In any North American town or city, individuals running (or jogging) to stay fit or get in shape, are so common that hardly anyone notices.
What these individuals don't realize is that regardless of the high-tech shoes they may wear - shoes with bedsprings embedded in the soles, microchip-adjusted cushioning, air or water-cushioned soles -- some 80 per cent of them are going to suffer knee, ankle or foot injuries.
Running is a multi-billion dollar industry for the footwear people, but according to Christopher McDougall, this technology doesn't reduce leg problems that stem from running, but likely adds to it. "The injury rate hasn't decreased a jot in 30 years," he says.
McDougall is contributing editor for Men's Health magazine, and in 2009 wrote an unusual book, Born to Run. It focuses on his search for what he suspected might be a mythical Stone Age tribe in Mexico -- sort of urban legend Indians, called the Tarahumara, who avoided civilization, were shy, benign, non-violent, didn't use currency and were astonishing long-distance runners.
More than that, they could run for days -- several days and hundreds of miles -- wearing only sandals and capes, yet suffering no leg, foot or running injuries. In fact no sicknesses or diseases at all.
A former war correspondent, McDougall first traced down another legendary, almost mythical character -- a white man, Micah True (born as Michael Hickman), who went to live with the Tarahumara, adopting the name Caballo Blanco (White Horse). He became McDougall's go-between with the Tarahumara. Horse was also a runner, lived alone deep in the mountains and spent his days running. While accepted by the Tarahumara, they also considered him a bit "loco." Crazy.
Without Caballo Blanco's endorsement, McDougall would have struck out with the Tarahumara. They accepted him largely because Horse accepted him.
MacDougall found this tribe in the high sierras (Sierra Madre) and canyons of northwest Mexico. Some lived in sheer canyon-wall caves, requiring climbing poles to reach. Others lived in huts that blended with the desert scenery and were virtually invisible. These were people who avoided being seen, having retreated there from the 16th century Spanish Conquest; invisible communities.
Not exactly Shangri-La, but McDougall found: "In Tarahumara land, there was no crime, war or theft. There was no corruption, obesity, drug addiction, greed, wife-beating, child abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, or carbon emissions. They didn't get diabetes, or depressed, or even old: fifty-year-olds outran teenagers."
McDougall said one researcher "went so far to speculate that after so many generations of truthfulness, the Tarahumara brain was actually chemically incapable of forming lies." An interesting thought, worthy of more anthropological study.
The story of the Tarahumara is authentic. In fact "ultra-runners" in the U.S. know of them -- ironic, because most of us don't know anything about ultra-runners: guys and gals who specialize in running 50- or 100-mile races, not for money, but for the achievement.
At the celebrated Leadville 100-mile trail race in the Colorado Rockies (reaching 13,000 feet), three aging Tarahumara Indian runners were brought in. They started last, in sandals, and finished first, second and third. An hour ahead of the next runner. The combined ages of the first two runners was 100 years.
That's an oddity of the Tarahumara -- they peak at about 50 and are still running at age 80. They run for the joy of it -- preparing the night before on local beer that McDougall says can "blister paint."
One Tarahumara champion ran 435 miles, while 300-mile runs are considered routine. Sixty miles is a jaunt.
Going back to man's beginnings, running was essential -- either to catch food, or to escape being food for some predator. In his research McDougall learned that at longer distances, women have more endurance than men. In ultra 100-mile races in then U.S., 50 per cent of the men always drop out; most women finish the course.
So what is the secret of Tarahumara runners?
McDougall and many sports doctors think it hinges on mental approach; running for the love of it, not as a means to an end. And all the fancy footwear that appeals to runners, mean little. An annual $20 billion footwear industry doesn't only fail to cut down on running injuries, but may actually exacerbate them.
Quoting various experts, McDougal calls the invention of the running shoe "the worst crime ever committed against the human foot." He reiterates this point when documenting barefoot distance runners: "Running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot." With high-tech footwear, the heel hits first -- that's bad.
The Tarahumara run in sandals. Cheap running shoes are better than costly ones.
Human beings are about the only land mammals that get ailments due to running. Gazelles don't have knee or joint problems, and a wolf can run at a loping pace all day. So do the Tarahumara Indians.
McDougall's book was a best-seller three years ago. Recently he appeared on Don Imus's radio talk show. Imus raved so much about the book that it hit the New York Times' bestseller list again. My wife, Yvonne, was knocked out by it. So was I.
For decades I've instinctively argued against running as bad for knees and feet. Games, yes, but running endlessly around a track or on pavement -- boring and injurious. Arguably the world's most joyful long-distance runner was Czechoslovakia's Emil Zatopek -- no trainer, no coach, self-taught, never timed himself. "A gawky dweeb who ran with such horrendous form that he looked 'as if he'd just been stabbed through the heart,'" says McDougall. But he was never beaten.
A sportswriter said he "runs like a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt."
Zatopek trained by doing sprints, not steady, slow endurance running. "I already know how to go slow," he said. "I thought the point was to go fast."
At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Zatopek had his choice of which of three distance events he'd challenge -- 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres or the marathon. He chose all three. And won all three in record times.
McDougall recalls that in the marathon, world record-holder Jim Peters set a torrid pace, hoping to exhaust Zatopek who never before had run that distance. Zatopek pulled alongside Peters and said: "This is my first marathon. Are we going too fast?"
"No," Peters replied. "Too slow." Would Zatopek fall into the trap?
Zatopek was surprised: "Are you sure the pace is too slow?"
"Yes," said Peters -- then got a surprise of his own.
"Okay. Thanks." And Zatopek took off, showing Peters his heels and won, setting his third Olympic record. A man who simply ran for the love of running.
I remember being in Prague in 1968 when Zatopek ran through the streets, urging citizens to show non-violent resistance against the Soviet tanks that had invaded the city to crush the Prague Spring of Alexander Dubcek. By day-long running, he eluded security forces.
McDougall tells of the great Australian middle and long distance runner, Ron Clarke (17 world records) visiting Prague after collapsing in the 10,000 metres race at the 1968 Mexico Olympics due to the high altitude, and suffering permanent heart damage. Never having won Olympic gold, the media and others branded him as a "choker."
In Prague, Clarke paid a courtesy visit to Zatopek, a runner who never lost. On leaving, Zatopek embraced Clarke and gave him a wrapped gift, which Clarke put in his suitcase and opened later. When he did, it was Zatopek's gold medal from winning the 10,000 metres at the 1952 Olympics -- a noble gesture to the man who had broken Zatopek's own record, from a man facing life-altering reprisals from the Soviets.
"There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zatopek," said Clarke.
Judging from McDougall's experience with them, Clarke's is an apt description applicable to the Tarahumara people.
A month ago, on March 27, Caballo Blanco, while in New Mexico, went for an early morning run -- and never returned. This wasn't unusual for him. Three days later his dead body was found by a stream, a mile southeast of the Gila Cliff Dwellers -- ancient people mindful of the Tarahumara who lived around 1300 AD, and whose caves were first discovered in 1878.
A symbolic end of a life that chose to ignore the modern world. Like the Tarahumara.