Dog Nicknamed Cactus Joins Desert Race

Nomadic canine frequently runs 25 miles in a day
By Karen B. London PhD, April 2019

Dogs often join people in their activities even when those people are strangers, but few dogs would be capable of doing what a dog nicknamed Cactus did when he joined several hundred people competing in the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. This race is 156 miles long and is run over a six-day period, covering a distance equivalent to six regular marathons over challenging terrain.

It takes many competitors years of training to prepare for the race, and completing it is the accomplishment of a lifetime. In contrast, Cactus just jumped in and ran it for fun, even running extra miles on at least one day as though following a coach’s instructions to cool down after racing. To be fair, he skipped the first day and joined the event on day two, but the athletes and race organizers graciously considered him a finisher, and he was even given a finisher’s medal in recognition of his accomplishment.

Cactus belongs to Karen Hadfield who owns a guest house and cultural retreat in Morocco. She picked him up at the finish line and revealed that his real name is Diggedy, though the nickname Cactus has been picked up by journalists around the world and may stick. Hadfield reports that the dog regularly runs 25 miles or so each day during his wanderings around the area, so the race distance was well within his abilities. Though he did vomit one time and then rest in the shade for half an hour, he appeared quite fresh when he finished running that day once the temperatures dropped in the evening. The medical staff reported that he was in good health. Most remarkably, his feet were in fine shape, unlike many of the swollen and bloody feet of the human runners.

The experience of the nearly 800 competitors in the race was definitely enhanced by the presence of Cactus. They cheered for him as he finished each stage of the race and went wild when he crossed the finish line on the last day. His location was relayed from runner to runner throughout the event and his appearance at each evening’s campsite was enthusiastically anticipated. Runners, support crew members, race organizers and journalists collectively took care of him, offering him their own precious water and food. Cactus was happy to accept these gifts as well as plenty of affection before and after each day’s effort. Due to his wandering ways, he is quite accustomed to being in the company of strangers.

Cactus did not just take from the runners. He gave back to the community by adding joy to the inevitable pain of such a grueling physical endeavor. He contributed in other ways, too. One runner reported following him through the sand, figuring that the agile dog was choosing a good path through the hardest sand. Though unable to keep up with the athletic dog, he stepped in his footprints for many miles. Another runner got off course and was becoming quite concerned when Cactus suddenly came up to him. The human runner wisely followed Cactus, who led him back to where he was supposed to be.

There is no doubt that Cactus will feature prominently in the stories that the runners tell about their incredible experiences running the Marathon des Sables.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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