Can Running Make Us Better Humans?
If we are born to run, why does it hurt?
Posted Sep 20, 2011
I used to run—2, 3, 5 miles a day. I ran often. I loved it. Reading Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superatheletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall, I remember.
I remember too when I stopped. “Don’t run!” a ballet teacher warned me. “Running will train your leg and hip muscles to move in the wrong ways.” A dancer’s goal is to rotate her legs away from one another (turn out) and lift them up (extension), not pull them parallel, close to the ground. I wanted to dance.
Still, I ran—furtively—for several years, until I couldn’t. In the course of a few months, I strained an ankle (running), pulled a hamstring (dancing), and wrenched a sacroiliac joint (hiking). Running hurt. I stopped. I expanded my dance range to modern and ethnic forms. I did yoga, swam, biked, and walked, on the lookout for rounder, pain-free ways to move. I grew stronger and more agile—I could dance—but I still couldn’t run. It hurt. Until recently.
McDougall’s book, Born to Run, is packed with adventure. In it McDougall recounts his participation in a 50 mile ultramarathon, set amidst the most remote, rugged terrain in North America, the Sierra Madres of Mexico. The race, which he helped arrange, pitted top runners from the native Tarahumara, or Running People, against a handful of the best American ultramarathoners.
At its core, however, this book is a morality tale. As McDougall chronicles the history and circumstances of the race, the personalities involved, and the challenges faced, he unwinds a sustained meditation on the value and virtues of running long distances, with minimal footgear, as humans have evolved to do.
The Tarahumara, he avers, know something that those of us living in modern western culture have forgotten: we too are Running People. It is a truth encoded in every human’s narrow pelvis, upright stance, and abundant sweat glands; in our big toes, Achilles tendon, and muscular arches; and in the joy and love we feel when running as we were born to do. Honoring this fact, McDougal contests, would move us modern folk far along the path toward healing many of our most debilitating cultural ills and obsessions, from obesity to chronic depression. Running can make us better humans.
Two years ago, I began to run again. It was matter of survival. I was at home with four children, trying to home-school the older two, with an infant and preschooler in tow. My work time was squeezed into an afternoon slot, when all I wanted to do was sleep but couldn’t. The anxiety of needing to work kept me awake, staring blankly at the computer screen.
I had to do something—to get out of the house in the morning, before the day began, and move my body. It was too cold to swim. My bike was broken. Walking wasn’t enough. I had to run. At first, it was more of a walk and jog, alternating every 50 yards. Even when jogging, I shuffled along, embarrassed by my limping stride, and grateful that the dirt road I traveled was uninhabited. There was no question about it: running hurt.
But I had to do it. So I dug deep into all I had learned from years of dancing, and began to play. As I jogged along, I danced. I swung my arms; shimmied my shoulders; varied my stride; and pushed forward with one hip then the other, desperately trying to find some way of moving through my heel-hamstring-hip pain into a clear running stride. Slowly, slowly, I found pain-free patterns of sensing and responding to the road. I directed my toes straight ahead, pulled my pelvis forward, lit a fire in my belly, and released every ounce of effort I could into the earth. I was doing what I could do. Sometimes it felt like running. Sometimes like dancing. Sometimes like eternal struggle.
In all too brief glimmers of flow, I would do my best thinking of the day—thinking about dance, about the movements of our bodily selves, and about why our movement matters, knowing that it does.
The Tarahumara are not only Running People, they are also Dancing People. Like other people who practice endurance running, such as the Kalahari Kung, dancing occupies a central place in Tarahumara culture. Or at least, it has. The Tarahumara dance to pray, to celebrate life passages, to mark seasonal and religious events. They dance outside where Father God and Mother Moon can see, in patterns consisting of steps and shuffles, taps and hops, performed in a line or a circle with others. And they dance the night before a long running race, while the native corn beer, or tesguino flows.
While McDougall notes the irony of “partying” the night before a race, he doesn’t ask the question: might the dancing actually serve the running? Might it be that the Tarahumara dance in order to run—to ensure the success of their run—for themselves and for the community?
At the very least, the fact that the Tarahumara dance when and how they do is evidence that they live in a world where bodily movement matters. They believe that how they move their bodies matters to who they are and to how life happens. They have survived as a people by adapting their traditional method of endurance hunting (running animals to exhaustion) to the challenges of fleeing Spanish invaders, accessing inaccessible wilderness, and staying in touch with one another while scattered throughout its canyons. As McDougall notes, they have kept alive an ancient genetic human heritage: to love running is to love life, for running enables life.
