Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Born to Run

The first month of work my boss treated me to a lengthy discourse on the joys of running. He ended with a frightening and completely unnecessary sentence: “If I can run, anyone can.”

I would have run away screaming, only that's the problem.  In elementary school it was traditional for students to run the Dread Mile once a year. I never ran it because a seventh of the way in I’d have to be escorted to the nurse’s office and hooked up to a nebulizer. In very bad cases my mother would take me home and I’d spend the rest of the day on the couch hacking up a lung. Conclusion: Owl does not run.

Despite that I’ve always envied runners.  They prance around parks like hyperactive gazelles. I wanted to be a hyperactive gazelle too.

Due to a variety of forces including a marathoning mentor, and an ungodly love of cake a month or so later I found myself in my apartment's gym on a Friday night. I really should have had something better to do. I didn't. So I chatted up the treadmill.

Or tried to, anyway. It didn't respond so I stared at it. It stared back at me. There was mutual hatred. That should have been the end of our acquaintance, but the dude on the next treadmill was gave me a weird look so I hopped aboard and turned the thing on.

I moved my legs. It hurt. I tried to breathe. That hurt too. I got off of the treadmill and cursed my life. Epiphany: I am a chubby owl and not a hyperactive gazelle.

The gazelle fascination must have been strong because I got back on the next day. And the day after that.

Somewhere along the line I started googling running plans, bought schmancy shoes, and started picking people’s brains for running wisdom. Does anyone actually enjoy running? (Answer: No.) How do you keep running longer distances? (Answer: Willpower.) When do you stop being avian and go gazelle? (Answer: Shut up and start running.)

My imagination started running wild—marathons, the Boston marathons, ultra-marathons! I like to dream big. Unfortunately, my imagination goes a lot faster than my legs. On a good day I can run four miles. After that I want to keel over and die.

Owl's version of running
To satisfy my imagination, I feed it with books about runners instead.

The latest was Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. On whim, McDougall tracked down the Tarahumara of Mexico, an indigenous tribe full of long distance runners. And by long distance, I mean, they run a couple hundred miles for fun. The tale climaxes in a race that pits the Tarahumara against a scraggly band of American ultra-marathoners which include a garrulous barefoot runner, a girl who throws up in a potted plant, and a man named Horse who left behind everything to find himself in the desert.

McDougall knows how to tell a story.  He ends his chapters on cliffhangers and prefaces the next with a teaser trailer before zigzagging away to meditate on the art of running. His meditations are the real gold, the reason why you should devour this book if you ran, run, or have ever wanted to run. McDougall destroys every preconception or fear you may have had about running to come back to one truth: we were born to run.

When I first started running, my coworkers regaled me with a host of running injuries I hadn’t even heard of. Apparently running is tantamount to being a kamikaze pilot—instead of blowing yourself up, you blow out your legs. I began to feel like I was marked for death.

Bullshit, quoth McDougall. Humans are engineered to run. Our legs are full of springy muscles built for long distance, and our circulation systems are built to cool us down. Leg injuries only started occurring when shoe companies started tinkering with running shoes, adding features like cushioning that drove up the price, and ironically, the rate of running injuries. Our feet don't need support. They were made for running. Running shoes actually destroy our natural gait. 

According to McDougall modern runners have been corrupted by ulterior motives. We run to lose weight. We run to best our personal record, and as we run for glory or for fame, or more simply, pride, we bust our knees, shred our Achilles tendons.

“Ask nothing from your running, in other words, and you’ll get more than you ever imagined” McDougall writes. In order to run well, you have to embrace the pain, accept the exhaustion and keep moving anyway. In short running is about character. McDougall insists that in all good runners

there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding...

I keep running because it’s something I shouldn’t be able to do. Each step is like sucker punching the impossible in the gut. But as I run, exhaustion strips down all the layers of thought until all that’s left is a single voice. Mine is two years old and whines a lot. Are we there yet? Can we stop? This hurts. THIS HURTS!  

No surprise I haven’t gotten past four miles. Pure rage doesn’t take you very far. Or maybe I need to rage better?

Whatever it is, my version of running pales in comparison to McDougall’s call for people to shuck off their shoes, to run alongside one another, surrendering to their exhaustion, growing comfortable in their pain.

