I recently finished reading Born To Run, a book by Christopher McDougall about ultra-marathoners who race off road for 50, 100, 200-plus miles at a time. There are even references to runners like Mensen Ernst who ran from Paris to Moscow on a bet, averaging 130 miles a day for 14 days. And Constantinople to Calcutta, “trotting 90 miles a day for two straight months.”
McDougall focuses on the Tarahumara tribe of Mexican indians who live in remote canyons and through diet and life style have become super human athletes. The author documents his search to contact the tribe, round up some long distance runners in the U.S. and then have them race the top tribe runners up mountains and on trails of dirt and rocks.
(Here is McDougall talking (6 minutes) with Jon Stewart on the Daily show. A limited intro to his story.)
Scattered throughout the book are pages on diets that are more likely to prevent cancer and give you astonishing energy and endurance. There is a whole discussion on the worthlessness of modern running shoes and a case for running barefoot…after building up all those foot muscles and ligaments that get flabby, when your shoes do the supporting. Another section attempts to prove that man has survived so well precisely because we are—actually were—able to run for long periods and great distances. Even outrun animals (like deer, racehorses and cheetahs) that are faster than humans for short bursts, but not for long chases.
There is also a major investigation about athlete injuries, and the conclusion that they are neither inevitable nor acceptable. Examples are given of people running quite comfortably in later years, sometimes after professional athletic careers. Wilt Chamberlain ran 50-mile ultras when he was 60 after decades of basketball.
Here is McDougall talking (15 minutes) at a TED Conference about running, the 2011 NY Marathon and the Tarahumara Indians—a much more complete description.
Very few outsiders had ever seen the Tarahumara in action, but amazing stories of their superhuman toughness and tranquillity have drifted out of the canyons for centuries. One explorer spent 10 hours crossing a mountain by mule; a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in 90 minutes.
“How come they’re not crippled?” you might be wondering. The Tarahumara drink like frat boys, subsist on corn mush and barbecued mice, live in perpetual peace and tranquillity, and run multiple marathons into their 60s. It’s as if the stats have been entered in the wrong columns: Shouldn’t we, the ones with running shoes so advanced that the cushioning is controlled by microchips, have the zero casualty rate, and the Tarahumara— who run way more, on way rockier terrain, in little more than flip-flops— be constantly banged up?
One reason the Tarahumara squeeze so much mileage out of their feet is because they don’t baby them. Nicholas Romanov, PhD, a running technique specialist who has coached British Olympians, explains that cushioned shoes throw off your centre of balance, allowing sloppiness to creep into your posture. They also cause you to rely on air-injected foam to absorb shock, not the natural compression of your joints—meaning, your legs become more rigid and less responsive. Strip down to bare feet and you’ll instantly notice two sensations: First, you recentre yourself over the balls of your feet. Second, your body regains its innate gyroscopic ability—whenever you step on a pebble and flinch, your legs instinctively twist and bend, and then shift back to perfect balance again.
According to Eric Orton, an endurance sport coach in the US who has studied Tarahumara lore, the Mexican Indians aren’t great runners. “They’re great athletes, and those two things are very different,” he says. Orton’s specialty is tearing sports down to their integral movements and finding transferable skills. What he’s looking for are basic engineering principles, because he’s convinced that the athlete who avoids injury will be the one who leaves the competition behind.
“Your body needs to be shocked to become resilient,” Orton believes. Follow the same daily routine, and your muscular-skeletal system goes on autopilot. But surprise it with new challenges—leap over a creek, leopard-crawl under a log, sprint till your lungs are bursting—and scores of nerves and ancillary muscles are suddenly electrified into action.
For the Tarahumara, that’s just daily life. They step into the unknown every time they leave their caves because they never know how fast they’ll have to sprint after a rabbit, how much firewood they’ll have to haul home, or how tricky the climbing will be during a winter storm. Before the Tarahumara run long, they get strong.
“Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s really as nuanced as any other activity,” Orton says.