Saturday, August 18, 2012

Learning to Run

A perfect running style is a joy to watch. Precise, purposeful movement optimizing strength with an economy and efficiency that stands in stark contrast to those human specimens least gifted in this area. I remember watching the perfection of a Carl Lewis sprint or a Heike Dreschler long jump and admiring what was obvious to even the untutored eye. But for all the accomplishments of hominids, the grace and beauty of a "running machine" really only exists in the animal kingdom. There is much to admire. From the power over short bursts of a cheetah, to the sustained energy of a race horse. These animals are not only built to run but they they are at their most elegant and compelling when they do run.

None of these characteristics describe Andrew. Although Lurchers are very fast over short bursts, they are not pure breds. Their lineage, such that it is, is drawn from parts of Greyhound, Whippet, and with a hint of Saluki. There are likely even more varieties than this, but the outcome is similar - an effective running machine, but not a honed running machine. Lurcher's are a compromise - they are built for speed but they are required to kill. Consequently, they carry some muscle bulk in order to wrestle their catch to the ground.

When Andrew first arrived we introduced him to Jet (our Doberman/Labrador cross) in a neutral field near home. He was a thin and spindly dog and we weren't sure how he would run with having had so many operations on his forelegs. Our concerns were unfounded. My initial apprehension and anxiety melted into unrestrained laughter as this uncoordinated beast tore around the field, tripping over just about anything, almost falling over as his hind legs slipped from under him. Jet didn't know whether to run towards him, run with him or run away from him. Her face screamed "what is that?" She had good cause. 

In no time at all Andrew was exhausted. Three laps of the field and he was finished. There was no gas left in his tank. I even wondered if there was a tank. Twelve months of serious injury, surgery and rehabilitation at the rescue center had taken its toll. At least one thing had been confirmed - Andrew found it easier to operate without troubling his brain. Still, the meeting with Jet had been a success. There had been no fisticuffs. No-one had been bitten, injured or dominated. The dogs weren't exactly in love, but it wasn't WWIII either.

It was my wife's idea that I take both dogs running together. I am sure this had nothing to do with Andrew being an absolute nuisance in the kitchen - raiding the trash can...even when it was "locked" in a cupboard...and scattering the contents around the house. I am also sure that it had nothing to do with his flatulence. It's not that Andrew was an excessively windy dog, but what he lacked in force he made up for with quality and the sudden interest of my wife in scented candles began to make sense. I also doubt whether his drinking from the toilet bowl came into it. But my protests were futile. What's one more dog in open countryside? Indeed. But what a dog.

A common feature of the northern English countryside are dry stone walls - enclosures built in the 1800's by farmers to mark territory and retain animals. The network of public footpaths and rights of way crossed these boundaries by way of stiles - wooden or stone "steps" - and there were lots of them. Agile dogs like Jet would leap over these without breaking stride. Andrew was another matter. To be fair to him, some of these dry stone walls were six feet high and were built with protruding stones - it wasn't easy or obvious for a dog like Andrew to figure out what to do.

I can remember Andrew's very first run. I took him and Jet off leash on a short 6 mile circuit that didn't include much ascent. I didn't want to tire him out. It was a wet, miserable day and the ground was thick with mud. We arrived at the first stile and, as I clambered over, Jet just leaped over the wall. I descended the other side and began jogging along the trail. Where was Andrew? I looked back and there was no sight of him. I was more than a little anxious. My wife had told me that my life wouldn't be worth living if anything happened to him - in our family of pack animals I knew where I stood!

I re-climbed the stile and from the top could see Andrew. Completely confused he was running the length and breadth of the wall trying to work out where Jet and I had gone. "Andrew, you blithering idiot" was the best I could muster- it's all positive behavioral management in our house - and I climbed down to help show him the way. He was all eager and clueless in equal proportion. Once I had his attention (well, I like to think I had his attention, but I'm not sure he had any attention) I climbed the stile patting my leg and encouraging him. He got all excited for no apparent reason and began running along the wall again from one side to the other. Jet had jumped onto the top of the wall wondering what was holding us up - she knew the next field usually had rabbits and was impatient.

I climbed back down and called over Andrew. This time I tried physically lifting his front legs onto the first step and then shoved him from behind. I realized that, if seen, this wouldn't look good and quickly gave up. He had no idea what was going on and I was facing an embarrassing return to the house with a "this dog can't run" report. That thought actually had some merit to it and to this day I saw it as a lost opportunity. I was completely stuck with what to do. Andrew was a big dog, but why couldn't he just hop up the steps like Jet and we could get on running? I was getting cold and more frustrated. Poor Andrew just didn't have the processing power to do anything more than breathe.

I was out of options and wasting time. I don't know when the idea came into my head, but it was one thing to come up with an idea and a completely different thing to execute it successfully. I called Andrew to my side and knelt beside him. I patted his head and stroked his chin. This unusual show of affection didn't seem to raise his suspicions and he seemed happy to stand for a while. Then, with a move that must have both puzzled and perplexed him, I ducked my head under his body and staggered into a standing position with Andrew laid across my shoulders- his front legs dangling down my left side and his hind legs to the right. If I could have seen his face I am sure his eyes would have been crossed. Andrew was a big dog and I had to get over the stile with him on my back before he started to wriggle and get free. If this move was a shock to Andrew it had the effect of calming rather than spooking him. I hadn't accounted for the fact that Andrew had filthy wet mud clinging to his underside  and this was now smeared all over my shoulders and neck. It was disgusting. I cut an impressive sight. I was anxious about being seen - I was close to home and the questions could be embarrassing - "Was it you I saw with that dog wrapped around your neck?" "You like your dog...don't you?" "The only think that was missing was the music." It all went through my mind as I glanced quickly in every direction.

I reached the top of the stile and it must have been a ridiculous sight. Thankfully no-one was around to witness this crazy spectacle - no-one, that is, except for the farmer who was approaching from the other direction. I froze and looked at him. He froze and looked at me. He had one of those puzzled expressions that text messagers today call "wtf?" - was the dog injured? - was I some kind of nutcase with a penchant for draping dogs across my body? - was I a dog thief running away with a reluctant animal?...was I enjoying it too much?...what had been going on over the wall? There was no end to the range of possible questions.

I quickly came to my senses, slithered down to the ground, dropped Andrew on to his feet and we were off running. As the farmer's jaw opened to speak I interrupted - "Don't mind the dog," I spluttered, "he's scared of heights." And we were gone.

There were three more stiles to navigate and I had to repeat the treatment at each one. Andrew didn't seem to mind. I, on the other hand, had a filthy muddy smear all across my shoulders, neck and upper back. I think it was just mud although goodness knows what else Andrew had run through. The stench was disgusting.

This explains how Andrew became the cause of a running tradition - washing at the water troughs. I could hardly turn up at home in that state. How would I explain it? The solution was right in front of me as I entered the village a quarter mile from home. I washed down my legs then removed my tee shirt and washed the slime from my neck and shoulders. Oh, I nearly was November. Hmmm. Cool. I lifted Andrew's front legs onto the front of the troughs and began splashing him on his chest and midriff. I didn't hear the car pulling up. I turned to see the same farmer driving past. He slowed to a crawl, wound down his window and stared in disbelief. He was clearly trying to create a narrative around a bare-chested runner hugging a filthy dog while splashing water over each other. As he started to accelerate away I could see him slowly shaking his head. I quickly rinsed my shirt in the water troughs and then put it back on. It wasn't quite dry.

I protested walking through the door at home - "Look, I have a reputation to think of..."

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