We’re born to run, McDougall cries, so run. Run like all hell, run like this:

Before setting out for their sunset runs, [they] would snap a tape of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” into their Walkman. When running stopped being as fun as surfing, they had agreed, they’d quit. So to get that same surging glide, the same feeling of being lifted up and swept along, they ran to the rhythm of Beat poetry.

‘Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American river!’ they’d shout, paddling along the water’s edge.

New loves! Mad generation! Down on the rocks of time!

If that doesn't make you want to burst out the door and run until you fall over, you have no soul.


  1. My husband and all his runner friends adore that book--and I adore it vicariously. Speaking from personal experience, I remember the day I realized that I could run forever, if I wanted--not fast, mind you, and with a gait that looks like an enchanted bag of potatoes emulating human motion, but, yeah! Just . . . keep . . . slogging . . . away . . . like . . . this--it was a cool discovery!

    Yeah! Run like miracles! ecstasies! My husband and his pals will be pleased to hear that you like the book too <3

  2. Ooh this is very inspiring! Particularly the bit about us being engineered to run - I always get shin splints after a while, so have to stop. I think my running shoes and the pavement might be the problem. Maybe I need to find a savannah I can run barefoot on.

    (My first love is cycling, however. Not something we are born to do, but something I'm reasonably good at and enjoy, which is fine by me. :D )


  3. I log more than 50 miles a week, but I'm not someone who often finds the actual act of running to be exhilarating. I've never experienced runner's high--and if I have, it's not that great. In this sense I compare running to writing. Writing is very important to me, but I can't relate to people who find the writing process itself to be a thrill. Personally, I find it tedious and laborious; and, as with running, I only feel really great once I've stopped.

  4. @asakiyume
    I have always wanted to be a bag of enchanted potatoes, particularly one that can run forever. I ran again today and while I was still high on the book, at 3.7 miles I went fwwwwoooomp and stopped in my tracks. Grrrr.

    Also. Love the term "adore it vicariously." I do that all the time!

    Born to Run is great about explaining why certain injuries happen and why they shouldn't happen. (Read: get rid of the running shoes.)

    Let's go savannah hunting! It'll be wonderful.

    Was totally hoping to get your take because I know your a Runner (which is different from runner.) Do you know anyone who finds running exhilarating?

    And...how do you log 50 mpw when you find it tedious and laborious? How do you manage to log 50mpw in general?

    I do find writing painful, but at the same time I enjoy the pain. When all goes well, the rest of the world winks out and I lose all sense of time. Writing is the only time I feel that way. (I wish running were like that, but I'm bitterly aware of every second when I run.)

  5. Thanks for stopping by my post on marketing at Time Out! As to your question: "how much time would you say it takes to promote one's blog? Sometimes I feel like there's a trade off that has to be made between promoting vs. quality content." Ideally, I make extra time to do network/market my blog. I don't like to cut into my content-creating time ever. But if you're time is limited then you may have to sacrifice the length of a post or the amounts of posts a week to devote time to marketing. I do think the trade off is worth it. It's not like you constantly have to cut content time. A little networking can go a long way. =) Specifically though, I spend ~2 hours 2-3 times a month visiting blogs and marketing generally. It's not work to me. It's fun and I make blogging friends doing it.

    Anyways, there's my two cents worth. Welcome to the world of blogging! Stop by The Prairie Library sometime!

  6. "‘Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American river!’ they’d shout, paddling along the water’s edge.

    New loves! Mad generation! Down on the rocks of time!"

    How is this supposed to make me love running? I suppose I have no soul.

    I think running is great, and I wish I had the discipline to do it, but it never rated very high on my list of sports-that-I-like-to-do so I choose blissful ignorance of never having a running injury.

  7. @W

    The image of out racing the sinking sun while Howl blasts through a walkman doesn't make your soul surge up in your chest and go mememeemememeemwantwantwantwantwant??

    Okay, you know, it's actually not doing much for mine either because I just ate lots of orange chicken.

  8. I have always hated running, but have recently begun to want to like it. I actually went jogging (sort of jogging and walking) a few times last week and enjoyed it. Thanks for the book review; I'll check this one out!