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My Chariot of Fur

By: Ed Hardee, 2011 RRCA Outstanding Club Writer of the Year - Amelia Island Runners, Fernandina Beach, Florida, and volunteer at the Nassau Humane Society.

Life has its little ups and downs, the noted philosopher Jerry Lee Lewis once intoned. When you’re tallying things on the positive side of life’s ledger, high on the list should be: running buddies.

Unless you really enjoy the loneliness of the long distance runner, you probably know what a blessing running buddies can be. The best of them will gently nudge you out the door (figuratively, at least) when you’d just as soon stay in bed, keep you smiling as the miles roll by, lift you up when you‘re feeling good, and more importantly, when you’re not. I’ve been blessed to have many truly wonderful running buddies, most of whom are Amelia Island Runners. But the one who’s on my mind today is Sara.

I met her a dozen years ago. From that first moment I knew she was a runner, through and through.

Thin and muscled and bursting with energy, she had a runner’s body, mind and spirit. It was a foolish conceit to think I could train with her, or even keep up with her. But it didn’t matter, because she also possessed the heart of a running buddy. The “buddy” part came first; running was a close second.

Thus it was that she’d rouse me up each morning – once she’d determined I was already awake – and not-so-gently pull me out the door and down the walk to greet the dawn with a workout. It’s no wonder she was breathtakingly fast, because she was into intervals. A burst of speed, then a pause to sniff out some interesting bit of flora or fauna, or maybe even take a pee (we runners are an indelicate breed). And then, back to the run as I tried my best to keep up, tethered to her by a leash and the bonds of affection. She ran me ragged, I slowed her down, but in the spirit of running-buddyness, neither of us complained.

And then there was the race, with Sara as my partner.

It was the Jacksonville Humane Society’s 2002 Beaches Dog Run. Fitting, since Jax Humane was where Sara and I got together. The setting was a fine late-September morning on Jacksonville Beach.

Hard as it is to believe, I was capable of 7-minute miles back then, and was very much into racing for age-group awards. But on this day, Team Hardee straggled in at 33:08, my slowest 5K ever. Up to that point, anyway.

And yet my “worst” 5K time was also the time of my life. Sara, capable of being so fast, had freed me from the notion that fast is all that matters. Not when there are a hundred kindred spirits to meet and greet, a beautiful blue sea to splash through, glorious breezes alive with the scents of people and poodles and Plott hounds. Why run the tangents when a zig-zag route is so much more interesting? Sometimes it’s better to stop and smell the roses, perhaps lovingly fertilized with a smidgen of dog poop. Which we’d pick up, by the way.

The memory of that race means more to me than any age-group award ever could have.

We had countless adventures on the run, and met scores of friends both human and canine. We even had a brush with Hollywood once. Edie Falco had been filming Sunshine State two houses down, and a crewman knocked on my door to ask if she could use my bathroom mirror for a quick makeup check. He left, she arrived, and suffice it to say that when she did, there was no question which occupant of my house had movie-star looks.

But she saw the beauty in Sara, and proclaimed her “a sweetheart.” And upon leaving, the Emmy-Award-winning actress leaned over and planted a kiss right on her mouth. Ever-unpretentious, Sara wasn’t star-struck, just happy with the attention. Although she didn’t wash her face for days.

The years roll by, faster it seems as we grow older, and in dog years, much faster still. The Beaches Dog Run ran its course. Sunshine State came and went. My running companion was slowed by arthritis, but kept our morning routine, just not necessarily at sunrise anymore. I don’t think it’s coincidental that as her steps began to slow, mine did too.

Then one day she chose a neighborhood walk over a sprint along the shore, which wasn’t like her. The first cancer diagnosis came some time later. Fortunately she had wonderful care from a veterinarian she had quickly come to love, Dr. Jennifer Ferrin of the Fernandina Beach Animal Clinic. A runner herself, Dr. Ferrin helped Sara keep going longer than I had dared hope.

Even as she accumulated dozens of lumps, bumps and tumors, including a huge, inoperable one on her side, Sara would take me for daily walks. Every so often she’d feel up for a run, or a trot at least. One morning a couple of years ago, she wanted to take off – and finding a deserted spot, I let her go. For maybe five minutes, it was like she was magically transported back to her youth, bounding along, barking, grinning, racing the wind. Running with gleeful abandon, for the sheer joy of it.

That night she could hardly walk. As I parceled out extra pain meds, I wondered if I’d done the right thing by letting her grab for those fleeting minutes of ecstasy.

Absolutely, I decided. She’s a runner.

In the last few weeks, I knew again that something was wrong as Sara’s walks grew shorter and more labored. The last few days I truly think she was only going out at all because she knew I wanted to. A true running buddy to the end, she didn’t want to let me down. But she was sick, and very tired, and it was time, one final time, to let her go.

The following Saturday, a 5K dog run for the Jacksonville Humane Society returned to Jax Beach. It was the Chariots of Fur, about the most perfect name I can think of for a dog run. And the thought of it brought me full circle, even amid the sadness of losing my Sara.

We were running buddies. And she will live in my mind’s eye exactly as you see here, happy, eager, fast and strong, leading her friend to another run for the sheer joy of it, toward the light of a promising new day.

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