Everything I Needed to Learn About Running I Learned From My Dog

I signed up for a local, July half-marathon a few months ago, to force myself to increase my mileage so I would have a decent base for training for my first marathon on October 30. This is when you should assume that I probably was dropped on my head as a child.

Early on the morning of the race, as I gathered up running gear, our dogs, Henry and Claire, assumed I was going to go for a run with them.  Claire followed me around and sat on my running shoes.  Henry stayed on the bed, looking bright-eyed but concerned. I had to tell Claire that we wouldn’t be running today and Henry just looked at me, with an expression I couldn’t quite read.

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Henry has been my running companion for nearly ten years.  He was there for every painful new mile, every rare attempt at speed work (using the term VERY loosely), and every run in the snow.

Me in snow with H and Claire cropped out

Ears back, eyes bright, showing tons of white teeth, he’d pull at me for the first five miles or so, until he’d settle in right next to me.  He learned left, right, and move-over voice commands.  He met every dog in the neighborhood, with delight, and was genuinely hurt when, on one gorgeous Spring day, years ago, a mean dog lurched out and drew blood from both of us.

But in the last few weeks, as we’ve headed out in the early morning with our four-legged running companions, Henry has done so poorly that he’s had to go back home after a quarter of a mile.  But, still, he enjoyed the complicated and time-honored ritual of preparing for the run…and then he got to go back home almost immediately and get a treat…while Gary, Claire, and I then headed back out.  He seems to be adjusting to this new ritual, but it still makes me sad.

At 14-1/2 years of age, I think Henry has wisely accepted his limitations, knowing that the last ten years of running has helped him make it to the age he is, in otherwise good health and in high spirits.  Henry, quite simply, is the best.

A week before the half, I had my second, good, 10-mile run, experimenting with a run/walk interval of 4:1.  All systems appeared to be Go.  I had gas in my tank at the end of 10 miles and recovered quickly the same day.  My only purpose for running the half was to use it as a training run, to see how 13.1 miles with intervals would feel.  Even my nagging left hip problem, which always kicked in while I was ramping up, was at bay.

What could possibly go wrong?

While there are those who fear the fine art of tapering, I am not one of them.  I am perfectly happy not running, and working longer hours instead.  Sad, isn’t it?  My idea of tapering is having just one martini and laying off of the tortilla chips for a few days beforehand.  And I throw myself into hydrating the day before the race, just like I floss for eight hours before going to the dentist.

I posted on Facebook that I was running this half for Henry and then drove to the race start at our local baseball stadium.  Henry didn’t bother to get up when we left.

On the way to the race, as usual, Gary and I talked about what our goals were for our races; how this day, we were both just going out for training runs.  Sounded good to me.

The Weather Gods smiled on us all the way through the race.  Overcast, high 60s or so, threatening skies, perfect; couldn’t have asked for more from a July day.  But I’ve run long enough to know that no matter what you’ve done before stepping over the start line, anything can happen from then-on out.  Yep.  The minute the race started, I knew something wasn’t right.  I felt like I had never run before in my entire, lengthy life.

I wasn’t overly anxious about the race, so I don’t think it was nerves.  I had eaten a decent meal the night before and gotten a reasonable night’s sleep.  I even splurged on new Wright socks that I totally loved, as much as anyone can love their socks.  OK, admittedly, I should be 15 pounds lighter but, hey, that’s nothing new this year.  But no, something was just off.

It took me a while to settle into an easy pace, but I eventually did, trading spots with a girl I nicknamed “China” because that’s what it said on the back of her t-shirt.  Truly Chinese, with braids down below her waist, China and I leapfrogged each other until I passed her for good, or so I thought, around mile 5.

This race is on our local Greenbelt, an asphalt trail that follows the lovely Boise River for many miles.  So, on a Saturday morning, you can see all types of people and dogs on the Greenbelt.  As I passed China, I couldn’t help but think of the heartless Ragnar Relay terminology of tracking your “kills” as you pass people.  From the other end of the spectrum, I think I’ve proven the existence of reincarnation, by coming back to life after each time I’ve been killed.  But today, other than China and a few others, my “kills” were mostly limited to elderly couples with small, yappy dogs, and chatty women my age, clutching large lattes and strolling down the path.  Exactly what I should be doing, if I had any sense at all.

I love to watch the winners of the race blast by me going the other way, on this out-and-back course.  The winner looked happier than most, smiling and running his heart out.  “Way to go!” came out of my mouth automatically as he and his close followers blasted by.  It’s such a true pleasure to watch good runners.  I clapped for the female leaders and, occasionally, locked eyes with a few of them.  As they blew by, while I was thinking “Wow, I wonder if I ever could have run like that when I was your age,” they were probably thinking, “Wow, I hope I never run that slowly, at any age.”

But anytime I feel bad about my running, I always have to remember John Bingham’s famous line, as the patron saint of older runners:

John Bingham courage to start

Anyway, around mile 6, the old, left hip started complaining.  Not loudly, just letting me know that it was there.  The transitions from running to walking became more painful, but by the end of the minute of walking, my hip felt okay again. All right, I said.  This is no big deal.  I can do this.

