By Ginger Shackelford
Though dogs have been running ultra distances since the dawn of time, it has only recently occurred to the human species that they may also be capable of the same.
If you are aching to put some miles on your paws and would like to bring your human along, it is now possible to do this safely if you follow a few simple precautionary steps.
Below is how I have successfully trained my human to run ultra distances. This weekend, we successfully completed 31 miles in 27 hours. (Hey, I didn’t say she was fast.) If my human can do it, so can yours.
Recognizing an Ultra Human
Not any human can be your ultra running partner. How do you know if yours is ready for an ultra? Firstly, you need a human who is committed to your comfort. They long to please you. If you pull your leash on your daily walk, does your human allow you to go faster? If they concede and follow your lead, you may be the owner of a good ultra human.
The Early Steps
I began training my human with running intervals. On my daily walk, I would start to trot. My human was happy to follow. Then I pulled a little harder, and a little harder. Do this until your human is almost running at a full sprint. Then stop dead on the trail to sniff a bush.
This will sharpen your human’s reflexes, while the intervals will improve their speed. Don’t worry if your human falls flat on their face the first few times as they trip over you. They will learn in time.
Pulling on your leash has a secondary benefit: your human will be more inclined to let you off-leash. This gives you the freedom you need for easier and faster training, and the experience is more enjoyable for you both.
Some humans take longer to let you off-leash than others. Remember, humans need their leashes to feel safe and secure. You are their protector. When they let you off, this is a sign that they have matured and are ready to progress in their training.
Getting to the Event
No matter how much you have trained off-leash with your human, once you arrive at the ultra you will notice the leash is back around your neck. Be patient with your human. They are a nervous species, really.
Your human needs some time to familiarize themselves with their environment, and they need you close by. Once your human feels comfortable with their surroundings, they will release their leash.
You may celebrate his milestone with a tail wag or a happy hop. This shows your human that you are proud of them. It is important that you still stay close by, preferably keeping your human in sight. If they cannot see you, this may trigger their separation anxiety and you will find yourself back on the leash.
Running the Race
All your human really wants is to be just like you. At our last race, my human wanted so badly to be like me that she tried to run the race barefoot. Silly. At least she didn’t try to make me wear those ridiculous doggie shoes that I hate.
Humans only have half the legs that you do, and they are much more fragile in their build. It is important to be patient with your human, to motivate and encourage them, and to keep them safe.
Because my human decided to go barefoot, I could not safely push her to run the speeds that I wanted. However, I still had a lot of jobs to do:
I ran the first few miles with my human, showing her how much fun we were having and what a great experience this was. I bounded through the fields, sprinted ahead on the grass, and climbed everything in sight. This made my human smile and forget the disappointment of not being able to run as well as I do.
Remember: as you are encouraging your human to have fun, always come when they call. Their call means that they need you. Although there may not be a specific problem, do not become impatient with them. They don’t always know why they call.
At one point, I was so busy motivating my human that I dashed around a corner and ran right into a turkey. I decided to run behind my human after that. Turkeys are a horrid species, really.
The more tired my human became, the closer I stuck by her. Maintain a steady pace ahead of your human (or behind, if you see fit), to drive them forward. I ran both in front of and behind my human. I like to switch it up depending on my human’s state of mind.
If your human is slowing down, keep your pace. Your human may follow you. If you assess that your human simply cannot follow you, do not leave them. Stand on the side of the trail until they have caught up, but do not come unless they call. Moving forward, always. Humans are similar to cattle. You must drive them.
Ultra races have course markers. Teach yourself, as I did, to follow the markers. My human was surprised when I could lead her through the course markings with accuracy, but it is not that difficult to follow the ribbons. Be aware because humans have an atrocious sense of direction, often getting lost on well-marked courses. As they get tired, they also become more stupid. It is important that you point them where they should go.
Humans are a skittish species and incredibly distrustful of wildlife. It is your job to keep an eye out for any critters, both large and small, that may startle them. At a few points during the race my human saw some cattle nearby and immediately put me on the leash.
This showed me that she was worried the cattle were going to eat her, so I perked up and stayed sharp, glaring the cattle down to show them my human was off limits. When the threat had passed, my human let me off-leash again, a sign that I had done a good job of protecting her from these vicious predators.
5. Human Buddy
Humans are a social species, and will have their spirits lifted if you bring along a second human. Do not take this personally. Although it is obvious that your company is far superior, the additional human will in fact ease your responsibility.
