Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Born To Run?

My Dad is a runner. In 1963 he almost won the Open Mile at the Achilles Cup, Adelaide’s private school boys’ athletics meet. Dad was the favourite, but he went out too hard and the Scotch boy caught him on the final straight. I like it when he tells this story.

I like to tell a story of my own, about my name. When I was born, in 1980, the English runner Sebastian Coe was preparing for the Moscow Olympics – and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was still top of the pops as far as Mum was concerned. My name represents Dad, the jock, and Mum, the intellectual, finding common ground. Like most good stories, there’s some truth in it.

Growing up, my brother and I loved sport but thought running a strange pursuit. In fact, in some ways I took after J.S. more than after Lord Coe: there were more family concerts of baroque music, with Mum accompanying my recorder on the harpsichord, than there were jogs along the beach. Dad dragged us out for a run around the oval once or twice, but Thomas and I would soon get distracted attempting left-foot banana kicks at goal from impossible angles. More fun, less effort.

With very few exceptions, I never went running solo until much later in life. At age 27 I moved to Sydney, as much to improve my health as to see family and friends. I ate well, bodysurfed a lot, stopped drinking and smoking – and then one day, perhaps when the beaches were closed, I decided to go for a run.

It was a rather sobering experience. I lasted two minutes on the steep slopes of Randwick and Coogee before breaking into a walk. A few minutes later I attempted to run again. Then walked some more. Returning home with my tail between my legs, I could easily have forgotten all about running for another twenty years. So why didn’t I?

Mainly I kept at it because I’d been unhealthy for so long, and now I wanted to get fit. Running was a means to an end, but more than that it seemed particularly efficient form of exercise: you could run from the moment you left the front door to the moment you arrived home, the odd traffic delay notwithstanding. And, even if every minute of the run was painful, there was always the high that came afterwards.

There is an equlibrium here. For several years I appreciated the benefits of running enough that I could put up with the act itself, two or three times a week, for four or five kilometres. But running along the Yarra I began to glimpse something better, a higher state where I actually enjoyed being outside, running through the trees and up the riverbank.

Back in Adelaide before Christmas 2010, I went exploring the hills around Mum’s new place in Balhannah. I chose a loop on the map that looked about 7kms in length, and managed not to get lost. It was a beautiful, undulating course but what struck me most was a feeling I experienced about twenty minutes in. It only lasted about five minutes, but I instantly recognised it as the Holy Grail I never knew I’d been seeking.

I felt like I could run forever.

A week later I ran the 11km loop in Chambers Gully with a friend. We climbed (slowly) for 6 kms, ran along a ridge with a stunning city view, and descended for 4kms. My mate nursed me through it and bought my Gatorade at the end, but I still felt like I’d won the Boston Marathon.

A week after that I kicked a soccer ball barefoot on the beach, and broke a toe.

So the first half of 2011 was a write off. I got depressed. I swam a bit, and a few times it felt good and right like running had begun to feel. Mostly it was quite boring; with all due respect to the Northcote pool, the scenery (especially underwater) is very dull. Slowly I began to realise that, even though my toe wasn’t fully healed, I could still run without doing it further damage.

My road trip up the east coast was the real turning point. I camped by deserted beaches and woke up with a barefoot run and a swim. With my friend Daniel I ran the hills of Goonengerry, the 8km loop around Minyon Falls, the beaches and cliff faces of Bunjalong and Yuraygir National Parks. We weren’t just exercising, we were exploring, socialising – and getting buff to swan around Rainbow Serpent with our tops off.

More than once Daniel led me down a trail that wasn’t signposted. We’d follow it for a kilometre or two, and just as I began to complain aloud and suggest we turn back, we’d arrive somewhere magical: a hill with a view, or a river for swimming. We’d stop and enjoy this place we’d discovered, then run back.

Returning to Melbourne, I’ve kept running but struggled to recapture this sense of adventure and pleasure in running. Thankfully, the other day a present from Daniel arrived in the post: a copy of Born To Run by Christopher McDougall.

This post has been rather subdued thus far – partly because I’m recovering from a bug, partly because up to this point in the story I have more or less uninspired about running. For now at least, Born to Run has completely turned this around. Two weeks ago I was back in the habit of running dutifuly, nose to the grindstone. Now I’m dreaming of running around Australia barefoot. I simply cannot wait to get back out there.

Born to Run is a classic piece of “participant-observer” journalism. The book opens with the injury prone McDougall being counselled by top doctors to give running away for good. It finishes with him completing a 50 mile ultramarathon through the Copper Canyons of Mexico, a race that pitted the legendary endurance athletes of the local Tarahumara people against some of the best US ultrarunners.
It’s a cracking read: every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, or with a mystery that needs solving. And inseparable from the physical quest to run the race is McDougall’s inquiry into the crucial role played by running in the story of human evolution.

It’s hard to imagine a greater motivational tool for runners than this: apparently we really are born to run. Worried about your big butt? Well, you don’t really use those gluteus maximus muscles to walk, only to run - and if you don’t use them they’re only going to get bigger. What about your body fat percentage? Apparently humans have relatively high body fat (compared to, say, chimpanzees) precisely to enable us to run long distances.

And why did early humans need to run so far? To hunt. Most animals can beat us pretty easily over short distances, but when it comes to distance running we are right at the top of the tree. The technique of persistence hunting, which has probably been in use since the arrival of Homo erectus 2.6 million years ago, is still practised today by some traditional tribespeople in Africa. Homo sapiens’ ability to run might even explain why we succeeded and the Neanderthals disappeared.

Lastly, if we’ve been running so far for so long, why do we need all these fancy shoes? Well, the good news for people who hate Nike – or just enjoy the feeling of the earth under their feet – is we probably don’t. Cushioned shoes encourage us to run with a gait that actually increase the impact of running on our bodies. Going barefoot is much healthier, as long as you run with proper form. (Wearing shoes is also fine as long as your form is good.)

This post has become, if not a marathon, then at least a longer, slower version of my usual method. I have much more to say on this brilliant book, my Dad’s illustrious athletics career, the genesis of my name and who knows what else – but now I’m off for a run. Not because I feel I should, but the fact it's my evolutionary destiny helps to explain why I want to.


If anyone out there wants to join me in exploring Melbourne on foot, I’m going to start with the Merri Creek Trail later this week.


There's lots of good reading online on the science behind the Running Man hypothesis. You can read a quick article that sums it up pretty well here.

1 comment:

Chris H said...

I can't believe you've become such a convert! I know that feeling you get that you can run forever and I haven't had it in years. You can get it rowing, too, as well as the beautiful views: rowing zen-like on a glassy river/lake as the sun goes up or down can be truly beautiful.

I've been meaning to start up running again lately and this has definitely inspired me. First one tomorrow morning before work, although I'm so unfit it'll be no more than 10mins.