Ultra Running and DogsBy
This is a guest post from our running buddy of the month, Sandra from the UK, who runs with her Huskies. You can read more about her dog and her running here.
The day I met Kez for the first time was the day I dared believe that I had finally met my future ultra running partner. Fast forward four years and Kez has proven himself to be far more than just a long distance training partner….
Kez, has achieved world wide fame for his running exploits with me. From sub five minute miles to over 50 mile races over mountains, he has helped me become a better person and a better runner just by sharing time together doing what we love and what gives us so much pleasure. The simple act of running, lots of running!
I was already an accomplished and self trained ultra runner before Kez joined the dog family. The family at that time consisted of three other huskies, varying in age from 7 to 13. All ran every day, different distances and different speeds.
With Kez I has one simple plan, help him become an ultra running husky using my knowledge of huskies and my own experience of teaching myself about running very long distances.
For those of you that have never heard of “ultra running”, it is basically term used to describe any distance above the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles, or 42 kilometres. My greatest success has been at the 100k distance running where I have represented Scotland and Great Britain in World, European and Commonwealth Championships.
As a puppy I introduced Kez to running as soon as he was able to explore the world outside of our house and garden. Very short runs and very fun runs. On a collar and lead he would run alongside the other dogs as we trundled around the countryside. This was the perfect time to teach left, right and speed up commands. It was all such fun for a baby husky out in the open countryside….. Every time a rabbit or deer ran in front or alongside I would use encouraging words which he learned to associate with an increase of speed. Of course this technique did have to be balanced with learning the “stop” immediately and “steady” command, to ensure that runs are fully controlled and not all about running at break neck speed chasing wildlife!
It is easy to ask a husky to speed up, not always easy to ask them to slow down or to ignore the squirrel that has just leapt in front of them. Perseverance is the key. On steep descents I have trained Kez to run by my side. Up hills and on flat or undulating terrain he always runs in front of me, thus ensuring I remain fully balanced and in control of both of us. To get to this point took time and effort (a lot of it). Stopping and starting during all runs, lots of praise and lots of encouragement when he understood my request and heeded it!
Until the age of 6 months Kez rarely wore a harness and was not encouraged to pull during any of our runs. He naturally wanted to pull, but until I started running him in harness I did not encourage him. He only wears a harness when I am racing him or running with fellow humans, even then he will only “assist” me when I ask, the rest of the time he just runs in front of me, acting as my pacemaker.
I run mostly with an extending lead and collar, which allows him greater freedom. It is hard work running with giant extending leads as does affect your running style, therefore I would advise caution for anyone that is not used to it. Huskies cannot run free in open countryside as their hunting instincts and skills would ensure that they caught their own meal during each run – a practise that I am not in favour of! If however, you have a brilliant “off lead” dog, then life for you is much easier when it comes to increasing the distances that you run with him – in theory, you run, he follows…
The best advice that I can give for someone that wants to increase the distance that either they or their dog runs, is to get to know your own body and your dog’s body language. When does it hurt? When do you feel thirsty, hungry etc. Look out for the warning signs and react to them immediately, i.e. if it is normal for you to want a drink after 30 minutes, make sure you drink after 20 minutes.
Watch your dog’s stride, they way he reacts to your voice and his environment. Stop and reward him before he gets tired. It is better to return home with too much energy than fall through the door and collapse in a heap when you are first starting out running longer distances. The same applies for your dog. Start slowly and gradually build up to your target. Plan your running routes to include regular river crossings, or carry water for him (and you). I have always found that rivers work better as it gives the dogs a chance to paddle and cool their feet, even in the depths of winter they enjoy this.
During winter months I run the dogs in the morning and the evening. During summer months we only run very early in the morning, before the sun has arisen. All dogs vary as to their temperature tolerance, as do us humans. I can cope with running long distances in very hot temperatures, but I really do not enjoy it. I much prefer running in snow or heavily frosted trails – also the preferred husky environment!
When I started increasing the distance and duration of Kez’s runs, I included little walk breaks so that he could relax and sniff the ground, play or just enjoy the view. I had noticed that when we walk he would do this a lot, but when we ran he became very focussed, due to the “working” attitude of his inherited genes. I always made sure our routes were circular around our home, never too far from our home if I felt that either he or I were struggling. Some days we would run for hours and hours other times one of us just wasn’t up for a long one and we would take the short route home. Very rarely would be return on the path we went out on, it is far more rewarding for the mind to run a full loop!
When it comes to long distance running, it is the mind that plays the largest part in whether you succeed or not. All long runs will hurt at some point, it is just a case of managing that discomfort and overcoming the urge to stop.
Beyond marathon distance and food becomes a huge part of the success or not of a run. Your body requires more than just water to run happily during ultra distances. Learning to eat on the run is one of the most important aspects of training. What can your body cope with and what works. Gels and chocolate will only get you so far, baby food (yes baby food) flapjack, cheese sandwiches, salty crisps and coca cola will help more.
I have found that Kez does not need (or want) much food during any ultra. Sometimes he will take a little bit of flapjack, some meat or a dog treat, but most of the time he refuses. In the days leading up to a race I always ensure that he gets extra portions at dinner time – generally feed him until he refuses what I offer. Not all dogs are like this though, so please be careful! Two days before our first ever 50 mile event he consumed 17 chicken wings and 1lb of pork shoulder meat in one sitting…. this was way in excess of what he would normally have, but worked well for him as during the race he had one small piece of an oat cookie and finished the race stronger than I did!