Saturday, 28 April 2012

Chris McDougall, ‘Born to Run’ (2009)

You would have to be stonyhearted not to want to go along with McDougall’s declarations of love for running as a primal art, and for its practitioners the Tarahumara, a Mexican tribe. You would have to be seriously unexcitable not to be stimulated by his writing and the forceful ultramarathon-runners its depicts. And yet – as I see it – if you really bought the book’s argument, you would have to quit running immediately.
Said argument is that running allowed modern humans to develop from a homo erectus that was smaller, weaker, less intelligent than its neanderthal cousins. It enabled these proto-humans to run animals to exhaustion and death, to feast on their flesh and grow in prosperity. In turn the body learnt to reward endurance running, explaining why we still experience Runner’s High.
McDougall tells us that this type of hunting was possible because whilst animals can often run faster than humans (rabbits at up to 45 miles per hour!), the fact that they can only cool down by panting means that after a short distance they must stop to recover. Humans, on the other hand, have millions of pores allowing prolonged, on-the-run cooling. This and other thoughts on anatomy means the book changes how you look at people in the street. I sweat therefore I am human.
A side-branch of such thoughts are that the human foot is already designed for running, and that heavily-cushioned running shoes actually cause injury by flattening the natural suspension-bridge engineering of the foot arch, and altering our gait (creating heel-strike). The tantalizing prospect of barefoot running means that McDougall’s book is often discussed amongst runners, and its success is doubtless being closely followed by shoe manufacturers who over the last decade have been producing lightweight racing shoes.
So these are the arguments that jostle for space in the book alongside reflections on technique and nutrition (a marathon runner should eat like a poor person – meaning not McDo’s but lots of carbs and little protein), a great vignette about a Harvard professor of anthropology hosting a stone-age evening on the college lawn, where undergraduates butcher a goat with sharpened flints before barbequeing it, and plenty of good writing on trail running, for instance the Badwater ultramarathon in Death Valley, where temperatures can reach 93 degrees C., and where ‘six out of twenty runners reported hallucinations that year, including one who saw rotting corpses along the road and “mutant mice monsters” crawling over the asphalt. 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”.
‘Born to Run’’s narrative is woven around a central character study of Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco, aka Michael Randall Hickman, who died in March 2012 after the book had made him famous. The author’s admiration for Caballo is clear, and there’s no reason to argue with it. His advice for ultra running is to only increase speed in terms of moving from ‘easy’ to ‘light’ to ‘smooth’. I can see the attractions of this, but at the same time it’s tempting to be cynical about the author’s other descriptions of ultramarathoners smiling their way, trance-like, round the course. I’m more attracted by the description of Czech runner Emil Zapotek, 4-time Olympic champion: ‘he looks like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyer belt’.
Like Caballo before him, McDougall falls in love with his idea of the Tarahumara tribe and their embodiment of a Western evolutionary theory of ‘running man’. The problem for me is that this theory just makes too much sense: I worry about the assumption that there must be a natural or evolutionary advantage to running, and we just have to find it. That running isn’t just a side-effect of our screwed-up modern lives. In some ways this theory is a parallel to how fundraising and the marathon go completely hand in hand: whilst fundraising of course does heaps of good, it’s also slightly a shame to naturalize the weirdness of running by only understanding it in terms of running *for*.
So ‘running man’ theory boils down to *running because*, and marathon fundraising boils down to *running for*. For me, both of these ignore the vast majority of humankind that doesn’t run, whose presence as you tramp past them just underlines how derisory, embarrassing, ultimately meat-headed it is to run. And yet that’s its majesty: that people run, not ‘because’ or ‘for’, but for the sheer bloody hell of it.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Faces at the Finish (of the NYC marathon)

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Running ought to be boring

On hearing how much I’ve been running, a friend asked whether I ever got bored. It was one of those questions that come out of nowhere: I had honestly never even considered that running could be boring. Repetitive, minimalist, requiring patience perhaps, but not boring.

But I imagine that joggers listen to music to keep themselves interested. This puzzles me: how could you run, i.e. do a sport that is exclusively about pace, timing, rhythm, whilst listening to a constantly varying playlist ? It’d be like conducting an orchestra with your ipod on. So one reason why running isn’t boring is that to run well you have to concentrate quite hard: maintaining a hard pace, but also constantly being sure not to burn out too soon. It’s like a balancing act where instead of not leaning too far right or left like a tightrope walker, you mustn’t lean too far forward (speeding up) or back (slowing down).

Another reason is that over the hour or longer spent running, thoughts seem to form an orderly succession through the mind. Without any attempt to think about one thing in particular, a meditative – damn, I thought I could write this blog without using the word ‘meditative’ – gnawing away at difficulties takes place, turning them over, inspecting them from all angles. Sometimes this leads to breakthroughs in my research: fearful of forgetting them, I write them down as soon as I get through the door, often with half-frozen hands, producing a handwriting that is weirdly different to my own. I sometimes wonder whether runners can as it were smell this on one another’s writing.