August 23, 2005
Aside from the start it gives to the locals, the most striking difference between running in an American city and running in the rural west of Ireland is dealing with the various animals that may suddenly spring up between you and the road. Dogs, sheep and cows are the main impediments, although the occasional waddling family of ducks can halt forward progress as well.
Dogs in West Kerry are working dogs, as unlike the "one of the family" dogs of Washington, D.C. as a mutt is to a prize show dog at the Westminster Kennel Club. These dogs have a job. They gather the sheep on the hills and herd them to another field. They make sure the summer grazing cows get to the barn for the twice-daily milkings. And they gather up the strays, including stray humans who suddenly appear at speed in their territory.
There’s nothing like a pack of farm dogs suddenly careering out of the barn toward you, staccato barks punctuating the still country air, to test the stability of your heart. After an initial jolt, mine wasted no time pumping extra blood to the legs to speed me by. Most of the dogs would stop at the end of the farmyard and bark from there, but some insisted on escorting me off personally, at the heels. There was a herd somewhere to which I belonged and they were going to see me to it.
The farmer from whom I was renting a large, damp, electrically-challenged old farmhouse with beautiful views down toward the sea advised me to carry a stick when I ran to deal with the dogs. The look on my face must have revealed my essentially peaceful nature so he said "you don’t have to hit them, just threaten them." "Ok," he continued, as my dubious look did not alter, "you don’t even have to have a stick. Just make a threatening motion with your arm."
This actually worked. The dogs would come charging out of the barn and I’d raise my arm up and bring it down sharply while shouting "Get back!" or "Go on!" And they did. Ha. I was in control.
Until I met the jack russells. Two jack russells appeared on my running route one day. The route starts off with a long, gentle hill that winds up to a crest and drops down into the next valley. The dogs live in a house that sits well down in the first valley, at the bottom of a long, steep driveway that exits at the crest. I could see them, lying peacefully in the front garden, as I started up the hill. The question was, when would they see me?
Because once they did, the race was on. They’d charge up the hill, barking furiously, and I’d immediately put on a sprint. It was a race to the crest. Jack russells have short legs so I won, but just barely. I’d tear past their driveway just as they came bounding to the top. One gave up at this point, but one always came after me. A moment of frenzy would ensue. "Get back! Get away from me! Ye little fecker!" I’d shout, as this rat with a collar came barking and nipping at my heels, completely unintimidated by my shouting and my chopping arm. "Go on! Go home!" And then I’d descend into the next valley, adrenaline pumping, the continuing barks of a sturdy jack russell defending the homeland bouncing off the rocky hills around me.
They never had a chance on the way back. I’d be past the crest and halfway down the other side before they even saw me. They never figured out that they could just wait it out for 1/2 hour or so at the top of the driveway. Dumb dogs.
Slightly gentler challenges and entertainment were provided by my encounters with the livestock: the sheep and cows.
I’d be running down a quiet bohareen and suddenly come upon some stray sheep, perhaps with their lambs, grazing at the roadside. When they saw me, they panicked, skittering ahead with startled backward glances at this odd intrusion into their peaceful day. They’d stop somewhere up the lane, at a safe distance. But I kept on running of course, so the panic would begin anew. They’d scatter in all directions, tiny hooves scrabbling under bulky wooled bodies, looking for a gap in the hedge or the fence through which they could squeeze.
Sometimes I stopped and walked, talking to them in a reasonable manner. They stopped and walked, too, eyeing me up with a mad glint. I’d explain to them that I was just going to run by them, and they didn’t need to stop what they were doing. Then I’d start running again, and so would they. In this manner I could chase a stray flock for 1/2 mile or so, cursing them for being the silly, stupid animals they are, until they found their gap and got away from me. I imagined the farmer watching, puzzled, from a nearby field as a muttering American woman chased his sheep down the lane.
Cows are a factor too. But cows are easier. You can reason with cows. More to the point, you can herd cows. All I had to do was stop, wave my arms around, and gently encourage them out of my way ("go on, go on, go on"). With infinite patience, born, perhaps, from having absolutely nothing on their schedules, ever, they go. They are not even affronted. They certainly do not panic.
Except once. I was running smartly down the hill on a greyish day when I startled a stray heifer on the wrong side of the fence. She ran. I stopped. She stopped. I ran. She ran. Again I imagined the comedy picture this would present to the locals as they sipped their morning tea: me going by their sitting room window chasing a stray heifer down the main road. There are limits to the amount of entertainment I’m willing to provide the West Kerry public so I stopped again, and began to reason with my new acquaintance, at a polite distance, while she gazed accusingly at me. Having explained myself and the situation, I started running again, and she veered off across the road and jumped a fence into a field. Wow, I didn’t know heifers could jump! Apparently they can if they’re being chased by some persistent running human.
As the West Kerry natives got used to me and my strange American notions of sport, however, I got used to the livestock. I stopped reasoning with the sheep and just plowed on through, scattering them to either side, knowing they’d be over their moment of panic in another quarter-minute. I still stopped for cows. Cows are big. And easily herded. I never met a bull on the road, buiochas le dia.
Last summer I rounded a bend and came upon my neighbors herding a large flock of sheep into one of their fields. The road was blocked so I stopped for a chat with the wife of the pair. When the sheep had passed, the husband waved me on from down the road, and I thought he was letting me know I could go by. When I reached him, however, he gave me a job. I was to stand in the road while they herded the confused sheep back into the proper field. He and his son and the dogs hassled the sheep back into the road, where they ran in crazy zigzags toward me. The dogs turned them at the gate.
Not a single sheep got by me, I’m proud to say.