Even though I have been a certified fitness professional since 1992, I have only been running seriously since 2010. I started running for many reasons, the biggest one being that there was a lot of distress and misery in my life at that time, which included having to put our beloved Irish Setter, Conor MaGee, to sleep. That was just awful, which even now as I write that word, does not even begin to describe it. Just thinking about it breaks my heart into a thousand pieces. Shattered and gutted are probably two better words.
Conor was only nine years old, but Lymphoma doesn’t care what your age is. We discovered he had cancer in the late spring of 2009. He had started coughing and some of his lymph nodes had started to swell. We took him to our vet and got the dreadful news. Our first Irish Setter, Brandi, had died of bone cancer so we knew the emotional road ahead would be hard. We decided on a few rounds of chemotherapy and it did the trick. Conor went into remission and had the best summer of his entire life. I made sure of it.
When fall rolled around, Conor came out of remission and we were told by our vet that further chemo would be useless, but that we could try a rescue drug. In hindsight, I wish we had not taken that route as it made Conor extremely ill. We stopped treatment after he could not stop throwing up. We made him as comfortable as possible, but just before the end of October of 2009, we knew we could no longer ignore the obvious. Conor, once a magnificent example of the Irish Setter breed, was a former shadow of himself. He could no longer even climb our stairs to go up to bed. My husband would lovingly carry him to our bedroom every night and place him in his comfy couch under the watchful and worried eye of our other dog, Bella Blue. We made the hard decision to take him to our vet to have him humanely put to sleep while we held his paws and whispered in his ear that we loved him and that we would never forget what a great dog he was. I was broken, and with a few other issues going on concurrently with Conor’s death, I quickly spiraled into a depression.
Every day just seemed overwhelming to me and I couldn’t seem to get out of this deep pit I was in. I made an appointment with my doctor with the intention of obtaining some mood elevating prescription drugs. At the time I was teaching fitness classes at a nearby gym and I couldn’t help overhearing a man in my Pilates class talking about how he was LOVING running. He was explaining how it had helped him lose weight but, more importantly, had uplifted his mood.
As a fitness professional, I knew all the data, and I knew what he was saying was correct. I thought, “what the hell” and promptly decided to try running the very next morning, because that is how I do things…immediately! Newsflash…I didn’t love it, but I DID love the way it challenged me like nothing physical had done for a very long time. I can’t remember exactly how far I ran, it wasn’t a long distance, but I was TOTALLY exhausted and for a brief time I wasn’t thinking about how horrible my life was, or even thinking that I did not want to even live at all. YES, it had gotten that bad.
I ran every day for the next week and while I was still finding it tough, I was quickly falling in love with the feeling of power and confidence it was giving me. So, I did go to that doctors appointment, but I told her what I had been trying and how it was making me feel. She urged me to continue with running and to hold off on the drugs. So that is what I did. This was a conscious choice I made for me and in no way negates anyone’s personal decision to use an anti depressant. Just because I chose NO DRUGS does not mean that I would look down on anyone who did. Along with the advice of a professional, you have got to make the choice that seems right for you.
In the beginning I really struggled with form, breathing properly and foot strike. (All easily solved with a running coach) Running kicked my ass like an angry mule on steroids. I had not been tested like this physically in, like, EVER! I was determined to master this thing, which was exactly what I needed at that exact moment in that exact time in my life. Funny how that can happen, if we allow it. Things gradually got better for me and my outlook on life shifted for the better.
In February 2011 we packed up and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, or as I like to call it, The Best Place in the World. In July we decided that it was time to get another Irish. We were not sure how our other dog, Bella Blue, a Blue Tick Coonhound/Cattle dog mix, was going to react. She loved Conor and had gotten very withdrawn and sad when he did not come home from the vets that dismal day. However, like most spoiled dogs, she quickly seemed to adapt and appeared to be quite content with the status quo. The status quo being no fighting for attention, all the treats and uninterrupted meals. Luckily, my husband and I don’t let our dogs rule the roost, so not really caring much about Bella’s opinion, I quickly found a reputable Irish Setter breeder in Willow Spring, North Carolina who had puppies available. We made the car trip out to their lovely property and met ALL the puppy siblings. Adorable does not begin to describe all of them.
Thank goodness some of the pups had been already spoken for, or the time we would have taken to make a choice would have probably entailed us staying for dinner! We knew we wanted a male, so it came down to either the biggest of the litter or the runt. God help us, if we had not had Bella Blue waiting at home for us, we would have taken them both. The runt had a “don’t mess with me” saunter that tugged at our heartstrings and made me think of the little engine that could.
Meanwhile the big boy was aimlessly wandering the expansive backyard, completely ignoring us and occasionally tripping over blades of grass. Being the reputable breeders they are, Gail and Ket informed us that the runt had a heart murmur that may or may not resolve. Tim and I looked at each other and we knew we could not take the runt. The heartbreak of Conor was still fresh and the possibility of a health problem that might rip away another dog from us early on was too much to even consider. Our eyes turned to the “big” and while we watched him try to attack a rock, we said we would take him!
