When I plonked the tiny paws of a 4.5kg, 8 week old Flash on my living room carpet, I couldn’t have imagined how life would turn out less than two years later.
Back in 2017 I watched a TV program about how people and dogs interact with each other and create lifelong bonds, and how participating in activities together strengthens that bond. They did all sorts of things over the four episodes from doggy parkour to paddle boarding; but most notably they tried Canicross. I watched person and dog run through the fells (and bogs) in the Lake District and they were both having so much fun running together.
At the time I was training for a road marathon alongside my friend, Rosie, to support her as she raised funds for a charity in memory of her late Father. I wasn’t fussed about the running, I found it quite boring and found myself going more and more ‘off piste’ to keep things interesting on my training runs. For me, running was missing something. I was a sporty kid – I played National league basketball as a teenager and ran for the school cross country team but my big passion was sailing. I raced a variety of dinghy classes and got a few trophies and National Championship titles out of it, I just loved to compete.
If I wasn’t racing or competing I was still active, going on walks with my parents in the North York Moors and playing in the Scottish mountains with my sister and her Border Collie, Blue. Blue was a mountain dog for sure, he thrived in the hills, treading new trails and finding interesting things to roll in… As much as I love the company of my parents, having a dog made the adventure feel more complete and I really wanted a dog of my own to go on adventures with.
Fast forward to 2020 and Canicross was still on my mind; I’d been actively looking for a dog for 18 months but hadn’t yet found my little running buddy until a litter popped up. They were over 4 hours away in Wales but after talking to the breeder they were worth the drive to have a look. I was greeted by a beautifully tempered merle collie, closely followed by five black pups who tumbled over themselves in their eagerness to meet me. I was in heaven, five collie-labrador cross puppies just being puppies. One particular pudgy black boy with a white chin took more of an interest in me than the others did. He tugged at my shoelaces and nibbled my jeans then tottered off to play with his siblings but would come back seconds later for another look and a play with me, “do you have a name for him?” “Flash.”
Flash was home, we were in lockdown together but that didn’t stop much. There were no puppy parties, no training classes, no cafes to chill out in so everything was down to me. I knew I wanted to run with Flash – it’s why I chose a collie-lab, so anything I could do now whilst he’s young to help contribute towards that I did. I started off with directions – every turn he took on the paths we walked I called the direction, if he was unsure whether to carry on or come back to me I’d encourage him forwards “hike on” and I did try to get him to walk slowly downhill (but that was quite a hard one to master – who can resist gravitational pull assisting you in speed!) I built Flash up to succeed, leading him on a trail towards Canicross knowing that the early work I put in now would only benefit us once Flash’s joints were mature enough to handle pulling in a harness.
Covid restrictions were still ongoing so there were a lot of live sessions on facebook and podcasts too covering topics from getting started & fitting a harness correctly to getting faster and travelling abroad with your dog to events. I logged into them all and took notes, I was brave and asked questions, most of which were geared towards racing(!) My boy wasn’t even in a harness yet and I was wanting to know how a start line worked, did events seed you, is there a rule to overtaking? This was a huge contrast to how I was at school where I went unnoticed, I never said a word, never felt confident to ask for help, too shy to say ‘yes’. I became quite the inquisitor – messaging Canicrossers on Instagram about how they ran their dogs and why they did what they did. Everyone I asked was so helpful, and anything they posted that I didn’t understand I immediately messaged them so I could learn more.
I had a couple of bits of good fortune leading up to Christmas 2020: I won a canicross starter kit from DogFit which paired nicely with my vet practice’s 12 days of Christmas giveaway which I won a Canicross taster session with my local instructor. Flash was only 11 months old however and his joints weren’t quite ready to take the strain of pulling into a harness. I waited a few months for Flash to mature some more to be able to handle pulling in a harness so in March 2021, a year after Flash landed in my living room, I was on a taster session with Lindsey McKay, a local trainer.
We already had a good idea on directions and he loved to run ahead however his focus wasn’t all that great. Every scent still had to be investigated regardless of which side of the path I was on which made for some interesting emergency stops and hopping over his line to avoid running into him! Lindsey helped us with an “on by” command to keep Flash focussed on running ahead away from distractions and also introduced “back” so Flash didn’t pull me head over heel down any hills. It was down to me to guide Flash on our runs, we worked really hard on our new skills and signed up to Lindsey’s couch to 5k program. The covid restrictions meant the catch up sessions were mainly via zoom but I loved the chat within the group and working through any stumbling blocks we had (mine unsurprisingly was trying not to go too fast) and at the end of the course we met up in person and completed our first 5k together – in under 30 minutes too! Doing the C25k was great at building up time spent concentrating on a task for Flash; whilst I was confident running a 5k by myself, Flash hadn’t done it before and needed to gradually increase the distance and duration over 6 weeks and this was a perfect way of achieving it.
It wasn’t too much later I signed myself and Flash up to an 8 mile group run. I really wanted to get more involved with Canicross and explore new trails with Flash so it was a perfect opportunity, plus I’d meet up with other like minded individuals. It was this group run that I learned Canicross really is for everyone and every dog, regardless of our fitness or a dog’s reactivity – it’s so inclusive and it felt wonderful to be part of it.
The summer months were too hot to harness up so the Canicross runs were few and far between but it didn’t stop us from working on our skills in the meantime. It was too warm from the heat of the day to run on an evening after work and I didn’t fancy going for a run before work (it would have been a 4am alarm call *shudder*); Sunday mornings were mine and Flash’s best chance to get out for some harness time. We didn’t always run though, Canitrekking was a great way to spend time together in harness without exerting ourselves too much when it was still warm.
