I am an animal lover. As a kid, I was the one seen around town pushing, pulling, cajoling, and bribing stray cats and dogs, arriving home, disheveled, eyes bright with young innocence.
“It followed me. Can I keep it?”
I had cats, dogs, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, a black widow spider, and even one garden snake (the latter two disappeared under mysterious conditions). I was child number three, and my parents thought they had everything figured out, but animals proved to be new territory. Once at a park, I saw ducks and decided I wanted a duck. Please oh please, may I have duck? I need a duck! I’ll take care of it and feed it and clean it and take good care of it. I promise! My parents, full of experience, simply said, “If you can catch it, you can keep it.”
I have a photo of myself, looking exceedingly pissed off, with one bemused looking duck in my arms.
Running has tested that devotion to animals, dogs in particular (fortunately, I have yet to encounter a mountain lion). I get it, it’s a natural instinct. They see something running, they chase after it, especially if you are threatening their territory. They get close enough, they bite it. I don’t like it but I get it.
Most domesticated animals on trails are on a leash or at least with their owners nearby, so the chases are usually rare. Plus, they’re Colorado dogs–they have that same laid back attitude of their owners. They’re running. I’m running. It’s all good.
But not so everywhere in this country. Twice a year, I visit my parents in Georgia. Georgia dogs are not Colorado dogs. They’re East Coast dogs. I’m pretty sure they do not like anyone, and runners least of all. If you’re running, there’s a reason, and it’s not a good one. They’ve made it their sworn duty to remove you from the planet–every bloody trace of you.
My first encounter was with a massive German Shepherd. I could hear him long before I saw him, snarling, growling, barking, my mere presence an affront to his entire existence. With relief, I saw the fence behind which he was kept. It wasn’t a big fence, but it seemed to be doing the trick.
What I didn’t see until too late was the open gate.
It was straight out of bad movie. The angry shepherd and I saw the open gate at the same time. He slowly looked at me as I returned his narrowing gaze with my widening gaze. My casual pace immediately became a dead sprint. I didn’t notice he wasn’t behind me until back in my parent’s driveway. He must have forgotten all about me in the euphoria of his new-found freedom.
Over the years, the dog population increased. My usual run, an out-and-back down a country road, became the perfect interval workout. The now two German Shepherds at the house where the cop car always is was right after my warm up. Their yard was small, so it was quick.. The two terrorizing border collies right after the church had a much bigger yard to protect. A Mutt and Jeff combo a half mile later. And finally a basset hound–although he really didn’t count. He was too cute for words and, with those big ol’ floppy ears, about as threatening as, well, a basset hound.
I was becoming much less enthusiastic about canines. I was tired. There’s only so many sprints I can do in a week’s visit. I started looking for other routes, but they all had the same problem: nothing between me and angry dogs. Worse, the more I got into ultra running, the longer the routes became and the more dogs giving chase.
It became a sort of quest. My dad was even suggesting routes. One of them worked out pretty well, except for the lack of a sidewalk beside a highway. If there’s one breed that hates runners more than dogs, it’s pickup truck drivers.
Over my Christmas trip home, I decided to try a new route. Google maps showed to be blessedly void of housing. It was also a nice distance–and a loop to boot, my favorite kind of route.
It started well. The first couple miles were blessedly dog free. As I turned away from town onto a small road, I could hear the faint barks of a house bound animal. I began to relax and forget myself in the run. I tuned out the world and in the music.
Then mile six happened.
A overweight, overzealous blond lab came tearing out the yard across the street, barking as though he had caught me stealing his kibbles red-handed. I fought the instinct to freeze. Don’t show fear. Don’t smell like fear. Don’t even THINK FEAR. He reached the edge of the road and kept going. I could see the saliva dripping from his mouth, eyes narrowed in a murderous gaze. My mind went blank and my body went on autopilot.
I turned immediately towards the angry mass of muscle and teeth and ran straight towards him, barking at him like a madwoman. I waved my arms and made myself look as big and as pissed off as I could. Run, wave and bark. It was supposed to work on mountain lions. Maybe it would work here.
He stopped dead in his tracks. I allowed myself a breath. Then he tilted his head and looked at me as though he thought I’d completely lost my marbles. His tail was up, and he gave a hesitant wag then waited, head still tilted. Of course he all wanted was to play. He’s a lab.
I managed a breathless “good puppy” and turned back to my route. He bounded ahead, completely excited by this new adventure. He stopped to pick up a discarded bag of fast food and brought it back for me, dropping it, though, to pick up a nice big stick, only to drop that for some amazing scent trail. Then he was off again.
He ran ahead, then to the side, then back behind me, stopping only to pee on random objects and to wait for me. My pace picked up a bit as I forgot about my running and just watched my new buddy’s excitement over, well, pretty much everything. Back and forth, running ahead and looking back to tell me to hurry my butt up. I’d never seen such pure joy on a run.
That road ended a couple miles later and I turned left to cover the final few miles home. I thought my buddy would grow bored, but not him. More discarded junk. More smells. More noises. On he went. I began to grow concerned. It was at least a five mile run back, and I didn’t know how much credence to put into a dog’s sense of direction.
I tried yelling at him but he gave me his hurt puppy look. I ran back towards his house until he was far enough ahead that I thought he wouldn’t see me turn around again. No luck. I even tried hiding behind a tree. He thought that was a pretty fun game.
I gave up and just let him be. Surely, this wasn’t his first adventure past the end of the road.
My dad was in the garage when I got back, working on some projects. He just laughed when I said, Look what followed me home.
I didn’t know what to do. My furry pal wanted me to keep running, but I was done. I half felt it was my responsibility to run back to his place, but there was no telling if he’d even stay there when I turned home again. I finally told him the run was over and went inside.
He seemed to understand, but all day I worried. Did he make it back? Was he just wandering around lost? I couldn’t shake the image. I took a short walk that afternoon, retracing some of my steps, but didn’t find him. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or not.
By the next morning, I’d made up my mind to retrace my steps. I just had to know if he made it back or not. I was full of trepidation. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on these roads, but there was enough. I worried. I checked every shadow. My pace slowed as I got closer to his home.
But there he was! With a happy bark, he bounded across the road and jumped up on me. I gave him a big hug and commended his sense of smell and forethought to pee on everything. He wasn’t alone–another slightly pudgy lab was right beside him. I waved at his friend and told him I’d be seeing him around. Not so fast, their eyes said to me.
I obviously hadn’t thought this part through. I kind of figured the ten miles he’d done the day before would dissuade him from trying again, but apparently not. Nor his pudgy friend. So the three of us set off. I returned the same way as the day before, knowing there was no point in trying to stop them but at least hoping the route would now be familiar. And I knew I could trust his sense of direction.
I again enjoyed watching the revelry, seeing anew the sheer joy of physical movement and the excitement of the adventure. Again, my pace was a little quicker and the miles disappeared under my feet. I again said farewell when I got home and was met with two sets of eyes that didn’t understand how I could possibly stop when we were having so much fun together. I patted their heads and told them I hoped they’d never understand.