An Ode to the Running Dog

How trail running strengthens bonds of all kinds, even four-legged

I absolutely love my regular trail running buddies. I’m lucky to have three girlfriends that I’m compatible with for a variety of mountain running adventures. I have a couple guy friends I run with, too, friends who I can share an hour or so with on a dirt trail. But my favorite running partner lately is yellow, furry, and licks me.

Lulu, my two-and-a-half-year-old yellow lab, had big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, a yellow lab named Hannah, was my first child. I got Hannah as a puppy when I was 25 years old, living with roommates in San Francisco. She moved apartments eight times with me through my 20s and into my 30s, crossing two states. She held steady through three different boyfriends, eventually earning the trust of, and giving up her spot on my bed to my now-husband. Sweet Hannah ran with me on trails in San Francisco, Marin County, the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, San Diego and Boulder, Colorado, where we settled. And then her time came and she passed away—why can’t dogs outlive their owners?—about six years ago.

It took me four years to get another dog. I couldn’t fathom replacing Hannah, and I was the mom to a human 3-year-old, and pregnant with another son when she died. The next puppy—my blonde son Ben—was born months after she passed, and the energy of two young boys in the house gave me pause to rush into another pup. Plus, I didn’t want a new dog. I wanted Hannah back.

A few years ago, I started taking friends’ dogs on trail runs with me. I had missed the happy faces of four-legged running partners, their buoyant energy seemingly pulling me along on trails…certainly pulling me out the door on days I didn’t much feel like going out. “The dog needs some exercise,” is a never-fail motivation for me on the rare days when I just don’t feel like running.

One day, a friend (mom of a dog I’d dog sit) alerted me to a litter of yellow labs. “Just sayin’,” she said. And something in me listened.

My sons, then 4 and 7, were ecstatic at the thought. My husband said it was time. He could see how I was when we had a dog in the house—more calm, content, less prone to anxiety, even—and encouraged me to go look at the litter.

A month or so later, we came home with a 9-week-old yellow lab puppy we named Lulu.

This was no mild-mannered, mellow Hannah, that much I knew right away as she scratched me to shreds on the drive home, even ripping my shirt. Lulu scratched and clawed and nipped our noses with her sharp puppy teeth. Whereas Hannah was stumpy and calm, Lulu was long-legged and narrow-bodied and wild. But she had a similar face, which annoyed me for at least the first six months. I’d look at Lulu and be kind of mad and sad that she wasn’t Hannah. For a while, I regretted getting the same breed of dog, because I was always comparing.

That summer, Lulu discovered the “snacks” buried in my garden, and dug up and ate all my carrots. She wasn’t winning me over.

But then Lulu aged enough to run, and my vet gave me the go-ahead. (Dogs should reach a certain skeletal maturity before running for sustained distances; their age varying by breed.) I was coming off a running injury about the time she was coming of running age. We’d hit the trails, her wagging her tail and me with my running-with-a-dog smile. We’d run a few minutes, walk a few. We built up our trail endurance together.

And then I was healthy, and she was older and ready to go longer. We’d head out on anywhere from 40-minute to 90-minute runs together. I’d pick shaded trails with stream crossings on hot summer days, rocky terrain that slowed me down that she’d scramble with ease—which I figured was better for her (and more enjoyable for me) than flat, fast terrain. On these trail runs, I started feeling more bonded to my “new” dog, even though I’d still been catching her stealing snap peas and tomatoes off the vine in our garden.

As much as I cherish the time with my running buddies, I’ve found myself starting to set aside days where it’s just me and Lulu out on the trails. Always willing, she hops in the car, and I grab the leash, harness and a poop bag. We drive to a trail that’s not too crowded, sometimes in town, and sometimes in the mountains.

I run with her mostly on-leash and figure she scares away animal predators, or at least lets them know we’re coming and she has a human attached to her. She’s happy to go at any pace, ideal for me when I’m nursing an injury or in a state where I need to be (mostly) alone with my thoughts and in a meandering mood. She doesn’t care where we go, and is happy no matter what.

Lately, I’ve been in a state, at times—not always up for being social—because of an ailing parent. I’ve also had a healing sprained ankle. One weekend in September, I picked a lake on a map and taped up my ankle. I knew I’d be slow and didn’t want to burden a human partner, and wasn’t sure I was up for the combo of talking and running.

Lulu popped out of the car at the trailhead, tail wagging. She trotted alongside me, walking when I walked, running when I ran. We found the lake, and I let her jump into the water for a swim. I walked across a couple rocks, balanced across a thin log and clambered up a large granite rock set in the lake, figuring Lulu would wait for me on shore or in the water. I turned to find her trying her damndest to get up the rock, clinging (if dogs can cling) to the granite with her claws and desperately trying to get up the rock with me. She did, and it touched me. This dog loves me. You know what? I love her, too, even though she’s not—and will never be—Hannah.

The combination of the mountain beauty, the rhythmic motion of running on a trail, and Lulu’s quiet presence healed me a bit that day. I smiled a little extra on the run back down to the car, watching her yellow ears flap happily as she ran.

Exploring a mountain trail with my always-eager Lulu. Photo: Lisa Jhung
Lisa Jhung
Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Lisa Jhung is the author of "Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running" (Velo Press, 2015). She has written for Runner's World, Men's Journal and Women's Running and was the co-founding editor of Adventure Sports magazine.