Running With Wolves…

Ok, so maybe not wolves, but running with Lurchers. I’m discovering it brings a whole new experience to trail running!

My husband is the dog fanatic. He grew up with dogs, breeding his first Border Terrier at just 8 years old. Later he developed a passion for Lurchers. Not a breed in it’s own right, but a cross between a sighthound (greyhound, saluki, deerhound etc) with something else. (Collie, Retriever, Bull Terrier).

We’ve had several amazing Lurchers over the years, all from a long line of running dogs with a history of agility, intelligence and speed. At the moment we have two; Yanto and Spook. Yanto being the senior at 8 years old, and Spook the latest recruit who is now 11 months old. They are completely different in character. Yanto (below right) is sensitive and gentle in nature. Spook (below left) is fearless, bold and a bit feral right now!

I started running with Yanto a few years ago. It seemed crazy that I was out on trail runs in the fields and off road but not taking him with me. I’d come home covered in mud with brambles in my hair and he’d sniff my trainers with great interest. But I guess I was “in the zone” when I first started trail running. I was finding my feet and testing my endurance, getting slightly obsessed with my times and distances. I didn’t want anything to distract me from my progress. And I knew there was a lot to consider when out in the countryside with our dogs.

Lurchers are natural born hunters. Anyone that owns one will know that rabbits, squirrels, deer (cats!) will never go unnoticed. A sight hound, with incredible speed and agility they are designed to be predators. And they know it. My husband has trained them around livestock. They’re steady as anything with sheep, horses and cattle, and their recall is spot on. But if I’m walking our dogs, I am always alert to the possibility they might catch sight, or scent of quarry and be off. They have trained ME to be aware of our environment, wind direction, certain times of day, what season we’re in, what wildlife is likely to be in the vicinity. They are instinctively assessing all of this silently, and I need to be aware of all of these things if I want to try and be one step ahead, and prevent a catch.

So running with a Lurcher comes with the risk that you’ll end up running AFTER him, rather than WITH him!

I began running with Yanto a few years ago. Initially on a lead, I thought I’d need to get him used to me running, and that I’d need to “desensitize” him. My thinking being that the change in dynamic from walking to running might send a signal that there’s something to get excited about (and I didn’t want him to think we were “game on”!). I just wanted him to get used to my movement and pace.

We did the same route, a 5km loop our across fields and tracks for a few weeks. But he was used to being off a lead for long walks and his etiquette on a lead when running didn’t improve. He would often suddenly stop to smell something of interest (and yank my shoulder out of it’s socket), or randomly cross over in front of me and trip me up. I was constantly stopping and starting and found myself head first in hedges and muddy ditches on more than one ocassion!

The time had come to let him run free with me…… THIS is where it got interesting!……

I smile now when I say I’m taking the dogs for a run. I’m not sure when it changed, but at some point I realised that I’m not “taking them”…… WE are going together.

You see, when you run with a dog there are a two major shifts that take place. The first is that all of those things that you need to be aware of; the conditions that dictate whether there is a hunt afoot, (wind direction, the time of day etc) that is all still relevant, but somehow you are IN it, you become a part of that. You’re not observing it, you ARE it. Your impact on the environment and how it responds to YOU is much more noticeable.

The second shift is that of the relationship between you and the dog. There seems to be a sense that you are now a team. That ancestral instinct kicks in and you’re alpha male/female, part of the pack. You are running wild together. We instinctively stop as we enter a field and survey the land, we push on when we’re tackling a steep track, and most incredibly, this creates a deeper connection to the land, to the wildlife, to the wilderness on a level that I’ve never experienced when just walking the dogs, or running on my own.

I wonder if this is how it feels to be a wolf, running with wolves!?? This is what I think when we’re out there together.

My obsession with how far we’ve traveled, and how long it’s taken us, isn’t there anymore. I have a rough idea and that’s mainly just for practicality. The experience is more important, and we go at our own pace. If the dogs stop and take interest in something, I might stop too, or I might push on and they catch up. But on the whole we are training together as a team, practicing our skills and communication and deepening our understanding of the land.

The difference being of course that I am a human, running on two legs! Generally seen wearing flourescent lycra, sweating profusely and whistling loudly to make sure any wildlife around has a head start or can go to ground. Just. In. Case!

For brilliant advice and tips on running with dogs click on the link below.

Running for Mental Health

It was with significant doubt in my mind that I arrived at the start line of the South West Coast2Coast challenge on an overcast Sunday morning in July.

Earlier in the year I signed up to run an off road half marathon to raise money for Dorset Mind, the local branch of the MIND mental health charity.

Having been a “wannabe” trail runner for the past few years I felt that perhaps I could push myself a bit further. I’ve been curious about what happens mentally when I run. How the mind often begs to give up long before the body does. How my mood can either improve or sabotage my efforts.