If I could take time out here to tell everyone that the runt stayed on my mind constantly in the days following our visit to the breeder. Like night and day constantly. I stayed in touch with the breeder, specifically Gail (we are friends on Facebook), and I subsequently found out that the runt had been adopted by a wonderful family and is thriving and doing well. Yay…happy endings!
We introduced Bella and the newly named puppy, Seamus O’Malley, (pronounced Shay-mus) in a small park near our home. Bella was dismissive and sneering. In her defense, Seamus WAS just two months old and thought nothing of chewing on Bella’s tail and trying to climb on her head.
We took them back to our home and Seamus looked around for a very short time, padded into our butlers pantry, tried to crawl underneath our wine fridge, settled for the front of the fridge instead, and then promptly feel asleep…for three hours! I was starting to get concerned as supper was fast approaching and I wanted a nice glass of Chianti! Later he took over Bella Blue’s comfy couch…
We quickly settled into a routine. Like most Irish Setters, Seamus was housebroken lickety-split. Only took two weeks and one accident that was quickly contained. I swear Bella was smirking when Seamus was caught mid stream-peeing in our dining room. Quick note: if you catch your puppy mid stream peeing, do NOT scoop the dog up to put it outside as instead of a localized urine stain, you will have a wonderful pee trail to your door. You’re welcome.
With my husband off at work, our mornings would look one of two ways. I’d go off on a run by 7:00 am, leaving both dogs in their spacious crates. I’d come home, stretch and foam roll and then take both dogs on a nice 5 km walk. After that we would have breakfast…them first, me second OR…………….I’d skip the run (I run every other day) and do everything else noted. Bella Blue is a very smart dog. Like, she could do my banking and taxes smart. Every morning when getting ready, Bella would come over and sniff my clothes. If I had pulled on my running gear (YES!!! Always freshly washed so the sniffing had nothing to do with sweaty body odor!) she would just KNOW and put herself in her crate without any urging on my part. If, on the other hand, I had pulled on some non running gear, she would know and get all jumpy and excited for her walk.
Before you ask,……NO, Seamus O’Malley has never known the difference. Ever. Not even to this day, God love him. Listen, Irish Setters are great dogs. Obviously we think so as we are on our third one. However, Irish Setters are not ever seen on a list of the top ten smartest dog breeds. Not even on the top twenty. It’s never bothered me. What they might lack in overall canine intellect is compensated by their rollicking good nature, gorgeous good looks, love of ALL people (even assholes), and their athleticism.
One morning when Seamus was just shy of reaching his first birthday and safely locked up at home in his crate next to his sister, Bella Blue, I had a frightening experience on a nearby trail while running. A man harassed and threatened me. He had approached me as I was running past a particularly dense area of bushes and trees. It obviously startled me. He told me that no one would miss me if I was gone and that no one would hear me scream. I did not stick around to hear the rest of it. Luckily this particular asshole wasn’t spending any time doing cardiovascular training, probably too busy buying duct tape and shovels at the local Home Depot, and I quickly put appreciable distance between me and Ted Bundy. At the time there had been a few reports of this kind of things happening to other runners and walkers on this particular part of the trail. I called the police when I got home and gave them an excellent description of the man, but it had shaken me up pretty good and I was reconsidering running on the trail, which made me mad!!! The police officer, noting the fact that I had two big dogs leaping around my home, asked me if I ran with either of them. I said no and he said I should consider it as statistics bore out the fact that dogs were a deterrent to dickheads like the one I had run into that day. Okay, the professional police officer did not use the term dickhead. Anyway, he said running with a dog or with another person would be my best bet. So that was it then. A dog it would be and because Bella has arthritis issues, my gaze fell upon my big red dog. Problem? He loves everyone, probably including serial killers. I said this to the officer and he replied that it didn’t matter as the dipshit would not know this and furthermore, most would be rapists prefer an easy mark and won’t mess with someone with a dog. Again, FINE, the officer did not exactly say dipshit. The officer then said that Seamus looked pretty intimidating to him when he first walked in the house. Of course by the time Seamus had brought the cop sixteen of his best and most cuddly toys, that impression had evaporated, but again, the point was that the officers first impression of Seamus was: WOW, that’s a freaking big dog.
So, as I do before embarking (snort, did you see what I did there? emBARKing…I crack myself up!) on anything new, I researched the HELL out of it. First stop? The vet. She thought it was a brilliant idea and gave me full approval to go ahead AFTER she gave Seamus a complete physical. I have written a completely separate post giving tips and comprehensive advice on exactly how to run with your dog. If interested, click right here.
Seamus turned out to be a complete natural at running with me. I needed to do very little training other than to slow his rocket ship pace down. As my vet suggested, we started out slowly and within a few months we were churning out the miles. We quickly got into a routine and it wasn’t long before my vet declared Seamus the fittest dog she had in her practice! Of course there were downsides to this. I could no longer run on my own without great theatrics and protestations. When my training called for a run that was over fifteen kilometers (about nine miles) I could not take Seamus. My vet had advised against this and for most of the year in Raleigh, you are looking at very hot temperatures, even early in the morning. Seamus had many temper tantrums complete with wailing, howling and dirty looks as I left. It got to the point that I limited my long runs to weekends only so that my husband would distract him as I ran out the door. The vast majority of my runs always included my ginger boy though, as most of them were about eight to ten kilometers (five to six miles) in length, which was, and still is, Seamus’s sweet spot.
