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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   May 2009

Running With Dogs

If you're too self-conscious for a human running companion, hit the trails with a canine. Or two.

By Gaye Rock



Perhaps you couldn't really call what I did when I began "running," as most people can walk faster than I can run. I must say, I expected certain things from the sport of running: weight loss, boredom, pain and, well. . . punishment. I was in for quite a surprise, as it turns out. For me, it was shocking to find out how much is actually involved in the sport of running.

running dogs
The author hits the trail with her canine running companions.

First, there is the equipment. All you need is a pair of sneakers, right? Wrong. Once you begin, you need some measurable results of your progress, so you have to have a stopwatch. You also need a running log in which to record those times, which can be as low-tech or as high-tech as you please. And, of course, you have to have a personal music device — in my case, the Zen. (Highly recommended for low-tech persons like myself. Just press "on" and it plays. Backward and forward buttons. Easy to load your music. My kind of machine.) Add in an ankle brace and a selection of running clothes, a water bottle of some description, and a sweat rag — and don't forget some way to carry your car keys or house key. So now you're all loaded up (and loaded down).

I entered my first 5K with no training. I had never even walked 3.1 miles, let alone run it. I entered to prove that I was somewhat cured from a lengthy illness that had me bedridden for a few months.

So there I was with my earphones on, at the start of the race with all the professional runners: me in my mustard-stained "Star Trek Experience" T-shirt from Las Vegas, and the pro runners in their $300 Nike gear and $200 sneakers with their cardio-watches. I didn't need a heart monitor to know how fast my heart was beating — I have to tell you, I was scared!

I started out at a good clip (too fast, of course) and had to alternately walk and run the entire way. Everyone was passing me, even women with strollers! I gamely kept on, however.

We hit the big hill. I mean BIG hill. Foolishly, I thought that was my moment to gain an advantage: I ran up the thing. On the descent, I couldn't even wheeze, so I had to walk. Meanwhile, I was being passed right and left. That'll teach me.

In mile three, the road began to take on an odd quality. It seemed that the more footfalls I had, the longer the road stretched out. I was passed by a female octogenarian, and I vowed right then and there that if she ran in the race the next year, she was mine!

I could now see the final stretch in front of me, and grasped (and gasped!) that there was only about a minute remaining. I saw the timer, and it said 38:42. My goal was merely to finish the race without quitting, with no time in mind, but as long as I was close to the 40-minute mark, I decided to push it and finish in under 40:00. I began to sprint. A friend who came to watch began to run beside me for encouragement, and I did finish exactly at 40:00. My first race was over! Hallelujah, I did it! Could I speak? No. Could I walk? No. Was I proud of myself? Heck, yeah!

Since then I have entered about 20 races, with varying degrees of success. "Success" in my book means not finishing last in the race. The best I have done is about 15th from last in the running category, which is many steps up from where I began. I am careful to enter only races that offer walking, as well as running, categories, because the walkers will inevitably finish behind me.

But my form, my shape and my enthusiasm have all improved. I actually enjoy the physicality I possess in my 40s, compared with a lot of my contemporaries. I like to think of myself as relatively in-shape, even though I can't do flips and cartwheels anymore. It gives me an edge even when doing yard work and the stamina to do housework all day. I am told I have the energy of a 25-year-old (I'd like to know if that's mentally or physically!). But hey, when you're approaching 50, you take all the encouragement you can get.



I have discovered a new brand of running music since moving to the New Mexico mountains. When I lived on the East Coast, I needed everything with a fast beat — the louder the better, anything to drown out the pain I was feeling and the unending boredom of rotating around the same three-quarter-mile park trail where I ran. Since trail running in the mountains, however, I have reverted to what I call "simple nature music": that would be John Denver, Indigo Girls and the like. The beat, believe it or not, usually matches my running cadence, and I am calmed by the lyrics and simplicity of the music. The innocent beauty I am able to see around me in the mountains calms me, too, and I find a rhythm easily as I run my 5K.

My dogs always go with me. Kristy, in particular, lives for the run. She's lost 10 pounds since we started trail running — more than me, sad to say. The unadulterated joy upon her face as she starts in on the run, followed by her unequal but consistent cadence (she has arthritis) lets me know she is having the time of her life. I would do well to remember her mental attitude as I approach the steep grade that occurs in the last mile of the course I laid out. We are well-matched in terms of stamina and endurance. I guess that's because we're just about the same age, if you count hers in dog years.

