He knew, in the clarity of that early morning back in 2013, she’d be coming back with him.
Since then, the woman he thought he was going to marry wandered out of his life. Meanwhile, the blue-eyed, strawberry-blond vagabond Ginger has accompanied him on adventures that push the aging runner and young dog to explore their limits – along with what remains of the American wilderness.
A CEREMONIAL BONFIRE
When Doug Sundling was helping his 90-year-old mother prepare for a move to a retirement community last year, he decided it was time to pare down his own possessions – starting with his running awards.
Unpacking boxes, he relived each race as he read what he'd jotted on the underside of every trophy or plaque.
There was the duel at the 1985 Hook's/TV 33 marathon. He lost that one, finished second. But though he’d win three marathons over the next 15 years – with top 10 finishes in many more, including the 2002 Long Island Marathon – his 2:33 effort that year, at age 30, remains his personal best.
Two decades later, at 50, Sundling was still considered among the area’s “most successful and popular road racers,” according to The News-Sentinel, which in 2005 reported that he followed up a top four finish in one area 10K by turning around racing in a 5K immediately afterward. Later that summer he won the Harlan Days 10K outright.
Sundling had a reputation for riding his bike home from races up to 60 miles away. The project consultant for the city of Bluffton was also known as an artist, writer – he's published nine books on topics ranging from The Doors to his travels in the American wilderness – and an environmentalist who's worked to restore native plants along the Wabash River, on public land as well as the 40 flood-prone acres he bought a little over a decade ago.
Though he likes to joke about "feeding the legend," especially when it comes to his romantic entanglements over the years, he never hesitates to correct those who mistakenly believe he was once a high school cross country star.
"I was a late bloomer," he says. "I never cracked the varsity, not even as a senior."
He was 21 before he won his first road-racing trophy, in the second running of Bluffton’s Parlor City Trot half-marathon in 1976. It wasn't until age 30, as a Ball State English instructor training with the track team, that he broke the 10-minute mark in the 2-mile run.
Sundling photographed his trophies, then dismantled them. Setting aside the scrap metal, he hauled the wooden bases to his farm for a ceremonial bonfire.
As the flames devoured decades' worth of triumphs, he didn’t feel sad so much as “just a sense of releasing the past." Now, he knew, it was time to focus on the next chapter of his life.
AN EXERCISE IN TRUST
Sundling thought Ginger looked like a runner. He started her off on easy, short runs that lengthened into double digits as her passion for speed and distance quickly exceeded even his own.
Though he trained her to do the things he enjoyed – hiking the trails he created on his farmland, backpacking out West, running alongside him in small local races and on long bike rides – he also found himself adapting his behavior to make her happy.
He’d been a road-bike guy, riding more and running less as he backed off those 100-mile training weeks from his marathoning days. Now, with Ginger alongside, he switched to a more durable mountain bike.
He learned to tether her to a bar extending sideways from his seat post. Without worrying about her crashing into his wheels – which had sent him flying over the handlebars on more than one occasion – now all he had to do was keep up with her. Thus far she’s hit 18 mph (while chasing an Amish buggy) and logged runs of up to 50 miles on paved trails around the area.
Sundling never used to go biking when the temperature dipped below freezing. But because Ginger thrives in the cold – he suspects she’s part husky – he learned to layer up to take her out for a spin.
Mostly, though, he likes helping her “simply enjoy being a dog,” whether that’s finding the scat of river otter on his farm trail or when they go “scrambling” off-trail in the mountains.
“I unleash her and we figure out routes to engage,” he explains. “She loves picking out a line to negotiate over a stretch of uneven ground or rocks and then executing it.”
Sometimes he’ll take a route he knows she can’t climb, waiting to see how long it will take her to find another way up.
“Of course,” he adds, “there are times when I have to bark at her, ‘Wait, I can’t do what you just did!’”
It is, he says, “a good exercise in trust.”
THE THRILL OF THE CHASE
Racing is different now, to say the least. Whether Sundling rides there or drives, he’s still got to take Ginger out for several miles on the bike ahead of time to take the edge off her antsiness and to empty her bowels.
Navigating a crowded trail with a dog can slow him down, but not much. At 60, he’s invariably the fastest guy in his age group. And occasionally, such as at the W.O.O.F. 15-mile Trail Run at Ouabache State Park in November, he still manages to finish in the top 10 overall.
But like Ginger, Sundling increasingly finds himself running simply for the thrill of the chase. He can’t resist picking out a runner up ahead and telling Ginger, “Go get ‘em, girl!”
“To run for the sheer pleasure,” he said after last weekend’s untimed Chilly Chili Run at Ouabache State Park, recalling a quote he first heard years ago, “is to taste the fountain of youth.”
Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.