The Mountain Ultra Trail Dogs (MUTS)

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by Nico Barraza

The inspiration to write this piece comes from a lifetime of loving dogs and living in their love. I have watched throughout my life, some of the happiest moments occur between humans and their wet nosed soil-sniffing companions. I’d argue – that some of the strongest bonds of love found on this planet have been forged between the two and four-legged. Many licks, bones, paws, wags, and woofs were shared while gathering the stories that comprise the entirety of this article. I hope it inspires you to look beyond the solitude in running and in life. With them, we are never alone.

On December 31st of 2014 I sat next to Sol’s golden paws while having my morning cup, whisking through the daily emails and messages before our sunrise run. Just before shutting the screen and hearing the familiar jingle of a collar wiggling its way around earflaps in anticipation of a door swinging open, I stumbled across a post by fellow dog befriender and ultra runner Ian Torrence. It began, “She was the dog that was supposed to live forever. However, this was the only command she would disobey.” I looked down at Sol’s hazel eyes staring back at me, full of intent and curiosity. I continued to read. Following was a tale of a man who explored the world by foot with his black and white cattle-dog companion, not to train for anything in particular, but to share and to live a full life.

Sol and Nico Barraza. Photo: Rachel Schneider

Sol and Nico Barraza. Photo: Rachel Schneider

Named after an iconic temple in the Grand Canyon, Zoroaster was Ian’s ‘Velcro’. As my eyes sifted through the story of a runner who had just lost one of the very pillars that propped him up, his words sank deeper and deeper. Making their way far beyond my eyes and into my heart. I could not withdraw my gaze from the page. The love was palpable. I reached down and rested my palm against Sol’s back, rolling my fingers through her fur. Tears began to soak my eyes. In Ian’s words she was his co-pilot and cheerleader. Zoroaster or ‘Z’ for short was one of “those” dogs. If you are a dog lover, you know the kind I’m speaking of. If we are lucky we get to experience this rare bond once, perhaps even twice in a lifetime. When two souls connect on a level that is indescribable with language, it can only be felt – transposed through the senses. I arrived at the end of Ian’s post teary eyed and warm hearted, which he’s allowed me to share for the sake of this article.

“Yesterday, in the early morning hours, I drove Emily, Super Bee and Z to the Schultz Creek Trailhead, one of Z’s favorite runs, and parked the truck. Z got out, smelled the base of a ponderosa and clump of grass, and then laid down. I coaxed her down the trail a few more feet, but that was all she had. She was done. We drove to the vet, the folks that she had always seen for her regular check-ups and the more recent battle with cancer. You know your dog has left an impression when the receptionist begins to cry and her doctor can’t keep it together. I held Zoroaster in the same pink and white striped knitted blanket I brought her home in back in Ashland six years earlier. I thanked her, told her I was sorry and that I lover her, and then watched as she took her last breath. I looked deep into her big wide eyes and watched the light, the light that I loved, leave her body. Zoroaster will always be my Moment of Zen. She will be with me forever…”

This is what dogs do to those who willingly open their heart to one. They enter your life and provide you with a limitless amount of love and irreplaceable memories. My Tata (grandfather in Spanish) would always tell me “son, you can tell a lot about a man from the way he treats animals.” He was my father figure in life and I owe much of who I am today to his upbringing. In February of 2012 he passed away in the home that he built with his own two hands. Each of those hands on the top of our family dogs’ as they lay at his side while he took his last breaths. Dogs have an uncanny ability to sense suffering, especially in humans. They possess an equally strong ability to aid in the healing of that suffering too.

I first heard of Alexandra Horowitz and her book Inside of a Dog, on my way out for my routine morning surf in 2012 while she was being interviewed on NPR for her work studying the cognitive ability of dogs and their relationships with their human counterparts. What I found most intriguing were the conclusions Dr. Horowitz drew on the loving bond between human and canine. A somewhat unfathomable and indescribable energy between the four and the two legged that transpires when lives and worlds collide. This bond seems to be strengthened even more when the two species spend time together, outside, mutually enjoying nature.

