There is no energy like the energy at the start of a canicross race. Picture the start line of your local 10km or half marathon race: runners nervously fidgeting as they wait for the gun, fiddling with their watches, adjusting their race numbers, wondering if they need the loo one more time. You can feel the anticipation, heavy in the air. Now picture alongside each eager runner the most excitable dog imaginable. A dog who is desperate to run, straining on their harness and barking incessantly. The enthusiasm is contagious. One dog starts barking, and soon all the rest are joining in a symphony of noise.
It feels like chaos, but actually the start line is extremely well organised. Each runner and their dog or dogs line up in order of their predicted finishing time, fastest pairs at the front and are sent out at short intervals, usually around ten seconds apart, to avoid the inevitable pile-up of a mass start. The dogs are beyond excited by the time their turn arrives, wanting nothing more than to sprint off into the distance, chasing the pack leaders at top speed. Waiting our turn, my cocker spaniel Archie barks furiously with the best of them.
Canicross – trail running with dogs – is an increasingly popular sport in the UK. It has its origins in summer training for sled dogs, but now pups of all shapes, sizes and breeds take part. Dogs wears a harness that distributes weight effectively and allows them to pull out in front, with their human behind, attached via a line and running belt that resembles a climbing harness.
There are a growing number of canicross clubs across the country, many of which organise races, as well as large number of trail races that welcome canicrosser runners. Archie and I are keen members of our local club, Cani-Sports Edinburgh, and recently took part the annual Highland Canicrossers Highland Fling canicross event near Aviemore.
Like many canicross courses, the 5km route was technically challenging, with sections along an old jeep safari track of seemingly endless deep trenches that Archie bounded up and down but which sapped my legs, and long narrow twisting trails through heather that were a dog’s dream. The scenery was stunning, and the midges thankfully sparse. It was definitely what trail runners euphemistically like to call ‘undulating’, but luckily Archie loves to pull me up and over the hills, putting on an extra little spurt of energy when he can feel me struggling.
I love the unbridled joy and excitement of racing, even though Archie and I are never going to be podium finishers (he would be much quicker without my middle-of-the-pack pace holding him back).
My favourite runs, however, are those quiet trails with friends and their dogs, or just the two of us. I love the stillness of a forest trail when I can listen to the birds singing and the gentle breeze in the trees, to my breath and our footfalls as we run together in harmony.
As a road runner it is only in the last few years that I’ve discovered the joy of the trail, of leaving behind the rush and noise of city streets for the peace and tranquillity of the woods. On the trails I am forced to quieten my busy mind and concentrate on the path in front of me. I don’t think about work, or the news, or the state of the world. Instead I think about how beautiful the route is, how warm the sunshine feels, how lucky I am to have a best buddy who always wants to run with me.
Since finding canicross two years ago Archie and I have run many trails together, across beaches, hills and forests, through and over rivers, in snow, ice and occasionally sunshine. We’ve met wonderful two and four legged friends to run with, and found great races to take part in.
Archie is not always the easiest dog. He is an anxious boy, nervous around new people and dogs. He is sweet, and gentle, and loving but does his best to make sure only a few special people are allowed to see his soft heart. Instead he presents to the world his toughest image – not easy for a cute spaniel – and barks ferociously to keep new people away. That can make walks challenging and frustrating at times. But when he runs it seems that his worries, like mine, drift away for a little while. He forgets to be worried about the people around him; free from anxiety and racing thoughts he focuses on the job to done and the path in front. I’m certain he doesn’t think of running as a way to deal with the stress of a busy day, but I’m equally sure that a blast along country trails does as much for his wellbeing as it does for mine.
I couldn’t ask for a better running buddy. It brings me so much joy to have an activity that we enjoy so much together. Last year Archie earned his first ever half marathon medal, and I can’t wait to see what this canicross season will bring.
Huge thanks to Ashleigh for sharing her experience with Canicross!
For more running stories and dog tales you can follow their adventures together online at www.ashleighrunsedinburgh.com and on Instagram @ashleighrunsedinburgh and @archietheedinburghdog