On Sunday, February 17, visually impaired runner Daryl Lang, 34, finished the Edmonton Hypothermic Half-Marathon, in temperatures of minus 19 C, accompanied by her service dog, a black Labrador retriever named Jenny, and by a human guide, Ed Gallagher. (And yes, Jenny got a finisher’s medal.) It was Lang’s second half-marathon with Jenny (they ran the Montana Half-Marathon in Billings, Montana last year), and the team is now training for the Manitoba full marathon in Winnipeg on June 16. 

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Lang won’t be running with Jenny in Winnipeg, however. The distance is simply too far. “I saw how she is with half-marathons,” says Lang. “Jenny can probably do another half-marathon or two, but she’ll be seven next week, so although she’s still quite active, you have to start watching for fatigue and other things.”

Lang documented her Hypo Half experience on her blog, blindbeader.wordpress.com.

Lang and Jenny have been a team for five and a half years. Lang says they started running together almost four years ago for “purely logistical reasons. I was doing some fundraising runs, 5K’s, and when I was meeting up with friends to go running… I would have to go home and drop [Jenny] off, and then go and take my white cane, take a bus, meet my friends, go for a run and go home. I kind of thought, that’s dumb. She likes to go fast and has always been a fast-moving dog, so I thought, let’s try it.”

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“I have a friend who makes sport-style harnesses, and she agreed to make me one, and I figured if for no other reason than to have an extra harness on hand, it’s a great investment. I started around my neighbourhood, thinking that if it sucks and doesn’t work, I’m close to home. I have nothing to lose. I started around the block, probably about a third of a mile, very short. She just took to it like she’d been doing it all her life… 

We really never looked back. I didn’t realize how happy it would make me until we started doing races like this.”

Though some people might question the advisability of having a dog run 21.1K (let alone during an Edmonton winter), Lang has always been extremely careful about Jenny’s health. “She’s done very very well with running,” she says. “Several of her vets have commented on what good shape she’s in.” When they’re not running, Jenny works with Lang as a regular service dog, accompanying her to her office job every day. 

Lang, who grew up near Vancouver and has lived in Edmonton since 2004, got into running a few years ago when she gave up playing goalball, a sport designed for blind people that looks like a cross between dodgeball and soccer, except the players lie prone, trying to block the ball with their bodies. It’s played with a heavy, vented rubber ball with bells inside. Lang played on the Alberta provincial team for several years.

Lang ran 5K’s as fundraisers for the team, and found she had to train afresh every year. “When I started running with Jenny, I just wanted to get out there and move,” she says. “By that time I had decided to stop playing goalball, but decided to run anyway. Every year I’ve gotten a bit faster and done more distances.”

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Six weeks before the half in Montana last year, Jenny swallowed a nectarine pit and needed emergency surgery. “The joke in the vet clinic was that the vet said, she should bounce back, but she won’t be running a marathon anytime soon. Our race was six weeks away… I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to run with her… If I’d had any doubts and the vet team had not cleared her, I wouldn’t have run Montana at all.” 

Lang had a human guide in Montana also. The human guide is there to point out larger obstacles or changes in terrain, something a dog can’t do. She met Gallagher through the 109th Street Running Room, where she trains. He was healing from an injury and they ended up running together, got to talking, and Gallagher offered to run the Hypo Half with her. Gallagher will be Lang’s guide for the Manitoba Marathon as well. 

 

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