Around the same time I was reading Horowitz, one of my college professors had me reading The Nature Principle, by Richard Louv. Where he coins the term ‘nature deficit disorder’, speaking about the relationships between humanity’s separations with nature and the resulting effects in our current emotional, social, and environmental realms. At one point in his book Louv discusses the physiological changes a human goes through when they go from spending little to no time outside to taking daily walks or runs, specifically on dirt and around vegetation. He focuses in on the science behind soil microbes and draws in research that attests to their healing properties. Louv’s theory paralleled perfectly with Horowitz’s take on dogs and the healing potential they have in the life of a human. It is not surprising that so many trail runners who tend to have their dogs run with them constantly speak about these benefits. Having a dog has been linked to not only aid in healing one’s emotional state, but also strengthening their immune system and increasing their life span. Mixing this four-legged power with trail running and the healing endorphins found within spending time nature, we are left with two species that are simply made for each other.

The Sunshine Girl

I first met Sol in the depths of the Coconino Humane Society. It was October of 2013 and I had just moved back to the US from Chile to attend graduate school. I didn’t know then, just how much I would desperately need some sunshine in my life in the near future. I went back and forth to the pound over the next couple of weeks. I had grown up with an Australian Shepherd in my childhood years; I knew the capacity of the cattle-dog well. They understand the life I loved, who I am and what I value deep down to the core. The kind of life that graces the mountain air day-by-day. Takes time to sit and smell the fresh pine sap as it rolls down the cheeks of the trees and appreciates the sound of a 6-string on the porch at sunset. If I was going to get a dog, it had to be a country-dog. Finally, one day as I was about to walk out of the pound after playing with puppies outside the fenced kennel area for hours – I noticed a small group of tiny, furry butted, knobbed tailed Australian Shepherd pups huddle together in the rear corner of a concrete kennel bed. “When did this group get in?” I asked one of the volunteers. “Just earlier today. Apparently, they were found abandoned on the side of a Navajo reservation road in a crate”, she replied. They couldn’t have been more than four weeks old at the time. There were seven in total. However, two stood out to me from the rest. The first, a small dark brown merle female with light brown golden paws and deep emerald eyes. She sat in the back with two other’s while the rest of the litter wrestled in puppy chaos at the gate. Her chocolate colored nose rested on the back of another, one of her brothers. As she stared at this large human head peering through the diamond shaped cuts in the fence. She was my girl and I was her human, from the moment we left the pound that day.

I named her Solana (sunshine) or Sol (Sun) for short. If you have had the chance to meet Sol you know why she is the sunshine girl. Her smile and presence exuberates warmth and happiness. There is an inexplicable infectious positive energy that swirls around her as she goes from human to human, greeting them with a warm tail wag and loving nose nudge. I exposed her to everything and anything when she was a pup. My family’s horses, chickens, goats, fellow dogs, and all sorts of different public settings allowed her to develop the laid back personality that so many people have now come to know.

Shortly after Sol came home with me, I went through a very hard separation from a girl I was deeply in love with at the time. For months I didn’t run or climb. I simply didn’t have the energy. My body, mind, and heart were working tirelessly to heal. I would wake up with her nose slightly wedged between my shoulder and the bed, with two bright hazel eyes staring straight at me. She could sense I was in pain. Having her acted as a form of motivation, slowly but surely I began to get outside again for short and slow jogs. Watching her gallop over tree stumps, swerving back and forth with her nose to the ground, all while dropping sub four-minute miles up and down steep mountain terrain brought a smile back to my face. We’ve come a long way since then. The healing and love she has provided in my life through the past two and a half years closely parallels the experiences described by so many of the other runners in the stories to follow.

