Personal Record: The Perfect Training Partner

By July 29, 2012April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

A runner’s best friend

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the Jul/Aug 2011 issue of Running Times Magazine

Helen is a new runner. She’s eager to get out, starts too fast, and then tries to save face by maintaining that she has to stop–to say hello to a stranger, to notice the view, to pee. Her pace is erratic–mad sprints and slow jogs. She moves in ways that feel good at a particular moment.

This can make her a frustrating running partner, so I know not to invite her along when I’m serious about training. But the zeal of the convert, the thrill of the newbie, is so attractive and contagious that it’s always more fun to have her along than to go alone.

Nearly two decades ago, when I was a new runner–eager to go, starting too fast, getting crabby when I tired–my training companion, Hannah, knew how to keep me in line. She’d learned well from Andrew, the person who had started her as a runner. She’d set an easy pace and I’d follow along. Often, Andrew would go with us; he’d chatter away the miles and make them feel shorter.

Over the years, as I got faster and liked to go longer, Andrew stopped coming with us. When I started going really long, Hannah began to refuse as well. I’d ask if she wanted to go for a run and she’d walk into another room. My running partners were smart about knowing their limits.

I started running because I was a Manhattan intellectual and Hannah was a four-year-old coach potato and we had just moved to North Carolina and Andrew, my boyfriend at the time, encouraged us to get out. Hannah, wise and measured, blossomed quickly into a prudent runner. She knew in hot weather to submerge herself in any stream we came across to cool off, and to drink before she needed to drink.

When we were going long, she knew not to do “dog running”–dashing ahead to smell things, coming back, lagging behind and having to sprint to catch up–and instead kept a steady pace at my heels.

She died at 18, old for a 60-pound mutt. And I lost my best running partner.

In the years since, many of my group runs have included dogs. Last summer I did a 26-miler in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana with seven people, Luna, a beagle, and Tallulah, a Cairn terrier (think Toto). Nadine and I entered the canine division of the Snow Joke Half Marathon, though she was disappointed that we were going so slowly, accustomed, as she was, to humans with a quicker pace. Black and white Lewis, sweet, skittish, with only an ear and a half, used to run with us. Then he aged out.

Helen’s mom was an Australian cattle dog who got knocked up (by whom–a pit bull? A lab? A mutt?), arrested, sent to the pokey, and then was taken into a home for wayward bitches two weeks before she gave birth.

I’d been haunting the shelters for months. As is the case when I’m looking for someone to date, I had a long list of criteria: smart, calm, thoughtful–not stupid-happy–medium size, short hair, quiet, not ball-obsessed, a runner (no smushed-in snouts).

On my 783rd visit, when I described what I was looking for to a shelter volunteer, she told me she’d just fostered a litter and had the perfect dog for me. Even as a puppy, Helen met all of my picky criteria. (No surprise: it’s easier to find a dog than a man.)

Helen’s eight months now. She sprawls when she sleeps and forces me onto a sliver of the bed, parades around the house with my clean socks and dirty underwear in her mouth, rings a bell on the door when she needs to pee or poop, and rings it when she’s bored and just wants to go outside.

She’s too young to run much; I know I need to give her time to grow and mature. But she gets me out the door, even if it’s just for walks. With freedom to choose, I will choose to lie in bed and work–or read novels–all day. Helen reminds me that we both inhabit physical bodies that need exercise and she reminds me, too, that working in spurts is more productive than long slogs.

We go to a dog park with a half mile dirt track around the perimeter. There I do interval workouts while Helen dashes off to play with her friends. We both end up dog-tired.

As she ages and is able to go longer, I will push myself to keep up with her. I have found, finally, the perfect companion and training partner.