Born to Run: Is Running Outdoors Another Deeply-Embedded Human Desire?

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Recently, I’ve been attracted to books that talk about common qualities of all humans (as opposed to their differences) – like how humans became the dominant species because of their ability to cooperate (Sapiens) and our shared need for autonomy, competence, and community (Tribe). I’m not an avid runner, but Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall suggests that running is another link in that story. Perhaps this ability to run for long distances (extended outdoor exercise) is another way we can achieve a better balance of our mental, physical, and spiritual selves.

The specific race tale in the book is also suspenseful and exciting (once you get past the slow beginning), making this is a recommended read for that reason alone. I don’t want to give spoilers, so here are some highlights that focus on a better life – which of course is the ultimate goal of financial freedom.

The Tarahumara are an indigneous people that live a secluded life in the Sierra Madre canyons of Mexico. They are known for their running ability, but perhaps they aren’t special, but just the ones that have managed to keep what was once a common skill? Put another way – Why do so many people love running?

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation.

Know why people run marathons? he told Dr. Bramble. Because running is rooted in our collective imagination, and our imagination is rooted in running. Language, art, science; space shuttles, Starry Night, intravascular surgery; they all had their roots in our ability to run. Running was the superpower that made us human-which means it’s a superpower all humans possess.

“And you’ve got to ask yourself why only one species in the world has the urge to gather by the tens of thousands to run twenty-six miles in the heat for fun,” Dr. Bramble mused. “Recreation has its reasons.”

And like everything else we love – everything we sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires” – it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.

Human bodies are actually well-suited for distance running. Not running fast, but running for an extended time, longer than most other mammals. Some of our ancestors hunted by simply chasing and outlasting an animal until it collapsed in exhaustion. Perhaps ultra-marathoners are not so unusual after all.

Ethnographers’ reports he’d read years ago began flooding his mind; they told of African hunters who used to chase antelope across the savannahs, and Tarahumara Indians who would race after a deer “until its hooves fell off.” Lieberman had always shrugged them off as tall tales, fables of a golden age of heroes who’d never really existed. […] You don’t even have to go fast, Lieberman realized. All you have to do is keep the animal in sight, and within ten minutes, you’re reeling him in. If a middle-aged professor can outrun a dog on a hot day, imagine what a pack of motivated hunter-gatherers could do to an overheated antelope.”

The best shoes are the worst. This book is a bit of an antidote to the memoir of Nike founder Phil Knight Shoe Dog (which I still enjoyed). What if thick-soled wedge shoes aren’t really solving a problem, just prolonging it?

Bowerman’s marketing was brilliant. “The same man created a market for a product and then created the product itself,” as one Oregon financial columnist observed. “It’s genius, the kind of stuff they study in business schools.” Bowerman’s partner, the runner-turned-entrepreneur Phil Knight, set up a manufacturing deal in Japan and was soon selling shoes faster than they could come off the assembly line.

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and turns into a racket.”

The Tarahumara run long distances on thin sandals. Perhaps we need more of the posture-improving feedback and foot-strengthening from running barefoot:

The way to activate your fat-burning furnace is by staying below your aerobic threshold-your hard-breathing point-during your endurance runs. Respecting that speed limit was a lot easier before the birth of cushioned shoes and paved roads; try blasting up a scree-covered trail in open-toed sandals sometime and you’ll quickly lose the temptation to open the throttle. When your feet aren’t artificially protected, you’re forced to vary your pace and watch your speed: the instant you get recklessly fast and sloppy, the pain shooting up your shins will slow you down.

Like many other ancient cultures, the Tarahumara have a strong sense of and hospitality. When we help each other without expectation, it makes everyone’s life better.

“The Raramuri have no money, but nobody is poor,” Caballo said. In the States, you ask for a glass of water and they take you to a homeless shelter. Here, they take you in and feed you. You ask to camp out, and they say, “Sure, but wouldn’t you rather sleep inside with us?”