Yet McDougall is also clear: even the Tarahumara are not born knowing how to run. Like all humans, they must learn. Even though human bodies are designed to flourish when subject to the stresses of long distance loping, we still need to learn how to coordinate our limbs to allow that growth to happen. We must learn to run with head up, carriage straight, and toes reaching for the ground. We must land softly and roll inwardly, before snapping our heels behind us. We must learn to glide—easy, light, smooth—uphill and down, breathing through it all. How do we learn?
After a year, my running practice petered out. I was dancing again and doing yoga, when I began suffering from a thumb-sized cramp in my upper back--the rhomboid that hooks scapula to spine. I couldn’t get out of bed in any fewer than ten minutes of agonized inching. I could barely move. But, I could run. In fact, running was the only thing I could do. It shook out the spasms, got me going, and enabled me to make it through the day.
So I began again, as I had the year before, shuffling down country roads, trying to find my way to a pain-free stride. Stumbling across the work of Daniel Lieberman, I started reaching with my toes, landing on the fleshy part of my foot and rolling slightly inward. Reading Chip Walker on the big toe, I started using it to press me forward. I worked hard on my abdominal muscles. I pulled hard on the cycle of breaths (see What a Body Knows). So focused was I on releasing the pain in my upper back that I almost didn’t notice: I was running with less pain in my heel-hamstring-hip than I had in twenty years. It seemed like a miracle.
How do we learn to run? We learn by paying attention to other people, and taking note of the movements they are making. We learn by cultivating a sensory awareness of our own movements, noting the pain and pleasure they produce, and finding ways to adjust. We learn by creating and becoming patterns of movement that release our energy boldly and efficiently across space. We learn, in a word, by dancing.
While dancing, people open up their sensory selves and play with movement possibilities. The rhythm marks a time and space of exploration. Moving with another heightens the energy available for it. Learning and repeating sequences of steps exercises a human's most fundamental creativity, operating at a sensory level, that enables us to learn to make any movement in any realm of endeavor with precision and grace. Even the movements of love. Dancing, people affirm for themselves and with each other that movement matters.
In this sense, dancing before the night of a running race makes perfect sense. Moving in time with one another, stepping and stretching in proximity to one another, the Tarahumara would affirm what is true for them: they learn from one another how to run. They learn to run for one another. They run with one another. And when they race, they give each other the chance to learn how to be the best that they each can be, for the good of all.
It may be that the dancing is what gives the running its meaning, and makes it matter.
Though we are born to run and able to learn, McDougall is writing this book because he knows something else as well: given the choice, we often don’t. Even some Tarahumara, when roads pave their way into remote villages, exchange running sandals for cowboy boots. McDougall responds by pointing to a capacity of the brain that helps us run: it wants efficiency. When we don’t have to run, we won’t.
Yet the link with dance suggests another response as well. In order for running to emerge in human practice as something we are born to do, we need a culture that values movement--that is, we need a general appreciation that and how the bodily movements we make matter. It is an appreciation that our modern western culture lacks.
Those of us raised in the modern west grow up in human-built worlds. We wake up in static boxes, packed with still, stale air, largely impervious to wind and rain and light. We pride ourselves at being able to sit while others move food, fuel, clothing, and other goods for us. We train ourselves not to move, not to notice movement, and not to want to move. We are so good at recreating the movement patterns we perceive that we grow as stationary as the walls around us (or take drugs to help us).
Yet we are desperate for movement, and seek to calm our agitated senses by turning on the TV, checking email, or twisting the radio dial to get movement in a frame, on demand. It isn’t enough. Without the sensory stimulation provided by the experiences of moving with other people in the infinite motility of the natural world, we lose touch with the movement of our own bodily selves. We forget that we are born to dance and run and run and dance.
The movements that we make make us. We feel the results. Riddled with injury and illness, paralyzed by fears, and dizzy with exhaustion, our bodily selves call us to remember that where, how, and with whom we move matters. We need to remember that how we move our bodies matters to the thoughts we think, the feelings we feel, the futures we can imagine, and the relationships we can create with ourselves, one another, and the earth.
Without this consciousness, we won’t be able to appreciate what the Tarahumara know: that the dancing and the running go hand in hand as mutually enabling expressions of a worldview in which movement matters.
The Tarahumara call themselves the Raramuri, which McDougall translates as “Running People” (16). To another authority, it means simply “Light Feet."
I came in from running this morning, still marveling that I can actually do it. Compared to the runners in McDougall’s book, the distances I travel are short indeed. But for me it enough for now. I feel awake and alive. The energy rushing through my limbs leaps within as a desire to dance. Stretching through the slight ache in my limbs is a pleasure. My arches feel more supple, my calves more compact. I want more of this movement; I want to explore where it can go.
I will. But first I pack lunches and back packs, gather soccer clothes and library books, and set one partner and five children on their daily way. While I may never do an ultramarathon, it sometimes feels like I am training for one. Step by dancing step. We’ll see.