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Running with dogs



Yesterday my family and I were talking about dogs. You could safely call us “dog people.” We all have dogs, and have since I was 13 and my brother was 9, when we adopted our first dog, the amazing Kasha Montana, from a classified ad in the Santa Barbara newspaper. I will remember the drive to pick see her for the first time until the day I die.

It was my brother who wanted a dog so badly that he begged my parents to let us have one. As we had recently moved to a sprawling ranch outside of Los Olivos, and we were old enough to play with her responsibly, they didn’t have much choice but to say yes.

We’d picked out the name Montana because it was one of our mutual favorite states after many family road trips. But Kasha was a good name, one that I’m even fonder of now that I’ve been to Kasha Katuwe (Tent Rocks) monument near Cochiti, New Mexico. Sometimes life surprises you. Until my first trip to New Mexico I always thought her previous owner named her after wheat cereal. But it stuck. It was a great name and she was a great dog.

She was the first dog I ever drove around with in the car, after I got my driver’s license. And she appeared with me in Runner’s World when I was 16 years old and writing about why I loved running so much. We didn’t run together every day, but she was my first running dog.

I never spent a lot of time thinking about “when I’m grown up, I’ll have a dog that .. ” or “when I’m older I’ll go running with my dog every day.” Then again, I never spent any time thinking about “when I’m grown up I’ll have a family and two kids.” Which I don’t – and that’s OK.

But I do have a dog, my crazy corgi, and I spend a lot of time in the company of dogs. It turns out that dogs, like children, are better raised by a village. It also turns out that when you have suffered severe emotional trauma, dogs can help you heal.

This morning I woke up from deep sleep in an S shape. B – the corgi – was curled up behind my knees. Sam – the Rhodesian – was curled up next to my face and chest. This is our little pack, I thought to myself. We are completely safe and happy in our own little world.

While it was still dark, we went out to run. I’ve run with a lot of dogs over the years, but these two are the most fun. Sam is the ultimate running dog. Essentially he lopes along humoring us while B and I struggle to keep up. There’s a reason why they say that Rhodesians are the ideal running dogs. They make marathons look easy.

For the corgi, on the other hand, it takes a half-dozen steps to make up for one stride made by me or the near-miniature horse. But Bulleit has a heart that must be about as big as his body. He pushes himself to the limit to keep on hanging with us. It’s the kind of thing that makes me feel proud, like a parent would. I realize a lot of people think the idea of “dog mom” is absolutely ridiculous, and I get that. But I’m not just his owner, so maybe it’s best put to say that I’m proud to be part of his pack.

This weekend the three of us ran 9 miles together on Saturday, and Sam and I covered 10 on Sunday (we left B at home to rest). Miles go faster with friends, whether they have four legs or two. Sunsets are more spectacular and moments of joy more joyous. I know I can trust these two not to leave me behind. And that’s a lot more than I can say about some of the people I’ve met.




“I went to your blog but you hadn’t posted in forever!”

Hello, readers. (If there are any of you still out there!)

I recently learned that occasionally folks will come by here, checking to see if I have posted anything, and seeing yet again that I have not. I apologize for the long hiatus. Life took some unusual detours, and only recently have I felt like I am getting back to being myself again.

My hope is to begin remedying the “lack of regular posts” situation in the year ahead.

Lately I have been traveling for work and running, to places like Mississippi, where I ran in the inaugural Gulf Coast Half Marathon from Gulfport to Biloxi. It was my first race in quite awhile and it was great to be back out there competing again.


My most recent work trip was to Philadelphia, where I took advantage of any free moments to check out the Barnes Museum, Reading Terminal Market, and of course the famous LOVE statue, temporarily housed on Dilworth Plaza in front of Philadelphia City Hall.


If you’d like to see what I’m up to, or what B the wonder corgi is up to, you can follow us on Instagram, where we post daily updates about our adventures.

My personal account: https://www.instagram.com/leah.etling/

Bulleit’s account: https://www.instagram.com/sbcorgi/


We’ve been really happy to finally be getting some rain in Santa Barbara County this winter, leading to beautiful green landscapes at home in the valley.


And amazing runoff experiences like this one from the Ocean Meadows Golf Course this morning:


Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you’ll read more from me soon.

National Running Day, 2014

Tomorrow, June 4, 2014, is National Running Day. I haven’t had time to blog here in awhile, but NRD gets bigger every year, and this year, it has a great chance to gain a national media presence. The second Running Boom, as measured by Running USA, has patterned the trajectory of social media engagement for Joe and Jane Runner, hometown Anywhere, USA.

The National Running Day organizers have a pretty cool campaign that asks you to tell us why YOU run. Here’s the logo:


IRunLogoAs I thought about what National Running Day means to me, one of the first things that came into my mind was all the cool places that running has taken me over the years and especially in the last year. In the last calendar year, I have had the joy of running:

1. Through Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park, where I saw deer and a clearing rainstorm over beautiful Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake with clearing storm.

