Are great trail runners born, or made? Reflexively, I would tell you that my dog, Nacho, was born to be a trail runner. But then I remember how it all started and I'm not so sure.
After 30 years of dodging traffic on city and suburban roads, I needed a change of venue to reenergize my runs. The hilly, heavily-wooded trails nearby my home in Maryland provided the answer I was looking for, so I made the move from road to trail. One Saturday morning, my little mixed-breed, Nacho, then less than one year old, asked to come with me. OK, he didn't actually ask, but if you could have seen those expressive eyes, the wag of his tail, and the bounce of his step you would've agreed that I had no choice but to bring him along.
If Nacho was going to run trails, then I was determined there was no way he'd be doing it on a leash; he needed to run free and wild, just like me. Those first few runs made me regret that strategy. The forest was full of smells, sights, and sounds that demanded to be explored. In those early days, I spent more time looking for, calling for, and waiting for my curious pup than I did running. Slowly but surely, he started to understand why we were out there. His forays in to the woods became less frequent and he began to follow close behind me on our runs... tongue flapping in the wind and tail wagging all the way. It was great to have a running partner I could count on. Out there on the trails, it seemed we were bonding in a way that wasn't possible in the course of daily life back in "civilization."¬ù I was confident that Nacho was becoming a bona-fide trail runner.
Then, one memorable day, we encountered several deer about four miles up the trail from the parking lot. Nacho froze in the middle of the trail. He looked at me. He looked at the deer. He looked back at me. He looked back at the deer. Then he tucked tail and started running back down the trail, looking over his shoulder nervously as he rounded a corner. "Nacho, come here!"¬ù I yelled. Nothing. "Nacho! Nacho! Here boy!,"¬ù I called over and over again. But no response ever came.
I spent the next hour roaming the woods, calling for Nacho with no sign of him to be found. In the four miles we had run to that point, there had been at least 5 forks in the trail that he could have conceivably taken, several of which we had run together before. With an hour gone, and terrifying thoughts running through my mind of what my wife and kids would say, and do, to me, I became seriously distraught. I had no idea what to do except run back to the car and round up a search party.
When I arrived at the car, my heart leapt from my chest. There, sitting next to the passenger door, tail wagging and tongue hanging out as if nothing had ever happened, was Nacho! I was astounded that he had found his way back all by himself. But it made sense. Animals have better internal GPS that we humans, right? Whatever the case, I was seriously relieved and felt as though I'd dodged a major bullet.
From that day forward, we've never had another incident like it. He still explores his surroundings out there, but generally stays close on my heels and never panics. Nacho knows that there are all kinds of things that we'll encounter on the trail - deer, horses, turkey, porcupines, mountain bikers, other runners, and yes, other trail dogs. It's all part of the adventure.
I'm not the person in the family who generally feeds and takes care of the animals, but there's no doubt which human in our pack belongs to Nacho... I am his and he is mine. So, was he a born trail runner or was he made in to one? All I know is that at eight years old and with thousands of miles behind him, Nacho IS a trail runner - that is our bond and it always will be.