Running With the Dogs
By Gordon Cherr
My love affair with running began in 1965, with 10th grade cross country. We had no ninth grade in my high school, just tenth through the twelfth. In my second year of running, a new kid joined the team, Ronnie Rakowski. Rakowski was a terrific runner, graceful, fast and strong. But what really set Rakowski apart from the rest of us was that he had a dog who was more rabid about running than he was, and Ron was a running nut.
I don’t recall that dog’s name; he was a runty little terrier with fur too big for his body, just an ugly pooch. In the summer, Ron used to clip the dog so that he looked like a lion, with a big furry head and neck and a big tuft of fur at the tip of his tail; otherwise he was clipped right down to his skin. The dog hated the haircut, but he loved pizza and he ate carrots. And the dog would run with us wherever we went. He was just too cool. He never complained, never tried to set the pace, never got in the way, but he did viciously attack every other dog or cat he saw while we were out running. That made him even cooler as far as we were concerned.
I never gave much thought to running with a dog though until many years later in Tallahassee. I mean I had all could handle in trying to keep up with Karl Hempel and Mike Johns and maybe Lee Cohee and Dave Sheffield. Karl had a procession of nasty little dogs like dachshunds, who were stubborn and always trying to bite him, and who couldn’t and wouldn’t run anyhow except to the food bowl at chow time. Karl hated each and every one of them if the truth be known.
But Lee had a runty cur of a terrier named Radar. He would take Radar out on our long Sunday runs up Miccosukee Road before the road was paved and when the traffic was about nil. Radar had enthusiasm for sure but he couldn’t run worth a damn, plus Lee would tie this long length of rope around Radar’s neck and hold onto the other end. The rope was strong enough to hold back a charging rhinoceros and Radar probably was all of 10 pounds wringing wet under all that wiry fur. The dog could run fast enough but he was always cutting left and then right and everyone would be tripping over that rope or the dog. And Lee was always saying “Radar, no!” over and over again, literally for miles on end. Finally, one day Tec Thomas had enough and launched into Lee about the dog and about Lee and Lee’s momma, and Tec really said some things that no one would dare repeat in mixed company. Radar went onto the list of retired runners and peace and tranquility returned to our Sunday runs.
Some years later John Newton, who never held himself out to be much of a runner, would show up at local races with his dog, a shaggy white one who looked a bit like a small chow. He was a neat dog who was pretty cool and always won the Doggie division of every race. There simply were no other dogs to challenge him, which was good, because John’s dog had only three legs, two in the front and one in the rear. Because of that single rear leg, the dog would list to the side like a sinking ocean liner when he ran. But I vividly recall the Pine Run one year where the dog, three legs and all, really laid the wood to John as they sprinted for the finish. That dog had heart and soul and the crowd loved him for it. The crowd loved John too for that matter.
As for myself, I once had this terrific German shepherd who had but a short lived running career. I took her out on the golf course at Capital City Country Club one day and, after about 100 yards of warm up jogging, she took off out of nowhere and on the dead run she grabbed a golf ball off the tee just as some duffer was getting ready to hit a drive. He nearly clocked her, but she made a clean getaway and when he tried to get the golf ball away from her she showed her impressive teeth and he decided to let her keep the damn thing anyway. But I knew that she was not to be trusted and so I let her retire right then and there.
That was it until I moved to Asheville last year. I have never seen so many people running with dogs. I met a lady in North Carolina Arboretum who ran with us on Saturday and Sunday mornings, named Nancy K. Nancy K. had a little hound/terrier mix, Sparky. Sparky was light boned and born to run. It didn’t matter how fast or far we went, she was there. In fact, she spent some time running with everyone in the group during each run, as we separated out, especially on the long uphill pulls. She probably ran 20 miles for every ten we ran. She was never out of breath and never looked for a break. She was the perfect running companion, sort of a cross between the best 1500 meter runner and marathoner you could ever imagine. She had range and speed and running with her was plain fun.
Nancy K. had a running buddy, Dollie. Dollie had these two fat chocolate labs who also fancied themselves as runners. But as labs, they also couldn’t pass up even a puddle of water, and by the end of a run they were slobbering, wet, disgusting messes. Worse yet, these dogs were thieves. Every Thursday morning we took a trail run at a place known as the Hog Pen. It was nine miles out and back on very tough, hilly and unforgiving terrain. For Sparky, it was a breeze and she was running the two slobs into the ground as they foolishly tried to keep up with her.
The turn around point was at the burned?out remains of an old homesteader’s cabin. When we got there, we came upon several people who were primitive camping. They had all of their dirty, wet clothes hanging on a clothesline, strung up between two bushes. The two slobs made an immediate beeline for the clothes and one of them grabbed a lady’s pair of underwear and skedaddled at warp speed. The other slob tore into the clothesline and shook it loose, scattering clothes into the mud. We took off out of there, not waiting to make friends with those hillbillies. Eventually the two slobs made it back to the parking lot, exhausted but victorious. They still had the single pair of ladies underwear which they proceeded to tear to shreds. Not all dogs have Sparky’s talent or her good manners.
Lately, between injuries and a new job, I have been running alone. My middle aged hound dog, Buster, much like me, is growing a bit round in the middle and gray on top. I thought that maybe I could use a new running companion, so he was elected. Buster is half beagle and half Rottweiler. Beagles can track all day and Rottweiler were bred by the Romans to be army cart dogs, pulling heavy loads all day long, on the move. My hunch turned out correct, Buster is hard wired for running.
I started him off easy at first, some fast walking and then some jogging. He was out of shape and I could run him into the ground. He would stop at every opportunity making believe that he had to pee or crap. Come to think of it, I have used that excuse often enough, myself, when the pace was too much for me. It worked for me, why not for him?
What makes me ponder the unfairness of life is the fact that Buster, with less than three weeks of solid running, has rounded out into incredible shape. He’ll go five miles at the drop of a hat. You can’t get ahead of him. He isn’t concerned about the pace one wit. You go slow, he goes faster. You fartlek; he fartleks. You run a fast, steady pace, fine. Whatever. He dropped his extra weight almost immediately and his 50 pounds are now as hard as a rock. Why doesn’t it work like that for the rest of us?
I have learned though, that you shouldn’t run directly behind your dog. Dogs are prone to stop and sniff something or pee on it and to do so without warning. They can stop instantaneously and you cannot. You will fall over them. They don’t have much sense of pace either. I mean given the chance they will go full bore for as long as they can and then collapse. And don’t run directly behind your dog on a dirt trail because the dog will kick up the dirt and you will be eating it all morning long.
But this all said, Buster is maybe the best running partner I have ever had.
For one thing, he is always ready to go – early or late, rain or shine, no excuses. He never has to take time out to stretch. In fact, he has become totally addicted like many new runners. He is like a dog reborn and enthusiastic to a fault. He doesn’t make fun of me or my choice of running routes. He doesn’t want or need to discuss inane things like politics or abortion or the death penalty. He doesn’t question my judgment and he always laughs at my jokes. He commiserates when I have had a bad day and shares in the triumphs of a good day too. This is what friends are for.
I’m told that Jesus said to “be as little children.” In other words, stop thinking and just “be” in the moment. That is how Buster runs; not self consciously, not for a prize, not for ego, and he doesn’t care about how he looks or even about next week. He runs for now and for the absolute unbridled joy of the run. That is the wonderful lesson I have learned from Buster and Sparky and even from the two slobs. God made dogs to show us how to run and to share the run with us. So, get out there with your pooch at every opportunity; for him and for yourself.
I promise that you’ll not regret it.