By Amy Ebedes
Photographs by Nick Aldridge
I never loved running. It was always a chore on my to-do list, some forced activity to make myself feel that I was living a healthy lifestyle.
Running was strictly a weekday activity; and Fridays, of course, counted as weekend. Thursdays were almost always dedicated to nearly-the-weekend post-work drinks. Wednesdays, I was tired from getting over the mid-week hump. On Tuesdays, inevitably, I was stiff from starting my week on Monday, with the goal of this being the week I’d get fit.
No, running was never a priority.
On the odd occasion that I did actually get into a running routine, I’d be hooked. After every run, I’d drive the route to measure the distance. But – like clockwork – as my mileage crept closer to six kilometres, I’d get sick and have to stop; and then it would take a few weeks to even contemplate getting back into a routine.
And then my life changed, one fateful day in 2009.
On that day, I was being dragged, reluctantly, around a trail on Lion’s Head, Cape Town, by boyfriend and (spoiler alert!) now running partner, Luke. He’d been trying to coerce me onto the mountain since we’d moved to Cape Town. I found the trail experience enjoyable, but was still lacking the self-motivation to run – and so the walk:run ratio was still significantly skewed in my (unfit) favour.
We had discussed getting a pet before, but always as a futuristic idea. As we turned the corner of some single track, Luke leading the way (possibly trying to get some distance between himself and my monologueing), a trail runner came past, followed closely by a bounding, wagging bundle of fur. Luke stopped dead in his tracks, turned to face me, and said:
“We’re getting a dog.”
Within a few hours, we were the excited soon-to-be parents of a four-legged creature.
Phaea (pronounced Fay-ah) arrived in our lives the only way an English bull terrier puppy can: independent, stubborn and with an excessive amount of energy for her oversized three-month-old frame. Mountain runs quickly became our default post-work activity, in an attempt to get rid of her boisterousness.
After two months, Phaea would become visibly depressed at being left alone during the day, so we made the decision to get her a sister. Somehow, I stumbled across a Jack Russell puppy whose facial markings were the exact replica of Phaea’s – something I consider one of my life’s greatest achievements. And so the ‘mini-est’ monster, Ditto, arrived in our lives.
From day one, Ditto came with us on the mountain. She was such a tiny puppy that I’d carry her on my forearm, with her head nestled in my hand. And I’d run. Every outing, she got her opportunity to explore a little section of trail. Any obstacles she encountered, we left her to tackle on her own. Unknowingly, we were grooming her to become a master of the single track, the ultimate trail hound.
Soon, without me noticing, our wolf pack was spending every day on the trail. We were clocking between five and seven kilometres per outing – effortlessly. I’d watch the clock in anticipation of getting home, gathering up the dogs and hitting the mountain. The quality time Luke and I were spending every day together, above the city, became an essential part of our daily routine. We would re-group, rejuvenate and mull over the day – all with the tik-tik-tikking of eight little paws around us.
When Phaea hit adolescence, her stubbornness began clashing with my new love for running. I’d race home from work, collect my shoes and the leashes, and we’d head for the trail. Half a kay in, Phaea would stop dead. Refuse to budge. Have you ever tried to force a strong dog to run when she doesn’t want to?
Phaea’s refusal to run led to us increasing our time spent on the trail. Her breed’s heavy build – and obstinacy – isn’t suited for long runs. Coincidently, Luke’s slender frame – and similar obstinacy – isn’t suited for carrying a 26-kilogram, panting dog down a technical trail from the top of Devil’s Peak. It only had to happen once to make us decide to leave her at home. And suddenly, we could push our distances again.
Saturday morning hangovers were quickly replaced with hours exploring the mountain, Ditto always at our feet. Our longest trail run with Ditto was 24km, up, over, across, down and around Table Mountain. As Luke and I limped our way into the house afterwards, Ditto disappeared… and arrived at our feet with her ball, an expectant look on her face and a rapidly wagging tail. Her energy truly knows no bounds.
Nowadays, we’ve found a healthy balance for all four members of our wolf pack. Phaea has rekindled her sort-of love for running while helping me rehab an injury. We discovered she has a medical condition that makes it uncomfortable for her to run – now that she’s being treated, she’s more than supportive of my need to walk while Luke and Ditto run ahead of us. Every 400 metres or so, Ditto waits for Phaea and me to come around a corner, greets us both, and then sprints off to catch up with Luke again. As Phaea’s fitness has increased and her condition has improved (and as I’ve slowly recovered from my injury), we’ve dedicated one run a week to her: a slow, five-kilometre trail run, all together – at Phaea’s pace. And we never run without Ditto: her presence next to me is akin to other runners’ need for music.
Jack Russells are smart little creatures. It started with excitement at the mere mention of “Walkies!”: a fairly standard trick for most dogs. Next, gesturing towards the leash got her going. Soon, picking up a pair of running shoes triggered on-the-spot spins and yelps of excitement. Three years later, Ditto can tell the difference if I put on running shorts or cycling kit. Without fail, I always feel as if I’m committing adultery when I go riding; the look of betrayal in those big brown eyes at the mere sight of Lycra has made me change my exercise plan on more than one occasion.
Often, when I hit a low point in a race, I imagine Ditto is trotting next to me. I visualise what I’d point out to her, what rocks she’d climb and in which sections she’d speed ahead. The distraction is enough to get me through the toughest part of a run.
Running with a dog changes your approach to the sport. It’s no longer a chore that you feel you have to do. When you can visibly see the joy in the wagging of a tail… suddenly, heading out for a run doesn’t require any effort. The excitement generated by the mere mention of the ‘W’-word is enough to encourage you to get going, too.
The run becomes less about the running, and more about the experience. You stop and smell the flowers – quite literally. You get a greater appreciation for where you’re running, and like your dog, you become more aware of the conditions and your surroundings. You stop at waterfalls to let your pooch drink – and while you’re there, you sample some of the best water the mountain has to offer, too. Is it too hot for your mutt to run? Maybe it’s a tad hot for you, too. And dogs give you the distraction that you sometimes need on those days when you’re just not up for it. Have a little conversation, let them lead the way, and let their energy rub off on you.
Owning dogs has changed my life. Without them even realising it, my dogs have turned me into a runner: a significant part of who I am today.
This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Runner’s World. Buy a digital back-issue here.