Charlie and I started running Canicross competitively about 18 months ago, and racing quickly became one of his favourite things to do. We did our 20th race last weekend, but I don’t know how many more we’ll have left together.
I should have written a Canicross themed post long ago, and if we’d started racing together when I wrote regularly, I think I probably would have done. No matter - this will be a two-part post to make up for my lack of writing. The first will be a not-at-all-exaggerated tale of our bond and our love of running together, and a brief introduction to Canicross. The second will be a lament of the fact that our running career is likely going to be cut short far too early.
Chicken and the Egg
Four years ago, when I first decided I wanted a dog, I chose a Border Collie because I wanted someone to run with. I didn’t run myself at the time, and I only started running really so that Charlie could run. For me, Charlie and running have been an inseparable combination - I could have both, or neither, but I can’t imagine one without the other.
We started out running along the old railway tracks near the flat we used to live in. Joined with a path along the edge of a housing estate, this made a perfect two-mile loop, and we used to run that all the time together. Charlie learned what would become his Canicross commands here (‘left’, ‘move left’, ‘slow’, ‘go go go!’), although I didn’t know that I was training him for that specifically at the time.
We also started doing parkruns too - in the intervening years, Charlie has probably done over a hundred with me, Saturday mornings quickly becoming his favourite part of the week. And mine too; running together has built an incredible bond between us, and it’s most acutely apparent when we’re running with a crowd (parkrun is explicitly not a race; however fast we try to go, we’re only challenging ourselves, not the other runners). For the most part, Charlie’s presence at parkrun has been welcomed, or at least tolerated by other runners. There has been the occasional accusation of ‘cheating’, but these are few and far between. In the past couple of years, we’ve started touristing together, with the intention of doing all the Scottish parkruns, and I know Charlie loves our mornings together when he knows we’re going for a run.
Since he has grown in confidence, and left his teenage stage behind, Charlie is also very rarely leashed now - I trust him completely, and his road safety is the one thing that we keep 100% at all times. Because of this, he is almost always allowed to free-run outside of parkrun and races, keeping his own pace around me like he’s attached by an invisible cord, whether that is up in the Pentland Hills with the world to ourselves, or weaving through shoppers and tourists along a busy Princes Street. Our connection is strongest when we run together, and I love it so much that he loves it as much as I do.
Back in September 2018, after about a year or so of running together regularly, we did our first competitive Canicross race at Coalsnaughton, near Alloa. We didn’t embarrass ourselves, although we didn’t place on the podium - there are a lot of fast boys in our category, but Charlie absolutely loved it. The atmosphere at the start of a race can only really be described as ‘chaotic’, with a cacophony of barking swirling around while you wait for your turn to go, trying to keep your dog(s) focused on the starting commands (the races we attend employ a staggered-start, with seeded placements setting racers off in 15-second intervals). Charlie is highly-attuned to these commands, to the point where he will now react with frantic barking if anyone says the word ‘three’.
Canicross, if you’ve never heard of it, is cross-country running with dogs attached to human runners by a waist belt and bungee cord. Any dog can run, but the best dogs are strong and fit breeds, who pull the human to faster speeds than they could achieve on their own. Charlie is good at this, although far from the best; he shaves about a minute off my 5k time (about a 5% improvement) when we run together, but the fastest dogs can bring 20% or more, they are so strong and so fast. Charlie is hampered mainly by his thick fur coat, and he has a tendency to overheat, so the time gains we get are usually front-loaded to the first mile or so of a race, and by the end of it we are running at whatever pace I can do without his help as he trots by my side.
Since that first race in 2018, we’ve run a further nineteen together, collecting a modest amount of podium places along the way. Some races have been in a two-dog team with another dog, usually Sid, who now joins us in this category regularly, but for the most part it has just been the two of us. And I love nothing more than being out on the course with him, we make such a great team (even if we won’t ever be really competitive), and I would love it if we could continue this for many years to come. However, after an unfortunate diagnosis a few months ago, I do know that the time will come when racing together is no longer possible.