Why Dogs Are the Best Trail Running Partners – Outside Magazine

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My dog and I have the same needs: slow morning walks, just taking in our surroundings. Running on trails with wild abandon. Jumping in mountain lakes and wallowing in mountain lakes. Lying in the sun like a bum. We both love being outside in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature, and we enjoy each other’s company—steadfast support and shared appreciation for each other. For those reasons and more, my nine-year-old yellow lab named Lulu is my favorite trail running partner. (Sorry, regular human running partners. Love you, too!)
As long as I’ve had a dog of my own—a yellow lab named Hannah preceded Lulu—I’ve run with my dog on trails.
With both Hannah and Lulu, I waited patiently until they were one-and-a-half or two years old and approved by my vet before heading out to run on the trails, so as to not damage their growth plates. (While I waited, we walked and hiked.) During a time when I was still missing Hannah after she passed, I took Lulu to a mountain trail when she was just old enough and we ran among the granite peaks, forests, and fields of wildflowers. Her ears flopped in the wind and her tongue flapped about as it tends to do with dogs in their happy place. It was my happy place, too, but I wasn’t sold on my new dog. I missed Hannah.
Once we reached the alpine lake we’d set out for, I scrambled up some rocks and Lulu whined with worry. I looked back at the shore to see my “new” dog loving me—it was in her eyes—and decided that heck, I loved her, too. My company that day became my new favorite running partner.
I have a theory that people in their 20s who become dog owners really crave love. A relationship. Steadfast companionship. And since it’s tough to find a human soulmate in your 20s—it was for me, anyway—I got a puppy, Hannah. Dogs are satisfyingly receptive to love. Shower love on a dog, and they love you back. No fighting, no judgment. Unconditional.
Road running has always been bad for my relationship with my dog. Training for a race has always been bad for my relationship with my dog. But running on trails, that’s where the two of us thrive. The softer-than-pavement terrain is better for her joints and her paws, just as it’s better for mine. The trees and squirrels and dirt make us both feel more alive than cars and buildings and other people—even other dogs—do.
In my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, Lulu and I hit the trails a couple days a week after dropping my boys off at school. I load up a pack and throw it over my shoulders for the run; it both makes me stronger and slows me to a pace that works for her. We mostly head to steep, rocky trails where she can hop and ramble and I can move slowly. Older yellow lab-paced. I choose trails with water-crossings where she can wallow and cool off. Sometimes, at the end of a run, we’ll both get in a creek.
I run with Lulu on a leash or carry a leash—sometimes around my shoulders which makes me oddly happy, like I’m proudly wearing a dog-lover’s necklace—if we’re in a voice-control zone, where dogs and owners who have taken an online course can go leash-free. I carry a poop bag or two. I talk to her like she speaks English. “Go right,” or, “Uphill,” and I swear, she understands and abides.
I’m certain we have a special bond because of the time we spend together on trails. In a way, she’s the perfect running partner (although I highly value humans who offer differing likes and opinions). She’ll happily run any trail I choose, in any weather condition. She smiles while running, turning whatever mood I’m in into a good one. My dogs have always slowed down to check on me before darting ahead, or come running toward me with insane joy after they’ve stopped to sniff something and I call them to catch up … both actions make me feel extra cared for. When I’ve encouraged them with positive words, “Good girl, Hannah/Lulu,” they’ve picked up the pace, ears flapping more wildly and extra spring in their four-legged step. It makes me happy, and it makes my heart swell.
Running with a dog in the wilds of the backcountry adds safety, sure, but it also adds an intangible feeling of support that’s perhaps the greatest gift they can give. They’re there. My mind might be everywhere or nowhere while I run past pines and boulders, but my dog is always there, quietly, happily keeping me company on the trail.
Lulu just turned nine. At the end of last summer—into fall, really—I drove an hour with her in my Subaru to the trailhead that leads to the lake where we’d locked eyes years before. (I’ve run to that lake with her every year since.) We set out in cool temps. Neither one of us cared that snow started to fall. In fact, I think we both kind of loved it.
At the lake, I jogged to the same boulders I’d clambered on seven-or-so years prior. Older and more confident now, Lulu waded in the water by my side. We both sat in the dried grass on the water’s edge for a while. I may have shared a packet of squeezable peanut butter.
Is this my last summer of hitting high mountain lakes with Lulu? Will our runs on local trails soon turn to hikes? Eventually, she’ll not want to run. She won’t even be able to hike. When that happens, I’ll either carry a heavier pack to slow me down to a pace that works for her while I’m still getting in a workout, or I’ll/we’ll slowly meander flat paths around a small lake nearby. Because, really, what we both need is time outside with our feet/paws on the dirt. Together.
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