On January 18th, 2017, our golden retriever Italia suffered an unexpected and fatal heart attack. Italia is the reason I became a runner, and three days after her recent death, I ran ten miles in honor of each year I had with her. On February 18th, one month after she crossed the Rainbow Bridge, I ran another ten miles in tribute to her.
I’m actually shocked I went that far because I have not run double-digit miles in almost two years. Since my last half-marathon in the spring of 2015, I haven’t gone more than six miles, yet both runs were a breeze. Italia’s spirit and memory carried me every step. During these ten-milers, Italia joined me in a brand new way, no leash needed.
The following narrative is an excerpt from a longer piece I composed. Italia was particularly instrumental in healing my grieving heart after my father passed away, and she continued to bring so much peace and comfort to my family over the past decade. Here is the story of how a puppy taught me to run. NOTE – I edited the tense to reflect the current moment.
From The Reckoning of the Black Butterfly:
I significantly changed my life by improving my: mind, body, heart, and soul when I became a road runner at the age of thirty-three. I discovered this activity ten years ago and continue to love it. My first jog (klunk, klunk, almost kerplunk) happened a season after my father’s fatal heart attack.
I was mindlessly eating through my summer grief and earned a six-pack (times four!) Aside from being consumed with calories and sadness, I was queen bee-busy in our new house with my husband, two toddler daughters and a spunky puppy. Oh how I craved health, happiness, strength, and peace; I accidentally gained that and more with unplanned runs that were meant to be walks with my golden retriever pup, Italia.
Italia was just eight weeks old when we brought her home days before the Fourth of July. This adorable, furry baby had the energy, boom, and attitude of a firecracker. Although she got a lot of “oohs and ahhs” she was a painfully hard to keep up with and settle down.
When September rolled around, it was time for me to go back to work and teach high school English. After such a stressful summer, I was exhausted, irritable, and couldn’t fit into anything that zipped or buttoned. I resorted to elastic waistbands and flowy dresses, and my school yearbook picture that fall revealed a puffier, unrested, joyless me.
When I would get home from work and release Italia from her kennel, she bounded, bounced, and begged for exercise. She and I started by strolling our new neighborhood. It felt great to get outdoors, but she kept pulling on her leash to go faster. Instead of training her to slow down, she trained me to speed up, to see more, to move beyond.
Before I knew it, she and I became a running team. She could go as far as five miles (and so could I!) Italia was my one true running partner and was my primary motivation for getting out there. Every run brought us a new scene.
She got so excited when we were about to wag and whisker through the wind for a journey. She acted like it was Christmas morning every time I pulled out our running gear: laces and leashes. I had to keep extra leashes on hand because she would get so pumped-up that she’d bite and tear through them like wrapping paper if she got the chance.
I never realized how beautiful the natural scenery of Meadville, Pennsylvania, truly is until I perceived and absorbed it as a runner. There is certainly a magnitude of rural splendor in my own backyard. My simple Crawford County world frames the mental snapshots of my small town hills, valleys, dirt roads, and meadows.
Running has provided me with the added bonus of pulling up those once stuck zippers and snapping stubborn buttons on my jeans. I continue to thank God and Mother Nature for joining me and my four-legged love on these journeys. Italia’s big chocolate eyes have always viewed nature majestically, and I’m forever thankful to her for helping me rediscover a healthy focus in nature and for pushing (and pulling) me further. May we all go further tomorrow.