right foot over the animal’s throat. He pressed down until the lion was still and his arm was free.
Kauffman then scrambled back up to the trail and began the three mile trek back to the trailhead as quickly as he could.
“One of my big fears throughout the whole thing was another cat coming along cause it was a younger cat and I was just very concerned that mom was gonna come out of nowhere and at that point that fight would be over pretty quickly,” Kauffman said.
On his way back, even though he was still full of fear and adrenaline from the attack, Kauffman said he was also hyper-aware. Several times he spotted lion tracks along the trail that he wished he would have noticed on his way up.
Kauffman was helped on his return by others he met on the trail, including a couple who gave him a ride to Poudre Valley Hospital where he arrived “a bloody mess.”
The attack left Kauffman with a gash across his face, puncture wounds and scratches on his body, a mangled wrist and more than 20 stitches.
At the press conference, Kauffman wore same blue pullover he’d had on during the attack. Kauffman said he doesn’t think his instincts were extraordinary and brushes off this "modern day man vs. nature scenario" off as an instance of “happenstance.”
"It is weird getting all this attention. It's kind of weird to feel kind of famous for an unearned reason," Kauffman said. "I will never be able to live up to the reputation. The story is bigger than my puny form."
Wildlife officials later found the lion’s remains. Though it had already been scavenged by other animals, they estimated it to be around 30-45 pounds and likely male. After the attack, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Larimer County Natural Resources officials closed Horsetooth Mountain Open Space temporarily to assess mountain lion activity in the area.
Two young lions officials believe to be siblings of the lion killed in the Feb. 4 attack were captured on cameras placed along the trail. These lions were trapped and moved to a wildlife rehab facility and officials plan to release them back into the wild.
As far as Kauffman’s future as a trail runner goes? Though he’s feeling less confident in the wild and will no longer run alone, Kauffman said he doesn’t plan to quit any of the outdoor activities that drew him to Colorado in the first place five years ago. He’s continuing to train for the Golden Gate Dirty 30 and hopes that his will serve as a cautionary tale for others.
“Fully appreciate the sights and sounds of nature,” he warned. “And be aware that you are sharing that space with wildlife.”