Years ago, if you had asked me where I thought Miles and I would be in the summer of 2018, I wouldn’t have guessed that we’d be travelling across the country to compete at AAC Agility Nationals. When Miles came into my life, I was just finishing my university degree and I thought maybe I’d move back to Oregon, where I am from. When I moved to British Columbia, life was pretty similar, except it was like the fantasy version of my born PNW passions (Fresh water! Ocean! Mountains! Forest! Perfect weather!). When Miles and I started agility just for fun, I had no idea that we were also living in one of the most active agility places in the world. Fast forward several years, and in the time we have been competing, we’ve been to twelve different venues locally. Twelve!
The first few years of competition, which I have talked about extensively on this blog, we learned how to do the most basic things. Something about agility lead to me and Miles to both become passionate about a sport that wasn’t a natural fit for either of us. We entered the competition rings not knowing anyone. We had no guides and we were a very unlikely pair. We got ourselves into some pretty embarrassing situations: Miles’ biggest embarrassing moment is documented here — and mine is here. Through the adventures and constant new experiences, we became a team. I learned how to do agility with a Welsh Terrier, and I made very conscious decisions about how I would do agility with a Welsh Terrier (read more here). Over the years of practice and competition, trial and error, Miles and I grew together. I made sure that we were always more of a comedy show than ever a train wreck: because to me, it didn’t matter if Miles was perfect. I certainly wasn’t! We remained, for many years, “the unlikely pair.” And that was okay with me. Along the way, we qualified for AAC Agility Nationals twice, and we went, but only because the venues were under an hour from our home. We were not contenders.
In 2017, all of our hard work began to pay off (read more here). When I heard that the 2018 AAC Nationals would be held in Ottawa, which is the capitol of Canada, home to my aunt and uncle, and home to my good friends Danielle and Andrew, I knew this would be the year I’d want to travel for Nationals. When we got a smashing score at Regionals, I was all in! A lot of planning and family help made the trip possible.
AAC Regionals and Nationals always kick off on Friday with warm-up runs and two optional Steeplechase runs. Many people use Steeplechase to get their dogs into the competitive zone, while others give it their all with hopes of making the Nationals finale event — the Steeplechase run-offs. Steeplechase is a 19-22 obstacle course that tests accuracy and speed. Some faults are allowed, like messing up and then fixing the weaves, or a dog almost not taking a jump — but each mistake costs time. To win you must be fast and accurate, or just really, really fast! If your dog places in the top few slots of their class, they get to compete in the finale. Last year at Regionals was the first time I felt confident enough to enter Steeplechase, and we made it to the finale! For the first time ever at Nationals, I decided to enter Steeplechase as warm up for Miles. It wasn’t cheap to enter, but I went in thinking that if Miles was too hot or tentative after the first run, I’d skip the second run. So was Miles up for Steeplechase? Um yeah. He was blazing! We ran both courses in some pretty tall slippery green grass and rocked them, despite Miles slipping a bit in the weaves both times. I think Miles has moved on from being a Gamble fanatic, to being a Steeplechase dude! We just love running together! And Miles loves when I yell directions fast fast fast and he gets to swing around and run run run and show his stuff! Steeplechase is pure teamwork and adrenaline.
Friday’s events ran really late, and preparing for such a big event on jet lag far away from home was a bit crazy! We got back to my aunt and uncles place late, had dinner, and got ready for the next day. I think Miles and I only slept 3 hours. I was so excited for the next day. I honestly felt like a kid before Christmas. Miles on the other hand struggled with the set-up, not being able to nap on a chair or couch, and having to wait till I was actually in bed to snuggle up. That was a big oversight of this trip on my part. I try to think of everything for Miles’ comfort! In hindsight, I should have set up a camping chair with a blanket on it, and brought it around with me in the house. I forget that dogs need way more sleep than people. Even wild dogs!
Saturday kicked off, and the focus was on the courses. You really don’t know what you are going to get until you arrive at the venue early in the morning and grab a map of the day’s fare. In our training classes we do “international” style courses, and Miles has his UKI Champion titles (UKI is an agility organization that is all about the most up-and-coming challenges). The main organization in Canada, AAC, which is akin the AKC in the USA (which we also compete in, our homeland!), tends to favor “international” style courses. The Nationals courses this year felt very “on trend” (because they had surprising and challenging angles), but, they simultaneously avoided being actually trendy (little was predicable, and the challenges weren’t things that felt practiced to me). It was strange to see very few backsides of jumps, but many very surprising course arrangements!
