For the past decade, I’ve had the privilege of running with a pack nearly every day. A pack of dogs, that is: three rescue pups with whom we’ve shared our rural home.
They may be the luckiest dogs in the world, free to run leash-free with me over the trails and dirt roads of the high plains. When they’re not chasing rabbits or pheasants, they usually fall into a pattern: one out front scouting, one a bit behind herding, and one so close I can reach down and touch his head.
I’m lucky too. I have a group of training partners who are eager to head out anytime, any day. They literally spin in circles when they see that I’m changed up to run. They never fail to remind me that running is a privilege and a joy. They have taught me that running is not only enjoyable but necessary every day — or as close as we can come to that — and without it we all get a bit frazzled and crazy.
Another lesson I’ve learned from this pack is that speed and distance are largely irrelevant — what is important is getting out, moving, exploring, seeing, breathing. Granted, they don’t prepare for races, they don’t set and achieve goals, nor do they have the satisfaction of progress and mastery. Those are uniquely human pleasures, which I appreciate as key parts of running in my life.
But, spending time with my dogs, it has been instructive that their lack of extrinsic motivation doesn’t dilute in any way their pure, unfettered joy of being able to run. Each run is appreciated for its own sake. It is not a means to achieving another end nor a step toward any goal. They need no larger story for motivation; they simply want to and love to run.
They also bring no ego or expectations to the task. They’re happy running at whatever pace I am going, be that 5K tempo or taking a walking break, and seem equally thrilled whether we go 10 miles or two (although they do briefly lobby to go farther every time I turn around to head home).
With races gone this year, and a bum knee keeping me from going very far or very fast, I’m learning from them how to value the smell of moisture in the morning breeze, the colors of the wildflowers along the trail and the majesty of the clouds billowing up in the east as much as what the numbers on my watch tell me about my fitness. Truthfully, the dogs don’t care much about the flowers or the breeze, but they smell and see and feel plenty along our runs — as if for the first time every day. And as I too start to pay attention to the world outside of my head, I am finding that runs can be measured by far more than length and pace.
One thing I never expected to learn from them is how to adjust training by feel. They’re particularly sensitive when dealing with heat. While any of them can outrun me any time they choose, as soon as the temperatures go up, they slow down. They don’t wait until they’re in trouble and have to slow. They don’t try to keep up until they fall off the back. They simply set a new pace and trot along happily, catching up with tails wagging when we stop for a drink and (for them) a swim at a pond or water tank.
We humans seem to have lost this instinct. We fail to listen to the cues that tell us we’re working too hard to maintain our normal pace. Or we refuse to accept the messages and push on anyway, inevitably paying for it with a spectacular crash and burn. Fortunately, we have the ability to study the body even if we no longer listen to it, and scientists have learned how much people slow as the temps rise. Applying that research can help us pace appropriately and help evaluate our runs.
Perhaps the path to learning to adapt our training stems from that last part — evaluating the run. My training partners are free to adjust their pace because they never consider if they ran well or poorly, if it was a good run or a bad run. They don’t worry what anyone else thinks of them, either, or how others might evaluate their run.
For them, every run is a great run. The only question is, “Can we go again? Soon?” And I — even if old, a bit lame and a lot lost this year — am the lucky one who gets to grant that wish, and share that joy.