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Backwards runner’s best friend: Kat Clewley and Vanilla

kat and vanillaThere hardly seems to be an athletic endeavour Burlington resident Kat Clewley has yet to face. A talented soccer player in her youth, she went on scholarship to North Carolina before returning to play on the Canadian team, serving as the goalkeeper at the Pan Am Games in 1999.

With countless road races under her belt, including a 3:10 marathon, Kat moved up in distance, completing five 100-mile ultramarathons, each through different terrain. To test her multi-sport competitiveness, she completed an Ironman in Mont Tremblant. She’s done one mud run, just for kicks. It’s an athletic resume that would impress anyone, so what could possibly be next for Clewley?

Well, that’s where her dog, a Giant Schnauzer named Vanilla, enters the picture.

“Earlier in the summer I was running with Vanilla and it was a hot day on the waterfront trails of Lake Ontario. She was slowing down and I wanted to keep an eye on her and make sure she was doing alright. Plus, a cool thing about Giant Schnauzers is that they have great eye contact. She also runs with a ball in her mouth and sometimes she drops it. It’s a ten-dollar ball and I’ve lost a lot in my life, so I need to know when she drops it. So, to keep eye contact and to keep an eye on the ball, I started running backwards. I’d say I sustained it for about ten minutes that day,” Kat explains.

“I got back from my run and I Googled. And not a lot of people have done the backwards running thing. I’m the type of athlete that is always looking for new experiences, new ways to push myself, so I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to give this a try!'” Kat laughs, “I was already signed up for the Road to Hope Marathon, so I just changed the goal from running it forwards, to running it backwards!” Kat hopes to complete the marathon in approximately 4 hours and thirty minutes, which would earn her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Race Ready! Army 1/2 Marathon! Let’s do this!….BACKWARDS! @ymcahbb pic.twitter.com/OFqvS29eCc

There’s no better training partner for Kat as she pursues this goal, than Vanilla herself, who comes from running pedigree. “Vanilla is five and I actually used to run with her father,” Kat explains, “He belonged to my neighbour and we bonded. I used to take him on four hour runs with me when I was training for my first 100 mile race. Then when my neighbour had a litter of puppies a few years ago, Vanilla was an amazing birthday present for me.”

As a knowledgable breeder, Kat’s neighbour helped her to maximize Vanilla’s running ability. “She underwent testing as a puppy and tested as being very athletic, great bone structure, good posture and tons of energy,” Kat explains. “Usually, you get your puppy neutered after eight months, but my neighbour told me that for athletic female dogs, it is beneficial to let them get their period, since it helps their bone density, so Vanilla walked around with a doggie diaper for a bit!” Kat laughs. While Vanilla’s bone structure may be ready to take a beating, Kat has noticed differences in her own body since she started backwards running. “It actually rests a lot of the muscles that I usually use when running forwards!” she exclaims, “my quads don’t get as sore, but my calves, glutes and oddly enough, my triceps, really take a beating.”

Days before I spoke to her, Kat completed the Army Run half-marathon in Ottawa, backwards. She actually beat the world record for that event, though she had not applied to beat it through Guinness.

Kat will be competing at the backwards running world championships (yes, apparently that is a thing), in Essen, Germany in July of 2016.