Mirror Lake with clearing storm.


Yosemite Valley deer.

Yosemite Valley deer.

2. In Taos, New Mexico, where I ran past historic adobe residences and enjoyed the view of snow-capped mountains.

3. Along my home beach below Ellwood Mesa, along California’s gorgeous Central Coast.

4. On the fire roads above Catalina Island, where I spotted a native Island Fox and found myself high on a hilltop, with even the clouds below me.

Catalina Island, Avalon view.

Catalina Island, Avalon view.

5. Along Waikiki Beach and all the way to Diamond Head, the iconic volcano that makes up Oahu’s pinnacle view.

Waikiki Beach, Sept. 2013.

Waikiki Beach, Sept. 2013.

6. In Monterey, Calif., home to several of the state’s most scenic marathons and half-marathons.

Monterey Half Marathon, November 2013.

Monterey Half Marathon, November 2013.

7. In San Diego, Calif., home to 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi.

8. In the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., my hometown and a much-loved destination for runners and cyclists alike.

9. In Cambria, Calif, along the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk, just south of William Randolph Hearst’s famous Hearst Castle.

10. In San Luis Obispo, Calif, through the vineyards of the Edna Valley and through the historic downtown.

Running is heralded as a sport that you can take anywhere, and my experience certainly manifests that reality. Where will running take you in the year ahead, and how will you celebrate National Running Day?

On track

Twenty years ago today, I ran in my first high school track meet at Santa Barbara City College.

It was one of the best days of my life, and a day that would change my life.

I was a freshman walk-on who had run in one track meet before, a junior high affair with no real competition. It didn’t count.

I had no expectations for my race, other than anticipating that there would be plenty of girls faster than me, from bigger schools outside of Santa Ynez. I told my family not to come to the track meet, because I figured I’d finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, and I didn’t want them to waste their time.

I was taking the whole thing so unseriously that midway through the track meet I snuck out of the stadium, which we weren’t supposed to leave (such a subversive), and ran down into the Santa Barbara harbor, where I found my Grandfather Mitchell working on his boat.

photo(20) Surprising him, I mentioned that I’d be running in a race across the street in a little while, and if he wanted to take a break, he should come by. I’m sure I warned him that I probably wouldn’t be very fast or beat many people.

The memory of the race itself – a 1500 meter distance, is not perfect. I wasn’t nervous, or scared. I just went out there and ran my heart out. After the first lap, there was no one in front of me. So I kept running. It was a beautiful day, there were tall palm trees swaying, I could smell the ocean. People were probably cheering me on, but all I could see was the red rubber track. My focus was entirely on the act of running, which felt like the most perfect act of physical being that I had ever experienced. I ran faster. No one caught me, in fact, everyone had fallen a half lap behind.

I won the race. My time actually would have won the varsity race. All of the sudden I wasn’t some anonymous little freshman walk-on anymore. Somebody asked me why I hadn’t run cross country in the fall. I think I told them that I thought a three mile race was a little far.

My grandfather was ecstatic. My family isn’t known for its athleticism on either side, and there I was acting like I sort of knew my way around this whole running thing. He drove home, arrived well before the high school bus, and told my parents, brother and cousins. We happened to be having a family dinner at my grandparents’ that night.

When I got there, they had made be a congratulatory sign, and it hung from the front door. My birthday was in a few days, and I remember walking up that sidewalk to see my family and feeling like I had not only done something that I could be proud of, but that they could be proud of too. In one single day, running became one of the most vital parts of my identity. 20 years later, it’s still that.

I’m not as fast as I used to be. Competition hasn’t been important to me in the last few years. I’ve lost two of my ever-loving grandparents, both who were very supportive of my athleticism. But I still try to run every day if I can.

Running, to me, is the heart of my life. I have failed in so many ways in my almost 35 years. I’ve let people down that I care about, I haven’t achieved all my personal or professional goals, and I’m far from being the person I thought I’d be at this point. But I’m also better and kinder in many ways than I ever thought I could be.

Every single day, running invites me to come back and try again. It gives me a fresh start and leaves me assured that I will survive, look forward, and find the right path. I will keep going, keep trying, and get more things right tomorrow than I did today. Two decades later, I am on track, and I’m OK.

This piece is dedicated to my grandparents, Ben and Marion Etling, Renton and Doris Mitchell, and to my parents, Bill and Debra Etling, who have always cheered me on in my races and in life. Thank you, I love you.



Ugly running shoes: This is something America cares about

A few months ago I wrote a blog post that bemoaned an unfortunate truth: A lot of high end running shoes are really ugly.

Much to my surprise, this post got a lot of attention out there on the interweb. Strangers commented. People search for the term “why are running shoes so ugly” on a daily basis. It’s one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written, and it keeps getting traffic week in and week out.

