Canine Division multiple winner Tana (T-Dog) Cuddy
Running with Rainbow
by Alys Culhane
The day I entered the Butte animal shelter, my thoughts centered around assisting my friend Jan in selecting a cat. Had I foreseen that a chance meeting with a shelter dog was going to change my perceptions as a runner I would have been incredulous. As I then thought, although dogs were excellent on-trail companions, they should be left at home on race day. My reasoning was that they might rip up or bite us more serious runners.
As Jan and I strode in the direction of the cat cages, my partner Pete stopped, so as to take a closer look at T-Bone, a three-legged Dalmatian.
In passing by the dog kennels, I glanced to my left, then did a double-take.
"Pete," I exclaimed, "this is the dog that I was telling you about, the one that followed me out to Fairmont Hot Springs."
The husky-mix leapt up onto her hind legs then thrust her muzzle through the chainlink fencing.
"She’s in good health," Pete observed. "Someone will adopt her."
Pete continued down-aisle. I stayed put, so as to take a closer look at the dog I’d met while on a recent 14-mile bike ride. At the seven-mile point, she bounded off, so as to check out the goats in a nearby petting zoo. Fearing that she might follow me home, I’d then ditched the canine by ducking into the resort, under the pretense that I needed to fill my water bottles. When I emerged, she’d disappeared.
The dog before me weighed approximately 45 pounds, and was mostly black with white legs and a white chest. Yoda-like ears contributed to a comical appearance, as did a long pink tongue, a black face mask, a partial white ruff, and a smattering of white and brown nose freckles. I noticed that the animal was built for speed in that she had long legs, a lengthy back, and a narrow middle.
The clerk informed me that the eight-month old dog, who’d been picked two day’s previously, was scheduled to be euthanized in three day’s time.
I reluctantly agreed with Pete, who noted that taking on a pup would be unfair to our older dog. However, I felt obligated to try and save the animal that I’d lead astray. Upon arriving home, I contacted friends and posted signs. When no takers materialized Pete and I weighed the pros and cons of acquiring a young dog. The pros outweighed the cons by one item: Will have company on my daily training runs. Up until her self-elected retirement, I’d been running with Bootleg, age 16.
And so, an hour before the inmate was to be humanely destroyed, Pete and I returned to the shelter, forked over the adoption fees, then snapped a lead on the crossbred we eventually named Rainbow.
Rainbow’s house manners were impeccable. However, her outside persona left a great deal to be desired. The day after acquiring her, I set out to do a three-mile run in the nearby Carcass Hills, an area that’s called such because local hunters use it as a dumping ground for elk and mule deer carcasses. Unbeknownst to me, Rainbow was up for a faster, more lengthy excursion. After cresting a rise, one that afforded us a view of the Pintler and Tobacco Route ranges, I undid the leash snap. Rainbow bolted, racing down then up the banks of a steep, scree-covered half-mile gully. In seconds, the renegade and the object of her desire, a fast-moving bicyclist, had disappeared around a bend.
Five hours after her departure, Rainbow returned home, of her own volition. After drinking copious amounts of water, she collapsed on the living room floor and fell asleep.
I decided that when outside, the dog we’d dubbed "Knucklehead" would have to remain on-leash. This was easier said than done, for she lived to pursue bicyclists, runners, pick-ups, four-wheelers, dirt bikes, and mule deer. I eventually gave up running with her, for as I told Pete, I could no longer deal with her pulling me off-stride.
We decided to give formal obedience training a go, in hopes that Rainbow might internalize the "come" command. So as to make learning fun for her, we enrolled in agility classes. It was no surprise. Rainbow liked jumping, weaving, tunneling, and scrambling over a set series of obstacles. And she was fast. But once off-leash, she veered in the direction of other dogs.
Come winter, Pete decided to integrate ski jouring into Rainbow’s now almost non-existent exercise routine. As I examined the dog harness, waist-belt, and nylon rope, it occurred to me that Rainbow might also enjoy running jouring; ski jouring minus the skis, plus running shoes.
Rainbow backed away when I showed her the harness. However, concern metamorphosed into anticipation when I slipped the contrivance over her head. When the webbing was finally in place, she began quivering. Once outside, she pulled the line tight, then, as well-trained sled dogs do, stood waiting.
"Let’s go," I yelled.
Rainbow responded by leaping forward, hard. I stumbled, but quickly regained my balance.
I followed on her heels. Ears back, shoulders down, she made a beeline for the Carcass Hills. A neighbor, who was shoveling the first of the winter snow off his walk, stopped and waved. I waved back.
