by Julie Millard
Most runners have a love-hate relationship with the sport, but we are often inspired by our training partners, who get us out the door even on the toughest days. In recent years, my most faithful running companions have been lovely ladies with four legs and infinite enthusiasm. My current trail buddy is Lily, a young Border Collie, who is always up for an adventure. On Memorial Day weekend we made the trip to Pineland Farms for the Canicross 5k. This race was part of the new Pineland Farms Trail Festival-- a lot like the old Trail Running Festival but under new management by Back40Events!
Canicross (canine cross country) is a legitimate sport with its origins in keeping sled dogs fit during the off season. It differs from just running with your dog in that the human wears a waist belt, the canine wears a harness, and the team is tethered together by a bungee. During a competition, the length of the bungee becomes important so that it doesn’t impede other runners. At Pineland, there was no official equipment check, but the sport can be quite serious, with a Border Collie/Whippet mix named Bailey leading her human (former Olympian Anthony Famiglietti) to 3:59 mile in 2019 (according to Runner’s World).
I had no idea what to expect of this event, having previously only participated in the longer races at Pineland as an individual. When we arrived at the venue, the clearing was filled with teams of varying sizes, colors, and shapes- from a 13-pound Jack Russell with her 66-year-old partner to the greyhound-and-human pair who would lead the field with a sub-14 that day. I knew that I would be the weak link in our duo, but Lily’s enthusiasm for greeting the competition reassured me that being in the middle of the pack would be fine with her.
As the pre-race clock counted down, the excitement seemed to build, with lots of barking and baying. Teams were spread out at the start, but the course rapidly funneled into a narrow trail after a relatively sharp downhill turn, making it quite easy to slip or get tripped up by someone else’s bungee. (I speak from personal experience.) In future, I would definitely start closer to the back to avoid a tangle.
All the dogs seemed to understand what to do- just follow the pack! Although the sport can be quite complicated with several recommended voice commands, I relied on the standard “Leave it,” “Go go go,” and “Good job”! Some dogs pulled up sharply for emergency potty breaks or to drink from a puddle, and it was important to be on the alert for a dog crossing over into one’s lane. (This annoys me immensely when humans do it during a race, but my tolerance was much higher for my canine competitors.) Several times Lily made the rookie mistake of looking over her shoulder, but I attribute this to race inexperience! There were a few mouth breathers- the kind that make you tired just hearing them- but they seemed to drop back once we hit the second half of the course, which was a fairly steady uphill.
Amazingly, Lily and I were 21st place in a field of about 70 teams, but the reward of having her tired out for the rest of the day was the biggest accomplishment of all! If you have a furry friend who loves other dogs, I highly recommend checking out a Canicross event. Lily and I will probably be there!