Your human will be more distracted and pleasant. Instead of whining or grumbling to you, you are free to run ahead and enjoy the trails while they chat to their buddy.
With these tips in mind, here is a race report of the Born to Run Ultra Marathon 50K, my first ultra with my human:
BORN TO RUN 50K
I arrived a day early and camped out, to give my human time to adjust to her environment. Although she kept me on the leash for the first few minutes, it wasn’t long before I was off. Good human.
I was indignantly fed some dog food from home while my human enjoyed special camping treats. However, upon expressing my disapproval, she was soon feeding me from her meal.
I took some time to get acquainted with the other canines who had brought their humans. One of them was the infamous Ghost Dog who is a fellow illegal Mexican immigrant. I was happy to see he had made it safely across the border and was now in loving hands. We exchanged pleasantries.
The humans participated in an unrefined ball-playing game that made little sense. As a ball connoisseur, I can tell you that this spherical object had all the wrong qualities. It was neither soft nor chewable, and therefore unplayable.
The dogs all stood around in horror as the humans insisted on kicking this thing around. Sadly, this is not uncommon and not much more can be expected. Humans are notorious for ball atrocities, such as pushing around a much-too-hard one they call “golf”, or a much-too-large one they call “basketball”. Ridiculous. You can view this pathetic display of sportsmanship below.
On race day, the gun went off and my human started in last place, without any shoes. She is not the smartest pet at the races. As the hard reality set in for her that she was not, in fact, a dog, I tried my best to keep her motivated by prancing in the grass and showing her how much fun we were having.
On the way, we picked up a stray named Caity who was going in the wrong direction. I redirected her on the right path and brought her along to help my human. Caity was being run by a new canine named Nigel. He was decent company, but fairly inexperienced. He went a little overboard with his running and made his human nervous. I had a word with him and then he was better.
After the first loop was over, my human was in low spirits but very appreciative of my invaluable company. To express her thanks, she offered me a pineapple on which to lay my head. I thought this strange, but lay down on the prickly object to show her that I appreciated the gesture. Humans are weird.
I encouraged my human to rest by immediately passing out on the grass and taking a nap. This worked, as my human sat down and ate for a long time. When she was feeling better, my human put on shoes and I jumped up to show her I was ready to go.
This second loop was much more successful. My human ran along happily, even though she no longer had the company of stray Caity. I kept an eye out for cattle. Near the end of that second loop, I could tell my human was once again getting tired. It was also getting dark.
My human is clearly afraid of the dark since she is no good at night running and often falls asleep soon after the sun sets, so it didn’t surprise me when she crawled into the tent and called me to come after her. She fell asleep almost immediately, and I feared that our run would be over.
The next morning, my human was feeling better and decided to finish the race. I showed my approval by eating half of her breakfast burrito. None of the other dogs were running their humans this morning, since their humans were all thoroughly wiped. I was proud that mine still had some life in her legs, though she was slow as molasses.
The last loop with my human was the most fun. She ran it in two hours and fed me beef jerky and potatoes. I even chased a few bunnies. I have done well to teach my human not to care about time, to forget her stats (they’re embarrassing, really), and to run with joy in her heart. We finished 30 miles in total, with just one more to go.
In the final mile, my human was penalized for sleeping during a 50K. The RD’s instructions were that she must kick the Tarahumaran ball for the final mile–no hands allowed.
My human isn’t very coordinated and kept kicking the ball into the bushes for me to retrieve. At one point she even stepped on it and took a tumble. If she says I tripped her, she is lying.
I finally just carried the ball for the last half-mile, which was uncomfortable because it was made out of hard wood and it tasted like Luis Escobar. But I try to help my human as much as I can and carried her punishment without complaining.
All said and done, my human is pretty dumb but I sure do love that bitch. I’ll train her better and bring her back next year.
A Note From My Human: Vanessa Runs
I had such as blast running this race with Miss Ginger. She truly humbled me with her patience and skill and made me look pretty stupid out there. I even would have missed a few turns if she didn’t guide me in the right direction, following the course markings where I couldn’t.
She literally paced me through my low spots – staying just enough ahead of me to encourage me to push ahead. She made me laugh the whole way.
At one point running that second loop, we were all alone on the ridge, running into the sunset. I felt like Micah and she was my Ghost. Just two bitches against the world.
At that moment, I truly learned the magic between a human and an animal who can understand that human completely. Ginger, I’ll follow you through the trails any day.