It was actually a misunderstanding. I picked up the book, “Born to Run” because I thought it was a book on the science of running – how we are naturally evolved to run. It turns out it is a book of dramatic stories around ultra-running. I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway and there is some science about running. I am sure there are criticisms about the book but I am just going to share my impressions.
The book is centred around a tribe called the Tarahumara – which is probably familiar if you are into long-distance running. But I had zero interest in running for most of my life so the book is the first time I had encountered them. They are known as the running people, and even their grandfathers and grandmothers can run over tough terrain with crazy inclines over ultra long distances faster than most people in the world wearing skirts and sandals. Their first winner in a commercial 100-mile ultramarathon (1994 Leadville Trail 100) was a 52-year old man, and yes he won it wearing sandals.
He’d seen every single Leadville runner for the past decade, and not one of them had ever looked so freakishly … normal. Ten straight hours of mountain running will either knock you on your ass or plant its flag on your face, no exceptions. Even the best ultrarunners by this point are heads down and digging deep, focusing hard on the near-impossible task of getting each foot to follow the other. But that old guy? Victoriano? Totally cool. Like he just woke up from a nap, scratched his belly, and decided to show the kids how the big boys play this game.
If you told me this in real life I would probably dismiss it as an exaggeration, but thanks to technology you could now search youtube for amazing scenes of the tarahumara running:
ultramarathons as an alternate universe
I learnt quite a few new things from the book. Like ultramarathons are different from typical running:
At its essence, an ultra is a binary equation made up of hundreds of yes/no questions: Eat now or wait? Bomb down this hill, or throttle back and save the quads for the flats? Find out what is itching in your sock, or push on? Extreme distance magnifies every problem (a blister becomes a blood-soaked sock, a declined PowerBar becomes a woozy inability to follow trail markers), so all it takes is one wrong answer to ruin a race.
…and that unlike regular running and marathons, the ultramarathon is the race where women and old people can dominate:
Ultrarunning seemed to be an alternative universe where none of planet Earth’s rules applied: women were stronger than men; old men were stronger than youngsters; Stone Age guys in sandals were stronger than everybody.
I guess this is one of the rare times when being small, having short legs, carrying more body fat and knowing how to run slower for longer is actually an advantage.
running as a reward
I was very amused and intrigued by this anecdote about Ann Trason:
One Saturday, Ann got up early and ran twenty miles. She relaxed over breakfast, then headed back out for twenty more. She had some plumbing chores around the house, so after finishing run No. 2, she hauled out her toolbox and got to work. By the end of the day, she was pretty pleased with herself; she’d run forty miles and taken care of a messy job on her own. So as a reward, she treated herself to another fifteen miles.
Imagine the reward after finishing all your day’s tasks is a 15-mile run?? One of the more important points McDougall was trying to make, is that to get really good at running, especially at long-distance running, one needs to truly love running:
For them, running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans: get on the scale, get depressed, get your headphones on, and get it over with. But you can’t muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it. Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving. And once you break through to that soft, half-levitating flow, that’s when the moonlight and champagne show up: “You have to be in tune with your body, and know when you can push it and when to back off,” Ann would explain.
I can relate a lot to this, even before I ever read this book. I treated running as a chore – one of my everyday streaks to complete, but there was this magical threshold I breached and running became enjoyable to me. It makes a whole world of difference between dreading it and looking very forward to it.
But there are horror stories about ultramarathons as well. Apparently it is known that people can start hallucinating:
One pacer got a little freaked out after she saw her runner stare into space for a while and then tell the empty air, “I know you’re not real.”
…and of course people can get lost in trails, become dangerously dehydrated, and develop enlarged hearts due to chronic long-distance running. A regular marathon is already known to induce kidney damage, I cannot imagine the comparative risks of running 100 miles vs 26 miles. I have zero-interest in running any kind of marathon – unless you consider 10k to be a marathon distance – but I admire the human spirit to run one.
evolved to run
Which according to McDougall (basing his work on many other people), the reason why marathons are so popular despite the intellectual idea of running tens of miles for no apparent reason seems really unpleasant, is because we have naturally evolved to run.
