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California ultramarathon runner attacked by coyote near Golden Gate Bridge parking lot

San Francisco Chronicle 8/15/2022 By Rachel Swan
Dean Karnazes documenting his attack by a coyote that happened while he was running near the Golden Gate Bridge in an ultramarathon. © Provided By Dean Karnazes

Dean Karnazes documenting his attack by a coyote that happened while he was running near the Golden Gate Bridge in an ultramarathon.

It was nearly 3 a.m. and cloudless, the moon aglow over the Golden Gate Bridge, and Dean Karnazes was jogging breezily through the Marin Headlands, making good time on a 150-mile trail race.

That’s when the coyote attacked.

“It happened in a flash,” Karnazes said on Monday afternoon, still shaken from the startling encounter three days before.

The 59-year-old ultramarathon runner from Marin County had begun the Headlands Endurance Run last Thursday, his pack full of gels and energy bars, his clothes light and layered to withstand the wind-lashed ridges and the warm valleys. He had clocked about 40 miles and was just opening a granola bar when he crossed paths with the wild canine on a trail that wound down toward the west parking lot at the Golden Gate.

He heard ominous, “prancing” footsteps, he said, and barely had time to turn when a sturdy animal knocked him down, apparently enticed by the Clif bar and the food in his pack. Karnazes fell hard on his ribs and face, and heard the coyote snarling above him. In desperation, he waved one of the running poles he uses to stay upright and thrust himself up steep terrain, smacking the animal and scaring it away.

“What struck me,” he said, “was that it was healthy. I’ve seen hundreds of coyotes — even earlier in the day during the race — and most of them are scrawny and mangy. But this one was well fed.”

He later learned this particular parking lot was notorious for people feeding wild coyotes, a practice that makes the animals less wary and more likely to accost people for food.

“The message I’m trying to send out is we need to encourage people to stop feeding wild animals,” Karnazes said.

A spokesperson for the National Park Service was skeptical of Karnazes’ description of events, in part because it would be “very, very unusual for a coyote to initiate any kind of approach or charge of a human.” Park Service spokesperson Charlie Strickfaden noted, further, that in 2020 the agency placed distinct colored ear tags on several of the coyotes in Marin Headlands, to track and study their behavior. But they don’t have any ear tag observations from the alleged attack on Karnazes.

“We weren’t there but his statement after the incident would disagree with his description of the incident,” Strickfaden wrote in an email, after speaking with the U.S. park ranger who investigated the matter over the weekend. “He said that that coyote did not bite him but caused his fall.”

Nonetheless, Strickfaden said the agency never takes sides, “as public safety is always our first priority.”

The ambush early Friday morning was not the first time Karnazes said he had confronted a dangerous beast. Roughly 30 years ago, he was bitten by a shark while spearfishing in the Florida Keys, and in other instances, he said, a camel chased him as he ran in the Sahara desert, and he once stumbled upon a large bear while rambling down a trail in the Sierra Nevada, on a 100-mile race from Olympic Village to Auburn.

But of all those hair-raising brushes with the animal kingdom, the coyote attack left the most scars. Karnazes’ face is gashed, his ribs bruised and possibly broken, and his thumb black and blue from the fall.

He recorded an Instagram video shortly after it happened, still gasping for breath, a trail of blood running down his chin and staining his shirt.

“Kind of brutal,” he says in the video, staring into his cell phone camera with a disoriented and somewhat panicked expression. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do. But I guess I’ve got to keep going, or else it’ll probably come back for me.”

And for a while, he kept going — propelled partly by fear, but more strongly by a runner’s obsession with finishing the race, he later admitted.

“The stupidest thing was, I kept thinking, ‘I can finish the race,’” he recalled. “I kept following the race course. I just didn’t want to think about it, even when I felt some warm stuff on my jersey. Then the sun came up, and there were hikers on the trail and ... I was just covered in dirt and blood, moaning and hobbling, trying to keep forward momentum.”

At around dawn, near Muir Beach, some hikers persuaded him to turn back. Sensing defeat, Karnazes ran about 18 miles to get to his car, through the Tennessee Valley and Muir Woods, to the parking lot near Rodeo Beach, where his old black Lexus hybrid was sitting with a first aid kit inside.

Since then he has been convalescing at home in Kentfield, a small leafy-green town on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. He walks a mile a day to keep his muscles working and help recover from the ordeal. His ribs are sore and his face is still lacerated, “but my pride is beat up the worst,” he said, “because I didn’t finish the race.”

When race results are released, those who couldn’t stay the course are labeled “DNF,” for “Did not finish.” Committed runners have a saying, Karnazes said: “Death before DNF.”

He plans to hit the trail again soon.

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @rachelswan

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