Also like many other ancient cultures, eating a primarily plant-based diet gives you all the nutrition you need and lets your body’s natural feedback system tell you when to stop eating. Engineered junk food like Cheetos/Doritos dust and super-sweet everything are designed to keep your body always wanting more. Chia seeds are the natural “energy food” of the Tarahumara tribe.

The first step toward going cancer-free the Tarahumara way, consequently, is simple enough: Eat less. The second step is just as simple on paper, though tougher in practice: Eat better. Along with getting more exercise, says Dr. Weinberg, we need to build our diets around fruit and vegetables instead of red meat and processed carbs. Anything the Tarahumara eat, you can get very easily,” Tony told me. “It’s mostly pinto beans, squash, chili peppers, wild greens, pinole, and lots of chia.”

Outdoor exercise just seems to make you happier:

“Such a sense of joy!” marveled Coach Vigil, who’d never seen anything like it, either. “It was quite remarkable.” Glee and determination are usually antagonistic emotions, yet the Tarahumara were brimming with both at once, as if running to the death made them feel more alive.

I knew aerobic exercise was a powerful antidepressant, but I hadn’t realized it could be so profoundly mood stabilizing and-I hate to use the word-meditative. If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.

“Just move your legs. Because if you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.”

Finding happiness is often about wanting less (which has the nice side effect of spending less). Nothing mentioned in this book requires a brand-name consumer product or a huge net worth. Run or walk, preferably outdoors, preferably with other people. If you have back or knee problems, try switching gradually to something closer to barefoot (thinner, flatter soles) but keep on walking outside with friends. Eat mostly plants, or at least more plants. Look to help other people. I might also try going for a jog…

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  1. I recently started training for a half marathon and found Xero shoes to be the easiest way to switch to more minimalist running. Running up to 7 miles at a time now with no shin splints, IT band syndrome, or any of the other ailments I had in high school and college when running with traditional running shoes.

  2. This RadioLab episode from late last year is pretty interesting (despite the weird start) about the whole running thing, including an annual man vs. horse race which seems to be alluded to by Jonathan:

    Also, this Freakanomics episode which includes a spot on persistence running:

    Fascinating stuff, if you ask me.

  3. This is a great book, no doubt about it. When it came out it was highly influential and the running shoe industry moved significantly towards minimalist running shoes. Those vibram 5 fingers (with the separate toes) shoes were everywhere a few years ago. A lot people were getting injured wearing those as well. So it was a great theory but not truly proven out in the real world. The minimalist trend then spurred a maximalist trend – shoes with tons of cushion, although consistent with the theory in being lighweight and allowing natural movement Which is a bit where we are right now. Nike’s Vaporfly and all of the other carbon-plated race shoes are all max cushion and they are used in setting all of the new WRs in distance running

    • I personally take the minimalist shoe thing as more like if you don’t have troubles with your current situation then don’t change, but it is something to try if you do have some nagging running injuries. Book recommends to make the change gradually as most people’s feet aren’t used to it at first.

      Mostly, the idea of slow, easy running and finding some sort of rhythm where you can keep going (even if really slow) for a long time has a certain appeal to me.

  4. I’m not sure how much of the minimalist shoe industry is science and how much just hype to sell something new. But I am sure that in recent times nobody has won a gold medal or set a world record at any type of running event who wasn’t wearing running shoes. And no native American has outrun a Kenyan or Nigerian world class runner. I’ve run 15 marathons and well over 20,000 training miles in my life and I’m still waiting to experience that runner’s high everyone talks about. I run for health, to build my tennis endurance and to build discipline in my life, and for the social aspects. But the act of running has never felt like fun, not a single step. I was pretty into it, sometimes running 20 mile training runs at 3:30 in the morning so I could finish and still get into work on time on weekdays. But it always felt like work to me. Now tennis, that’s fun!

    • That’s a lot of running if it isn’t fun! I’m with you on the tennis though, that’s my exercise of choice =) There is something romantic about just being outdoors and running around, and maybe tennis is close enough, ha.

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