The Dog Test

Except for the ones who are off-leash while I am running, I generally like dogs.  Well, to be truly honest, I like them from a distance.  And as a distance runner who is always working on improving my speed and form, dogs are part of the way I check in with how I am doing.  It’s all about what I call stealth running.

When a runner is out there on the street or the sidewalk, each footfall’s impact affects the whole body.  With each step, the brain is jarred in its cranial shell.  The joints get pounded, especially the hip, knee, and ankle.  To lessen that impact, the runner must land as softly as possible with each and every step.

With a traditional running shoe, the shoe causes a heel strike. The heel strike allows the runner a longer stride and perhaps an increase in speed.  Over time, that heel strike, which is not a natural body response to running, causes damage and injury to those joints and the muscles, ligaments, and tendons supporting them.  Listen the next time you see a runner coming up the street.  Chances are you will hear their feet striking the pavement well before you can see their face. Thunk, thunk, thunk.  The more expensive, cushioned and supportive the shoe, the louder the thunk.

Barefoot, or in a minimal support shoe, those muscles, ligaments, and tendons that are built-in shock absorbers are recruited to do their jobs.  Try running around your house barefoot— you will find your body protects itself by forcing you to land on your mid-sole to toe area of your foot.  The result is a shorter stride, but in time, learning to increase the turnover in that stride, the runner may actually improve in speed and find a lower incidence of injury.  You won’t hear much thunking in your living room if you try the barefoot test, and you won’t hear much from the runner who zips by in a minimal support shoe.

The job of the runner in a minimal shoe is to focus on the foot strike and the landing.  The softer the runner lands, the lower the impact on the body.  It’s a lot to think about, especially if the runner is trying to relax and unwind during a run.

So— back to the dogs.  I have been working on my foot strike for months and months.  I try to run as lightly as possible.  It’s challenging to assess my progress.  Other people out there— the walkers, the runners, the gardeners— are focused on themselves and their headphones, their fitness partners, their flower beds and their thoughts.  I usually wear headphones myself and although I don’t have my music too loud, I have a hard time hearing if I am making a lot of noise when I run.  The leashed dogs, the ones out with their kind owners on their early morning walks and enjoying the smells of the shoreline and the fire hydrants— they are my best measure.  Dogs are always listening.  They listen for other dogs, for squirrels, for mice rustling in the little wooded areas along the streets.  I don’t believe they are big thinkers.  They are present in the moment, sniffing and peeing and loping along, very aware of what is going on around them.

An older couple who live on South Street own two sheep dogs and walk them faithfully each morning.  They take the long loop from their house down Penzance Road, the dogs on fairly short leashes.   The dogs are slow and friendly, tuned into their walk.  Once in a while only one of the couple walks the dogs, but dogs are always together.  When I see them, I prepare for the test.

I approach from behind, easing my breath and running as lightly as I am able.  When I began to do this test, the dogs would turn their heads when I was still yards and yards behind them.  The owners never noticed me until I was quite close, maybe about 10 feet away.  I promised myself that by autumn of this year, I would be able to run quietly enough that the dogs would not turn their heads until I was almost beside them.

Last week, I spotted them by the two marshes before the beach.  I had just rounded the hill coming down from Eden Road.  I was sprinting the hill, trying to stay on the middle of my foot.  I ran onto level pavement and looked ahead.  This was it.  It was well into autumn, there were the dogs.  This was my chance.

I ended the sprint to control my breathing but continued to run at my normal pace.  I approached, working hard, even shutting down my iPod so I could hear my own steps.  Pretty quiet!  The dogs never turned their heads.  I was alongside them and only when I came into their line of vision did their great white muzzles turn to me in unison.

“Good morning!”

The owners, such sweet and friendly brief companions on my daily run both looked over to me, surprised.

“Good morning to you!  We didn’t hear you coming!”

“I’m working on my stealth running.  Guess I’m doing pretty well.”

“I’ll say.  Have a nice run.”

They always say that.  And also that they can count on seeing me no matter what.  They must think I’m nuts to be out there every morning in any weather.

As I wave my goodbye and turn my music back on, I congratulate myself on making my goal.  I finally passed the dog test.

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One Comment on “The Dog Test”

  1. Craig Says:

    Excellent!

    Not to make others jealous, but it is such a wonderful experience when the author reads a work aloud to you before they post it. The emotion and pace of excitement and calm periods come across so much better. It’s like having a private reading. Heck, it is having a private reading. I am so lucky.


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