It’s time for me to buy another pair of running shoes, so naturally this ugly shoe issue has been on my mind again. Right now I’m leaning toward a pair of Asics Kayanos that are gray and pink. Yes, pink, a color I despise. But it’s one of the only Kayano models available right now that doesn’t look like it was designed for a disco clown going to a Palm Springs rave.

I started searching around online to see if I could find any models of shoes that I found truly attractive. But my search couldn’t be limited to aesthetics. Performance of the shoe should be every runners’ priority, even if you make that final purchase decision based on the fact that you like the way you look. (Sidebar: I don’t understand how Men’s Wearhouse could get rid of George Zimmer. And I feel like his ouster means I have to stop saying “I guarantee it” all the time.)

Just this week I finished reading the fantastic “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. I was late to the party on this book, which was mostly as good as everyone said. I was more interested in the culture of the Tarahumara Indians, though, and McDougall spends a lot of time delving into the evolutionary science that allows us to run and the pros and cons of conventional running shoes.

Based partially on the immense popularity of McDougall’s book and the high number of people who adopted minimalist running footwear in its wake, you’ll now find minimalist shoes everywhere you go. I own a couple pairs, and when I first bought them I made a stupid mistake: I went running in them. Keep in mind that I am a six-foot-tall, 150-pound woman who mostly runs on asphalt and tackles a lot of hills. I quickly discovered, thanks to horrible shooting pain in my legs, that minimalist shoes were not going to work for me as running footwear. Then a few months later I got serious plantar fasciitis, which took months to recover from. I’m sure that some of the assertions of McDougall’s text are accurate – our running form is often unnatural, and our feet are not conditioned to run without shoes, and shoe companies make a lot of money. But I’m not running to hunt down an antelope for dinner, a practice that he devotes great time to in his book. I’m running to be healthy, ease stress, enjoy the city where I live, and impress my friends. I’ll continue wearing shoes to do so for the foreseeable future. (Occasional beach runs excluded.)

Back at square one: I need to buy shoes and I don’t like the way they look. I scrolled through a slideshow of the “25 Best Running Shoes of 2013” and found most to be away from my taste. There were two I found acceptable, but both were for trail running. I tend to stay away from trails, as they are  great places to sprain my ankles.

Next I navigated over to Runner’s World. They’re known for their expertise at shoe selection, and the midpack runner listens to their footwear recommendations as gospel. I follow their hilarious editor at large Mark Remy on Facebook. To my delight, I found that he had just written about a new REMY shoe, the Gimmùk. It’s a game changer, according to a news release he got. He writes: “Gimmùk is a Tarahumaran word meaning, roughly, ‘product differentiation.'”

At this point I was laughing so hard that I had trouble getting back to my original mission. Focus, Etling! I scrolled through the 2013 Summer Shoe Guide. Overwhelming shades of lime green, neon yellow and orange sherbert made me crave margaritas and frozen yogurt. How about some simple blues, reds and grays, shoe companies? Is that really too much to ask? I jumped over to the Spring Shoe Guide. Here I found something that didn’t totally offend me – the Asics Gel Lyte 33 2. Classic Asics design with a deep blue hue. Hmmm. I might have to give these babies a try. If I was still a fast runner, I’d even venture to the Newton Gravity Neutral Performance Trainer. Their flashy red blue and yellow combo is Olympic-caliber, though, and my mile splits aren’t speedy enough to pull that off, especially at a $175 price point.

For now, I am still running in the Kayanos I purchased six months ago. The heels are completely worn out and they smell like a dead animal. Maybe the Tarahumara were right. Sandals made out of old tires might be a better way to go.

At my most recent 15K, Semana Nautica in Goleta on July 4.

At my most recent 15K, Semana Nautica in Goleta on July 4.

No place like home: 2013 SB Wine Country Half Marathon


When I got to the finish line of the 2013 Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon, the announcer welcomed me home.

Which was pretty cool, considering that I was crossing the line on the main street of the town where my grandmother, mother and I all grew up.

Did you know that you can’t have a baby at the hospital in Solvang? They don’t do obstetrics there anymore – they haven’t for about 30 years. Now, I imagine that if you were so far advanced in your labor that you didn’t have time to drive to another hospital, they wouldn’t turn you away. But I’ve always thought it was kind of funny that I was actually born in Solvang, while my brother had to be born in Goleta. That was OK. After my parents checked into the hospital they went for a walk on the beach.

I’m not sure what this has to do with my race last Saturday. But it was something I was thinking about, just one of the little details about my hometown that not too many people running probably know.  Like the fact that Santa Ynez, where we started the race, used to have the nickname “Buzzard’s Haven.” Or that Los Olivos, last call for the Pacific Coast Railway, was named for the olive ranch started nearby by Alden March Boyd. There’s still some phenomenal olive oil being produced in the Santa Ynez Valley – and its legacy goes back long before any grapes were ever grown here.