The Canadian Champion

Roxy “The Ultra Dog” Robbins is known in the ultra running world as a four-pawed canine-racing powerhouse. She is the furry daughter of Salomon athlete, beard-king, and current Wonderland Trail FKT holder Gary Robbins. Gary first met Roxy in a shelter near his home in Squamish, British Columbia in March of 2005. She was four months old at the time, with ears that flopped all the way down from the crown of her head to the floor. When she peed on Gary’s foot in the kennel that day, it was love at first sight. Roxy and Gary have been a tandem team ever since. Going on ten years now, Roxy was the ring bearer in Gary’s wedding and recently acquired the esteemed position of ‘head of household security’ as the Robbins’s family welcomed a new son (Reed Robbins) this past year.

Gary Robbins and his Dog. Photo: Roxy Linda Robbins

Gary Robbins and Roxy. Photo: Roxy Linda Robbins

Gary accredits his continued motivation in his early days of trail running to Roxy. “Dog’s are great like that, rain or shine they need their time and they prefer the trails.” She instilled a daily routine of getting outside in Gary and helped him realize that no matter the weather, a jaunt on the trails will always clear your mind.

Roxy is the two-time Peterson Ridge Rumble 20-mile dog race champion (2011, 2012), along side her dad of course. Her longest run was a 55-kilometer training run in the wet wonderland of Bellingham, WA. On any given day you can find the two gallivanting the trails in North Vancouver, BC. Up and down Grouse Mountain and the Baden Powell Trail. However, Roxy prefers the wet Canadian winters and a paw-full of fresh new snow to the hot and humid summers.

The Bash-brothers

Not many races allow you to run with your dog(s). The Peterson Ridge Rumble in Sister’s, Oregon is one of the few exceptions. Where the top dogs win gift baskets full of pig’s ears and aid stations are stocked with water bowls and bacon flavored biscuits. It makes sense seeing as the Race Director is one of the biggest dog lovers I know. Sean Meissner (Race Director) and his partner Kristina Siladi are dog people through and through. From the moment you walk into their paw printed home, toys are splayed out across the floor, couches full of fur, and greetings of welcome barks echo through the hallways. Milo (Rottweiler) and Ardy (Border Collie) are the bash brothers. These two, along with their ultra running parents are veterans of the trails. Ardy “The Dirt Magnet” Meissner was adopted from the Arizona Border Collie Rescue. He received his nickname from his fondness of bringing the trails home with him after daily outings. If there is a mud-hole within a 5-mile radius of the trail Ardy will find it, guaranteed. He has done some racing of his own; including his Dad’s 20-miler in Oregon and a 15 miler in the La Plata range near Durango, Colorado.

Sean Meissner with Kristina Siladi and their dogs Milo and Ardy in Flagstaff, Arizona. Photo: Nico Barraza

Sean Meissner with Kristina Siladi and their dogs Milo and Ardy in Flagstaff, Arizona. Photo: Nico Barraza

Ardy’s big brother Milo is a purebred ultra-running Rottweiler. Yes you heard that right. “Given his bulkier stature, he is not a natural choice for a running dog, however I couldn’t resist his cute little brown eyebrows and oversized baby Rottie head”, said Siladi. Do not be fooled. I have witnessed Milo grind his way up steep 14-ers in Silverton, Colorado and tear up trail like the rest of the pro running pooches. Although his physique lends itself to that of an Olympic power lifter, Milo’s first love is distance running with his mom. Since the two met, he’s never looked back. He is also one of the kindest dogs I have ever come in contact with. This speaks endless amounts to the debate on dog-breeds and behavior tendencies. Kind people in a kind and loving environment raised him and that is exactly what Milo resonates with. Milo’s ability to run endless amounts of miles in his bulky frame can be attributed to one theory, run hard – nap harder. For ultra-runner’s rest is a crucial attribute in every successful training plan. This is an aspect of training Milo takes extremely seriously. So seriously that I doubt anyone could move him off the couch after a weekend long run. Sean and Kristina have both said that dogs make their day-to-day lives more fun, especially their time spent on the trails and in the mountains. “They are incredible athletes and cover technical ground so quickly and effortlessly.” The bash brothers and their parents just moved back to their home of Durango, Colorado from a two-year stay in Flagstaff, Arizona. You can find the family of four scaling the San Juan’s and enjoying a romp around the many peaks that surround the mountain running mecca.

