Marathon runner attacked by bear, plays dead to survive

A marathon runner took to Facebook over the weekend to recount the horrifying story of how she was attacked by a black bear while nearing the finish line of an organized mountain race in New Mexico, only to be saved by her decision to play dead.

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Karen Williams of Los Alamos, New Mexico, was competing Saturday in the marathon portion of the Valles Caldera Runs event in the Valles Caldera National Preserve when, after cresting over a hill, she came upon a black bear and her three cubs, startling the bears and sending the mama bear into attack mode.

The mauling left Williams with a handful of cuts and puncture wounds, an orbital fracture and a torn right eyelid but by some miracle, her injuries were not life-threatening, and Williams is expected to make a full recovery.

“I was at mile 23.5 per [my] Garmin and coming up a little rise just before that terrible off-trail uphill. There was some sort of seep or pond or mucky area at the top of that little hill and when I topped it a bear was charging me,” Williams wrote on Facebook about the attack.

“She was about 15 [feet] away. I raised my arms and yelled ‘NO!’ then saw the cub. Then I was on my ass and being raked with claws and bitten. I cried out in pain and Mama bear did not like that so she hit me with a left hook and bit my neck and started to try to shake me.”

“I rolled into a ball and played dead,” Williams continued. “She went off about 25 – 30 feet and stopped at the base of a tree and huffed at her cub that was up about 30 feet. The cub cried a bit while trying to get down the tree. Mama bear kept glancing my way to make sure that I was still ‘dead’. I was at that point afraid I might die. I didn’t know what the wound on my neck was like because I did not move for fear she would come wail on me some more.”

According to Williams’ post, she continued to lay on the trail for roughly 30 minutes until she was discovered by another group of marathon runners, who quickly sprang to her aid, calling in rescue teams while working to help comfort Williams. Williams was airlifted to a nearby hospital and released on Sunday.

marathon runner attacked by black bear
While black bears are common to the area, authorities in New Mexico say they rarely come into conflict with humans. Photo: Courtesy of Jitze Couperus/Flickr

Officials with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish told the Canadian Press that attacks by bears in the state are very unusual (Williams’ was the first this year). Furthermore, they stated that it was incredibly lucky that Williams’ decision to play dead was actually successful, stating that the proper way to respond when encountering a bear is to make as much noise as possible and slowly back away from the animal.

"It's such a rarity for the person to play dead and for it to work out," Lance Cherry, a spokesman for the department, said. "The idea is to be as big as you can."

Following the attack, wildlife officials tracked down and euthanized the mama bear on Sunday. They are still in the process of searching for her cubs in the hopes of bringing them to a rehabilitation center.

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