Friday 15 November 2013

Running your heart out

Running your heart out sounds bad, like a heart attack while trying to catch a bus.  On the wireless the other day, they were saying that medical advice after a heart-attack was bed-rest for at least two weeks.  Until some scientists looked at the data and realised that old guys who bucked medical authority and immediately went at it again - they survived better than their peers tucked under the covers. We aren't designed to lie down.

Then I read a nice essay  about a runner, Mike Cassidy, in this year's NYC Marathon feeling so crap at mile 10 that he was about to jack it in. Not wanting to disappoint his family he gritted his teeth and trudged on. Eventually he caught up with Meb Keflezighi, Olympic silver-medalist, who had sustained some leg-damage, who was clearly hurting, and who was a long way from any medals.  But instead of cruising past, ("I left the silver-medallist all standing") Mike hung back with a word of encouragement and they trotted and then ran on together, eventually finishing the race hand-in-hand.  Somehow, the two of them together were better at running than either was alone.  It reminded me of the Tarahumara who run for joy in and around and up and down the desolate and remote canyons in NW Mexico where they have lived for the last 400 years.

Inevitably, I found myself checking out Chris McDougall who brought the Tarahumara to wider attention by writing a book about his brief encounter with them and his return to organise an ultra-marathon among them with some other Norteamericanos. It is a great book and Hollywood is inevitably making a film. There's a much higher profile story similar to the Mike 'n' Meb's which happened three years ago, again in the NYC marathon.  Paula Radcliffe, world champ and clear favorite to win for a third consecutive year, twinged a hamstring about 4 miles out.  Instead of leaving her for dust, Derartu Tulu from Ethiopia hung back to see if a bit of encouragement ("She ran alongside me and was like, come on, come on. We can do it, we can do it,") would help Radcliffe over the hump. It couldn't but not for want of trying. Despite, or quite possibly because of, this compassion, Tulu then hared off, outstripped the the leaders and won the race. She was 37 years old at the time. I don't tell it as well as Chris McDougall at TED.Ed.  And if you want a fatter version of his Tarahumara tale, he's talked at Google.

McDougall has a theory that human beings are honed by evolution as attrition hunters. 2 million years ago a peculiar bipedal primate developed the ability to run down anything that moved. Louis Leakey, mentor of Jane Goodall, was the father of hominid fossil finding in East Africa.  He used to amaze reporters by setting off and running down small antelopes and catching them with his bare hands.  The only other animal that hunts with such dogged persistence is the African hunting dog Lycaon pictus. L.pictus rarely hunts alone, the pack has a far higher success rate (80-90%) than the king of the jungle Panthera leo.  McDougall's (untestable, so utterly unscientific) hypothesis is that our 'watermelon-head' brains could only develop and were only sustainable given the presence of ad lib protein.  That protein was only obtainable if groups of our ancestors behaved like hunting-dogs. Man-hunts, like dog hunts might last 2-3 hours and finish up 40km from their starting point.  So everyone has to run: lactating mothers and growing children who needed the protein most; the old guys who had been on many hunts before and know how the hunted behave; and everyone in between.  In successful tribes everyone runs faster and more importantly further and maybe natural selection gets the fastest young people more shags.  But they all need to run together, so egging each other on is an integral part of the process. Maybe everything that matters - speech, opposable thumbs, empathy, blogging-for-science - follows from this.

McDougall is also eloquent on the virtue of running on bare, or at least uncushioned, feet, which we had been doing for 1,998,000 years, whereas the foot-deities Nike and Adidas have only been worshiped for 19.98 years.  If you run you should listen to him because it just might stop you buggering your knees with your new pedal fashion accessories. As an encouragement, I'll point out that about ten years ago we set out as a family to walk to the top of Mt Leinster which is a hike of 5km horizontal and 600m vertical. Dau.I was then about ten years old and just after the mountain gate she started to develop a blister.  So she left her boots off on top of a wall and walked to the top and down again in bare feet, jogging part of the way down.

But I think the most compelling observation to relate about the Tarahumara is that after running for 100km when faced with a daunting climb in the path that would cause a normal runner to grit their teeth, their faces are transfigured with joy.  Even the least religious gal on the ultra-running circuit Jenn 'Mookie' Shelton knows this  “I thought if you could run one hundred miles, you’d be in this Zen state. You’d be the fucking Buddha, bringing peace and a smile to the world.  It didn’t work in my case—I’m the same old punk-ass as before—but when I’m out the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going bleh bleh bleh all the time. Everything quiets down, it’s just me and the movement. That’s what I love: just being a barbarian, running through the woods".

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