We Were Born to Run—Not to Fight
We, as a species, may call ourselves Homo sapiens, Homo faber, Homo ludens, or Homo loquens—but from a biological and evolutionary perspective we are primarily running animals. Most of us, though, do not seem to know that our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago succeeded in finding a niche in a hostile, very competitive environment by developing unique skills as long-distance running hunters.
Today, however, it is unlikely that many members of our species are aware that the human body has been designed by Nature to run to death an antelope or a deer or indeed any other mammal that is afraid of us and will try to run away. Yes, even horses, even wolves, who could cover as many as 50 miles in a day, could not compete against a 19th-century Apache or a modern Tarahumara (a close relative) or a Kalahari bushman. If necessary, an Apache could run 70 or more miles a day; a Tarahumara could outrun him by another 20 or 30 miles. In fact, the Tarahumara Indians, “the Stone Age superathletes,” who inhabit the wild, impenetrable Barrancas del Cobre (the Copper Canyons in northern Mexico) “may be the greatest runners of all time”:
When it comes to ultradistances, nothing can beat a Tarahumara runner—not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner. Very few outsiders have ever seen the Tarahumara in action, but amazing stories of their superhuman toughness and tranquility have drifted out of the canyons for centuries. One explorer swore he saw a Tarahumara catch a deer with his bare hands, chasing the bounding animal until it finally dropped dead from exhaustion, “its hoof falling off.” Another adventurer spent ten hours climbing up and over a Copper Canyon mountain by mule; a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in ninety minutes.
Perhaps, though, running 100 miles non-stop is not such an impressive feat of fitness to those few who are familiar with ultramarathons and, in particular, to those who compete in them. After all, although not typically part of corporate sports (of what Lewis Mumford called “a mass-spectacle”), ultramarathons—any marathon longer than 26 miles and 385 yards, usually 50 or 100 miles—are fairly common all over the world. But the Tarahumaras could easily run much longer distances and outrun anybody in the most astonishing feats of human endurance ever recorded. According to the Mexican historian Francisco Almada, “a Tarahumara champion once ran 435 miles, the equivalent of setting out for a jog in New York City and not stopping till you were closing in on Detroit.”
The Tarahumaras could win all ultramarathons in the world, but they are not interested in our money and in our passion for celebrity. On the very rare occasions they were persuaded to participate in the Colorado Leadville ultramarathon, one of the toughest in the world, they did—predictably—very well. In 1993, for example, they demolished the competition: the three participating Tarahumaras finished first, second, and fifth. (The winner, by the way, was 55 years old.) But they usually retreat to their remote canyons, reluctant to return. And, unlike the Spartans, who achieved a “comparably high state of physical conditioning,” the Tarahumaras are not militant and don’t waste time and resources preparing for military exploits. They are, on the contrary, as benign as bodhisattvas; they don’t use their superstrength to kick ass, but to live in peace.”
If the above has not made you skeptical, then you ain’t seen nothing yet: they have accomplished more, much more:
In the Tarahumara Land, there was no crime, war, or theft. There was no corruption, obesity, drug addiction, greed, wife-beating, child abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, or carbon emissions. They didn’t get diabetes, or depressed, or even old: fifty-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-granddads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides. Their cancer rates were barely detectable.
It might be that a solution to some existential problems could be very simple: you run whether you are depressed or not. And when you run, you smile because running makes you feel happy—just as it makes Tarahumaras happy.
Their real name, though, is Rarámuri—the Running People, not Tarahumara, the “bastardized name given them by the conquistadors.” Those Catholic monsters were perhaps equaled but not surpassed in the atrocities they had committed by another group of European Christians who had completed the destruction of Native lands and Native Americans in North America, where the conquistadores had not had time to penetrate.
As a culture, the Rarámuri are one of the “great unsolved mysteries.” However, their secret may be easy to understand. Unlike almost everybody else in today’s cultures of what Aldous Huxley once called “sitting addicts,” the Rarámuri have never renounced their biological and evolutionary heritage bestowed on us by our long-distance running ancestors, who had become a new species by not only walking upright but also by running upright. With the chimpanzee, our closest living relative, we may share 95 percent of our DNA sequence, but unlike the chimps, human beings are designed to run, not just to walk. This is why we have a nuchal ligament; they don’t. This is why our foot, a marvel of evolutionary adaptation, is different from the chimp’s. (Leonardo da Vinci “considered the human foot, with its fantastic weight-suspension system comprising one quarter of all the bones in the human body, ‘a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.’”)
A masterpiece of engineering designed, however, to be used without a modern shoe. A masterpiece of engineering constantly damaged by the invention of the running shoe—the “worst crime ever committed against the human foot.”
And that is because we are not just a walking animal, not just a running animal—we are a barefoot running animal. All horrible injuries sustained by runners are due to not running properly, due in turn to not running barefoot. The only running protection the human foot will tolerate without the danger of crippling injuries down the road is a thin sole of flexible material like leather or rubber attached to the foot with strings in an unrestricting manner. Exactly like the running sandals the Rarámuri will use in a particularly rough terrain.
Regardless of who we ultimately are, we should at least try to understand our biological and evolutionary heritage. We may be Homo sapiens, but it is not sapiens to continue to destroy the eco-systems that have sustained us for millions of years. It is not sapiens to continue to be arrogant and violent and to wage ever-more destructive wars. And it is not sapiens to abuse our bodies by becoming overweight and obese, sickening and dying prematurely from a host of terrible diseases that could easily be prevented if we only did what Nature has designed us to do.
You may, of course, remain skeptical. If so, then at least read a stunning book by Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.