Miles ran beautifully, and had perfect obstacle performance. Not a single knocked bar, weave problem, missed contact. Our training together really paid off! However, our reoccurring demon for the weekend was Miles’ stress major (400+ competitor) events. It is unavoidable that he can pick up on other competitor’s anxiety, and the mood of the event. The parts where he seemed to pause and have brain freeze were at the beginnings and endings of our Jumpers and Gambles runs. I find at big AAC events, where the courses are very lightly fenced and competitors can come right up to the fence, Jumpers and Gambles rings tend to be pretty chaotic. The other competitors like to watch because Jumpers is so fast and technical, and Gamble is a game of strategy. In our first Jumpers, Miles ran past me and Jump #2 because he was watching a horde of people leaning on the side of the ring. In both Gambles, he completed the challenges beautifully, but went on to miss the simplest part — the last obstacle — which was in both cases, was right up against the crowds who were all leaning against the fence and staring.
Sunday, before our last run, I was feeling a big mix of emotions. The experiences in the Gambles stung, admittedly. Miles’ spectacularly executed Gambles challenges were both deemed missed, both at the very last second during the closing easy part, absolutely stunning me and my parents. And sadly, if you miss one part, you lose all of the crazy bonus points you almost just had from a gorgeous performance. I remember being in the runs and feeling like we were flying on top of the world. No hesitation, pure performance, then, at the very last millisecond moment to seal the deal, Miles couldn’t do the closer. He looked like a person who suddenly forgot what they were doing, and completely choked. It was like a vacuum in space sucked out all of the air. I can’t know what anyone else thinks, but my guess is that he had worked really hard under stress, he knew he’d completed the challenges, he was facing the crowd and not me on his own… and he just fizzled. He pushed himself, nailed the task, and poof! In the early parts of our agility career, when we were in the middle or bottom of the competition, the main emotions I felt in regards to the competitive aspect were hope and disappointment. The classic, “I know what we can do, why can’t we do it in competition?” Now when we compete, it doesn’t feel like that. Now, we get out there, and we show what we are worth. We are doing it, and it is glorious! “Making it” and “doing it” bring the most blissful moments, and also, the most stinging moments. The stings feel so different than early failure used to. With failure, you get a kind of release from the moment. With the sting of near perfection, you have no release. It just, is. Being a contender is a new feeling. It just takes the tiniest little hair to collapse the castle. That is what the Olympics must feel like!
Then there are the constant moments that make me feel at peace in competition with Miles, no matter what else is happening. Our last run at Nationals sums up these kinds of moments. As I stood in line waiting to run our last course, I looked around us. In line waiting to run was Miles, and a lineup of Shelties.
I joked out loud,
The whole lineup began to laugh.
I walked into the ring for our last run, and everything went quiet in my head. It was just me, and Milesy. I looked at Miles as he waited for my signal to go. “Okay bud, here we go!” This was the course my instructor brought up later as being quite hard. There were two sets of six weaves, weird tunnel entries, many traps, and a deceptively tough ending angle. Weather-wise, it was also the hottest moment of the weekend. Just prior to that point, I was so worried about Miles not running, that I had told the Steeplechase organizers that I might be pulling him from the finale if he wasn’t feeling up to it. Well, hotdamn, the little bugger was ready for one last shot! I released Miles and directed him to the tunnel that was right next to the A-Frame trap. Without hesitation, he bolted into the tunnel. I rushed to get to the mid-way point between the tunnel exit and the first set of 6 weave poles. I had to pull him towards the weaves. I did, and he busted them out. Before I knew it, I was turning around to pull him past the first weaves, and swing him into the second set which ran parallel to the first. He busted out the second. In a normal trial, I would have “blinded” after the second set of weaves, meaning I would have rushed ahead of Miles, and quickly switched which side I was directing him from (with my back to him). I was not going to risk it and cause him to miss the last pole, so I ran just a little ahead, and then pulled Miles across me to go into the next obstacle — a tunnel. The challenge of doing it that way meant that now Miles would now be more naturally prone to come out of the tunnel on the side of me he was originally on. I was careful to show him, however, that I was going the other way when I sent him into the tunnel. This isn’t always a guarantee, but Miles was really focused, and he understood what I communicated and came out the right way. Many, many other people also handled the weaves carefully, but their dogs came out the wrong way. It was true teamwork that we communicated together and overcame that challenge. We rushed through the next part of the course, getting to the A-Frame. This was a big juncture of the course… We’ve been working so hard on his A-Frame, and I basically told Miles, “okay man, show what you can do — this one’s up to you!” I ran ahead of him. Two things could have gone wrong. One, Miles could have leapt off of the A-Frame early (me pulling away makes that a huge temptation to go faster), and second, I saw many dogs taking the jump that was closer to the A-Frame. I ran ahead, chanting his name. Miles hit the contact nicely, while running fast (YES!!! — which he did all weekend) and he rushed to catch up with me, perfectly handling the curve of jumps and tunnels. I rushed ahead of him again at the teeter, putting our fate in him once more, and he did his part of the job by running to the bottom as it tipped, and making a nice contact. Bang! I rushed to the second to last obstacle, the dog walk. Miles ran down the ‘walk, making the running contact we’ve been practicing at home beautifully, and he curled with me to the last jump. I kept running hard past the last jump to ensure he was as fast as he could be. For this run, Danielle and Andrew were there cheering us on, along with a huge turnout of family who had driven far to watch us. It was the most incredible feeling.