Not long before the turn, I saw a friend running toward me, ahead of me, as usual.  She looked like she was in the groove and running strong.  Her very funny blog about Tapering should be in the next issue of Runners World, no doubt.  I smiled, waved, and pushed on.  I had also counted several older women running toward me, probably close to my age, looking intense, skinny, and quite a bit like Jane Fonda.  I wouldn’t be seeing them again, anytime soon.

I gulped down a Gu and water at the turn and assessed my condition.  Feet?  OK.  Knees?  OK.  Hips?  Not so good.  Left hip getting worse.   But hey, it’s a flat course; I should be fine.

Around mile 7.5, my hip, which had been trying to get my attention for a while now, started screaming like a two-year-old.  The one-minute walk was now miserable, with no possible recovery before the next four-minute run.  So much for fast-walking.

At the next water stop, China passed me, flashing me the “peace sign” of greeting as she did.  Her long braids swung around her hips and she never saw the back of me again.  Dammit.

OK, now this is NO fun at all.  Every frost heave in the path threatened to send my now-overtaxed right calf into a full spasm. Walking is now almost stumbling, as my left hip has so little movement left in it.  Every dog that walks by seems to know I’m miserable and tries to come over to say hi.  I mentally say hi to them from Henry and lumber on.

You know how this is going to end.  I am now quite a ways behind China, but her pink neon jacket is still in sight.  Around mile 10, we have to detour for construction on the Greenbelt.  By the time I make the turn off of the detour and back on to the Greenbelt, China is just out of sight. Where the hell is my bird dog?

There is no one near me, within sight.  Given two options, I chose the wrong one, and then another wrong way from there.  It’s a sad fact that once I get to 10 miles, I never know where I am.  I barely know who I am.  I’m a staggering zombie with gray hair; it’s frightening.  I don’t train on this Greenbelt, so I don’t know where the construction paths are.   I probably spent a half-mile, backtracking, and then, with enough adrenaline and frustration to make me more conscious of my surroundings, I finally see the arrow, and follow it back to the Greenbelt.  Dammit.

At about 11.5 miles, the last water stop, things are getting grim.  It’s no longer clear whether it’s more painful to run or walk.  I decide to switch over to running three minutes and walking two.  That helps, a little, for a while.  And then, in the last mile, I had no choice but to walk.

Gary had long ago finished his 10K, so he and his new camera were patiently waiting for me to run through the parking lot and into the finisher’s chute, ending at home plate in the baseball stadium. I winced at the very thought of a photo of myself at this painful moment and swore to get revenge, the next time he can’t find his coffee cup.  I stumbled by the Paramedics station near the ballpark and considered turning myself in.  I rallied just enough to jog in, vaguely aware of the small, but enthusiastic crowd still remaining in the awards area.  Medal on, timing chip off, water bottle in hand, I clasped the railing of the bleachers to steady myself.

Thank God it’s over.

On the way home, as usual, we talked about what went well and what didn’t, and why.  Truth be told, Gary did most of the talking and I did most of the whining.  But then you knew that.

Armed with anti-inflammatories and a muscle relaxant, I spent much of the rest of the afternoon in bed, curled up with Henry.  After a long hot shower, I was vertical again.  I celebrated by making two Perfect Manhattans, and walked carefully outside to the deck, to enjoy the view with Gary.  He asks me if I’m feeling better and, after the Manhattan, I say yes.

Instead of reviewing the gory and painful details of the run again, Gary asked me what I learned from the race.

In short, I said, I have something to learn from Henry.  Like Henry, I need to know my limits.  Since running seems to be the only form of exercise I can tolerate doing, I need to find a way to keep it in my life.  The thought of trying to run a marathon now seems as unlikely to me as being 40 again.  And I’m OK with that.

My favorite running memories are not of half-marathons, but of shorter races and relay races.  While I’ve certainly had better half-marathons than this one, I can’t honestly say that I have enjoyed any of them; I only enjoyed them when they were over.  At a certain point, after almost ten years of half-assedly working at this sport, I have to finally admit that I am not having fun.  I no longer want to run that marathon in October.  I no longer want to run half-marathons, badly and slowly.  I wish my dip in the gene pool would allow me to run 6 half-marathons a year, but that’s not going to happen.  In the war between discipline and hedonism, hedonism always wins out.  I don’t need any more ugly race shirts or medals.  This girl just wants to have fun.

I want to run shorter distances, obsess about my Garmin data, do speed work, and have fun with 5Ks and 10Ks.  I am not delusional; I know I am not ever going to be a good runner.  But I can be better than I am now, that’s for sure.

So, Henry’s right.  It’s more important to just enjoy every day, keep the injuries at bay, and just keep moving.  Henry would rather save himself for chasing cats and hunting morel mushrooms.  He’d rather chase Claire around the yard and be able to jump into the car than slog out a dozen miserable miles with me.  I put my medal from the race around Henry’s neck; he looked like he didn’t deserve it.  But he sure as hell did and I ran it for him.

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Thanks for reading.  I know how busy you are.

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5 thoughts on “Everything I Needed to Learn About Running I Learned From My Dog

  1. Henry is wise. What a teacher he is! And thank you for the John Bingham quote – so true. Have a great rest-of-summer without a marathon in October looming over you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Why don’t you, Gary, Claire and Henry just leisurely walk down the Greenbelt to our house, I make really good Manhattans. Love your adventures, Sandy

    Like

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