Milly of the Valley

You know who Dylan Bowman is, the young ultra running phenom who is part of a strong contingent of competitive ultra trail runners living around the San Francisco area. Bowman has made a name for himself in the international ultra running world. What you may not know is that the young Mill Valley trailblazer has a secrete weapon. His dog Milly Teitsworth-Bowman (named after the Valley and her two parents) is a 15-month-old German Shorthaird Pointer (GSP), hunting dog bread for the trails and mountains. Just like her dad Milly possess firecracker like explosiveness on dirt. Both Dylan and his partner Harmony adopted Milly when she was 8 weeks old. Just like other runner’s Dylan was careful not to run too much with Milly in her initial stages of joining the ultrarunning household.

Dylan Bowman and Milly. Photo: Levi Miller

Dylan Bowman and Milly. Photo: Levi Miller

Since their first footsteps on groomed single track together Milly has brought an endless amount of joy into her parents lives. “We can’t imagine life without her. We run together 2-3 times per week which we both really enjoy,” Bowman said when I asked him what Milly has done for his running and life. “She likes to lead on runs and usually carries the biggest stick or rock she can find. I interpret this as her showing off how easy the runs are for her.” This I find hilarious, since Dylan is a speedster himself. I can completely relate my experience with Sol dropping me on our hard runs to what he experiences with Milly. The thing is, they don’t even know they are putting the beat down on us while they effortlessly float up and down steep terrain. It is almost comical.

Milly has also added a sense of family into the Teitsworth-Bowman household. Before the two brought the young GSP into their lives they were just a couple, but when Milly came into the picture a family of runners was born. Dylan has observed that having a dog to love and care for is one of the greatest things a family of runners can add into their lives.

You can find Milly and her parents in the heart of Mill Valley, California. On their weekly workouts up and down the fire roads and flanks of Mt. Tam. 

Pacing Paws

Most trail runners consider their dog’s great pacers. One trail runner went a step further and named her dog Pacer. Rachel Nypaver, like myself, is partial to Australian Shepherds. Rachel and her boyfriend fell in love with the young Aussie in Ashboro, North Carolina on their way back from a vacation trip. Since then Rachel and Pacer have completed the 486-mile long Colorado Trail together this past August. A feat that is distinctly impressive to accomplish with your dog. 

Sandi and Rachel Nypaver and Pacer. Photo: Sage Canaday in Salida, CO

Sandi and Rachel Nypaver and Pacer. Photo: Sage Canaday in Salida, CO

Perhaps even more impressive than their 486-mile journey through the Colorado wilderness is what Pacer has done for Rachel’s life outside of running. “I have a history of depression and anxiety. I truly believe, in addition to consciously changing mental patterns, it is because nature and my relationship with my dog that my spirits always remain high,” Rachel said about Pacer with a gracious tone. “No matter how I’m feeling, how bad I did in a race, or what mistakes I made that day, Pacer is always there for me. Just burying my head into her fur is a comfort. It’s because of her that I know what unconditional love truly means.” Dog’s have the healing magic for human’s. They become deeply connected and in tune with our hearts once we let them in.

Recently Rachel, her partner, and Pacer moved to Boulder, Colorado where they are enjoying the fresh mountain air and warm ultrarunning community. The two young lasses frequent Mount Sanitas, Green Mountain, and the North Boulder trails.

A Super Team

Emily Harrison has made a name for herself in the national and international ultra running worlds. Setting course records and winning world championships, the Nike Elite Trail athlete is a force to be reckoned with on the trails and roads. Some may even call her performances’ at races with elite competition, ‘super’. Which is why her high-powered border collie “Super Bee” is the perfect match. Emily and Bee met in their home state of Virginia. Where they both flew back to their current home in Flagstaff, Arizona when Bee was just 8 weeks old. Emily had Bee on the trails from a very young age, but waited till she was about one year old to start doing bigger runs in the mountains. More than just a running partner, Super Bee is Emily’s companion. The two have formed an inseparable bond over their love for exploring trails and natural areas.

