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Canicross: Pauls Story & Weight loss Journey

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

"Teamwork Makes the Dream Work"

I am very excited to be featuring this article written by my friend Paul Service. We met in 2019 when I sold him canicross gear and gave a few tips, and he has been part of my life ever since. Paul is one of those people who is always ready to get out and run at the drop of a hat. His get up and go personality is contagious and encourages myself and others go running with their dogs more often.

The story was originally written over two years ago, before COVID-19 hit. Like many, Paul has experienced weight gain attributable to pandemic lock-downs. He recently dusted off the story to serve as personal motivation as he works to get the weight back off. Cinder, his four legged running buddy is highly endorsing of this plan…

"One in four adults and one in 10 children in Canada now live with excess weight, according to Obesity Canada."

This means roughly six million Canadians are affected. I am one of those six million. The Body Mass Indictor (BMI) indicates that I have been either obese or morbidly obese my entire adult life

My lowest point came 15 years ago, when the home scale was at its highest.

At over 365 pounds, the BMI no longer accurately registered my weight. I have been fighting an almost constant battle to find a more reasonable weight since then.

I’ve had an on again-off again relationship with running throughout this battle but over the past couple of years, I have been hitting the pavement intermittently to try and keep my weight down. – even though it’s safe to state that it’s one of my least favourite activities.

For most of those runs, I have been attached by a six-foot leash to four feet and a heartbeat. Pax, my 90-pound German Shepherd, has been my running partner.

His cantankerous personality also meant that our runs were prone to sudden stops. If something needed to be investigated, it was, which was ideal since he was a search and rescue dog. I was just the dumb human at the end of the leash. It’s a brutal way to make it through five kilometres.

Pax, Pauls Search and Rescue Dog

When I returned to university in 2016 at the age of 41 to complete a bachelor’s degree, the freshman five soon became the freshman 15, and then the freshman 20. I reasoned that the increased time hitting the books meant that I didn’t have time to exercise. Tuition included access to the Mount Saint Vincent University fitness centre. I came up with excuse after excuse to justify why I couldn’t use the gym.

Anyone that has struggled with excess weight will know that there isn’t an easy time to start the difficult journey to fitness. Restarting a journey is even harder. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and writer, is widely credited with the saying “a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

My first step was running into Jenilyn Hatt, a registered nurse in critical care with Nova Scotia Health Authority. Jen is a veteran distance runner and a fellow member of Halifax Search and Rescue. Her naturally positive nature and seemingly endless energy became apparent on our first search and rescue task together.

The pitch-black night conditions that we faced had little effect in slowing her down. In fact, it seemed to speed her up. As we worked through our field task, her inquisitive nature resulted in a barrage of questions about how Pax was working.

Soon after this search, we met for our first run together through downtown Halifax. Starting at Pier 21, we ran down Lower Water Street, before heading up Duke Street, and finally looping back to Pier 21. As we waited for the walk signal at the steep uphill Duke Street segment, Jen asked how I felt.

“Never hoped for a cardiac arrest more in my life,” I quipped. The individual standing next to us laughed. I laughed. Jen didn’t. The light turned green. We continued to run.

As we ran, I would often hear Jen shouting words of encouragement. “Straighten up!” she coached. “Swing your arms,” she instructed. “Look straight ahead.” And finally, “breathe.”

While Pax and I suffered in silence on our runs, Jen ran with my second German Shepherd, Cinder. Cinder had already experienced her own weight loss miracle. She had dropped from nearly 90 pounds to just 53 pounds after she was returned to the breeder by her first owner. Both Jen and Cinder possess endless energy and were well-suited for running together.

Paul and Cinder

In December of 2018, I watched my weight surge through final exams. My mind finally said “enough is enough.”

It was time to get the weight off. With Christmas around the corner, all I could do is attempt to hold the line and prepare for the battle. I would not be facing this battle alone. Karen Service, my wife, also wanted to lose weight. We discussed dietary changes and decided to become New Year’s resolutionists.

On Jan. 2, 2019, the battle of the bulge commenced.

Karen had looked at healthier options for eating, and we researched clean eating. Processed foods were put on the no-eat list. Meals and lunches were made at home. Eating out ceased. Also gone from my diet were cookies from McDonalds, which was a regular part of my daily routine.

My winter class schedule provided sufficient time to visit the gym. Suddenly my excuses vanished; all of my classes were within a short distance to the gym. I started working with a personal trainer at the Mounts Fitness Centre. These sessions improved my physical activity level.