I’m not one of these runners that is pushing for a best time, or to lose weight, or to compete. I run because I’m learning about how my mind behaves, how I cope with the challenge, but also because it’s another way to spend time in nature. Connecting with the seasons, the weather and the wildlife when I’m running off road gives me such nourishment. It can almost feel primitive, and I imagine how our earliest ancestors must have run as far as the eye could see, to hunt, survive and navigate the land. I love to run wild, get covered in mud, have brambles in my hair and feel the fresh air in my lungs.

But standing at the start line in Exeter, I am feeling like a fool. My naive curiosity has morphed into crippling doubt as I watch what appear to be well toned athletes, in all the latest sports gear, casually chatting about the last Ultra challenge they smashed, and how they’re looking for a sub 2hr time today.

All the reasons I shouldn’t be attempting this are loudly shouting at me.

“I haven’t trained enough. I haven’t followed a nutrition plan. I am not a ‘proper exercise’ person. I am stupid”.

It is fair to say that no-one in their right mind should attempt a half marathon without having trained. I know this. I’ve read all about it. So why on earth was I attempting it?

Perhaps I am not in my right mind! But the intensely annoying fact about most mental health conditions is that it attempts to thwart your efforts and sabotage success. I hate this SO much, it somehow gives me the determination to fight.

I’ll be honest. I did begin training. I printed out a schedule. I put it on the fridge. I ran all the distances and days I was supposed to. I reached my fundraising target. I was on track. But then it changed.

The last training run I did was a few months ago. A 16km run that made me physically sick. I pushed myself SO hard that it made me ill. I felt like a failure. I wondered what the hell I was doing to myself. Had none of the self compassion based mindfulness I’d been taught in recovery even sunk in? Was I being too hard on myself. Was I just deluding myself? Was I simply using exercise as another way to badly manage my problems, a healthy ‘disguise’ for badly treating myself.

I became so depressed that I wasn’t able to keep going. I doubted my own judgement. Doubted my motivation. I began feeling like a failure before I’d even got to the start line. I felt SO under pressure and anxious about what I’d signed up for. I’d simply backed myself into a corner. Even worse was knowing the irony that I’d raised this money for a mental health charity, but probably wouldn’t be able to complete the run because of my mental health!

I considered cancelling. I didn’t HAVE to do it did I?

But here I am at the start line. Just showing up.

I’ve had enough of the stories running riot in my head. They are not helping me in any way. I need to focus on the positives. So I start to tell myself a new story;

It is a Sunday morning, I’ve nothing better to do. I’m just following a route from Exeter to the South Coast along a beautiful canal, river and estuary to the sea. I can quit if I want to, no one knows I’m here other than my husband. (I deliberately didn’t remind anyone of the date). There’s a lovely cool breeze on my skin, and I am willing and able to run a while. Due to COVID we can start whenever we like so as not to be running on mass. I give myself permission to walk if I need to. To stop every 30 minutes, drink some water, have a jelly bean and look at the view. Most importantly, even if it takes me ALL day then at least all the money raised will be validated. All I have to do is try and finish it. I might even enjoy it.

I won’t bore you with the run itself, and how I managed my thoughts. Let’s just say that I was shocked at how hard it was NOT to let my mind spiral into negative thinking. It was like a wild animal and I was gaining it’s trust. But what did make it endurable was the scenery, the wildlife, the breeze. Being mindful of my breathing, my body and the way I was moving, I was in the moment, DOING it.

When I saw the finish line and heard people cheering it was slightly surreal. I didn’t feel a part of it. I was watching myself cross over the line hardly believing it was happening. My husband had got lost with Sat Nav and wasn’t there to see me finish. But I was quietly pleased. I didn’t want cheers, or pats on the back. I wanted a moment to witness how it felt to feel free of negativity, free of fear. To stand in the middle of a field, feeling alive and like anything is possible.

Needless to say I am relieved I completed it. I’m glad that I raised money for a charity that I truly believe in, I’m pleased that my body was able to withstand the challenge and that I didn’t injure myself. But what I’m really happy about is that I didn’t let my mental health prevent me from starting it, let alone finishing.

PTSD, anxiety and depression can be debilitating at times. All I want to do is hide away from the world and be left alone. Any kind of pressure or stress and I begin to panic. But the pressure I put on myself is the most evil, unkind and unhelpful type of pressure.

It’s so frustrating when you want to achieve, and you want to reach your goals. But sometimes it just feels impossible, and we can’t seem to get there. But what I am learning is that in order to do these things, I must practice a bit of self compassion. I must be kinder to myself. Tell myself a the more gentle version of the story, that enables me to feel the courage to try.

The story I told myself of the space, freedom and nature I could invite into my journey to the finish line is what helped me to get there. I will never forget that and every time I look at the medal, it will speak to me of mental freedom. A reminder that the journey is as much a part of the destination, and you can’t have one with out the other.