Monday, 10 June 2013

Quitting's Out of the Question

Back in July 2012, I bought some trainers (sneakers) that were on sale in Walmart, thinking they'd be good for my new job at the vet. 


They were a pair of Dr. Scholl's 'Personal Trainers', designed with a rocker-shaped sole that is supposed to make your legs work harder when you're walking around, to increase toning. Ideal for a job that requires you to be on your feet a lot.

As it happened, though, I didn't use them. Sneakers seemed a little too casual - even with my scrubs uniform - and I ended up getting some Dansko professional 'clogs' on eBay, which are basically as effective as Crocs without the ugliness. So my Dr. Scholl's were left in the cupboard, unused and still in their box until...

Mid-November 2012

... I had a brief flirtation with a gym routine at the beginning of November 2012. We'd recently acquired a cross-trainer and a static bike, both of which I love to use, so I figured it was high time I made a start on the expat pounds I'd gained since moving continents. 

This was mostly unsuccessful. I like the gym. I do. But I like the feeling of when I'm done with a workout. I don't really like doing it, other than the feeling of improving and, sometimes, the conscious sense of being stronger. I did like working out more when I was back home and living with Mum and Dad, but I had little more to do while I waited for my visa to be fully approved. So I gave up. 

A couple of weeks later, one of my dogs became more than just a little bit insane. Bertie's separation and general anxiety issues were getting really out of hand, and she was making herself sick. We had a few choices: never, ever leave her (hardly practical); medicate her (not really a first response solution); or give her a 'job'. Her breed - a mix of Collie and Shepherd, with possibly a bit of Chow and Spaniel thrown in - makes her a kind of super-mix of working dog needs. These breeds need work to do, to give them a sense of purpose and to challenge them both physically and cognitively. While medication can be wonderful, and is absolutely necessary for some seriously stressed-out pups, B's vet (the wonderful Dr. Johnson) had both professional and personal experience with this exact kind of situation. Her prescription? Give Bertie a job to do. Get her a backpack to denote her "work" time, and do some one-to-one, focused exercise with her. Run.

It was winter. I had never run before. Hell, my idea of exercise had deteriorated to walking back upstairs to the kitchen to refill my wine glass. I was horribly unfit, it was cold (ish - not by British standards, but give me some artistic license here), and I had no idea what I was doing. But she needed this, so I bought her a doggy backpack, put on my neglected trainers, and off we went. 

Running fashion, by me. It was cold. Shut up.
Post-run, in the small hours!

Because I have to be at work by 7:10AM, I need to leave the house by around 6:40AM. If you add in walking the dogs time, breakfast time, getting ready time, and a run, this means being up and at 'em by about 5:00AM minimum. B needed her run before we left her, in order for this 'therapy' to have its desired effect. So began a routine of 5AM runs. She took to her backpack reasonably well and, as is usual for her, she learned the phrase 'Let's do some work!' within about three trials. She's a smart cookie.

Not to be outdone, I bought this
bum bag (fanny pack) for myself. Sexy.

When I started running, it was awful. I set myself a really pathetic goal: run three times a week, and do a 0.6 mile route around our house. It killed me. I could barely run half of the course, and I felt like crap when I got back. Hills were my sworn enemy. 

But I persevered: I saw the difference in Bertie, and I loved spending that time with her. That was enough for me. She was getting calmer, seemed to enjoy the run, and we had lovely moments after a run/walk/death trip sat on the steps as the street woke up around us.

Post-run cuddles (sunny because I had a half-day at work).

Back in November/December/January,
the flash was needed for this kind of photo.

It took a few weeks, but I managed to run the whole route after a while. Still only 0.6 miles, but I realised that I was improving. I refused to measure my progress in any real, data-based way because this was about Bertie getting help, not about my need to be healthy or skinny or some other such selfish goal. I needed to get better for B. I'm pretty sure I looked ridiculous panting along, and not least because of my owl hat and pink gloves, but I kept doing it. It was only hard because I didn't do it enough.

This (below) became my mantra. After getting back home from our Christmas break in England, I decided I had to run 4-5 times a week if I were to really see any improvement, and this could only be good for Bertie, too. 

Bad weather meant nothing. Rain was a fun challenge. When it rains in NC, it really fucking rains. 

Running is an all-weather activity

That's rain. And some sweat. But mostly rain.

Running feet

The change I started to see from increased runs was incredible. I managed to double my route length and run the whole way. I didn't die. I liked it. I wanted to do more. I'd get back from a run and want to go again.

It was around this time (early March) that I decided I needed some proper running gear. My heavy tracksuit bottoms and old t-shirts weren't cutting it any more. I needed lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing. So I took a trip to Old Navy (shameless plug for my husband's company) and stocked up. It didn't seem faddy or frivolous, it seemed sensible.

3/10/13: Not sure about this on me. 

But okay.

The hat stayed. It was still cold in the mornings.

