Monday, 16 May 2016

The Amazing Race

A mysterious, enlightened tribe of superhumanly-fast endurance runners, previously hidden from the world in deep Mexican canyons who emerged to smash ultramarathon records in the early 1990s? Oh, run along…

The Tarahumara know how to dress
I have a work friend called Bill who is one of the funniest men I have ever met.  Relentlessly self-deprecating and always quick to highlight the absurdity of any situation - when he told me that he had read a book about running which had changed his life I waited for the punchline. Instead he went on to tell me with evangelical zeal how much he was now loving running, brought the book in the next day to me and told me that he didn’t want it back, but did want me to pass it on when I’d finished.
There was no sarcasm or irony here, Bill really had been born again by the Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run.

I started to read it for two reasons  - I was intrigued by Bill’s uncharacteristic transformation and secondly, I realised that I wasn’t enjoying running as much as I used to. Somehow this year it feels as if I’d been dragging an atypically reluctant body around, instead of my usual contended loping.  A list of excuses is always close to hand, entering my fifth decade, congenitally flat feet, persistently hot weather.  But I wanted to persevere - being able to leave the house with no equipment, transport, booking, venue or team commitments and simply exercise by putting one foot in front of the other embodies physical and mental freedom to me. 

Picking up Born to Run has resulted in my desire to write about this book outstripping my meagre reading speed.  I’ve only completed the first section, which I am assured that isn’t the most important part, but this is already one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever read.

There’s something of a modern fascination with ancient Sparta and its army, who achieved a legendary physical prowess through utter devotion to their training.  But who knew that in the copper Canyons of Chihuahua in Mexico, there is an elusive race equally dedicated, not to war, but the art of long distance running?

Look at those smiles - these people love to run
McDougall first heard about the Tarahumara people when he found what he described as ‘a photograph of Jesus running down a rockslide’, in a Spanish travel magazine.  The description was not only visually apt, but the robed and sandalled runner also came from a race dedicated to honesty and philanthropy.  When the superhuman athleticism of these people also became apparent to Westerners, the Spartan comparison was not far behind, but as McDougall is quick to point out  “Unlike the Spartans the Tarahumara are as benign as Bodhisattvas, they don’t use their superhuman strength to kick ass, but to live in peace”.

They withdrew into the canyons after disastrous contact with the Spanish Conquistadores, and for hundreds of years were able to exist almost entirely isolated from the outside world. With widely dispersed settlements, the Tarahumara people developed a tradition of long-distance running for inter-village communication and hunting, covering up to 320 km non-stop over a period of two days.

Not only have they established a culture and economy based on altruism and happiness and achieve one of the lowest disease rates in the world but the Tarahumara also created a wonder food to enhance their legendary athleticism. Iskiate is made of dissolved chia seeds, bursting with protein, minerals and antioxidants.  As McDougall says, iskiate is not only the only food you would need on a desert Island, but it could also enable you to swim home.

Inevitably exploited once again by western greed in the early 1990s, these shy superhumans briefly humiliated ultramarathon runners on the toughest courses available, before leaving their sponsored track shoes (which they never wore) and squabbling ‘promoters’ behind to return to their own lives again.

The author meets an eccentric hermit who left everything behind to follow the Tarahumara home, and in gaining his trust begins to learn the secret of these people.  This passage has got me pulling my own running shoes on again and aspiring to be more like a Tarahumara (though goodness knows their preschoolers would outrun me).

“Think easy, light, smooth and fast.  You start with easy, because if that’s all you get that’s not so bad. Then work on light, make it effortless, like you don’t care how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go.  When you’ve practised that so long you forget you’re practising, you work on making it smooth.  … you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”

I hadn’t been doing any of those things, and no wonder I haven’t been enjoying running recently.  But from now on I’m going to 'pitter-patter' with a straight back and a smile on my face like the Tarahumara do … and come back to review this book properly when I’ve finished it.

The rugged terrain which is the Tarahumara running track

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