In less than a week, we’d become a well-matched team. After figuring out that "eas-s-s-s-y" meant go slow and "go, go, go" meant go fast, Rainbow began involving herself in the decision-making process. In coming to icy downhills, she slowed down. And in coming to snow-packed hills, she sped up. When one day, I hit a patch of black ice and fell, she halted, sat, and waited for me to climb back onto my feet. Dazed, I examined my injuries. I’d scraped an elbow and bruised my hip. We slowly returned home. Rainbow, perhaps sensing that something was amiss, stuck close to my side.
Our more informal obedience training also came into play in that on our supposedly longer runs, I allowed Rainbow to run free. She quickly learned that, if she failed to respond to my four short whistle blasts, I’d do an about-face and head for home.
By late January, our weekly distance was 60-70 miles. In southwest Montana, high elevation, steep climbs, inclement weather, and uneven terrain often make for tough going. This didn’t phase Rainbow, who thrived on adversity. And it didn’t phase me, for much-needed pulls were always forthcoming.
I was so impressed with my dog’s progress that I opted to enter us both in the 24th Annual Cheetah Herder’s Snow-Joke half-marathon, a late February run that takes approximately 175 runners around nearby Seeley Lake. I’d compete in the women’s 40-49 age group, as I’d done for the past three years. And Rainbow, a first-time entrant, would compete in the Canine Division. Understand, my decision was easy to rationalize.
If Rainbow failed to behave, I’d drop out. Plus, it was Rainbow who’d recently motivated this often-lazy athlete to run hard, fast, and consistently. Yes, she deserved a shot at the first place canine prize—a much coveted soup bone.
It snowed early on the morning of the run, although by 11:00 a.m., the official starting time, the cloud cover had lifted. When race organizer Pat Caffery reviewed the rules, Rainbow started barking. Chagrined, I hustled us both to the rear of the pack. So much, I thought, for positioning myself among the more serious runners. As I straightened Rainbow’s harness, it occurred to me that this move was reflected the fact that my expectations as a competitor had changed. In the past, my goal had been to finish among the top runners in my age group. My subsequent thought, that competing with a puller would give me an unfair advantage, had altered this expectation. All I now wanted was for us to finish with a clean run. And if Rainbow took first in her division, this would be an added bonus.
When the starting gun was fired, Rainbow leapt sideways then entangled herself around a signpost. Once freed, she sprinted in the direction of the front runners. My focus was on keeping my now-very-excited dog out of the way of the masses. Nonetheless, I was able to take in the rather jocular commentary, an ongoing stream of comments that went something like this:
"Hey, that’s a sled dog."
"Look at that animal pull."
"No fair. You got a handicap."
"I want one of those!"
"You need a sled!"
At the two-mile point Rainbow slowed to a lope, a pace that we maintained for the next eleven miles. At four miles, a snow squall moved in, limiting visibility. In seeing an oncoming semi, I grew tense.
Rainbow, perhaps sensing that I was anxious, glanced over her shoulder and cast me a worried look.
"Easy, easy," I muttered, as an arc of truck slush hit us in the face.
"Good dog," I added, as we both surged forward.
In what seemed like no time at all, we came to the six-mile marker. In making the turn onto the road that circled Seeley Lake, I relaxed my shoulders and lengthened my stride. Yes, I thought, now we can get down to business. Here’s what we like best -- a snow-covered running surface and a minimally-trafficked road.
Rainbow, as if also waiting for this moment, picked up the pace.
The high point of the run came when passing a slower runner who remarked, "your dog is very well trained."
This was a first. So much for the agility trainer’s recent remark, that Rainbow had no self-control. That she had, thus far, ignored snow machines, ravens, and a snowshoe hare was indicative of the fact that that trainer had made a judgement call that was based on a partial observation.
We finished the way we started, strong. Rainbow, in seeing Pete on the far side of the finish line, galloped in his direction. After catching my breath, I said that Rainbow had kept the line taut, ignored other dogs, and stayed on-course. And Pete noted that although I was spent, my co-competitor was her usual energetic self. So as to prove this to us, Rainbow barked at the next grouping of finishers, one that included three tethered-together Akitas.
I finished second in my overall age division with a time of 1:47:59. And Rainbow finished fourth in the canine division. Oddly enough, I was pleased. I say oddly enough because this was indicative of a change in attitude. While in past years, I would have been displeased with MY performance, I was now pleased with OUR performance. That I’d successfully completed the Cheetah Herder run with a dog that nine months previously had been slated to be euthanized made me feel euphoric, as did the thought that we had many more fun runs ahead of us.
This cheetah is a dog by any other name