I like running. I like running slowly and I like running for a long time. It suits me, as I was never fast to begin with, so I am not a particular fan of running races where I feel the need to be quick. I started running marathons in 2007 and I have run 18 of them since then. To me there is nothing quite like the sense of exhausted satisfaction you feel after you cross the line, having just spent four to five hours figuring strategies to get your protesting body to the end of 26.2 miles. I love it and I definitely miss it when I can’t do it (usually due to injury or pregnancy or both!)
So I get particular pleasure out of reading about distance running. I dream of being able to run an ultra-marathon one day and I love reading about how people tackle it and cope with the demands that it places upon you. You see, it isn’t just physical, although obviously being fit enough to get to the end of the race is vitally important. In my limited experience what matters is your mental situation. You have to really believe you can make it, you have to know your body and know how to convince it to keep going when you want to stop, you have to have the strength of mind to overcome all kinds of obstacle and, as Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen suggests, you have to love it.
So far, this has been one of the most enjoyable books I have picked up about distance running. It is more a story of the author’s search for a tribe of people in Mexico, the Tarahumara, who are famed as the world’s greatest distance runners. The author seeks out these runners, and in the process becomes involved in an ad hoc ultra-marathon organised by one of the few Westerners to live amongst and be accepted by the Tarahumara people. Unlike many other running books which are really manuals on how to run, this one told a story and described a tribe which, to a runner, sounds almost mythical.
The nice thing about how this book was written was that the author divided his time between story and a few gems of take-home advice. You want to finish reading a book feeling both inspired and armed with a few extra bits of information which might help your own running and I can happily say that this book achieved both of those things. The story of the author’s discovery of the Tarahumara and the Caballo Blanco, the white man who ran with them, is emotional, gripping and inspirational. But the discoveries that the author makes which helped his own running were simple enough that it has been easy to take them on board and keep them there.
The section that really interested me was the discussion about barefoot running and the damage that the ever increasing technology (and commensurate ever increasing price) of running shoes does to our feet. I generally try to be pretty critical of claims, particularly ones made by profit making organisations such as Nike, but the belief that we need highly cushioned soles is so ingrained in most runners that they wouldn’t even dream of thinking otherwise. Since reading that section, I have integrated some barefoot running into my own training, limiting it to a grassed oval which is along my route. I don’t know if it makes any difference, but there is undoubtedly something deliciously liberating about removing your sweaty shoes and socks and feeling the cool grass between your toes.
The other take-home that really affected me was the author’s apparent discovery of what made the Tarahumara run – sheer, unadulterated pleasure. He comments on several occasions about the smiles they frequently carry and the camaraderie and joy that one feels when one is with them. Again, not being the kind of person who appreciates the whole ‘power of positive thinking’ lobby, I was pleasantly surprised at how matter-of-fact the author came across when he said this. It wasn’t stated as a new-age solution to getting over the agony of the first few miles. It was stated as a very simple fact.
Because I have enjoyed running for a while (and, I will admit, I enjoy it even more now that I can listen to audiobooks while I am doing it!), I don’t think I was surprised by this revelation. Why put yourself through it if it is nothing but pain? If you don’t love it, don’t do it, seems to be the lesson and I am inclined to agree. Whether it is true or not that human beings were designed to be distance runners, in this day and age, unless it gives you true joy then there are sure to be plenty of other forms of exercise one can undertake. And true joy doesn’t come from never feeling pain, never hurting or never pushing yourself beyond your limit. The joy comes from all of those things, and then discovering that they don’t matter anyway.
If and when I ever manage to run an ultra-marathon, I will let you know whether this book helped in any way. But even if it isn’t anything you would contemplate, I would still recommend reading this as a story of the extent of human capabilities.