I used to run alone in peace and conformity. I knew no other way until I met Sawyer. He’s my forever running partner. He slobbers a lot, digs in the leaves, wags and woofs — and it’s impossible to ride in the car with him while we drive to the trailhead. Welcome to whiny-town! But I can’t imagine life without him.
As I write this, I turn to look at Sawyer, who’s never more than a couple of steps away from me. His big, brown eyes catch me in his gaze, full of mischief and curiosity. He makes me wonder if I could ever find a bond so strong with a human runner. Named after Tom Sawyer, from Mark Twain’s boyhood tale, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we adopted him from the Central Aussie Rescue & Support Center — and by “we” I mean my husband, Brad, and our girls, Erika, Chloe and Alissa.
How did he come to be the best thing since Peanut M&Ms at an aid station, you ask? Well, it was one rainy afternoon in mid-May 2015 that we were out running errands, and I got suckered into visiting a pet adoption that was taking place, being told “we just want to look.” Like I hadn’t heard that one before. Thing is, I didn’t really want a dog. My life was already insanely busy, and to add the responsibility of having to take care of a dog — no thanks. But anyway, there we were looking at this wild thing. He had been a stray, just newly found, and he was frantically pacing and whining. We went into a small room where the girls could pet him and see how he interacted with them. He wanted nothing but treats, and then he’d run back to his foster mom. Maybe he was a little overwhelmed and nervous, she said. We got back in the car and then began the endless droning. “Please, please, please can we adopt Sawyer?” Ugh! As I sat there listening to all the arguments and proposals and deals that were being thrown at me, I couldn’t help but think how handsome Sawyer was. I reluctantly said we could go back and see what it would involve to adopt him. It was a faltering I will never, ever regret!
Fast forward to June 2015. It was the weekend of Kettle Morrain 100, and I was to be out of town for the race. There had been some talk of bringing Sawyer over for a house visit while I was gone for four days. Good! I wouldn’t have to deal with it, or so I thought. I got back in town, completely wasted from running 100 miles, and there he was in our home. I wasn’t sure what to make of him, and he wasn’t sure what to make of me, either. He still had that timid, stray dog air about him. So, we ignored each other that evening. On Monday morning, Brad went to work and the girls were off to school, and there I was alone with Sawyer. What am I supposed to do now? I mean, he was still handsome and all, but I didn’t really want a dog. The dude just happily followed me around all day. Next thing I know, our contact at the Aussie Rescue called and said Sawyer had cleared all his medical tests and ownership searches, and that he was ours to keep if we wanted him. All we needed to do is sign a few papers.
I’m not sure, I’m just not sure. I don’t think I want a dog. I put all my excuse cards on the table but was trumped by all the positive things that could happen if we chose to adopt Sawyer. The one thing that was laid on me over and over and OVER again was that his breed was so athletic and that he would make an excellent running dog. Ugh! But I like running alone. It’s my ME time. I looked at Sawyer, and if I’m being honest, I just didn’t have the heart to turn him away. And to see how excited the girls were to have him around…. So, I said yes, clearly stating that I was not going to run with him, as it would be too much trouble and I liked running alone. But, you see, it’s the simplest things that make us vulnerable, and when we least expect it, life can pleasantly surprise us.
As human beings, we often tend to complicate things. Relationships can sometimes end up becoming a tangled mess of emotions and feelings that never have an opportunity to grow or evolve. We resist and resent change. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you willingly open your heart to a dog, they will shower you with unconditional love that knows no limits. A dog enters your life with absolutely no demands, and if you’re open to the possibility of adventures together, they provide you with irreplaceable memories that live forever in you. It’s that simple!
So, here goes the tale of how I found the best running partner in Sawyer!
While I was recovering from Kettle Morrain in June 2015, I decided to take Sawyer on a run with me. I hated every moment of it! He was on a leash, and I felt like I was being pulled beyond my control. My 5-mile “easy” run at a 10-11 minute/mile pace was turned into an 8 minute/mile sprint that I didn’t know I was capable of two days after running a 100 miles. We tried this a couple more times, and it was nothing but frustration. The dog needed training, and who had time for that?
