Mountain Passages: Trail Running With Mountain Dogs Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

Mountain trail running with your dog can be hazardous to your health.

It’s dusk on New Years Eve as I crest the hill with Willy. My right foot hits ice on the downhill stride, my left leg hyperflexes under me as I fall, and the tendon holding my quad to my kneecap simply rips away

There was a minute of searing pain, some muffled yelps, and then I just lie there in the mud and ice thinking, “WTF.”

Willy is eighteen months old. He licks my face, looks at me with concern, and then starts chewing through his harness. Maybe he is thinking, like Lassie, he’ll go get help, but more likely he is shredding his harness because he is a Portuguese Water Dog who takes a great deal of pleasure in shredding anything including shoes, insoles, newspaper bags, underwear, and any stuffed toy we ever bought him.

Sam was an Irish Wolfhound/English Sheepdog mix born with the craziness that comes from mixing Irish and English blood. He was quick to take offense and respond and smart and calculating in everything he did. He was our first pup and a gift to Blue Eyes and me from her brother Randy.
Sam was a grey fur ball who did well on a leash when we started trail running in the hills above Boulder. He’d occasionally swing around and bite the lead to let me know we weren’t going fast enough, but generally he just padded along beside me as if we had been running together for years.

At two years, Sam was running off leash. He would trot in front of me on mountain roads and trails, occasionally looking over his shoulder to make sure I was still staying with him.

Because he weighed 80 pounds and was very much his own dog, he had little fear of anything that moved. And while he had developed a healthy respect for cars and trucks, he’d just walk right up to other mountain dogs and greet them—or not—depended on his mood.

Two dogs in the neighborhood were traumatized or trained to be mean. One was a German Shepherd mix and the other a hound. Both were about Sam’s size. Sam understood these dogs when they charged, pulled-up two feet away snarling and showing mostly teeth. Sam watched but kept his pace. He understood that if he took them on them on, he’d have to beat both of them.

This went on for months until the German Shepherd nipped my hand. Sam was instantly on those dogs like a dust devil with teeth. I danced around in a T-shirt and running shorts trying to sort-out 250 pounds of fighting dogs, hoping that I wasn’t going to get m y nuts ripped off. The fight that ensued was a snarling, snapping, spinning, growling, biting, charging affair that lasted three or four minutes. There was a pause in the action. Sam stood in front of me deciding which dog to charge for the second round, the two attackers stood off warily, then backed away. Thereafter, Sam and I passed by unmolested.

Sam was not only great on the trails—he loved deep snow. He was mountain smart and knew to take it easy going uphill in snow. In a methodical fashion he would work his way uphill much like a snowshoer would move uphill. He’s pause when he got to the top of the hill, pick an untracked route and then there would be an explosion of grey wiry fir and white powder on his downhill run. Then he’d slowly work uphill and charge downhill again.

We moved to Seattle and Sam gave up trail running at about twelve. From Seattle we moved to Bainbridge Island where Sam became a kind old island dog with a good deal of vigor that lasted to within three or four weeks of his death at 14 and a half. After I put him down, I sat at on a rock-covered beach with Blue Eyes crying until there were no tears left.

We waited a year after Sam died to get our second dog. Blue Eyes found a dog book illustrated with pictures of several hundred breeds. She decided we should get a Portuguese Water Dogs because PWDs looked like a smaller version of Sam. Mack was a gentle soul, unlike the typical PWD who are known for kinetic energy, an ability to eat just about anything, and a real love of ripping things apart. Most PWDs will settle into being good dogs at about five or six years old.

Mack was easy to train, always came when called, and while he could counter -surf in the best PWD tradition, he was fairly low energy and never shredded anything.

He was also an extraordinarily good running dog who would drop in right beside me and match my pace for miles. He loved to run free but because of draconian Boulder leash laws, Mack mostly ran in a harness clipped to a six-foot lead with a loop that went over one of my shoulders.

That’s how we got into trouble. We were out on a five-mile training run with my running partner Amy and her yellow lab Leah. We were in the last mile through some trees on the South Boulder Creek Trail. It had been a good run and we picked up the pace with the dogs right beside us.

For reasons forever unknown to me, Mack went to the right of a tree as I passed on the left. The lead between Mack and me went immediately taut. The result was painful slapstick. We went from an eight-minute pace to zero in about three feet. Mack flew backwards into a heap and I crashed face first to the ground with my right hand in a fist over ribs five and six on the left side.

I just lay there in the dirt and groaned. Mack seemed a tad bit shaken and slightly confused while sitting on my back barking away. It didn’t help that Amy was laughing as if she had just seen something from a Three Stooges clip, while trying to roll me over.

Amy got me sitting up while still snorting ever few minutes trying to hold back the laughter. My hand was bruised and I had cracked two ribs. I had to force myself to stop laughing too because every giggle brought a spasm of pain.

Later in the day the doc nodded his head sagely and said,

“Eight weeks”

“Eight weeks until what?

“Eight weeks until you can laugh without cringing.”

Several summers later Mack quit running. One hot day he just stopped at about three miles, sat down and couldn’t be coaxed back into running. He was nine and as much as he loved running, I should have figured that something was wrong. It was. He died of complications from Addison’s Disease within eighteen months.

The tendon was surgically reattached to my kneecap. The rehab has gone well. I am months away from blasting down a trail. Willy watches me carefully on walks now as I, against doctor’s orders, trot for a hundred feet on my bad leg. He’s looking forward to trail running again—so am I.

This piece was written last June for M. John Fayhee’s new book, Colorado Mountain Dogs that was published last week and is available at your local bookstore. Fayhee will be signing the book at:

Boulder Bookstore June 19th,

The Next Page Bookstore in Frisco on June 20th,

Off The Beaten Path in Steamboat on June 21st,

Explore Bookstore in Aspen on June 23rd,

Tattered Cover Highlands Ranch on June24th,

Bookworm in Gunnison on June 26th,

Townies in Crested Butte on June 27th

Between the Covers in Telluride on June 28th,

Maria’s Bookshop in Durango on June 29th.

Alan Stark is a member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol and lives with this Blue Eyed woman and her dog Willy in Boulder and Breckenridge.