This was the seventh Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon, and it attracted 3,000 runners from all over the country and five other countries, too. There was a big group from Norway participating, which was really cool.

One of the things that made me really happy was to see people who lived on the route out in front of their homes or driveways to cheer us on. There weren’t many spectators, except for in Los Olivos, so the few who came out to say good job were more appreciated than usual. As I was making the turn at the flagpole I saw one of my high school track teammates, Mark Herthel, with his daughter. It was awesome to see a familiar face who recognized me right away and called out my name.

The best part about this course is that from the top of the hill at Ballard Canyon you get to fly down three miles of fast downhill. I planned my race so that I wouldn’t be too wrecked at the top of that hill and could proceed to do just that – and it worked. My pace per mile dropped about 20 seconds per mile during those three miles. There are a couple more hills before the finish, but the last two miles into Solvang were so packed with memories for me that I barely noticed them. We ran by the senior care residence where my late grandmother Marion was the director of nursing. We passed the park where I competed in high school cross country meets. Then my junior high and elementary schools, where I ran my very first mile in the fifth grade. Across the street from the Solvang Elementary campus is the house where my great-grandmother raised my grandmother Doris and her three siblings. And then that final turn off Atterdag onto Copenhagen, almost to our children’s store. I had a huge smile on my face when I crossed the line. (Thanks, announcer guy, for the warm welcome.)

If you grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley, or have any kind of emotional connection to it and happen to be a runner, too, you should do this race. It’s a little surreal to see 3,000 people out running on the rural roads of the Valley, when on a normal day you might see two or three. And I felt pretty lucky when I thought about how I grew up amidst this beauty, with the agriculture and animals, nice people and picture perfect little towns.  There really is no place like home.

Heartbreak in Boston

I started wishing that I was in Boston for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon last Friday, in the morning.

You can scroll down and read proof in the post below: “You know you’re a runner when .. it’s Boston Marathon weekend and three days before the race you start thinking about how exciting it would be to be in Boston right now. Even just as spectator or a volunteer.”

I’ve qualified to run Boston twice in the past, but never registered. My lame excuse? I didn’t have someone who would be willing to take the trip out there with me for the race. Marathons are emotionally and physically grueling experiences. They’re impossible (at least for me) to run without someone’s arms to collapse into at the finish line.

The fact that the dead and injured victims of this senseless, evil, horrific attack were mostly spectators – people who were there to support their loved ones, or maybe even just watch strangers sweat and struggle to the finish line – is to me one of the cruelest wrongs of all. They were there to send their cheers and well wishes onto the passing runners, to help them reach the finish line by standing by. Someone decided to do them grievous harm.


There’s no answering that, and no logical explanation will ever come. I simply can’t accept the inhumanity of it all. An eight year old boy, there to cheer on his Dad running the race, died for no reason. So did two other young women in the prime of their lives. As of today, more than 80 people are still in the hospital with serious injuries suffered in this attack. There is no why, just awful wrong.

If you know runners, or are a runner, you may understand that we have a solidarity among us that runs very deep. As part of the contract staff of Running USA, I have learned that one of the reasons for this is that it starts at the top. The people who produce running events and road races in this country are some of the best people there are. They are kind, compassionate, logical, smart businesspeople. They work in an industry that brings out the best in its participants. Everything they do, every decision they make, is for the runners.

Every year at the Running USA conference, Boston race director Dave McGillivray and his team from DMSE Sports  (who produce the Boston Marathon on behalf of the Boston Athletic Association) are out on the course with us for our morning runs. They are one of the top race production teams in the country. Detail-oriented, exceptionally organized, cautious and competent. Somehow they manage to take care of 20,000 runners, and hundreds of thousands of spectators, without a glitch, at a storied and historic event. It’s a monumental task, and they knock it out of the park.

And now this.

There’s a quote making the rounds via social media, which is spot on: “If you’re trying to defeat the human spirit, marathon runners are the wrong group to target.” (Credit to David and Kelvin Bright)

I would expand that to include the running industry at large. Our sport has experienced a boom in participation that’s going on more than a decade. Huge increases in participation numbers have been recorded by our Running USA statisticians as Americans take to the roads. Those of us who have been running for our entire lives have welcomed them joyously. We would love nothing more than for everyone to be a runner, whether you jog a mile or race 26.2.

My colleague Christine Bowen, who was in Boston and thankfully uninjured in the attacks, put it this way: “We are all part of this amazing industry and I know we will all stick together and come out even stronger, but it’s going to be an emotional road.”

But if anyone can take on an emotional road, it’s the running industry, its runners and the people who love them. See you out there.


A few ways to contribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon attack: