Thursday, December 16, 2010

Was I "Born to run"?

Discounting the fact that I was a serious athlete in my youth, I have been running quite a fair bit in the last 5 years for reasons that may only now be clearer. Interestingly, the reasons are probably embedded in our evolutionary past. The five year mark is significant as it coincides with a time of crisis, vocationally. Anyway, the first thing I did was hit the pavements. The runs were pretty long about 15 to 20 km and I was averaging something like 60 km per week. ITB slowed me down and I had to rest and reduce mileage. And since then, I have taken part in several half marathons and 2 full marathons, some cycling races and a mini-triathlon.

So, why hit the tarmac under duress? So according to Chris McDougall, author of "Born to Run", Americans have pounded the tarmac in droves every time there is a national crisis. Was it was a way to soul search? I have always wondered if it was the runners' high at the 12 km mark that was making me run far or was it more like the feeling of running away from burdens? After reading Born to Run, an evolutionary perspective is considered. It's a good read, highly engaging and fast.

Chris McDougall at the Singapore American School giving his Born to Run talk. He ran the Standard Chartered 21K that weekend. He gave a highly engaging talk, needing no powerpoint or shoes...

I thought after attending his talk, his book would be mostly about barefoot running but once I got hold of it courtesy of Alvin, I found it was more about the Tarahumara or RarĂ¡muri (which literally translates to runners on foot or those who run fast). Alvin who adopted barefoot running (ok, minimalist footwear running to be accurate..) wrote this piece in Biorefugia. Did I mention that he also ran a full marathon in the vibrams?

What appealed to the biologist in me was the detailed writing in the later part of the book on how, we as a species evolved into running animals that ran other mammals across the the death - termed the "Persistence hunt". According to McDougall, sweating is human's superpower. In the book, McDougall retells how scientists found clues to the evolution of man into running animals in our nuchal ligament, achilles tendon and gluteal muscles. Nuchal ligament? Whazzat? Best explained in this Harvard University gazette piece "Running paced human evolution" about Daniel Lieberman's work. Liberman has a nature paper on this subject and this Nature videoclip "The Barefoot Professor" on how we were evolved as runners and barefeet at that was a compelling nudge to empty my wallet for a pair of Vibrams.

Persistence hunting isn't as straightforward as just running down the prey it seems. It involves lots of strategy, skill and experience as well, so the brain of the one doing the persistence hunt must be pretty evolved to suss out an individual from the pack, track the animal that has bolted out of sight and have the imagination necessary to emplace the prey in the vast savannah plains.

Anyway, my whole approach to running has been revolutionized. Running with the Vibrams is like barefoot running and the midsole strike rather than the heelstrike is adopted reducing impact on the knees. And, I no longer time myself or run to cover mileage but more to enjoy myself and wander. So the run from my house to Changi village on early morning to meet Otterman and other kakis for a breakfast was one of the best runs I have had, just map the route and run, soak in the atmosphere of the cool morning and "persistence hunt" for breakfast.