I decided I wasn’t going to run with Sawyer anymore, but each morning as I laced up, there he was, looking at me expectantly. I’d ignore him, and then the guilt of leaving him behind weighed on me so much that I couldn’t enjoy my run. There has to be a better way of doing this. Next run, I took Sawyer to the trail and decided to try him off the leash. It was 7 a.m., mid-week, a time when there was hardly any traffic on the trails. I was hopeful! Alas, as soon as I let him off the leash, he was gone. Just gone. Out of sight. I stood there completely horrified, as I had no idea where the hell had he run off to. There was anger and a weird sense of betrayal. How could he just bolt on me? I walked as I scanned the trails, calling his name, but Sawyer was nowhere to be found. After 10 minutes of yelling for him, I finally caught a glimpse of his furry face peeking at me from behind a tree about a quarter mile ahead. That’s it! I yelled at him, put him on the leash and was once again pulled into a sprint as we made our way back to the car.
We tried this a few more times with no improvement. If Sawyer wasn’t sprinting a half mile ahead of me, he was chasing squirrels, deer and wild turkey — or molesting the occasional turtle on the trail. He would excitedly jump on other people that we came across, and if we happened upon another dog while on the trail, it was impossible to control him. He was incorrigible!
But there was also something about him that connected with me deeply when we ran together. It was a feeling of freedom, limitless frolic, absolute euphoria that I felt when I watched him run. Seeing Sawyer run is a thing of beauty! I sometimes found myself wondering if I could ever run like that — effortless, free of inhibition, gliding over the terrain below my feet like the rocks and roots didn’t exist. It was absolute perfection! I dreaded running with him, yet I dreaded even more not to take him with me. How could a dog make me feel that way?
As the temperature got hotter that summer, I stopped running with Sawyer altogether. I’d take him on a hike now and then, but I had quit running with him due to the heat and also because it was frustrating that he just wouldn’t listen. It wasn’t until late fall and winter when I started to run with him again. At that time, I decided to keep him off the leash but carry it with me at all times. When Sawyer would take off, I’d stop and make him come back to me, give him a little talking to and then we’d be off again. If we came across other people on the trail, I’d call him and clip on the leash. I did the same when we’d encounter another dog. Slowly but surely, I was beginning to notice improvement. Sawyer had stopped chasing after deer, squirrels, turtles and or any other animals we encountered. He stuck to the single track and was never out of my sight, and he always stopped to look back and make sure I was in tow. He had also stopped jumping on other people that we came across on the trail, but there was still the issue of other dogs.
This is when I decided to use the good dog, bad dog behavior encouragement. I started to take his treats on the run with me. If he didn’t listen to a command, he’d get an earful from me. His ears would fold back and he’d have that guilty-as-charged look in his eyes. Every time he’d listen to a command, I’d give him a treat along with positive reinforcement. Next step was running with Sawyer on the leash. If I felt I was being pulled, I would stop running, give Sawyer some talking to and then slowly start back up. A few frustrating runs on the leash later, and we had our breakthrough. One morning as I ran with him on the leash from our house, which is a little over a mile from Castlewood, he got the hang of it and stopped pulling my ass along. Once we hit the trail, I let him off the leash. We repeated the procedure on the way back, and I was excited to see he actually started running on pace with me while on the leash!
So, there you have it! I’m closing in on two years of countless miles and adventures that I’ve been fortunate enough to share with mas loco Sawyer. I can’t imagine trail running without him. I’m glad I didn’t give up on him, and vice versa. I’ve found the most patient running partner, who never speaks a word yet shares with me a silent understanding and partnership that cannot be broken. Now if only he would stop charging at me in the middle of a run when he gets excited and wants to play, running in circles around me while I try to keep a straight face and not fall off the edge. But what would be the fun in that?
I will forever cherish every memory made running with Sawyer, and although he may never understand these spoken words, I do hope he knows how much I love him and the joy he brings to my daily life.
Go run with a dog, and live a little!