Over the next few months from September to December we joined in more group runs in different locations, meeting different people and dogs and learning something every time. We did our first night run which Flash handled like he’d done it before – it really improved his focus and it was a boost to our mutual trust.
Racing was still very much on my mind however and I was desperate for the weather to cool down so we could enter our first race. My thirst for knowledge had me pestering my new friends again for their experiences and race tips before we stepped on the startline.
I’d already decided early on that my first racing season would be no pressure on the actual racing part. I wanted to make sure Flash enjoyed the whole event and it was as stress free as possible from the travelling and being around noisy dogs to negotiating pre-race toilet stops (for Flash and myself) and not stopping to say hello to race marshals (“on by”). This did mean I had to dampen down my competitive spirit and not get obsessed by times and numbers too much but with Flash’s wellbeing as my focus it was easy to manage. Our first race in October and had a very relaxed social feel. It was more like a timed group run but it had a start/ finish line so it still counted as a race! Flash ran so well, he coped with overtaking and being overtaken. (another skill Lindsey taught us after I expressed I wanted to race), he ignored the photographer with some guidance from me and put on a cracking sprint finish to the line. He seemed to understand it was different to our other runs and it showed – we knocked nearly 2 minutes off our 5k PB!
I quickly signed up to another race for November at Marston Lodge in the Midlands, apparently a hilly and not a fast course but no-one told Flash! Another minute and 4 seconds shaved off our PB from the previous month – I was ecstatic! Flash had stepped up a gear and was really starting to show his racing colours. My love of downhill running travelled down the line to Flash so the last 800m of the course were flipping quick! I’d never ran so hard and I felt right on the edge of my capabilities, I wasn’t even sure if my feet were hitting the ground we were going so fast. Dad said “The lad did good” and that was the Saturday race done.
Sunday I opted for the shorter distance of 3k which was our first run of that distance so I really wasn’t sure what sort of time we’d run, especially after PBing the 5k on Saturday so I had to make an educated guess using our 5k time from October. I was very wrong about the
time but at least the next race weekend on the short course I’d have a better estimate!
It was lovely to meet up with DogFit Trainer Louise & Pickle whom I’d been chatting to online through the year about all things Canicross, it was as if we’d known each other in person the whole time and of course, I asked more questions(!)
We had an 11 week break of no racing over Christmas, it was very busy for me with work and I felt guilty for not Canicrossing with Flash as often as I wanted to. Over the months I’d been using my usual dog walking routes to run on and despite my efforts of encouragement I think Flash found it hard to differentiate between ‘sniff & scent walk’ and ‘training run’ which led to a lot of stopping to sniff and feelings of frustration from me.
The stopping absolutely wasn’t Flash’s fault and knowing how your feelings travel down the line to your dog I would detach and let Flash free run instead which made for a much more enjoyable run; quality wins every time and these ‘abandoned’ runs taught me I have to be adaptable and to just go with the flow – if it feels right it probably is the right thing to do.
The first race of 2022 was soon upon us, another Canicross Midlands race this time at Lincomb Equestrian Centre. I signed us up to the 3k short course on both days which qualified us for an overall placing for the weekend. My goal was to still enjoy running with Flash and if a fast time came of it then that was a bonus. I didn’t expect to be running super fast, there hadn’t been much of that for me over the past couple of months but the shorter distance definitely suited me and Flash better. The course had a water splash to run through towards the end which I was unsure as to how Flash would handle but there was an escape track to avoid the water if need be!
I met Georgie (and her lovely team including Benson & Bee) not long before my race started; I’d mentioned in some of our chats over Instagram how our starts were a bit slow and Flash didn’t seem to have the lightning speed his name perhaps suggested. Flash is usually very chilled leading up to the start, doesn’t seem too bothered and often needed a bit of a boost off the line from me. Georgie videoed our Saturday start and it was quite a contrast to what
I’d been used to! Flash was really hyped up and keen to get going, he pulled to get to the start area which he never usually did, I should have known this start might be different and flippin’ ‘eck it was! Flash rocketed away to my surprise and didn’t let up, he really went for it and I had no choice or chance but to keep my legs turning and praise his amazing work. We crossed the line in 13:19, taking over a minute off our 3k from 11 weeks ago. “Your start looks fine…” Well now they do!
Sunday was colder and I wasn’t much looking forwards to the water splash again but Flash was familiar with the course now and he’d know running through the water was the correct way. My goal for the second run of the weekend was to be within 10 seconds of the first day’s time as my notes I’d taken year ago told me that consistency was what you wanted to aim for.
Out of breath and proud I headed back to the van to sort Flash out, warm up and pack the van ready for a quick departure after presentation. I’d love to hit a podium place in my category secretly but knew there were some much quicker teams than me who’d been doing it a lot longer too so I thought a top 5 place was more realistic but still hopeful. To my shock, me and Flash came 3rd in our category! My dream was a reality, and it wasn’t too far out of reach. I was a wonderful way to round off our first year Canicrossing and I couldn’t be prouder of Flash, as well as myself.
The last 3 years had been rough for me, Flash came into my life at a perfect time and he gave me more than I could ever ask of him. Without Canicross I don’t think mine and Flash’s relationship would be as good as it is now and it can only get better. My pipedreams are now written down as goals because through Canicross and Flash, I know if we work hard and he keeps putting the joy into running like he so infectiously does we’ll be laughing the whole way as I say ‘yes’ more.
If you’ve been inspired by Kate and Flash and would like to learn how to Canicross with your dog, as well as find the perfect Canicross kit for you both, please get. Find out more