Poetry, music, forests, oceans, solitude—they were what developed enormous spiritual strength. I came to realize that spirit, as much or more than physical conditioning, had to be stored up before a race.
(– Herb Elliott, Olympic champion and world-record holder in the mile who trained in bare feet, wrote poetry, and retired undefeated)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.