Trail Running (UK) - - Contents - Words Michael El­lis Michael El­lis is a keen run­ner and walker, and to­gether with spaniel Owen has ex­plored the moun­tains and coast of most of North Wales. His week­ends in­volve or­gan­is­ing and run­ning cani­cross races for Cani­cross Clwyd. Then giv­ing the do

Wel­come to the crazy world of cani­cross. Grab a lead and your dog – then run!

A cho­rus of barks pierce the early morn­ing air. As the mar­shall counts down to the start of the race the noise rises to fever pitch and the at­mos­phere is febrile. Then they’re off! This is like no or­di­nary or­di­naryy trail race. Men and women cat­a­pult from the line with even more force than nor­mal. They have a se­cret bit of kit aid­ing their speed. Not the lat­est rac­ing shoe nor en­ergy drink. These run­ners rocket away from the line dragged by a frenzy of fur-power. Two legs be­come six. Wel­come to world of cani­cross, the dis­ci­pline that is tak­ing trail run­ning by storm. My own in­tro­duc­tion to cani­cross, the sport of trail run­ning while teth­ered to one or two dogs, came when 12 months ago I was look­ing to en­rich the life of my dog Owen, a six-year-old ‘work­ing’ sprocker, half springer, half cocker spaniel. I thought trail run­ning was the re­serve of elite ath­letes who can sprint up moun­tains at a blis­ter­ing pace. Yes, I had pre­vi­ously been a keen road run­ner with a few half marathons and full marathons under my belt. I thought that trail run­ning was for the su­per-fit and fear­less, and there was no place for me. But in a bid to tire out my end­lessly en­er­getic sprocker, I took a deep breath and at­tended my first cani­cross so­cial event at Llan­degla For­est in north-east Wales, run by the lo­cal cani­cross club, Cani­cross Clwyd. I was teth­ered to Owen by a har­ness, which was at­tached to my waist­band by a bungee cord. This helps

to re­duces the shock to both hu­man and dog when the dog pulls. We needed to work as a team.

I was guided in how to se­cure the har­ness, the bungee line and the belt. For­tu­nately and typ­i­cally of most dog own­ers, ev­ery­one was friendly and help­ful. Then we em­barked on a run along fire tracks through the for­est, but also in­clud­ing some more tech­ni­cal routes ‘off-piste’ (a real chal­lenge, es­pe­cially when run­ning at speed with a dog). It is clear very quickly that Owen and the other dogs ab­so­lutely loved the sport. As they raced to get ahead, their com­pet­i­tive spirit emerged.

The dis­tance flew by. Not only are you fu­elled by the dy­namic of rac­ing in a group. But also your mind is kept whirring with the de­mands of man­ag­ing your dog so you have no time to fo­cus on your own pains. Af­ter that first foray I was hooked on cani­cross, and more im­por­tantly, so was Owen.

We are seem­ingly not the only ones. Cani­cross (or canix) is grow­ing quickly in pop­u­lar­ity with par­tic­i­pa­tion rates ris­ing rapidly. A large per­cent­age of or­gan­ised trail runs now in­clude a cani­cross op­tion (or some­times the events are sim­ply re­ferred to as ‘dog friendly’). But there seems to be an in­ter­est­ing dy­namic at play. Cani­cross is act­ing as a cat­a­lyst to en­cour­age a much wider group of peo­ple into the sport of trail run­ning. It is as if the ad­di­tion of a dog, or two, makes trail run­ning more ac­ces­si­ble. They do say if you want to make friends get a dog!

This new accessibility in­cludes a wide range of ages, in­clud­ing young­sters, as well as own­ers of dogs of all shapes

and sizes. Gen­er­ally, you all run to­gether, men and women, large dogs and small dogs. Re­sults are nor­mally split by gen­der and age groups, but it is true that if you have a husky or an English pointer then in all like­li­hood you will get a stronger ‘pull’ as a run­ner. How­ever, ex­pe­ri­ence has shown that judg­ing a dog’s cani­cross po­ten­tial purely by its size would be a mis­take. There is many a spaniel or ter­rier that has per­formed dis­pro­por­tion­ately to its size. True pocket rock­ets.

Work like a dog

The or­gan­ised races are highly com­pet­i­tive… and noisy! Stand­ing on the start line with 30 or 40 very ex­cited dogs is quite an ex­pe­ri­ence. What will also be new to run­ners is the sense of be­ing towed. Con­trol­ling the pace is one of the first skills you need to master. Most dogs just want to go flat out.

For this rea­son, some peo­ple crit­i­cise cani­cross for not be­ing ‘proper’ run­ning as the dog does pull you along. But this would be to miss the point. Cani­cross is not easy. All the times you feel the ben­e­fit on the flat or go­ing up­hill are coun­tered by the de­scents when a dog still wants to pull you. This is when be­ing able to con­trol your dog be­comes es­sen­tial, es­pe­cially if you are run­ning with two an­i­mals. With a small amount of ef­fort dogs can be trained to re­spond to com­mands to turn “left” or “right”, or on down­hill sec­tions “be­hind”, so that you take the lead role.

If you have a pow­er­ful dog there is no doubt you will run faster but the trick is to run in a con­trolled man­ner. If you run too quickly, your legs will soon tire, and as a part­ner­ship you won’t be in sync. Pac­ing is im­por­tant as dogs seem to run in a sort of bi­nary fash­ion in that they will will­ingly give ev­ery­thing – in­deed, un­til they drop. They do not un­der­stand the con­cept of pac­ing for long dis­tances. So, for your dog’s sake, you have to be able to ap­ply some con­trol. You need to de­velop a run­ning part­ner­ship with your dog that is ef­fec­tive, safe and ef­fi­cient.

To get started there’s one vi­tal ac­ces­sory you ob­vi­ously need ac­cess to: a rea­son­ably fit dog! Spaniels, labradors, dober­mans, ter­ri­ers, lurchers, point­ers… If it wants to run, it qual­i­fies. Next find a group that can show you the ropes at a so­cial cani­cross event. You can find clubs at www.cani­crossuk.com. If you do like it you’ll need to in­vest in a spe­cialised belt de­signed to place the load of the dog pull low down on your body to avoid back

strains, a har­ness and a bungee line, which all to­gether cost around £100.

Cani­cross cour­ses fol­low the same ter­rain and dis­tances as es­tab­lished trail races. Moun­tain scenery, coastal paths, beaches, for­est tracks and moor­lands are all cov­ered. From 5k through to ul­tra­ma­rathons, all cat­e­gories of dis­tance are in­cluded. There is even a Home In­ter­na­tion­als Cani­cross Chal­lenge be­tween Eng­land, Scot­land and Wales for the Fur Na­tions Cup.

Trail run­ning with a dog is a tremen­dously re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. You de­pend on each other and it strength­ens the bond of the re­la­tion­ship. Your dog will en­joy learn­ing new com­mands, as well as the friendly com­pet­i­tive spirit. You will also run bet­ter be­cause the presence of the dog will keep you com­pany, en­cour­ag­ing you to run faster and fur­ther than you ever thought pos­si­ble.

‘For your dog’s sake, you have to be able to ap­ply some con­trol. You need to de­velop a run­ning part­ner­ship with your dog that is ef­fec­tive, safe and ef­fi­cient’

A dog al­ways nose the way when it comes to hav­ing fun on the trails

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