For a long time it was believed that human beings are terrible at running. Actually that belief is pervasive even till now, as running is often believed to be a damaging activity for our bodies (I think it can be if it is not done correctly). The logic is that since we keep getting injured from running, our bodies are not meant for it.
But McDougall argues otherwise in his book. That when comparing us to chimps who share 95% of our DNA, we have an Achilles tendon and an arch which they don’t:
Common chimps were the perfect place to start. Not only are they a classic example of the walking animal, but they’re also our closest living relative; after more than six million years of separate evolution, we still share 95 percent of our DNA sequence with chimps. But what we don’t share, Bramble noted, is an Achilles tendon, which connects the calf to the heel: we’ve got one, chimps don’t. We have very different feet: ours are arched, chimps’ are flat. Our toes are short and straight, which helps running, while chimps’ are long and splayed, much better for walking. And check out our butts: we’ve got a hefty gluteus maximus, chimps have virtually none. Dr. Bramble then focused on a little-known tendon behind the head known as the nuchal ligament. Chimps don’t have a nuchal ligament. Neither do pigs. Know who does? Dogs. Horses. And humans.
…not only do we have springy feet, we also have an almost infinite aerobic capacity:
A jogger in decent shape averages about three to four meters a second. A deer trots at almost the identical pace. But here’s the kicker: when a deer wants to accelerate to four meters a second, it has to break into a heavy-breathing gallop, while a human can go just as fast and still be in his jogging zone. A deer is way faster at a sprint, but we’re faster at a jog; so when Bambi is already edging into oxygen debt, we’re barely breathing hard.
So I learnt from this book that we’re possibly the only animal that can run forever because we can sweat, whereas other animals must expel their heat through panting:
Actually, Dr. Bramble was surprised to find that all running mammals are restricted to the same cycle of take-a-step, take-a-breath. In the entire world, he and David could only find one exception: You…we’re the only mammals that shed most of our heat by sweating. All the pelt-covered creatures in the world cool off primarily by breathing, which locks their entire heat-regulating system to their lungs. But humans, with our millions of sweat glands, are the best air-cooled engine that evolution has ever put on the market.
This is not the first time I’ve learnt about our superior aerobic endurance capacity, but the book makes us sound like magical creatures.
zest for running
I had already developed this strange love for running, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. I wanted to read and learn more about running. The book gifted me with a new appreciation for my body and the relationship I have with it. It also increased the zest I have for running. Midway through the reading the book, I went for my morning run with a new lightness and joy. The ultramarathoners in the book truly enjoyed running. I may not ever join a marathon, but I wanted to run like them, to run as though my body can carry me everywhere and anywhere.
barefoot vs cushioned shoes
From the book I have also learnt that cushioned shoes may be causing more injuries than preventing them:
Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University:“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.”
The book was published in 2009, but till today people cannot agree whether cushioned shoes are better or worse for running. I think do whatever it takes to avoid injury. I did a 9km walk with my flat-sole shoes this morning, and I am not sure if it was my imagination but walking in flat sole shoes made the base of my feet more uncomfortable but it made my body less tired overall? It felt like the cushioning in my other pair of shoes cushioned my feet but exerted more pressure on my calves and hips.
The rough theory is that our feet are sensorial and they get confused when they cannot feel the ground directly, causing the body to exert more force onto the ground ironically. In contrast, they are able to adjust more dynamically when allowed to feel the ground.
I don’t know yet, I am still experimenting. I am keen to try running with minimalist/barefoot shoes when I can get back to running. I do think there is some truth in using what we’re given but it has to correspond with the right running form.
Sadly a few days ago I had gotten my second booster, and the advisory here is no exercising for two weeks after. I am compensating by doing long walks instead. Even my relationship with long walks has changed: I’m walking with the spirit that this is what my feet are meant to do. The idea that I can walk perpetually is very liberating.
But I’m still anticipating my next run in roughly 10 days.
on improving my mitochondrial health in hope of migraine reduction