Lost Kit #4: How to handle your inner Labrador
I hurt my knee and discovered I’m a huge dumb dog.
Something I am very fond of is games which divide people into two categories. You know the sort: everyone is a cat or a dog; a blonde or a brunette; a round or a pointy. A very good example re-circulated on Twitter recently from a 2012 Slate article which explained that everyone is either a “chaos muppet” or an “order muppet.” “Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile,” its author, Dahlia Lithwick, writes. “Order Muppets … tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows.”
(I am, respectively: a dog, a brunette, a pointy, and — aside from the eyebrows — a Chaos Muppet. God, I love to be one of two types of people.)
Like star signs, these games are fun not only because you can use them to dissect the personalities of all your mutual friends, but also because they are an indulgent way of approaching your inner self. No longer are you neurotic, needy and uptight; instead, you are a pointy, a dog, a brunette. I am not a chaos muppet because I lose e-mails; I lose e-mails because I am a chaos muppet.
I was thinking of these games last week when my friend Anna shared an article suggesting that a hatred of exercise could be genetic. Aside from studying the muscles of avid runners and less-active runners, scientists have apparently also investigated the extent to which different people’s endorphins respond to exercise.
“There’s also research that shows endorphins … are fickle,” the article Anna shared explains. “Some people never get a ‘runner’s high’ from working out.”
In spite of this, there is evidence that people can “override their genes.” “In the study of low- and high-performing runners, when the lazy group* had to run two miles over the course of six days, their brains changed”, explains the author. “They didn’t morph into speedsters, but their neural pathways improved.”
As a fan of two-types-of-people games, I enjoyed reading this very much — because it gave me a change to ponder whether I was a “euphoric” or “reluctant” runner, but also because it suggests something encouraging for those of us who come to exercise in a serious way later in life: that the boundaries are permeable; that somebody who runs frequently might train their brain to enjoy it.
The possibility that I have undergone this transformation became embarrassingly apparent recently. I say “embarrassingly” because I didn’t hurt my knee crashing on a cycle descent (daredevil) or even falling over a root on a cross-country run (rugged, outdoorsy); rather, I tripped over my own shoelaces at the end of the street.
After a few runs where I could feel something sort of… sliding?, my boyfriend stopped saying vague things about “taking it easy” and started saying more specific things like “maybe you should rest today” and “I don’t think you should go out.” Reluctantly, but accepting that I have no concept of delayed gratification and must outsource such decisions to him, I agreed.
The results were, frankly, not pretty. But they did provide the perfect opportunity to develop a theory I have been mulling over, and finally articulated when I texted my running WhatsApp to moan on a recent day indoors. “I am extremely twitchy,” I whined. “I feel like a big labrador that hasn’t been exercised enough.”
The more I think about it, the more I suspect many of us have an inner giant labrador. Like a real labrador, the inner labrador starts to become sulky and naughty when cooped up too long. The labrador does not understand things like work deadlines or government regulations. You can try to tell the labrador that it will get to go out later, once this slide deck is finished, but it will not listen. Instead, it will thrash all of the feathers out of a pillow. It wants to chew up the sofa and nip other dogs, which in human terms manifests as things like leaving your mug on the side unwashed, or griping at your friends.
While the labrador’s brain has frustratingly little time for e-mails, however, it also understands things you don’t. Badly-behaved it may be at times, but your inner labrador knows exactly what you are capable of.
During a long period of illness, sometimes all my inner labrador asked was to be dragged to the window at 4pm to watch the cars pass outside. Yet when my labrador knows there were 100kms in my legs and I only rode fifty, it is as fussy as a dog who has been taken home halfway through its walk and will refuse to sit still. The labrador knows the value of outdoors: of ignored aches and windchill tears, of a blank mind and a dark race home. After a few days sat in front of the laptop it is furious with bottled-up quickness.
Like a real dog, you should honour the labrador’s need to be in the open air. If you want a quiet evening, it is worth exhausting it first, and when you bring it home making sure it is properly fed with access to plentiful fresh water. When it is tired, too, you should look after the labrador and not push it into illness or injury. In the same way that sometimes a dog will sit down and make its whole body heavy with the refusal to go any further, so sometimes your body will become filled with the need to stop. That ear-drooping weight, too, is not to be ignored; for there is nothing worse than a dog pushed beyond its limits by a master who does not respect it.