I didn’t know our overall standing, and I hadn’t watched our competition. I like to focus on blowing off steam and relaxing in-between runs at Nationals or Regionals, and I don’t calculate our points. I cooled off a bit while Miles finally napped, and put on my Steeplechase shirt. Never before has putting on a men’s t-shirt, the kind with the awkward neck and the unflattering fit, felt like such an honor before. I saw the stadium full of people ready to watch the fun finale event of Nationals, the Steeplechase run-offs (Competing for money!!! With loud music and a MC! With a crowd who are allowed to scream and cheer like crazy! With beer and drinks!). I saw my coach, my family, friends all there, ready to cheer us on. It was around 6pm, and it was sweltering hot out. I walked the course, got Miles, and we sat down next to some very agitated Shelties waiting their turns in their crates. Miles jumped a bit at the barking Shelties and the loud crowd and music. I talked to him and gave him steak. Before I knew it, it was our turn. I felt so happy. Sure, there is huge pressure not to embarrass yourself! The usual competitor never has that many people watching them run! And the course is always ridiculous for a Steeplechase in the finale — that is what makes it so entertaining. When even the best of the best struggle with it — that is how you KNOW! For the agility nerds out there — there was a 2.5x repeating threadle! And two sets of 12 weaves with tough entries! I decided to handle Miles in the way he would enjoy the most — all rear crosses. Miles was as into it as I was — and he ran fast, gave it his all, and had SO MUCH FUN! He placed second to the same fast sheltie I mentioned earlier, which was just fine with me! Miles won 2nd place in our group, and a check!!! Money! Not only that, but we were one of only 3 teams that made the run-offs from the PNW! Travelling and running that well is tough, and little Miles did it with gusto, despite his own emotional ups and downs that weekend. What a dude!
As I made my way back to the crating area, I saw a cluster of people around the listing of the National Event Overall Top 10’s — aka the Podium listing. They had posted the lists with podium teams in random order, so that people would know to get ready for the ceremony. I recognized some people from a one-time trial I did far away from home when visiting family. They called out to me. A girl who is on a world team yelled out to me, “Emma! Get over here!” I was surprised she remembered my name, but I guess the Welsh Terrier is pretty dang recognizable! I went over, and she said “Look!!!” I looked at the list, and saw Miles and my names. I gasped. “Is this the real list? For the Podium? No, it can’t be!? Is that true?” They all assured me it was. I must’ve asked them 10 times if it was real. Tears welled up in my eyes and I was beside myself. The group experienced the moment with me, and rang out with pleas: “Stop, I am going to cry too!” I caught my breath, thanked them, and rushed to the “traveling competitors” crating area, looking for my parents. I didn’t see them. I grabbed my phone. Three missed calls from Tracey (Tracey is an agility expert who was the judge at Miles’ first fun match, and has been with us on this journey ever since). She must’ve seen us on the list! I texted Danielle and Andrew — “don’t leave!” It was surreal… I was so exhausted, so excited, so… Everything. When a lifetime bucket list thing comes true, the kind you know is really out of your control with no guarantees, and it suddenly comes true, due to your hard, hard work and perseverance… Everything feels a mix of melty and way overtired and hot and stunned and…. Ecstatic.
Miles and I stood on the podium, 9th place for our competitive class. I stood up there feeling faint. Tracey presented me with our ribbon, and she was teary-eyed. She gave me a huge hug. I couldn’t believe it.