Age and a recurrent injury sidelined Pax, which meant that he could finally start taking advantage of his retirement. Cinder and I started to run together. It was not a match made in heaven. Accustomed to Jen’s sprints, I spent more time trying to slow her down.

Shortly after Cinder and I started running, I started researching Canicross. I had heard about the sport through Jazzmon Gabriel, the wife of another Halifax SAR member. In the sport, dogs wear a specially designed harness that allow them to pull from the chest. They have the ability to generate power, which is transferred through a bungee line attached to the runner at the waist. It has become a popular dog sport in Europe. The harness also gives runners the opportunity to keep both hands free and focus on balance and form while running.

Cinder Wearing a ZeroDC Faster Harness

I soon found myself meeting Marley Repchull of Maritime Mushing Supply, in the parking lot of a Sackville Park. Marley’s experience with Canicross and fitting dogs for harnesses became apparent as we spoke. The first harness we tried on Cinder was a perfect fit. We turned our focus to selecting a bungee cord leash, which I expressed some concern with since Cinder is a natural puller. She assured me that I was getting a great leash and Cinder would be secure.

In a scene that felt more like a clandestine drug deal than buying dog equipment, we exchanged money for product. We parted ways and I headed home.

For six days, the bright red harness sat on our kitchen table, as I summoned the courage to try it in our neighbourhood. When the courage finally came, I prepared for my run. I added the extra layer of a rappelling harness. From my attire, Cinder knew I was ready for a run. But she looked perplexed as I slid the harness over her head.

As I’ve matured in life, there have been numerous opportunities that I’ve had to look back and reflect on decisions that I’ve made. For better or worse, the first harness run would soon become one of those moments. “Hook up the dog and run,” I reasoned. It’ll be straightforward. I snapped the leash to the back of her harness and we ventured outside.

Fellow German Shepherd owner and Canicross enthusiast Anne Arsenault shared that she started Canicross as a way to get out and exercise. But she cautioned that “when you have an 80-plus pound dog pulling you, you better be able to run!”

“Take lessons on how to do this right as there is nothing worse than running with a dog that doesn't have the obedience to do it,” she said

Without the benefit of Anne’s advice, Cinder and I headed out on our first run. Little did I know what I was in for. As I let the line go, Cinder launched every fibre of her body into the harness. We were off.

A run through the neighbourhood Winter 2019

Almost immediately, I realized that a lot of the frustration that I had with Cinder in trying to keep her in a heeling position, running beside me, was gone. She was entirely content to sink into the harness and pull. That day, I shaved nearly four minutes off my personal best time and broke a 30-minute five-kilometre run time for the first time in my life.

As it turns out, Canicross is quite addictive. Cinder has become my motivator for continued physical fitness. A high-drive working dog, she demands daily exercise when we aren’t training. When we miss runs, she will do high speed laps in the house until I cave. Most days, it’s easier to stop what I am doing and head out for a 5K.

Apart from the harness, Canicross requires very little to participate in. While the sport originated as a cross country activity, we complete our runs in our neighbourhood. Runs aren’t contingent on others, and we can go whenever we’re ready.

I’m not alone in my approach to the activity. Marianne Casey Roy, a member of the East Coast Mushing Facebook page, shared “I’m not a fan of running alone” so her dog “was my motivator” to run. “Having a dog that needs exercise definitely keeps you committed to running.”

"Between the healthy eating, gym exercise and running with Cinder, I’ve started to find fitness."

On the morning of June 9, 2019, as I prepared to head to the Bluenose Marathon to participate in my first 10K race, the scale revealed that I had dropped 50 pounds since my Jan. 2 start. June also marked the first time in my adult life that I had woken up neither in the obese or morbidly obese category. While still sitting in the “overweight” category, there has been significant improvement in my overall health.

As for the Bluenose Race, I completed the 10K in 1:07:18. This was achieved dog-less and is a personal best time. It also marked a significant time improvement in my 10K time from a year ago of 1:24:55.

Two of the most popular hashtags in the Canicross community are #HaveADogHaveATeammate and #6LegsAreBetterThan2.

There is an irony that the secret of finding a healthier lifestyle has always been a prominent part of my life. Cinder and I support each other as teammates. She burns off surplus energy as I burn off calories!

If you enjoyed Pauls story, consider following him and Cinder on instagram @cansark9 to see what they're up to next!

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