On a hot day in June of 2010, Sampson and I walked out the door and ran a single mile. It was our first run. Yesterday, April 20, 2017 was our last.
That first run was never supposed to become anything more. I was strapped for time and thought running would tire him out faster than a walk. I came home gasping for air and Sampson came home excited with the possibility of greater distances.
For the next six years, we went on every run together (except on actual race days). With each additional mile, with each additional challenge, Sampson only grew more eager. After two miles, Sampson was ready for three. After five, Sampson was ready for six. After ten, Sampson was ready for thirteen. After thirteen, Sampson was ready for fifteen. The mileage never intimidated him; it only excited him.
He would hold the leash in his mouth, gently pulling me so that I would keep up. He would turn his head if I was falling behind our pace. Sampson ran negative splits on training runs, finishing at a faster pace than the pace we began at. A 9:30 warm-up mile, a 9:15 second mile, 8:35s in the middle, and we’d finish the last miles of a 13 mile run with a series of 8:10s. If we went farther, the last miles would only be faster. I joked that I didn’t need a running coach, I had Sampson. But for all of his practiced precision, he never once showed a sign that this work or was a burden.
Sampson ran with joy. He ran with ease, with an effortless gait that was poetry to watch. On windy days, I would put my head down and grumble; he ran faster, excited with the smells and possibilities the day had brought him. On long runs, he would turn his head and look at me, his eyes happy with this simple delight. On those mornings he was happy: the sun had risen, another day had begun, and there was another mile to run.
On those many long training runs, we would come over a hill and see the skyline of downtown Dallas as the sun rose and reflected off the water. Over and over to myself, I would repeat a line from a song I had heard: “thank god the world is on fire.” And Sampson and I were there to witness it. We were in movement to a rhythm that both of us sought and sometimes found.
Sampson came to me at a time in my life when I was plagued by insecurity and anxiety. The world of a mid-20-something can start to lose some of its magic. Sampson showed me its joy. Sampson taught me the joy of running, of feeling free, of feeling at once in control and out of body at the same time. He showed me grace. He loved simply and he loved these simple things.
Two years ago, Sampson started slowing down. I told the vet I was concerned that he was running 9:30 miles on seven mile runs and she said he was getting older. A year ago, he no longer wanted to go on our morning runs. I would leave him at home and head out on my own.
My runs without Sampson have changed. I run with the weight of burden, of duty, of obligation. I run to grind my bones into the dust that we will all become. I run to fulfill a promise to use my legs until I can no longer do so, to notch enough miles for two lives; my own and one cut short. In those morning hours, alone, before the sun has risen, I pay my penance.
For a long time, Sampson was one of the only examples of joy and grace. But now, I am married and have two children. My son runs with a joy that is infectious, greater than even Sampson’s. He pumps his arm and laughs with delight because he is running, because it is another day, because he is outside, because it is a wide-open space, because I am with him, because there is joy in this simple thing. My daughter smiles at me when I come home. I do not know what I have done to deserve her smiles, what thing I owe to the universe to deserve her love, but she loves me. Sometimes, when I am laying on the floor, she will crawl over to me and rest her head on my chest. I know grace and I know joy and it is good. In all our miles, Sampson has led me back to this. Sampson was running a race and now he has finished it.
Years ago on a visit to the vet, I told the doctor how much Sampson loved long distances. She told me that it was clear that he loved running but that it was my responsibility to stop him. Sampson would run himself into the ground if I asked it of him. Sampson’s body had started to fail two years ago, we just didn’t know it. His liver and kidneys were shutting down but he wouldn’t lay down and give up. He would keep going, slower certainly but he wouldn’t stop. On our last run, sick and his abdomen filled with pounds of fluid, he ticked off a 12:50 mile for two miles. When we turned to go home, he pulled the leash ready for more. He couldn’t go faster, but he would go as long as I asked him. I could ask of him nothing more.