I returned home from a short run and collapsed onto my living room floor. I heard my own heavy breathing and felt sweat drip down my face and pool in my eyes. As I lay on the carpet with my hands covering my face, my dog Anna gently rested her paw on my stomach. I started crying; not from the pain of this endurance workout, but because running used to be easy and Anna understood how difficult everything was for me now.
As a marathon runner, I found my love of the sport drifting away. Every weekend morning, I used to head out for hours to hit the trails and come home with the typical runner’s high, and it took all afternoon for the euphoria to fall. That was until depression started transforming my world into a deep, dark place and any form of exercise felt more of an obligation than passion.
I left a toxic job and stopped running, feeling stuck and unable to partake of the pleasures life used to bring. Every morning I called out to Anna to come into my room, and I grabbed her collar and used her to pull me out of bed. It was the only way I could plant two feet onto the ground every day.
After working at an in-house writing job with an environment mirroring the movie Mean Girls, I switched to freelancing full time and found myself sitting in silence, as my “office” was now an IKEA desk adjacent to the kitchen. Despite my venomous previous position, I missed the noise of office telephones ringing and background conversations. I felt even lonelier, and my depression spiraled out of control.
But I did have Anna. She became my work companion, and I started changing my days around for us to get some exercise together, something I could not do if going into an office. Every afternoon I grabbed her leash, and we walked one mile around the block as I tried to get my exercise level back up. One mile was all I could handle.
Anna sat at my feet all day long, and when she heard me cry out in pain from the depression and watched me rip my hair out from stress, she tried to climb onto my lap and paw at my chest to calm me down. I caressed her fur and felt my heartbeat coming back to a normal pace.
As the months passed, I began to build back up my running mileage, and Anna always accompanied me as I went from one mile to three miles daily. I also started to become social again and spent the evenings with friends, but I knew I could return home to Anna to decompress if public outings wiped my energy levels.
A few months later, Anna developed severe anemia and almost completely stopped eating, not even wanting the treats she used to beg for every day. As I started running for longer periods of time, she started collapsing whenever she tried to keep up with me. Our physical activity levels reversed, and as my body healed, hers broke down. I think she stayed strong for me for as long as she could. I now needed to be strong for her.
After several visits with veterinarians and multiple tests revealing unfavorable results, I knew my time with Anna was coming to an end.
The day after Anna passed away, I ran a half marathon in her honor. I placed her name on my running number, and for all 13 miles, I thought of one memory of her during each mile. For the first mile, I reminisced about her enigmatic personality: She barked at the doorbell like monsters lurked outside, but ran away when anyone entered the home. She was a protector with a closed door and a runaway with an open one.
For another mile I remembered her love of crackers and her selective hearing. Whenever I opened a new cracker bag and she heard the crinkling sound, she appeared; when I told her she needed to go outside, she somehow could not understand.
For the last mile of my race, I reflected on the challenges of trying to run with her as she always wanted to stop at every bush and weed to smell them —and how I ached for just one more run with her, how I wished she were running this last mile with me, and how I wouldn’t even mind finishing in last place in the race if she wanted to stop and sniff every plant along the way.
Thanks to Anna, I am running again.