Buck, my rangy Great Dane mix, does 10K for every 5K I put down. He runs the perimeter in circles, keeping me safe. If he had a theme song for runs, it would be Billy Preston's "Will It Go Round in Circles." Kristy is more the "Rocky Theme — Gonna Fly Now" type. Kristy is a great coach, encouraging me by running back to pick me up when I start to walk. I am never lonely on these runs, as I used to be when forced to run on concrete in the park.

Kristy, in particular, amazes me. She is about 90 percent blind, from an eye disease common to German Shepherds. This fact does not dampen her enthusiasm for going out and about in any way. In fact, she is probably enjoying it more than most, as the smells of the forest probably overwhelm her senses and the contour of the land challenges her feet and legs. Despite her arthritis, prior to the run she stretches fore and aft like a pro, revving up for the athletic undertaking she adores. As we travel on, she "marks" every time we turn a corner — a sort of "map" if you will, to return us safely home the way we came.

She is quite familiar with the running course, but runs in and out of the bushes and trees for some extra enjoyment. I get a little anxious when my eyes can't actually find her, and so I have devised a method of calling her that she understands: I clap my hands five or six times, and she knows that's for her. She comes happily trotting out of the forest, tongue lolling out, tail high and waving, rejoining me on my plodding path.

Buck gets something quite different out of the daily excursion. He can't wait to get started, like Kristy, but as soon as I set foot into the actual forest, I'm not likely to see him for the entire run. I will, however, hear him, as his collar and tags jingle merrily along. I have noticed that the hawks and ravens often circle above him, as he rouses rabbits and grouse alike from their resting spots under the trees. He thinks it a great game to chase a hare about 100 yards; then he loses interest and is on to the next challenge (at which point the hawk takes over!).



Once, I took a new path, and got a little lost. I also lost sight and hearing of both dogs. I called for Buck, and he came bounding along. I politely told him I was lost, and could he a) locate Kristy and b) get us home safely? No problem, said he, and did both in the order requested. It turned out we were all separated by about three-quarters of a mile, but he rounded us up, and took us back to a path we were familiar with. This is the reason why you shouldn't run in the forest without a dog: They always know the way home!

It amazes me that they never get exasperated by my crawling pace, that their enthusiasm never wanes for the outing. One would think that since their speed is much greater, the pace would bore them to tears. On the contrary, I find them to be great encouragers. Kristy will always match my pace, and waits for me, should I lag behind too far. With a "come on" jerk of her head, she gives me the extra impetus to proceed.

The first race I ran in Grant County, my husband brought Kristy along as a spectator. I was dying in mile three from the high-altitude change, as we had moved here less than a month prior from a 400-foot altitude. Suddenly, my husband ran alongside me and handed me Kristy's leash with a quarter-mile to go. I received a new burst of energy, as she looked up at me, running happily along, and we crossed the finish line together. She received a lot of attention, and I am told she was the first canine finisher they ever had! My time: 34:27. At least I wasn't last, but only due to Kristy's help. Not bad for an altitude change of 5,500 feet.

So in conclusion, I urge you to get a running companion. If you, like me, are too shy to run with another human for fear of ridicule, a shelter dog makes an enthusiastic partner, one who will definitely keep you motivated (they don't let you sit on the couch). They don't care what you wear. They don't mind what the weather is, or where you go, as long as you're together and enjoying nature. And no one said you had to run — walking suits them just fine. Just be prepared to go a little faster than you're used to! Isn't it a wonderful compliment to the animal kingdom that dogs don't care if you are overweight, slow, dressed funny, walk or run? They just enjoy the pure exercise and enjoyment of camaraderie when you "gear up" to go out.

Kristy is now in training for the first annual Rock Center "Run With Your Pet" race. She may even bring her sister, Star, a horse we recently adopted. Star has been out on the running trail with us, a new trotting partner. She is getting adjusted to running with a woman and her two jogging dogs, and not stopping for a snack of juniper berries!



Gaye Rock operates the Rock Center in Silver City, offering animal communication as well as Reiki treatment for people and animals, 956-5200, porto6281@aznex.net




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