Emily Harrison and her dog Super Bee, at the base of the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, Arizona. Photo: Nico Barraza

Emily Harrison and her dog Super Bee, at the base of the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, Arizona. Photo: Nico Barraza

She is always there for me, no matter what happens. That bond is indescribable. I tend to do most of my training alone, but I enjoy her company on my runs. It’s a source of motivation. She gets so excited when the running shoes come out.”

The two have set numerous FKTs together on local Flagstaff routes and if you try your best not to blink, you may see them blazing the trails through Observatory Mesa and the Fort Valley trail system.

Two birds, four paws

Chances are you’ve heard of Ryan Sandes. The South African endurance machine, who’s won numerous elite races like the Leadville 100 (2011), Atacama Desert Crossing (Chile, 2010), and placed second at Western States 100 (2012). If you follow Sandes on social media you’ve probably seen many photos of his trusty pooch Thandi (meaning ‘to love’ in Xhoza, an African language). Thandi or T-Dog first came into Ryan’s life when he found love. His wife Vanessa adopted Thandi out of a local shelter before meeting Ryan. The two both came into Ryan’s life when Thandi was just 2-years old. Before T-dog and Ryan became friends, Vanessa had her well trained and she wasn’t allowed on the bed or couches. Within a few weeks of meeting Sandes T-dog was sleeping on beds and laying on couches, no questions asked. The pro ultra runner developed a bit of a soft spot immediately for the 2-year old.

Ryan Sandes, his wife Vanessa Sandes, and their dog Thandi in South Africa. Photo:  Kolesky

Ryan Sandes, his wife Vanessa Sandes, and their dog Thandi in South Africa. Photo: Kolesky

“I find rescue dogs have a lot of character. It’s always entertaining watching her. She’s been a huge influence on the lives of Vanessa and I.”

Known for sprinting down squirrel scents within the first few kilometers of a run, Ryan and Thandi don’t run more than 10 kilometers together on any given occasion, as she loves to turn the jets on like a maniac from the start. Sandes feeds off this energy and it tends to push him through the days that he finds it hard to muster the drive to get outside and train. T-dog never fails to light up the lives of Ryan and his wife on and off the trails with her lively antics.

“She always makes Vanessa and I laugh, creating a positive energy in our house. Dogs are so good at living for the moment. Us humans can learn a lot from them.”

It’s safe to say Sandes met two loves of his life the day Vanessa and Thandi walked into his. You can find the endurance loving family in their home of Cape Town, South Africa, on the Llandudno Corner of Table Mountain or cruising one of the forest trails on Constantia Nek.

Malan the Mountain Dog

Named after a prominent peak in the northern Wasatch Range near Salt Lake City, Utah Malan “Mountain Dog” Agnew is no stranger to long and hard days in the alpine. For the first 9 months of her life, Malan was stuck inside a tiny apartment in the city and confined to a plastic crate for about 20 hours a day. Kelly Agnew and his wife Jo were able coax her away from her owner at the time and bring her into their ultra running family.

English Pointers are known for their demand of high-level daily activity, intimacy, and attention. They are working dogs, with every fiber in their body. Kelly and Malan ran out of the box (literally) from the day they met and since then have been inseparable running partners.

Kelly Agnew and his dog Malan, running in the Wasatch Range of Utah

Kelly Agnew and his dog Malan, running in the Wasatch Range of Utah

“I’ve shared more epic adventures with my dog than I have with anybody else and I can’t fathom ever leaving her behind when it’s time to hit the trails.”

I too have experienced this guilt when trying to leave the house for a road workout. There have been many times I’ve turned around and looked at Sol peaking through the corner of the door, staring at me. I’ve turned right around many of those times and the workouts have morphed into a trail day instead of the road. Not because I had to, but because that is how much (just like Kelly and Malan) I enjoy running with her.

