Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Beast teaches me my first important life lesson

I just got back from a magnificent run. Sun rising slowly over the horizon through a cloud of moisture hanging in the air, casting its pink glow through the clouds and over the prairie. Isolated town streets all to myself. Slight breeze cooling the sweat from my brow as each foot pounded the pavement. It was a great run. I even posted my all time best time, keeping a pace of 5 minutes and 4 seconds for 5 km.

This time, the Beast wasn't with me. I always post a better time when I run without the Beast. But I have a lot less fun.

I began to run a little over three years ago. For one thing, I had to fit my thirty-something frame into the wedding dress that my mother wore when she was the tender age of eighteen. But mostly, I felt like I needed a new way to challenge myself physically. Having mastered the fine art of weight-lifting, and having plateaued at a squat of 175lbs for 6 reps, it was time to try something completely outside of my comfort zone. Enter running, a sport that I previously derided as one in which I would only partake if I were being chased. But I began to enjoy running. While I am far from very good at it, I could see marked improvement on each and every run, and each day out became a game for me to go a little farther or to go a little faster. Soon I was downloading coaching apps onto my IPhone that would track my progress and berate me when I was missing my target pace. This constant need to push myself morphed into year-round running, and I spent a small fortune on winter gear.

Occasionally, I would ask my husband to come with me. He used to run, but does so rarely these days. On those mornings, I would feel this massive anxiety building up inside me as we ran together because my IPhone kept reminding me that we were well below my target pace. I would politely nag my husband about going just a bit faster. And once or twice, when that didn't work, I simply ran out ahead of him. It was clear that neither one of us enjoyed spending time together in this manner, and so I gave up on asking him to join me and he gave up on offering to keep me company.

Which is why I figured I needed a dog as a run partner. A dog would serve as protection for a girl out there on her own in the dark cold streets. A dog wouldn't want to talk to me about anything. And the right dog would push me to be better because he would be able to go faster. It was the perfect solution to my running isolation.

Now I am not stupid, and so I didn't figure that the Beast and I would gel instantaneously into some fantastic duo. I figured it would take some work. He did after all have to learn how to walk nicely on a leash. So the very morning after he came to live with us, I armed myself with a water bottle full of patience, clipped the Beast to my waist, and took off.

Almost immediately, the Beast resumed his hysteria of pulling me around like a rag doll, as he had done the night before when we took him for our first official walk. "No problem," I thought to myself. "I will just change direction quickly every time he pulls ahead." The end result was 30 minutes of me and the Beast running back and forth across one city block. Because. he. would. not. stop. pulling! He also would not stop barking, because he did not take kindly to this constant change of direction. Not to mention that the back and forth completely screwed up my IPhone app, which just shut itself down rather than try to determine speed or direction for me. So I am guessing that we exerted ourselves over 3km, but physically were working over no more than a 300m stretch.

"Oh well! At least we both got some exercise!" I thought to myself cheerfully.

The next morning, I decided to really throw the Beast for a loop by sprinting with him. 30 seconds of all out sprint, and one minute of fast walk. Again clipping him to my waist, we made our way to an isolated trail where there was no one around. I set off for my first sprint, and he just took off, fast overtaking me and excited by the opportunity to turn on the jets. Now for those of you who have sprinted, you know that it is impossible to just stop on a dime and turn into another direction when you are going as fast as you possibly can. So my strategy of the day before would not work here. I decided to forgive him his rudeness during the sprints, and use the 1 minute walks as training time for changing direction quickly. The end result was that after five sprints, with five more to go, I thought I was going to throw up. My body could not withstand the all-out pace, followed by yo-yo movement back and forth across the field in between. So we had to call it a day.

By this point, I was starting to lose my patience (just a little). Aside from having a bossy dog that clearly wanted to set the tone and the direction for each and every run, I was not getting the exercise that I wanted to be getting. So I had to remind myself that this wasn't actually all about me. And it wasn't even really all about running. Fundamentally, it was about establishing myself as the dog's leader, establishing some ground rules for him to live by, and more importantly, establishing our life-long bond not only as running mates, but as companions.

And so I picked up that leash and every single morning, the Beast and I ran back and forth across that same 300m of city block until one morning, about a week and a half in, he jut got it. He looked up at me, and his little brown eyes seemed to say, "If I stay beside you the whole time, will you show me more than just this one little street? Because I know there's more out there, lady. I can smell it!"

And so we turned the corner instead of heading back the way we came. And on our first "real" run together, we ran 4k. The slowest 4k I had ever run, but at least we moved forward on that day. And we've not stopped running forward since.

Except that when the Beast and I run, I am no longer able to post my best time. There are many reasons for this. If we run along the river, he goes into herding mode at the sight of Canada geese or ducks and I lose precious seconds by keeping him under control. Sometimes he tries to herd me into the direction that HE wants to go by jumping up into my face and nipping at me. And sometimes, he has to use the bathroom 2k into our run.

But when we are in synch, we really are beautiful together. I have my shoulders back and my head up. He has his ears back and his nose up to greet the smells around him. Every now and then he looks up at me as if to thank me for allowing him to let loose his energy. And so I reward him with games during the runs like using trees, benches and street lamps as obstacles and running through, around and over them. Or letting him stop to talk to a new dog friend. Or simply letting him stop to sniff the ground for a few minutes.

I'm no longer breaking my own records. But the Beast has taught me the importance of having fun when I am out on a run. The world is a beautiful place to see if you just open your eyes and ears and nose to it and take it all in. Something you can't do when your IPhone coach is yelling at you because you are being too slow.

So I've turned the IPhone coach off. And I've even resumed the occasional run with my husband. Just last weekend, he and I went out for our first run together in over a year. We ran a leisurely 5k along the river, talking the whole way. I felt absolutely no anxiety about the fact that we were most definitely below my target pace. Instead, I enjoyed every second of our time together.

I have the Beast to thank. Who knew that the little bugger would be training me too.