This is a sport of extremes. Nothing about running 50 or 100 miles at one stretch is “normal” or “balanced.” I’m aware of that fact. Actually, it’s the inspiration for this blog.
Running ultra-distance requires long hours of training, sometimes in extreme conditions and mostly out in the wilderness. On top of that, you have the logistical juggling act of fine-tuning fueling, gearing and strategizing to successfully meet your desired goal — whether this is a particular time, distance or personal achievement. It’s probably the most demanding and time-consuming sport I can think of.
However, that doesn’t mean that we, as ultrarunners, are automatons. Except for the elitest of the elites, we aren’t these guys and girls who do nothing but run all day, every day. We have jobs and families and responsibilities — not to mention very real health and wellness issues that we have to deal with.
Every time I hit the trail, I’m happy to be there. Each time I’m 75 miles into a 100-mile race and suffering, I remind myself how grateful I am to be strong enough to move that far forward on my own two feet. Statistics show that only about 70,000 people worldwide complete an ultra marathon each year. That’s a miniscule percentage who are able to do what we do.
But let’s also be unreservedly honest: The sport of ultrarunning is a selfish ambition. I’ve come to accept this. It takes considerable amounts of time, money and concentration — all of which can negatively impact of our families, friends and careers.
In this sport of extremes, where drive and commitment are so vital, we also require perspective. So, as we struggle to maintain a balance of all things life and ultrarunning, here are few things to keep in mind:
Author: Shalini Kovach is the lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners. She is a competitive ultrarunner, directs two annual ultra-distance races and organizes other community events, and is a wife and the mother of three girls. Oh, and the dog, don't forget the dog.
My fellow runners, ask not what you can do to RUN, ask what a RUN can do for you!
Aside from the obvious benefits staring you in the face -- like we run to lose weight, stay fit, improve our health, compete in races or try something new -- there is a deeper, more spiritual reason for running.
Yes, running is personal to each and every one of you. It means something very different from person to person. Running is a big question mark that’s there each and every day.
Here are my top 10 reasons for running
I run, therefore I am.
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
1. How far do you run?
Doink! Didn’t you hear me when I said the words ultra and runner? Sorry but 26.2 is only a warm up.
2. What pace do you run?
Oh good lord...pace!?! What is that? I just need to FINISH!
3. How many toes nails do you have?
I lost count after 10.
4. Ever heard of a car?
Gee, thanks, Einstein!
5. What do you do about bodily functions while running distance?
Take it on the GO!
6. You must really like running?
Umm…I accept that ultras are about suffering and perseverance.
7. How far is your 50k marathon?
You got me there.
8. How do you run a 100 miles?
How do you eat an elephant?
9. Do you run the whole thing?
Now you’re channeling your inner stupid.
10. Have you ever gotten lost?
Ah! Last but not the least…it ain’t a trail run if you didn’t get lost.
Author: Shalini Kovach is the lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
“The question to ask right now is what’s really happening in Mexico? While they are at war, we come together to make peace here in the bottom of the Canyon.” – Micah True
Just three days ago I was in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, excited beyond belief to run in what is one of the world’s most fabled ultramarathons. Then a local police commander was allegedly kidnapped and two officers executed by a drug cartel, and as a result the race was cancelled due to safety concerns.
Now, as I sit here in the comfort of my home, I ponder multiple questions dealing with violence, community and self. But before I go any further in describing my experience from this past weekend, and the takeaways, there’s a thing or two you need to know about the reason I picked this race and write this blog.
I turn 40 in 2015, and a lot of thought went into choosing the races I hope to run this year. I first saw a write up about ultrarunning legend Micah True in my news feed in 2013. After having read it, I found myself increasingly obsessing with the race he founded. So, as my fourth decade on this planet came around, it made sense to sign up and go find out for myself what the fuss was all about. Caballo Blanco would be my first race of the season.