Having an enthusiastic pup as a running partner increases one’s desire to get outside and log daily miles. This seems to be a common occurrence in trail and ultra runners that bond with a dog. Kelly say’s that Malan forces him to be more accountable and consistent, because he isn’t just running for himself. This is a crucial point. When we run with a dog, in many aspects we are running for them – as they are running for us. Before Kelly started to run with Malan, much like Emily Harrison, he was a very solitary runner. Malan fills a void in his daily routine that he never new existed before the connected.

“I truly cherish the relationship we share and I look forward to our time together everyday we step outside that door and take our first steps towards the peaks.”

Malan the mountain running English Pointer and Kelly Agnew can be sighted tearing up trails near Draper, Utah and the various peaks that compose the Wasatch Front Range.

The Paladin

After years of rescuing and fostering dogs, ultra running legend Nikki Kimball decided to bring another special pooch into her life. Vika, an English pointer, was clearly the dog for the 10-time Western State’s finisher who holds countless ultra victories spanning across the past 16 years. The name Vika is derived from a character in one of Nikki’s favorite books, City of Thieves. It is also a Russian nickname for Victoria. She figured Vika wouldn’t mind a little gender bending as long as he was able to get in his average of 60+ miles per week.

Nikki initially wanted to wait a year before allowing Vika to run longer distances to make sure he grew into his bones properly. Most vets recommend waiting till a dog is a year old to begin running distances longer than a couple miles at a time. However, by 10 months, Vika clearly needed more exercise that a mere 1 mile off leash walk in the dog park. So Nikki allowed him out for short 3-mile jaunts, eventually building him up to 3+ hour longer runs.

Nikki Kimball and Vika running in Bozeman, Montana. Photo: Vern Smith

Nikki Kimball and Vika running in Bozeman, Montana. Photo: Vern Smith

“I think dogs benefit greatly from running with people. First, the bond between a human and his/her dog grows very strong when we spend significant and consistent time together. Running gives both human and dog the same goal (to finish the run) which they work toward together. Often it’s the one-on-one time between owner and dog, which further cements the human-dog bond.”

Nikki accredits Vika’s pleasant sociability with other dogs and human’s to the many group run’s they’ve partaken in. The two live 3 miles from one of the best dog parks in the country in their home of Bozeman, Montana. They run together on the roads and the trails and are frequent visitors of the high country.

Every Maverick needs his Goose

One summer day in 2014 Yassine Diboun and his daughter sat on a park bench eating sorbet while a man walked by with a small fuzzy puppy. Yassine’s family was in the process of moving into a house and had been thinking about getting a dog. The man let them know that there were four other puppies in the litter that needed homes. Yassine scheduled a meeting with the person who had the puppies in their old neighborhood of Goose Hollow. After being introduced to the four, Yassine noticed one that stood out from the rest. “He had dark and unique markings and was more mellow than the others. He had a look in his eyes as if he was an old soul.” The family named him Goose to remind them of the area they love and where they first met. Yassine and Goose (now 15 months old) run up to 8 miles at a time together. Diboun says that Goose has taught him many life lessons in their short 15 months of knowing each other.

Yassine Diboun and Goose running in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Shane McKenzie

Yassine Diboun and Goose running in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Shane McKenzie

“He has definitely taught me patience. Raising a dog requires you to be very selfless. He has also taught me about love, compassion, and forgiveness. Being able to “shake things off” and come back to the people you love with a waggin’ tail.”

The two and their family live in Portland, Oregon. They frequent runs in Marquam Nature Park, the Columbia River Gorge, the Pacific Crest Trail, and around Mt. Hood. Goose favors runs with steep vertical gain. The more elevation change the better for the pup with the dark and unique markings!

The Queen B

Mountain runner Joe Grant and his wife Deanne adopted their cattle-dog collie mix “Bella B” Grant from the Portland Human Society when she was just 3 months old. Being a herding dog she always needs a job, is very active, and always too smart for her own good. She ran a lot when she was a pup, but nothing structured. It wasn’t until Bella was about one when Joe started to take her on longer outings. Noting that she excels during the cold winters in Colorado, but hates the dry hot summers.

