Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Born to Run and how to be joyful

I just read a book called Born to Run. I bought it for The Man and also for my father. I thought The Man would enjoy a John Krakaur-style adventure tale and I thought my dad would enjoy it because he is 70 and runs in races and sometimes wins in his age group. Also, he likes unusual health fads and this book is a proponent of running in minimal footwear.

I enjoyed the book for the adventure story. I also liked the anthropology in the book.

In the book, a few anthropologists and non-anthropologists wanted to figure out, if the conventional wisdom is that we are not intended to run because we're too slow to catch anything to eat and too slow to outrun anything wanting to eat us, why do we have all these anatomical markers of running animals? Why do we share certain bone structures and other physical characteristics with horses and other running animals and not similar bone structures that pigs and other non-running animals have? And if we are a running animal, why are we so slow? What's our advantage?

The answer to the last question was endurance. We don't have to run fast, we just have to run far. We can outrun our food and possibly our predators by simply running them to death. No other animal can run as far as humans can. Every other animal has to stop eventually. We can keep going.

The anthropologists also linked our big brains to our running abilities. We are empathetic so that we can sense how our prey is feeling, sense when it is getting tired. We are smart enough to track and follow creatures that may be way out ahead of us, reading the signs left behind. This made a lot of sense to me because as a hiker, nothing gives me a bigger thrill than to be able to read the signs around me and find someone out in the wilderness, or follow a trail that is barely visible. I once went out and found The Man in the wilderness using nothing more than intuition and the ability to read things like footprints, broken branches and other signs.

As I read the book and the story of the 50 mile race, I was struck by how similar the ultra runners seemed to long distance hikers. The giggly joy of being so completely physical, and dirty, and the joy of eating tons of food and taking bad care of yourself right before you go out and do another big mile day is so typical of hiker trash out on the PCT. I loved pushing myself. It was a thrill and a joy. I couldn't slow down and do lesser miles because every day was a new chance to take this old body out for a spin and see what she could do. Pushing myself while on a starvation diet, or a diet of junk food, or after a night without enough sleep, or after doing it too many days in a row made me giggle inside. It was still a fun thing to do. It just felt right.

I think there's a sense out there among many different groups that we've strayed too far from our natural humanity. The barefoot running and ultra-distance running described in the book is one way people are finding their way back. I see it all around me elsewhere, too. There seems to be an increased interest in gardening and farmer's markets, in tiny houses, minimalism and simple living, in apocalypse movies that feed our fantasies of starting all over again, in peak oil, and lots of other topics. We long to return to something we lost but can't quite put a finger on what it is. I say it's the joy of being physical animals out in nature, of moving our bodies and using our minds in concert with our bodies, and not just on abstract thinking. We've exerted ourselves too far toward the abstract and are in danger of permanently losing what makes us truly alive and we want to somehow change course.

It often feels, here in the boring, mundane world, that we are all forced to go down the wrong path, down a trail that is 180 degrees from happiness. We were not meant to sit in buildings all day, and spend all our lives in cities surrounded entirely by the artifacts of civilization. We were meant to be running animals out in the natural world. It is not just healthy. It's joyful.

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