Once registered, I wouldn’t shut up about the race. Then, in the company of running friends, someone mentioned the book Born to Run. I don’t read, I said. I just don’t have the patience for it. This was the wrong answer, and in a matter of a week I was hooked up with an audio version of the book and told I needed to listen to it before heading to Caballo Blanco. Finally, in November of last year, I reluctantly gave it a listen. And…it all made sense! The joy of running, the fascination with pushing beyond boundaries, the spiritual connection with self, other runners and the world. I was more than certain of my decision to run the race than ever.
Fast forward to February 2015. At this point I’d connected with a few other runners who were signed up and headed to Copper Canyon. I can’t stress enough that if Caballo Blanco is on your radar you need to connect with other folks headed there. It took five months of logistics and fine-tuning the details before we were confident we could get there and back in the time frame we had (roughly five days). Did I say I was beyond ecstatic?
Leaving from St. Louis were Tim and I. We would meet Jason and David in Chihuahua, Mexico, and then commence with the long drive to Urique and Copper Canyon. This is no ordinary race; it’s a journey, and it’s what destination races are all about. So I thought, anyway, until my bags were packed and loaded into a van full of other runners.
If you haven’t been in a van full of people on the way to an adventure, you’re missing out. Stuck in with a bunch of male ultrarunners, I was the only girl, wedged between Carlos, Don and Francisco, who we’d also picked up. The dynamic was a little strange at first, but then Don started talking.
Intro to Don: As we would find out, he’s been running ultras for 35 years. This is one MOFO distance runner, and he has lived a very colorful life. I found myself wondering what it would be like to live as him for a day.
The drive out to Urique was gorgeous — so scenic and peaceful — but also treacherous, with unfinished back roads and very rocky terrain. Though a couple of us felt motion sick, conversation flowed inside the van. Suddenly, we were passed by a truckload of boys, no older than 15 or 16 years old, with guns in their hands. Cartel! They leisurely waved at us as they drove by. It was a little unnerving, but I was aware of this likelihood as I’d stepped off the plane in Mexico. Not once did it make me question my decision to be there.
Nine hours and multiple stops later, we finally arrived in Urique. My first impression was how remote it was. The entire town is a strip comprised of two or three miles, totally self-contained. There was something very raw and peaceful about it. Calm, untouched, beautiful! Our hotel room was nothing fancy. Actually, it was a welcome change from all the modernization and craziness that we surround ourselves with on a daily basis.
Ready to Run
On Friday morning Tim, David and I were up and out the door for a course preview, five miles out and five miles back. The sun was bearing down on us one mile into the hike, and I was hot. This course was no joke; it was going to be a tough race, not just the terrain but the temperature, lack of shade and all the other things factored into being in the canyon. I found myself reevaluating my strategy. I broke away from the boys and hiked for a bit with a couple on their third annual pilgrimage to Urique. They weren’t running this year but had driven from Colorado with their two kids, who were taking part in the kids’ race. The parents were both volunteering on race day and helping out with the various other projects.
Done with the hike, we made our way back into town and saw two pickup trucks with armed guards pull up as we arrived. They were searching for something or someone. I can’t speak for David and Tim, but I was pretty oblivious to the scene in front of us. We walked past the trucks and the somewhat anxious scene on the street and went to our rooms. We changed and connected with Carlos over lunch, then went on to explore the town some more.
By that evening, things were different in the town. It was somehow more alive, stirred from the slow, lazy slumber of the past 24 hours. I turned my head to see the strip swarming with the legendary Raramuri Runners, the local tribes people who take part in Caballo Blanco in order to receive maize, beans, rice, flour and seed corn for their families. It was surreal, lovely and daunting at the same time. Tim, David and I stood at the corner of the street, talking and taking it all in as things got real.
We hung out that evening after dinner and watched the movie “Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco” in the town square. As the day came to an end, the enormity of where I was and what I was part of dawned on me. I wasn’t the only fool who had travelled to Urique to try to become a small thread in this amazing tapestry. I was surrounded by nearly 100 international runners from 23 countries, 260 Mexican nationals from outside Copper Canyon and more than 500 Raramuri runners — all connected as one in that moment. It was exhilarating. I was nervous yet excited to be a part of it, and also looking forward to taking on the 50 miles of challenging race course.