Joe Grant and Bella, running in the Gold Hill, Colorado. Photo: Fredrik Marmsater

Joe Grant and Bella, running in the Gold Hill, Colorado. Photo: Fredrik Marmsater

“Bella is a huge part of our lives (my wife and I). We treat her like our child. Since I work from home, I spend a lot of time with her. She runs best off leash and is very intuitive in her movements. Her style is much more spontaneous and dynamic than my running, even on longer outings. She’ll go from a trot to a sprint, then stop and wait for me. It’s really freeing to watch her run and a good reminder of how to move without the typical constraints we impose on ourselves, time, distance, etc.”

Indeed, many lessons can be learned from running with a dog. They run for the pure joy of being outside and being free. Running to a dog is a celebration of freedom. Delving into the nuanced sounds, smells, and sights that are so often missed by the human senses. They teach us to slow down and focus on the things that really matter. Allowing us to uncover the important aspects of life that are so effortlessly right in front of us, yet given our busy human-world seem to be overlooked quite often. Dogs teach us gratefulness and remind us that there are so many more important things in life than what we often perceive. Joe, Deanne, and Bella call Gold Hill, Colorado home. They can be found running through the many rolling hills that link trail systems right outside of their doorstep and playing in the alpine of the Indian Peaks. 

The True Ghost Dog

Micah “Caballo Blanco” True’s story is responsible for setting fire to the largest modern distance running boom in the world following the release of Christopher McDougal’s book Born to Run in 2006. Perhaps, just as mysterious as Micah’s story is the tale of the legendary “Ghost Dog”, whom Micah befriended down in the Copper Canyons. Guadajuko “Ghost Dog” True is just as elusive and charismatic as his late father. Guadajuko is a Raramuri word meaning “cool or awesome”. Which perfectly describes the smooth, sly, and sometimes mischievous original ‘mas loco’ that has become a living legend in the ultra running community.

In December of 2008, Guadajuko was discovered as a puppy wandering down a remote trail in Batopilas, Chihuahua, Mexico by a group of Biology students from the University of Missouri that were on a two week trip in the Copper Canyons, led by Micah True. Mexico is no stranger to stray dogs wandering the streets, especially in the small towns far from the larger cities. When the group reached Guadajuko he was covered in fleas, extremely dehydrated and malnourished. The students carried the small puppy for three days in their backpacks across the hot canyon trails to the town of Urique. Where Micah (Caballo Blanco) decided to take him in as his own.

After Micah True’s passing in March of 2012, Maria Walton (his partner at the time) took ‘Juko in as her own. The two were side by side with each other through mourning the loss of Micah’s life and have grown extremely close.

Maria Walton and Guadajuko in Urique, MX. Photo: Patrick Sweeney

Maria Walton and Guadajuko in Urique, MX. Photo: Patrick Sweeney

“Guadajuko has become my best friend and companion, both in running and emotionally. He provides such a healing comfort. Whatever trail, mountain range, or canal we choose to run, he instinctively knows the route! We’re connected in rhythm, stride, and footsteps.”

The Ghost Dog is a mix of Labrador Retriever, Australian Cattle Dog, and Queensland Heeler. He’s a natural long distance runner. In October of 2012 Maria and ‘Juko completed a 50k race together, in their home state of Arizona. With Ghost Dog in her life she never needs an Alarm clock. “He wakes me up every day by 4:30am. It never fails!” When she puts her running sandals or trail shoes on, he’s immediately running around in circles, a white blur howling throughout the house.

“As we’ve both matured, in life and running, we share a spiritual connection between peaceful souls. We’re both energetic, passionate, stubborn and determined to push through every challenge placed before us.” 

