Born to run: Guide dog, visually impaired runner take on winter half marathon

On Feb.17, a Labrador retriever guide dog led her owner through the Highlands neighbourhood for 21 kilometres in -19 C temperatures.

'Given the distance, not every dog would be capable of that'

Daryl Lang and her guide dog Jenny ran the Hypothermic Half Marathon on Feb. 17 with guide runner Ed Gallagher. (Running Room/Facebook)

Jenny wasn't the average runner at Edmonton's Hypothermic Half Marathon.

On Feb.17, the Labrador retriever guide dog led her owner Daryl Lang through the Highlands neighbourhood for 21 kilometres in –19 C temperatures.

The Hypo Half Marathon challenges runners as a winter race, with runners often braving icy roads and cold temperatures. Lang, who is visually impaired, trained for months with her guide dog at the 109th Street Running Room running club. The dog and her owner tackled hills, snowstorms and tempo runs as part of the training.

It's uncommon for guide dogs to run long distances, said Lang. Many guide dog organizations discourage owners from running with their guide dog because it often doesn't allow the dog enough time to communicate directions to their owner, Lang explained.
Daryl Lang and her guide dog, Jenny, after the Hypo Half Marathon on Feb. 17. (Michelle Gallagher)

But that's not the case for Jenny, Lang said.

"She does really well at it. She has always been really last minute in her movements which makes her great as a guide runner. Because on a dime, she can take a turn super sharp and go," Lang said.

Lang, 34, finished the race in two hours and 28 minutes. 

Second half marathon

This was the second half marathon for the almost seven-year-old guide dog, who also ran 21 kilometres with Lang in Montana last year. 

Running Room staff told CBC News they couldn't recall a runner completing the Hypothermic Half race with a guide dog in the past six years. 

Lang had some human help during her training for the Hypo Half.

"[Jenny's] a great guide dog but she can't tell me there's a big block of ice ahead and prepare me for it," Lang said.

"She did really well with Hypo. She tried to take a shortcut because her motto is 'Work smarter, not harder.' This is why I have Ed."

Ed Gallagher began running with Lang and Jenny in December. He trained with the pair weekly leading up to the Hypothermic Half Marathon.

With Jenny flanking Lang's left side, Gallagher would stay slightly behind the dog.

Daryl Lang, centre, and her guide dog Jenny and guide runner Ed Gallagher at the race. (Running Room/Facebook)

Gallagher would warn Lang of any hills or patches of ice during their training and on race day.

"Sometimes the path was wide enough that I could be beside her. But Jenny could get distracted by me if I got too far ahead. I liked to be a step or two behind on one side or the other," he said.

This was the first time Gallagher was a guide for a runner. He said he was impressed with Lang's accomplishment of completing a 21-kilometre race but also of the guide dog's running skills too.

Given the distance, not every dog would be capable of that.- Ed Gallagher, runner

"I think it's pretty impressive," Gallagher said. "Given the distance, not every dog would be capable of that. But the nice thing about the program that we did was that it was a gradual and the dog trained alongside Daryl the whole time so that she could have confidence.

"You know, she trekked right through that thing. No problems at all. She was pretty tired at the end [of the race] just like we were."

Support from runners

Lang was thankful for the support from fellow runners who didn't judge her visual impairment. 

"People will often do one of two things: They will underestimate what you can do or tell you you're amazing just for showing up. I didn't get either of those," she said.

But what she did get, Lang said, were words of encouragement from runners during training, on race day and on Reddit where people called her "badass" for completing the half marathon with her guide dog.

It's a title Lang accepts.

"I will own the title of 'Most badass woman with the most badass dog in Edmonton.'"


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