WE HIT THE RUFF STUFF TO TAKE A LOOK AT CANICROSS, THE SPORT THAT PUTS THE TAIL IN TRAIL RUNNING
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