And I kept running. And running. I taught myself new routes. I saw hills as my friendly challengers, who would celebrate with me when I reached the top. And Bertie just kept right on running by my side. 

Physical changes started to become more obvious

I owe this to B

Although I hadn't been too concerned with my appearance, I was amazed to see how my body was changing. I was stronger for sure, and I could run further, which was always my main goal. But I was firmer too, and lighter. I could do more with my body. I could see muscle in my abdomen, and my legs would spring into action at work. I felt good - physically and mentally. 

It rained some more.

B was okay with it though.

This probably helped too. 

Bertie's anxiety seemed a lot less pronounced. She could sleep when Ben and I went out. She wasn't as insane when we got home. She loved being out running with me, and the one-to-one time was great for both of us.

B would get up to run with me even as she grew into an adult dog who didn't need to be awake super-early for a toilet trip. Just like me, she could be sleepy, kind of grumpy, but still willing to go running - that kept me going on days I was tired and thought twice (although those days were fewer than I imagined). She runs slower at the start than I do, so I encourage her, and then when I'm about to collapse towards the end of the run, she pulls me along until we're home.

Such a good girl. I love this time of day!

B makes the backpack look good.

I continued to push our runs further in terms of distance and time. I was doing a mile in 9:55 ish, so decided to increase the distance to a 2 mile run (from a 1.2 miler). I wanted to see if I could do a shorter distance faster by making my body capable of going further.

More progress.

Running makes me smile

This worked: a 2-miler thrown in twice a week, with three 1.2-milers around them, seemed to bring slow but steady improvement. I got my best mile time down to just over 9 minutes. And I bought some shorts and a t-shirt from Walmart, because now it's getting bloody hot (with 90% humidity - yum).

Then last weekend, in those very shorts, I did this for the first time:

Those are my feet!

And I was really, really happy. Hot, tired, and kind of dizzy, but so proud. I can run for three miles. Me!

Damn right.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm by no means the fastest or the strongest runner. I may run five times a week, but at least three of those are tiny runs, and I'm panting and grunting with the best of them. But I go, and I love it, and I never expected to be able to do either of those things. Bertie: I owe you, sweet girl.

Thank you, B.

I'm also becoming a bit over-accessorised when it comes to running. My most recent acquisitions are a Camelbak hand-held water bottle for longer runs (that I intend to do more regularly in the coming months), and a screeching attack alarm for the mornings I still have to run in the dark.

It's really fucking loud.
If Bertie's teeth aren't enough to deter an attacker,
hundreds of decibels should do the trick.

I also treated myself - at Ben's recommendation - to this new vest yesterday:

R&R. And R.

I still got caught in the rain this week.

In the vest. Tank top, America.

I now use the mapmyrun app to track my times and distances, just to make sure I'm pushing both myself and Bertie and to get the most out of our runs. My routes are no longer (too) embarrassingly short, so I've allowed myself this little bit of data comparison.

From my mapmyrun profile

That is still my main goal: help Bertie. So, run more.

My mantra
And this seems fitting, too:

It's taken me about 7 months to get to a point where I can comfortably run just over a mile several times a week, and also run 2-3 miles on a regular basis. I'm nowhere near as good as so many other people, and nowhere near what I think I could be capable of if I continue thus. This also isn't mean to be a horribly self-congratulatory post (although I am proud of myself). I'd like this to be taken as evidence that anyone can run, if they want to try and feel like they might enjoy it. I only started - and persevered with it - because my pup is crazy and she needs my help. I'd do anything for her. But I've found that I love running, mostly with B, but I love it by itself too. It's therapeutic, it's healthy, it's cleansing, and it's challenging. I highly recommend giving yourself 2-3 months of a 'trial' to see if you don't get hooked, too. Running gets you out into the world and it makes you aware of your body. I come back from a run happy and motivated and feeling alive. Well, once I get my breath back.

This is what it's all about.

Until 5AM tomorrow, then... 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Where you been so long?

The first week we had Bertie

A year ago today, we had one dog. In about 5 hours' time, we will have added a sweet white Siamese cat and a fluffy, smart, tiny puppy.

Bertie was a rescue dog from Animal Control (the pound), and we kind of got her by accident. We'd been discussing getting another dog, because we both wanted to and because I also wanted to have my "own" dog to bring up, teach, and generally love ridiculous amounts. We thought we'd get a young dog, but old enough to be house-trained and past the crazy puppy stage. We also thought we'd get her from one of the no-kill shelters, rather than CMACC, which has to regularly euthanise animals in their care because there isn't anyone to take them home and they don't have the resources to keep them all. 

So, when we decided to visit the pound after a coffee at FABO, I had it in my head that we were a) just going to look, b) only going to adopt an older dog, and c) not getting a cat. 

None of that happened. We saw Bertie (after meeting two other dogs), fell in love with her and decided to take her home, and added a cat to our adoption papers too.

I remember feeling excited, nervous, protective, and somewhat overwhelmed when we brought her home. I remember being amazed by how tiny she was, and how willing she was to come with us. She was 9lbs and 13 weeks old. She had been spayed four days previously (WAY too early, but that's how Animal Control do it), and her tiny belly was totally shaved bare.

The next 6 weeks were a blur of crate training and general training. I'd read a plethora of literature about bringing up a puppy and living with dogs; I'd researched food and toys and vaccines and health care; we'd bought everything she would need for the first few months of her life with us. Nothing prepared us for how smart Bertie was, nor how bad her separation anxiety was. B could learn a new trick (sit, stay, jump, lie down - you name it) in two or three tries, and she was so attentive. At night, although she generally was pretty good with not messing in her crate much (certainly she only pooped in there once, and that was when she had an upset stomach), she barked constantly. I don't mean just for the first few days while getting used to sleeping in the crate; Bertie yipped with fear, and possibly anger, ALL night until we went to get her in the morning. We were good and didn't give in until she was fully toilet-trained, but it was so hard. Not just wanting her to be happy, but also needing a good night's sleep to deal with keeping her busy in the day!

After she was toilet-trained, she slept in her bed next to ours, and the change was incredible. She slept through the night with no problems. She would wake up ridiculously early (she still does), but she wouldn't be barking and crying all night. It seems she just had a very big problem with being apart from us when she knew we were still in the house. This trend has continued when she's been at the vet with me (where I work) and I've left her in one of the kennels or the outside run: she seems to know I am there and goes absolutely insane, barking and jumping around, until I come back. She seems fine when we leave the house and is often sleepy when we get back, indicating that she's resting fine without us, but when she knows we're around but she's separated from us, she goes nuts. She's a lot better these days, but it still stresses her out, and if she ever needs to stay at the vet for any reason, Dr. Johnson has her ideal dose of acepromazine ready and waiting for her.

Aside from these issues (and a mild serious obsession with eating poop), Bertie has been a happy, healthy, brilliant dog. She's smart and sociable; she loves to play and meet new people and furries; she trains like an absolute dream; and she's super affectionate and funny. We call her 'Bagpipe Dog' because of all her ridiculous noises, usually made when asleep or sleepy. She's also demanding, alpha female, stroppy, highly strung, and has been a bit nippy (we're guessing that's the collie in her) - but it all makes her who she is. And I adore her. There's no denying how much Ben and I love that pup.

Learning who Bertie is has been an absolute joy. Yes, it's been stressful and worrying at times: sometimes I've been so tired that I don't know if I can stay patient with her, and utterly terrified when her anxiety presents as stress colitis requiring barium, X-rays, and the possibility of surgery (if there had been an obstruction). She's a little ball of anxiousness, and sometimes it gets the better of her. The joy comes not just from her good days (which far outnumber her bad), but from helping her through the bad, and showing her she's fine just as she is. It's a lesson that she's taught me - acceptance of what you are - that I don't think I'd learned effectively before. Management and understanding are key, not thinking you're broken or beyond help. Funny how a crazy fuzz monkey finally got that message home to me.

Another thing I will be eternally grateful for is that B got me into running. This was recommended as an alternative to chemotherapy for Bertie's anxiety: she's a shepherd/collie mix of some sort, and so this means she needs 'work' to do. Doctor's orders were to purchase a doggy backpack, and hit the road before the day begins. The idea is that the backpack gives a sense of purpose to her breed, and that the exercise helps to tire her out. The backpack can also be weighted, to expend more energy and build strength.

Although it was hard at first, the fact that she needed this to help her stressy little brain made me persevere. It didn't matter if I was out of breath, unfit as hell, and having to walk about half of the paltry 0.6 miles I started off doing in late November 2012: Bertie needed to do this, so there was no question of doing it. She was my reason, my inspiration, and my encouragement. We now run five times a week, a minimum of 1.2 miles a morning, and often 2. This Sunday just past I ran my first ever three-miler. I now love running, and I love spending time with B running together. We have a little routine after each run where we sit at the top of the steps outside our house and have a chat and a cuddle before going back inside and starting the day. I keep mini training treats in my running belt and she will 'high five' me to get one or two, as well! It feels very special to share silly, sweet moments like that with her.

B's continued to grow into a fantastic adult dog. A combination of a late growth spurt and muscle accumulation from exercise means she's now the same weight as her longer, generally bigger 'sister', so she's a healthy, strong 45lbs. She's still anxious, but that's just her. She's cuddly, sweet, playful, clever, happy, silly, and downright beautiful (not that I'm biased at all!). 

This is just the story of B's first year. I don't know how to really put into words how much I love this dog. She's my friend, my kid, my running buddy, my saviour, and a creature that encourages me to be my better self. She's taught me selflessness, paranoia in a way I didn't know existed, made me laugh ridiculously, and never stopped keeping me on my toes. I love you so, little shep'. 

From this morning.
Happy one year, B. I'm so glad you adopted us.