In March of 2014 we moved back to Canada. It was a very difficult time for me emotionally. My mum had overwhelming kidney and heart issues and the doctors had informed her that there was nothing more that could be done for her. She was told to settle her affairs. My mum was dying and my step dad was having trouble coping. Honestly, I really did not want to be back in Canada at all and I was finding everything very overwhelming and depressing. I could feel myself drifting back to that dark place I thought I had finally left for good. However, if I thought I was overwhelmed at that point, BOY was I in for a magnificent slap in the face. It wouldn’t be long before I would think of those first few months back in Canada as “the good ole days”.
The year of 2015 just was not good. As regular readers know, I was scheduled to depart on Wednesday April 22nd for Nashville, Tennessee to run the St. Jude Rock and Roll Half Marathon, but my mum died at 1:20 am on the day I was supposed to fly out.This was quickly followed by my step dads stroke two weeks later, with a subsequent extended hospital stay, weeks of rehab, followed by months of worrying about him being on his own, albeit in an assisted living facility. Just as things were starting to get back to normal, and I had signed up for the Nutrience Oakville Half Marathon on September 27th (which I DID actually run), I was diagnosed with colon cancer on September 17th…..BOOM!!! My world exploded in the six seconds it took my GI to tell me what she had found. I think most people would not have blamed me if I had just ordered a cocktail of anti depressants and anti anxiety medication, followed by a fine glass of Shiraz.
Most of that time is now a blur to me. If you are not a regular reader, and you are interested in what I went through, start at the beginning of my blog here and work your way up.
There were a few things that saved me from utter depression and wanting to throw myself off a cliff. One of those things was Seamus O’Malley….my four leaf rover. Thank GOD for him. On the days that I felt the walls closing in and all I wanted to do was stay in my house and cry until there was no liquid left in my entire body…there was Seamus reminding me that it wasn’t always about me.
My husband Tim was great about telling me to get out there and run, knowing it would alleviate my low mood, but I was being a contrary bitch at the time, so there was that.
I remember one particularly low point. It was about 10:00 am and I was laying in bed, after telling my husband before he left for work at 7:00 am that I’d get up right after he left. That turned out to be a rather large whopping falsehood. It was just easier to lie to him than argue.
Anyway, all of a sudden the bed shook as Seamus jumped up and headed straight for my head, where he started to lick my face relentlessly. At first I was mad, which I am ashamed to write, and pushed him away. He is NOT allowed on the bed so I was aghast at his chutzpah, plus how dare he interrupt my melancholy? However, one look at his face as I yelled at him made me shut up. He was crestfallen. Even in my self absorbed, poor little me world, I could see clearly that he was crushed. I felt horrible, which was quite a feat, considering I was already feeling at least fifty shades of horribleness. I had a brief moment of clarity. I write brief, because it would be disingenuous of me to say that this completely cured me of any further caterwauling. For that moment in time, though, it did. I got myself up, washed my face, pulled on some running gear and while I watched Seamus dance around, clearly and completely excited about the prospect of being with ME on a run, it dawned on me that I was his complete world and I did not have the right to ignore him or to check out completely. On that morning, my Irish Laddie saved me from myself. We had a glorious run, with plenty of poop stops, as I recall. I felt normal and grateful to my four legged boy. On that day, I was able to cope.
I’d love to tell you that all the following days leading up to my cancer surgery (and the eventual fabulous news that there was no lymph node involvement and no distant disease present) were filled with my fighting spirit, but as I mentioned earlier, that would be an invention. What I can write, however, is that every single time I allowed my Seamus to remind me that there was a world out there he wanted to go and sniff, I felt better for it. I clung to those moments when they happened. I felt strong, purposeful and powerful and able to conquer this stupid cancer. For those of you without a dog, I imagine this is hard for you to understand. For those of you reading that have chosen to get a dog, I can imagine you nodding your heads in complete understanding.
There are so many things we can learn from a dog…..when my second Irish died from lymphoma, never once did I observe him feeling sorry for himself or withdrawing from life. When my first Irish was in agonizing pain from bone cancer, I never once observed her to snarl or snap at anyone. I can’t say the same for myself.
There are many, many people that were there for me in my hour of need. I in no way want to minimize their impact. I will never be able to properly thank those friends and family who embraced me with love and understanding, but it was only Seamus O’Malley that never had that pitying look in his eye when he gazed at me. It was only Seamus O’Malley that basically told me with his manner…”Well, mum…fuck cancer….I just want to run with you and feel the wind and the sunshine on my face. The only way I can do that is with you, mumma. I love you mum, so come run with me and see and feel the world in all its glory. Come and feel better with me, run with me and feel capable.” So I did……………Seamus O’Malley…my Four Leaf Rover. xxxxxxxxx
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