Matt Kirk’s dog, Uwharrie, rests at the 2,000 mile mark of their Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
She’s climbed three 14ers, hiked the length of the A.T., run more ultra adventures than members of most running clubs combined… and she’s only nine. Okay, she’s 63 in dog years. Meet Uwharrie, the four-legged training partner of ultra runner Matt Kirk. Kirk, a middle school teacher in Brevard, N.C., is best known for speed records on the Benton Mackaye Trail, Bartram Trail, and South Beyond 6000 hiking challenge. He also organizes unofficial “adventure runs,” where small packs of ultra runners challenge each other across brutal terrain and high mileage. Odds are, if Matt Kirk is running in the Southern Appalachians, Uwharrie is two steps behind.
“This is what she loves to do,” Kirk says of the 50-pound mutt that he found in the Uwharrie National Forest. “I was running in the Uwharries in the winter of 2004 with a friend and his dog. I never had a dog growing up, but I was thinking about getting one. All of a sudden, this random stray starts running with us. She was emaciated, her teeth were worn down, but she kept up for the last 12 miles of the run. I was impressed. One thing led to another and here we are.”
Since 2004, Kirk has taken Uwharrie on the majority of his adventures, from climbing 14ers in Colorado to tackling the Appalachian Trail. Kirk’s newest obsession is exploring and scrambling up the massive granite plutons that poke out of the mountains of Pisgah National Forest outside of Brevard. Uwharrie is there every step of the way, even when the scrambling gets sketchy.
“She does pretty well on the plutons. She’s got that four-wheel drive going for her,” Kirk says. “But she’s also the voice of reason if we get into anything too sketchy. She’ll whimper when she gets nervous. During our thru-hike, while climbing Mahoosuc Notchm we passed a decomposing moose, and Uwharrie caught a whiff of death. She thought she was entering the gates of hell. She was so miserable. I gave her some extra pampering that night and let her sleep in the sleeping bag with me.”
Kirk admits he’s pushed Uwharrie beyond her comfort zone before, something he’s not proud of or anxious to do again. “Her biggest day was a 57-mile run in South Carolina in August. It was miserably hot and it was a bad year for yellow jackets. She just kept getting stung over and over. By the end of the run, she was eating her food while lying down,” Kirk says. “We were young and dumb. We’ll never do anything like that again.”
Kirk leaves Uwharrie at home on his speed record attempts because he knows she wouldn’t enjoy the pace and austere conditions. “Gear is sparse when you’re fast-packing and Uwharrie doesn’t like to sleep under a trash bag.”
Though running 57 miles in South Carolina’s brutal August heat was too much for Uwharrie to handle, the dog was obviously meant to run long distances. She can knock out 30-mile runs off the couch and still have enough energy to chase squirrels. More importantly, she seems to be happiest when she’s on the trail, nipping at Kirk’s running shoes.
“If it’s a rainy day, and I’m miserable, I’ll look back at this soaking wet dog that’s just loving life and I realize that even at its worst, what we’re doing is pretty cool,” Kirk says, adding that he couldn’t imagine a better running partner. “She helps take my mind off my own suffering. She’s good company and she keeps me in tune with nature. She’ll sense things that I’m oblivious to. It’s nice having a companion with an added sense of smell and hearing. And honestly, I like that she doesn’t talk. It’s quiet, but if I want to sing a goofy song, she doesn’t complain that I’m out of key.”
Kirk thinks about a high-elevation training run they tackled last year. “We’re cruising along and suddenly, I have a moment of bliss where all the wear and tear of the work week washes away. I can smell the spruce and my legs feel good. I look back and I see this smile on Uwharrie’s face. It’s a sort of Zen-like complexion she gets when we run. I realized she was in that moment of bliss during the entire run, it just took me a while to get there.”
Do you have a mountain dog? Submit a photo to our Dog Photo Contest and you could win a doggy prize pack and a photo in the magazine!
Hit the Trails
Dogs aren’t allowed on most national park trails, and some folks frown upon dogs in wilderness areas. Finding the right trail for your dog isn’t as easy as it sounds. Here are five trails in the Southern Appalachians that will keep both you and your best friend entertained.
Lake Keokee Loop Trail
George Washington National Forest, Va.
This easy four-mile spin around 92-acre Lake Keokee in the Clinch River District of the GWNF offers plenty of swimming opportunities for the dog, and solitude for you; a no motorboat policy keeps the crowds down. If you’re looking for something more epic, you can pick up the 14.3-mile Stone Mountain Trail, which follows the crest of the rugged Stone Mountain.
Green Knob Trail
Pisgah National Forest, N.C.
This often-overlooked 2.1-mile loop in the High Country offers true singletrack, river crossings, a pond, and a tough climb to a high meadow with views of Grandfather Mountain. The trail can be difficult to follow at times, but it’s worth the exploration.
Seneca Creek Trail
Spruce Knob—Seneca Rocks
National Recreation Area, W.Va.
There’s a push to turn the Seneca Creek backcountry into a Wilderness area. Run the five-mile Seneca Creek Trail and you’ll understand why. You’ll run through spruce groves and hop over tiny creeks as you follow Seneca Creek (excellent trout fishing too). There are swimming options galore for the dog.
South Mills River Trail
Pisgah National Forest, N.C.
Prepare to get wet. The South Mills River Trail crosses the river it’s named for nine times on its 12-mile journey. Some of the crossings are knee-deep. Otherwise, the terrain is rolling, following an old railroad grade with little elevation gain.
Virginia Creeper Trail
The flat stretch running for 15 miles between Damascus and Abingdon offers solitude as it follows the South Fork of the Holston. You’ll cross trestle bridges, pass farms, and have the chance to take the occasional dip.
You train with your dog; why not race with your dog? Here are three events where the pooch can take the podium.
Richmond Dog Jog and 5K
Richmond, Va. • March 16
Last year, the run raised $142,000 for orphaned animals. A thousand runners showed up for the mile-long dog jog and two-legged 5K.
Atlanta Dog Jog
Atlanta, Ga. • May 4
This fun run gives you a chance to cruise through Piedmont Park in downtown Atlanta on 1-2 mile courses.
Dirty Dog 15K
Kanawha State Forest, Charleston, W.Va.• May 18
The race is a mix of single track and dirt road. Aid stations throughout the course have water and dog treats (human treats too). If you’re looking for a serious dog run, this is it.
Best Post Run Beer (WITH YOUR DOG)
The Dog Bar
Dogs roam off leash indoors and out while their owners mingle at the bar. It’s a popular post-run stop. Knock out a trail run with your pooch in nearby Reedy Creek Preserve, then grab a beer and bowl of water at the Dog Bar.