Saturday morning rolled around, and we were up and moving at 7 a.m. as the entire town buzzed in preparation for the kids’ run. Tim had put on the Superman costume costume he’d brought from home and was hanging with the locals, doing what Tim does best. Everyone was stopping to chat him up and take photos with him — and, yes, he was digging all the attention. It was such a great, simple, happy moment. David, Carlos and I hung around the sidelines, handing out candy as the kids ran past.
Later, as we made our way to grab lunch and head to packet pickup, there was some whispering on the street about security concerns and our race cutoff time being pushed up. Someone mentioned people being dragged out of town and shot. Huh?
As we sat at lunch, speculating, David suggested we find the race director and try to get some answers. We made it back to the town center and caught up with Josue, the RD, and were told that after a long discussion, they had in fact decided to cancel the race due the unrest, security concerns and the unwillingness to put the runners’ lives in danger. They were going to make the announcement at 4 p.m. in the town square, as everyone gathered for the evening’s festivities.
Come again? I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. Security concerns? Had someone really been killed? No, this is all wrong. This can’t be happening. Surely we can still run. I mean, we’re all here. We came out to run.
Reacting to the News
After my initial reaction, and having had a little time (and a beer) to process the decision, I saw that the situation was much bigger than me. In fact, it was bigger than all the racers. As we sat discussing our exit strategy and trying not to panic, it occurred to me that I could leave, but the situation in Mexico would remain the same.
At that moment, the race being cancelled didn’t matter. This wasn’t about a race at all. What mattered was that we were in the here and now with people — athletes, organizers, parents, tibes people, townsfolk — all brought together and living a life touched by the joy of running.
As it appeared to be our last night together in Urique, since we would all be going home instead of running on Sunday morning, we agreed it was going to be a celebration. A few too many drinks later, we made it the town square. Though happy, I was still restless and terribly disappointed. It was like a perfect storm had hit home. We stood there, side by side, as the cultural festivities went on per schedule, knowing that the race was not happening. Then the official cancellation announcement came.
I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but the scene before my eyes was not one of disappointment, anger and shock but quite the contrary. Within minutes of the announcement being made, the vibe of the town center changed. It was like we were being swallowed in the comradery. People held up signs representing the part of the world they were from, singing and shouting; they hugged and held up the peace sign. Sure, there were some tears, but there were also comforting shoulders and smiles.
Words can’t do justice to how I felt at that moment. It was surreal. It was the right thing to do. Cancelling a race is never an easy decision, but this one was a much harder decision to make because it impacted not only the runners who had traveled from across the globe, but also the locals who count on the race for as part of their liveilhood.
But just like that, for me anyway, it made sense. This was meant to be. The race might be off, but the message of belonging to something bigger than yourself, the message of peace that Micah True had maintained, would never be cancelled. We weren’t there just to run a 50-mile race. This was bigger than us — this was bigger than everyone present — it was about being able to Run Free.
We packed up the van once more as we prepared to leave Urique on Sunday morning. The town continued the race with a modified course and mostly the locals running it. We left with a couple of other runners who had not been part of our original crew. Hello, Gerardo and the charming “Finn” (whose name is actually Mikko, unbeknownst to me for much of the day).
Another nine hours of driving in the van later we, arrived in Chihuahua. We spent the next day together, all of us running at a local park as our way of honoring Caballo Blanco and what the race stands for, what it meant to each one of us.
Now, as I write this, I’m not the same person I was when I left St. Louis. What I experienced has changed me not only as a runner but as an individual. I feel blessed to have met so many beautiful, complex and amazing runners. We created bonds that only running can bring.
I’ve never once questioned my decision to sign up for this race, and I’m not about to do so now. This will forever be an experience I will hold dear to my heart — the laughs, the bullshit and the love.
And, yes, I’ve already asked myself the question: Will I go back to run it in 2016?
If you’ve been closely reading this blog, I don’t need to answer that for you. You already know the answer is Yes Indeed!
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
Our blog writers are members of Terrain Trail Runners, local athletes just like you, who want to share their love and knowledge of the sport.