Although Maria concedes that she is much more disciplined and focused when it comes to diet and nutrition. Gudajuko is famous for his charming resourcefulness around nearby humans who have a handful of yumminess. He is also known for sneaking in leftovers when Maria isn’t looking. They call him the Ghost Dog for a reason. ‘Juko is also a source of inspiration for Maria’s poetry. The two can be found in the Valley of the Sun – Tempe, Arizona. Their favorite running spots include: Papago Park, the Superstition Mountains, South Mountain, and the McDowell’s.

Sol and I run 70 to 80 miles a week together and she has gone up to 100 miles in a week a couple times. Unless the trail doesn’t allow it or it is simply too hot outside, there aren’t many instances when I am running on dirt and she is not with me. Since she’s come into my life it has been greatly enriched in more ways than I can express. The smiles and laughter she has supplied have been plentiful and endless.

One day this past summer we were both sitting outside of Macy’s Coffee House in Flagstaff, Arizona. A rancher who had been sitting at a table near us with his wife walked up to me. “How much would you be willing to sell that Australian Shepherd you have there for? We just lost one of ours to old age and could use another young smart one to help with the cattle,” he asked. “She would get plenty of exercise, loving, and eat the best food out there,” he continued. He had been observing Sol for the past hour while we were sitting there. I smiled at him and said, “this one is quite special to me, and she already has a job”. “I’ll give you a thousand dollars right now”, the rancher continued. His wife got up from the table and walked over, “better make that five thousand dollars Bob, she looks like a real smart one”. I smiled at both of them again, looked at Sol and said, “We’re both flattered. But, the thing is this dog here is not a pet to me. She is my best friend, running pacer, travel partner, good food connoisseur, therapist, and family member. She is my life. There isn’t enough material in the world that I would trade her for. She’s been a good enough teacher to show me the value of real love.” The rancher looked over at his wife, first in a puzzled look that slowly morphed into one of mutual understanding. He grinned back at us tipping the top of his hat brim, “I can see that son. She’s one of ‘those’ dogs, the special one’s. Hold on to that for as long as you can, they truly are life’s blessing.”

There is a constant reminder, as frequent as the cool air grazing across the forest floor – just how much they understand about our world. About our struggles and our hopes. They provide an endless amount of support and love that lives on for lifetimes after they leave. Dogs find the good in everything. They aren’t just born to run, they are born to love. Before you know it running without them just doesn’t feel the same. I am well aware that one day Sol will leave me (or perhaps I before her), but before that happens I plan on cherishing every moment of every day I get to spend with her. Soaking in her love, her smiles and her wet nose kisses. Running free to the beat of our own drum somewhere in the mountains. Making sure we take the time to stop, breath, look around and enjoy all the beauty that surrounds us. I will always be in debt to her for bringing me back to my feet in a time of great sorrow. As the old saying goes, “I hope that one day, I can live up to the person my dog believes I am.”

Sol when she was a pup, her first real snow run. Photo: Nico Barraza

Sol when she was a pup, her first real snow run. Photo: Nico Barraza

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5 Comments

  1. Jim Sleazy on

    Yes run with your dog but don’t go too far. Save the ultra etc for two legs not four.

  2. Missy Berkel on

    This is a really great article that would be made better by some simple editing. The mis-use of apostrophes made it very difficult for me to keep reading. Too bad, because the author is obviously passionate about dogs and running (as am I) and reached out to a lot a great people to get the content for this piece. If you ever need someone to help with editing, please let me know.

  3. OMG, what a beautiful story. As an owner of two rescue dogs who has transported over 200 dogs covering over 13,000 miles in the Freedom Rides, I truly loved reading your story. While our first dog, who is Husky and Australian Cattle Dog is 14 years old and happy to walk with us, our fiver year old is Whippet and Beagle and is my shorter distance running partner who pushes faster than I think I can. It is our bonding time and when his ears flop while running while looking at me for guidance, it melts me.

  4. Michael Kearns on

    I just had to put my running trailmate, 11 year old German Wirehaired Pointer, down last week. When he was sick he gave me one last run and I’m so thankful for that loving memory. I’m still missing him and feeling empty, but this story was really helpful. Thank you.