Nico Barraza is a professional ultra marathon runner, as well as a skier, cyclist, mountain and desert adventurer, musician, and friend of Ruffwear. His sweet Australian Shepherd Sol is his companion through all of life’s adventures. She’s his running pacer, skiing partner, sous chef, and snuggle buddy. She’s his mountain dog and desert explorer. When Nico first told us about Sol, we were moved by his deep connection to the dog who goes everywhere with him. Thanks for sharing your story, Nico and Sol! Happy trails.

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Photo: Nico Barraza

Running with the Rez Dog:

How Sol Became my Best Friend and my Biggest Running Inspiration

By Nico Barraza

Many people have asked me how Sol is able to run as many miles as she does. The answer to this question is partly based on how she was raised from her puppy days and what kind of dog she is.

I first brought Sol home when she was just 5 weeks old, abandoned somewhere on the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona – we found each other at the Coconino Humane Society in our home of Flagstaff. From an early age I had Sol out hiking short distances with me in variable conditions. She went and still goes everywhere with me. It wasn’t so much a constructed method of building her base mileage up, like so many of us humans do to reach distance running goals, but rather a conscious effort of listening to her feedback as we spent more time in the mountains and above tree line. She was one of those puppies that were effortlessly athletic and profoundly intelligent. When we first started going on jogs she would tell me when she was tired by plopping down for a rest on a patch of shaded forest dirt (which was rare, even at that age). We’d turn around and head back home for a drink and a rest. Then I’d go out and finish my run. When Sol turned about 6 months old she began to really shine as a distance runner. I started noticing her consciously pacing herself and perfecting her movements with efficiency throughout the mountains. Some dogs sprint off into the distance at the beginning of a run. I never had to teach Sol to stay on pace with me, she just fell into it naturally. She was constantly looking back to see me huffing up the hill, out of breath and trying to keep up with her.

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Photo: Ben Duke
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Photo: Nico Barraza

Reservation or ‘Rez’ dogs are known for their toughness. They have to be tough given the conditions many of them grow up and subsist in. Certain breeds are specific to certain reservations across the United States. In Arizona, both the Navajo and Hopi reservations have an abundance of Australian Cattle dogs, Border Collies and Australian Shepherd mixes roaming their lands. Having grown up with these breeds in my family, I’m partial to them in every aspect. Coincidentally, they also happen to be some of the best endurance-working breeds out there. The cross breeding that occurs on the reservations actually produces much more healthy dogs than the planned breeding common in Western culture. As a result, generally rez dogs are extremely resilient against disease and ailments that purebred dogs struggle with. They are deeply intelligent and resourceful. I believe one of the main reasons Sol is able to do what she does in the mountains with me is due to the fact that she is a rez dog. She’s a Navajo Mountain runner bred from the gritty red rock sands and sharp howling Arizona winds. Sol was not only built for the mountains, she was born in them.

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Photo: Nico Barraza
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Photo: Ben Duke
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Photo: Nico Barraza
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Photo: Nico Barraza

There is a sort of magic rez dogs possess. When you look in their eyes, there is something ancient and powerful hovering deep inside. It’s almost as if they know things we don’t, or at least are aware of things we are overlooking. When Sol steps foot on the trails, there is not a single moment she does not savor. For her, running is a celebration of freedom and running together with me is a celebration of love. Beyond all veteran distance runners I’ve gained advice from, this forty pound rez dog has taught me more about the beauty and meaning of distance running and its innate connection with the celebration of life. In reality Sol has no competitive objective, no goal race, no set pace – she is living in the moment of every swaying tree and sprinting squirrel. She doesn’t lose herself in perception or achievement, she runs to enjoy nature and to wag in its embrace. There have been many hard training runs where I’ve felt less than ideal on the day. I’ve never understood how, but Sol seems to pick up on this – I’ll notice her slow down more than usual, sometimes falling to run right behind me instead of in front. Now, I could be an artist just telling a whimsical tale here. However, dogs can sense so much about our state of being (emotional & physical) that I find it completely believable that she would fall back so I can slow into a comfortable pace for a particularly fatigued run, which both my lungs and my heart have come to deeply appreciate.

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Photo: Rachel Schneider
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Photo: Nico Barraza
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Photo: Nico Barraza

Since we started running together in December of 2013, Sol and I have put in 80-90 mile weeks throughout some months. She usually averages more around 40-60 miles per week due to road runs and workouts that I run solo. I’d rather her be safe, avoiding densely trafficked streets or areas where a leash is required. She also frequents the alpine with me when I take the ski mountaineering gear out, as long as the avalanche danger is low. We take recovery time just as seriously as we do running. We nap frequently and enjoy a good home cooked meal together usually twice a day.

 

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Photo: Nico Barraza
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Photo: Nico Barraza
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Photo: Nico Barraza

 

To find out more about Nico and Sol’s adventures, follow them on Instagram: @nbthemountains.