Switch up your run with a canine companion

Switch up your run with a canine companion

When Kimberly Whitesell was looking for a dog to adopt, she hoped to get one that would run with her.

The Bloomington woman adopted Bella, a Plott Hound and Dutch Shepherd mix, in September 2017 and first took the dog on a run two months later. Bella took to it immediately.

“She was absolutely perfect for this,” Whitesell said.

Now, Whitesell does most of her runs with Bella, and it’s changed how she views her running.

“I joke that she has her shepherd days and her hound days. On her shepherd days, she is focused and doesn’t stop much at all. On her hound days, she wants to stop and smell everything. You just have to embrace those days,” she said. “You start learning from your dog that you don’t need to be the fastest person. It’s OK to stop and take a picture and look at what’s around you.”

Blog PhotoWhile she and Bella were learning to run together, Whitesell discovered Canicross. The name is a combination of “canine” and “cross country,” and the sport (relatively unknown in the U.S.) involves a person and a dog running together, with the dog in front on a leash or in a harness as if pulling a sled. It is also called dryland mushing. According to the Canicross USA website, the activity originated in Europe and became popular in Alaska as dryland training for sled dogs in the offseason. There are specific Canicross events that are run on trails.

Whitesell learned cues and commands to give Bella while running to get her to turn, slow down or stop. She found Bella enjoyed running in front of her in a harness more than when Whitesell tried to keep the dog alongside her.

Having Bella pulling on a harness speeds up Whitesell’s pace.

“Our average pace is 9- to 10-minute miles. She will take me out at 8:30 on the first mile because she gets so excited,” Whitesell said. “I got a lot of criticism: ‘That’s not really running if your dog is pulling you.’”

But she said she uses her muscles in different ways because her stride and footstrike are different when running with Bella on her harness.

Blog PhotoWhitesell and Bella often run on trails at Funks Grove Nature Preserve in McLean County. They do most of their running alone because Whitesell doesn’t want to inconvenience runners without dogs.

She’s run a few local 5K races with Bella. Before signing up for a race, she’ll read the race waiver carefully to see if dogs are prohibited. If the waiver doesn’t mention dogs, she emails the race director to make sure it’s OK for her to run in the race with Bella.

“If they say no, it’s usually due to insurance reasons,” Whitesell said.

Some training groups also prohibit running with dogs. Whitesell would like to find more runners who run with their dogs and more dog-friendly races.

The Canicross USA organization is based in Kenosha, Wis., and the Kenosha Running Company sponsors a series of Canicross events in that area. The Canicross USA website lists Canicross events and resources for finding dog-friendly races.

Canicross USA is encouraging the formation of Canicross chapters around the country. Whitesell worked with them recently to set up a central Illinois chapter, and she’s been publicizing it to local running clubs.

“My goal with starting this chapter is to get more liked-minded people together who enjoy running with their dogs,” Whitesell said. “Right now I’m trying to get conversations started. I want to plan some meetups and do a trail run together and get the dogs used to being around other dogs. By growing this group, I’d like to bring more awareness to Canicross.”


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/


More info:

Area runners interested in Canicross can join the Facebook group “Canicross USA - Central Illinois” for Kimberly Whitesell’s Canicross chapter.

For more information on Canicross, go to the Canicross USA website at https://canicrossusa.org/. For information about the Kenosha Running Company’s Canicross events, go to http://www.traildogrunners.com/.

 Photos: Top: Kimberly Whitesell and Bella during their run at the Tulip for a Cure 5K in Normal last April. Bottom: Whitesell and Bella at Matthiessen State Park. Photos provided by Kimberly Whitesell 

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