The Myth of the Lonely Long-Distance Runner

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James Rexroad

Writer Chris McDougall, above the rim of the Sierra Madre Canyon, where the Tarahumara have made their home for centuries

Lace up your sneakers and run around the block. Do that about 10 times and it's a mile. Do that 100 times and it's an ultra-marathon. Now run those 100 miles up a mountain, or in the woods at night, or in a desert so hot that the soles of your shoes begin to melt. Sound like fun? Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run, thinks so. What started as a simple quest to explain a running injury took the former war correspondent deep into the world of ultra-running — and into the world of the Tarahumara, an indigenous race of superrunners who live deep in a canyon in Mexico. McDougall talked to TIME about his experiences and what he thinks about people who say they don't like to run. (See photos of extreme marathoners.)

What misconceptions do people have about running?
Anyone can do running. Running should be easy. It should be fun. It should include everyone. It shouldn't be a punishment for eating cheesecake, which is what we've turned it into. There's this kind of war on running — people keep telling you you'll get hurt, get injured, that you need orthotics, that you need go to a special running store before you try it. There's this totally misconceived notion that it's hard to do, and it's not.

What is the correct way to run?
Prior to the creation of the modern running shoe, people were taught how to run either by a running coach or by simple feedback from their feet. If something hurt, you would start running differently. You'd never, ever land on your heel on a thinly cushioned shoe, because it hurt. Your heel's not designed to absorb impact. Running should feel weightless. It should feel like you're floating in space. It's basically a series of controlled jumps. Then we started trying to trump nature and come up with something we could sell, and what we've created are these monstrosities that allow people to forget about form and running technique and just clump along in whatever kind of sloppy fashion they want.

You spent a lot of time with the Tarahumara, a society of master runners who live in obscurity in Mexico. I'd never heard of them before. How do they manage to still stay so secluded, and what did you do to get them to trust you?
They stay secluded by remaining down in the depths of this vast network of canyons. One reason they haven't blazed across the competitive circuit is because our kind of running is really stupid and foreign to them. We bust out as fast as we can from gun to tape, and the Tarahumara don't do that. Humans are built for endurance, not speed. We're awful sprinters, compared to every other animal. We try to run our races as if they were speed races, but they are not. They're endurance races. Even a marathon, the way it's run now, it's not an endurance contest. But the Tarahumara do two things that are different: they run as a group. Secondly, they alternate between bursts of effort and recovery. That's what's brilliant about their running — it's this really smart, strategic combination of fast and slow.

Running a marathon seems like a big deal, but ultra-runners run hundreds of miles over mountains. How do they do it?
I never saw an ultra-marathon until I was in one. I ran 50 miles with the Tarahumara. My stomach was clenching up like a fist before the race. I received the best advice for running I ever heard: "You're not going to win, so just relax. If it feels like work, you're running too hard." I just wish people would run two miles as if they were running 100 miles, because one thing that you will always see in ultra-races that you will never see in normal marathons are smiles. People are relaxed and enjoying the moment.

What did running those 50 miles feel like?
Most of the miles were a total blast. You start before dawn, so it's dark outside, and you're all huddled for warmth at the start. As you're running, the sun comes up. It's just brilliant. Every moment, every mile brought a vivid sensation. When you allow yourself to ease into the run, as if you're easing into a hot bath, the sensations come to you gradually. You feel your body warming up. You feel yourself hitting a stride. Nothing ever feels forced. It feels soothing and fun. The only crunch time was the last 10 miles or so — they were a little hard. I thought there was going to be more water, but they ran out. One man, Barefoot Ted, was drinking his urine at one point.

About drinking your own urine — you talk in the book about people who hallucinate while running or become disoriented and exhausted. You say running is really easy, but obviously ultra-running is an extreme sport. It's very hard, and people go through a lot. Why do you think people push themselves that hard?
A really smart scientist, Dr. Dennis Bramble at the University of Utah, said to me, "Recreation has its reasons." It's an instinct we have inside of us. We push ourselves that far because we're hard-wired to want to remind ourselves that we can do it.

What exactly is the Running Man theory?
The theory is that humans evolved as running-pack animals, that they only way we got food was by running our prey to death. The human brain exploded in size about 2 million years ago, expanding from a peanut to the melon we have now. That could've only happened if humans were eating animal carcasses. But the first weapon only appeared 200,000 years ago, so for 1,800,000 years we were somehow acquiring dead animals without having a weapon to kill them. So the theory is that we ran animals to death.

What do you say to people who say, "Oh, I don't like running."
I say, Go for a run. Or let's play some Ultimate Frisbee. Almost every sport involves running. You will not find a 4-year-old on this planet who does not like to run. Why? Because they haven't been told it's a workout.

Why are runners not as famous as other athletes?
There's no money in it. To get on a bike and look like Lance Armstrong, you're going to drop $8,000 or more. If you're an ultra-runner, you buy one pair of shoes. Tony Krupicka, one of the greatest young ultra-runners, has worn the same pair of crappy, cross-country flats for the past six years. It's actually one of the big debates in ultra-racing right now: some of the top competitors want there to be prize money, but the second money gets into it, the sport is ruined. Right now, there's a certain sense of amateurism and purity to the sport. I was crewing for ultra-runner Jen Shelton during one race, and she was gunning to win, but she ate a jalapeño pizza and pitcher of beer five hours before the start, so at mile 40, she blew up and was retching on the course. When she lifted her head up, she realized that two of the guys she had been competing with were standing there waiting for her. She was 40 miles out in the woods alone, and they wanted to make sure she was O.K. They took her to an aid station, and once she was cared for, they took off [for] the finish line. You get a sense of real camaraderie out there because ultimately it's about everyone pulling together.

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