The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Posted: January 29, 2011 in Run, Training
  • Long Run (click to see stats & route)
  • 18.5k (1:42:29)
  • Avg. Heart Rate = 154 bpm
  • Max. Heart Rate = 171 bpm
  • Avg. Pace = 3:32 /km
  • Max. Pace = 3:58 /km
  • Calories = 1764
  • Temp = -5º
  • SOTD:  The entire ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album by The Flaming Lips

I found myself pondering today about why the hell am I doing this?  I mean, really, this whole long distance running shit isn’t what I would consider as ‘fun’.  On some training days things will go more smoothly and I will be able to find some peace in whatever it is I’m doing be it biking, swimming or this running nonsense and, yet, on others it feels like I’m marching straight into Hell’s Cauldron, or as it was in today’s case, Hell’s Icebox.  Why is that?  I genuinely love what I do and I’m proud of my accomplishments, so why don’t I always enjoy myself while I’m doing them?  Even more mysterious to me is that, apparently, two American scientists, Dr. Dennis Bramble and Dr. Daniel Lieberman, are now claiming that human beings actually evolved to be long distance runners.  You mean I’m supposed to actually want to do this?  Huh?

The view from the bottom…

Believe it or not, the whole Man as Runner theory was derived recently by analyzing the fossil record before somehow concluding that humans had evolved anatomically to run.  Apparently, we started running around two million years ago around the same time our enlarged brains and opposable thumbs began to take shape.  “We’re lousy sprinters, but we’re good long-distance runners,” quoted Lieberman, a biological anthropologist.  Of course, this does nothing to make me feel any better about the current degree of ‘suckitude’ I am experiencing with my own run considering that there are few things that I wouldn’t prefer over running at the best of times (wrestling rabid hyenas, performing dental surgery on a Great White, stake myself to an ant hill, etc.).  I find it curious then that this is what I may have been destined to be decent at all along.  I find that downright frustrating actually.

In these times, Man would have practiced something known as Persistence Hunting, where the predator simply chases his next meal over an extended period of time until it simply keels over from exhaustion and severe overheating. Humans took advantage of the fact that most other creatures were build for short bursts of speed, rather than long durations of sustained movement.  To accomplish this, humans developed long, springy tendon muscles, including the strong Achilles tendon connecting the calf muscles to the heel, and the mighty muscle to the buttocks, the gluteus maximus (and here I thought that was simply to make us look attractive to potential mates.  Who knew?).  All of these make humans good, natural distance runners; the “spring-loaded” tendons store and release energy, and the glutes stabilize the trunk as we move forward in the “controlled fall” of running.  There are also the arches of our feet, which help give us that “spring” in our step, and the broad surface areas of our joints, to better distribute the impact forces of running (especially on the savanna of Africa, which is where early man was running).  Even our upper bodies are well-suited to carry the swinging arms that give us balance as we run and help propel us; our heads are held firmly in place as we run by a strong ligament.  Then there are three million sweat glands and lack of fur that would keep us cool; however unfortunate for Italians.

The view from the top…

Other animals lack these features; most would overheat and die after running about six miles.  So it was that our prehistoric ancestors were able to get t the food first, through what Lieberman calls persistence hunting.  Because of their “built-in” advantages, our ancestors were able to stay on the trail of their prey longer, over long periods of time, even through the heat of the day.  All the early homo sapiens had to do was keep up and bring along the silver service tray.  So where Nike proudly advertises “Just Do It”, early humans might have better connected with “Just Keep Doing It”.  Essentially, this landmark study shows that we humans are nothing if not persistent and that quality manifests itself first and foremost in our ability to run; and funny how I should also find myself contemplating this while trying trying to struggle up a traction less embankment along Warner Road.  Other animals crawled, slithered, or sprinted for short distances. We went long – and became the dominant species.

However, with the advent of the bow and arrow, the Couch Potato was also born as the necessity to chase down our prey would have been significantly less important, as would our need to be upwardly mobile.  Instead, later homo sapiens took to forming organized settlements, domesticating animals and sustainable food sources, wiring their caves with cable television and high speed internet with which to order their take out and crafted trippy glass pipes from which to smoke their ganj…this chubby homo sapien included.

Warner Rd.

But running didn’t die there.  As society developed, man began to use his talent for distance running as a means of communication.  Hence the story of poor Pheidippides, the Greek messenger who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon (in which he had just fought), back in 490 BC. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the assembly, exclaiming “we have won”, before collapsing and dying.  These message runners were common in the ancient world (and even more modern) warfare, and commercial couriers – known as “footmen” – were widely used on the dusty road of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  In the nineteenth century, competitive distance running athletes, the so-called pedestrians, attracted large crowds, many of whom were wagering large amounts of money on their multiday “go as you please” walking and running competitions.

I wish.

There is, in fact, an entire tribe of indigenous people living in Northern Mexico known as the Tarahumara, known for their incredible feats of athletic prowess when it comes to running.  The very word they use to refer to themselves, Raramuri, means “runners on foot” or “those who run fast” in their native tongue.  These particular people have developed a tradition of long-distance running up to 700 km (435 miles) in one session, over a period of two days through their homeland of rough canyon country; in bare feet or sandals no less!  Well fuck me stupid, really?  It is suggested that this incredible feat is made possible by the unique ‘toe strike’ method of running which is natural for bare footed runners.  Modern running shoes cause the body to land heel first (heel strike) which ultimately places more stress on the joints and weakens muscles in the legs and feet, therefore increasing the risk of injury for long distance runners.  Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the explosion of orthotics and specially designed performance foot wear have, really, just weakened man’s natural ability to get around.  This certainly doesn’t make me feel any better about the $147.95 I just forked out for new Mizuno’s so I can dodge tank-sized dump trucks careening down the Escarpment along Taylor Road.

So I think I get it:  I am no Pheidippides, nor am I much of a dedicated persistence hunter.  I’m just some random fat guy who gets a bit misty-eyed from time to time when he runs as I did today.  No more, no less.  I experience my ups and my downs.  I was just, originally, more designed for hunting slower moving prey like pizza, hot dogs and buckets of fried chicken – what can I say?  But gradually, bit by bit, I’ll be swiftly traversing remote mountain passes in a pair of sandals made from old tires chasing down a stag I threw a rock at 30 kilometers back.  In the meantime, if the odd welling up of tears should occur on some long distance haul into the backwoods of Niagara Falls, so be it.

Peace be the journey.


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