In some respects it was just another road race in downtown Houston's Sam Houston Park. On a Sunday morning last March policemen leaned nonchalantly against barricades, workers hung the finish-line banner, and runners warmed up. But this was no ordinary road race. The sponsor was Ralston Purina, the beneficiary was the Houston Humane Society, and over at the press tent the main attraction was the Official Spokes-dog. Sonny, a personable pup.
The sixth annual K9 Fun Run, consisting of a one-miler and a two-miler, is a dog jog. Actually, it's a pooches-and-people jog, with dog (or dogs) and handler connected by leash. The idea was dreamed up six years ago by Davia Gallup, 34, a Houston p.r.-firm president and four-time marathoner, and her husband, (then fiancè) John Hobbs, 46, a commodities trader and veteran of 13 marathons. Both had been struck by the number of people running with their dogs in Houston's parks.
The first year 108 dogs were entered; this year 1,375 competed. The Houston race was such a success that Gallup decided to expand to two other cities where Purina has plenty of canine customers: Atlanta and L.A. The L.A. race won't take place until May 7, 1988, but the Atlanta race was held Memorial Day weekend. It attracted 253 pairs of contestants and earned $3,000 for the Atlanta Parks Department. "Memorial Day weekend wasn't the best choice—everybody was away," says Gallup. "Next year's race will be May 15 and entries will probably double."
To prepare for the Atlanta race, Gallup had dog owners present proof of current rabies vaccinations; barred female dogs in heat from participating; and provided each owner with a race packet that included two sets of numbers and a pooper-scooper. Gallup also had volunteer members of the Greater Atlanta Veterinary Medical Society at checkpoints along the race course to administer any necessary emergency care. All the finishers received certificates signed by mayor Andrew Young and pawprinted by his dogs, Fuji (an Akita) and Magic (a mutt).
Now Gallup is planning a grass-roots program that might lead to as many as 35 dog jogs across the country in '88. But for sheer spectacle the Houston original is still the one to see.
The start of the one-mile race was pandemonium, and the noise was deafening. One dog began to bark, and then they all raised a chorus of sonic-boom baritones, midrange tenors and yapping sopranos. While even the pokiest pair completed the circuit in less than 20 minutes, the winning team of Heidi, a shepherd-Lab mix, and John Stigliano, 36, a machinist for an electric motor repair shop, finished in 5:39. In the two-mile race, the women's winner was Michele Dekkers of Houston, who borrowed a friend's English setter, Duke, for the day. They finished in 10:50. On the men's side, Dan Lawson, 31, a soil conservationist who lived in Corpus Christi at the time and who runs under contract for Reebok, won in 9:51 with his German shepherd, Nike-Reebok. (Lawson once had a contract with Nike, hence the name.) Lawson and his wife had gotten up at 3 a.m. and driven to Houston because they couldn't find a hotel that would take the three of them.
Nike-Reebok had a tough time with the race because she had run into a parked car two weeks earlier and bruised her shoulder. Her vet and the Lawsons decided she had recovered enough to run, but she tired and lagged behind her master at the finish.
Sometimes it's the masters who slow things up. Bruce Sanders, 32, a Rice University librarian, was outdone by Buster Browne, his Pembroke Welsh corgi. "A couple of times he wanted to burst, but I just couldn't do it today," said Sanders.
Race officials did what they could to prepare competitors. On the day before the event Dr. William Daly, a Houston veterinary surgeon, held a workshop on the common causes of canine lameness. Daly advised would-be dog-joggers to walk half a mile with the dog at least three times a week and then slowly increase distance and time.
After the rigors of the race, it was time for kudos. The top three finishers in each race received ribbons, mats, bowls and bags of dog food. And nobody objected when some of the pooches plunged into the park's pond to cool off.
At the Houston two-miler, the dogs were as eager as their handlers to get under way.
A knee injury and tangled leashes have interrupted Sara Solberg's runs with her dog.