Health & Fitness: Born to Run
Human evolution made us into a species of runners. But it’s up to each of us to get up and do it.
Thursday, January 20, 2005
I used to work with a guy who was a real serious runner. He was one of those former nerds who found a sport where he could dominate, where he could get revenge over the jocks who got chicks, pass them fast in a race and come out ahead. So that’s what he did. And he got away with it. He zoomed around town in one of those motorboat-sized Cadillac convertibles from the ‘70s. It was gold. With a bike rack.
His name was Robert, but it was a cheap thrill to call him Bob because he was certainly not a Bob and it pissed him off to be cast in the same lot as stereotypical Bobs—overweight, bald, selling wrenches, eating buffalo wings and watching pro football all the time.
Before I worked with him, Bob did a stint with the Peace Corps in Central Asia. Being a runner he brought his running shoes and shorts. He figured he could squeeze in some long-distance training runs out there on the steppe when he wasn’t fixing roofs, digging wells or teaching the alphabet.
The Tajikistan running plan didn’t work out the way he hoped. Despite the scarcity of people in his corner of the former of the Soviet empire, when the locals beheld this tall, skinny American out there on the roads outside of town galloping through the dust, they freaked. They couldn’t figure out what he was doing or why. Was he running away from someone? Would the commissar come screeching around the corner in chase? And what was up with the black running tights?
They took him to be some sort of pale-skinned alien and acted as if they didn’t recognize him from English class. They did what any other normal human beings would do: they threw rocks at him. They pelted him with stones. Even the kids. It wasn’t Bob that got the Tajiks worked up. It was Bob running.
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In truth, the human body was not designed to sit behind the wheel of pickup truck. Our bodies are designed for movement and motion and exertion. That’s why everyone is so fat now. People sit all day. Obesity is a regular headline. Just last week the federal government released a revised dietary “food pyramid” and urged people to get a half hour of exercise every day at the very least, 90 minutes if you want to lose weight.
I’ve believed for a long time that humans were literally born to run, and I had my beliefs confirmed by an article in The New York Times in November, 2004. Evolutionary scientists at the University of Utah and Harvard, after analyzing two-million-year-old bones, concluded that endurance running actually shaped the human form, and because of our ability to run, early humans could hunt down dinner rather than sit around and trap unlucky sparrows. The resulting diet of protein-rich meat accelerated brain development, eventually bringing us operas and space ships and barbed wire.
It all goes back to running. The scientists found that the way our legs and feet are constructed, the way our necks allow our heads to remain stationary while running, our lung-capacity—our overall human form—is the result of an evolution where running was critical to survival.
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At some point we branched off from our ape cousins. Apes can’t run too far from their trees, the scientists point out. They don’t have the body structure to run—as one scientist points out, gorillas don’t have “buns,” the upper-leg muscles needed to cover distance.
“Running made us human, at least in the anatomical sense,” one of the scientists was quoted as saying.
So why run? The real question is: Why not run? In this context, it’s like asking: Why eat?
Most people take a dim view of the sport because at some point, they were forced to run in gym class, and it was probably not more than a mile. Well, that’s a sure way to hate running. Even if you’ve been running a lot, the first mile is always dreadful, so to force people to run just that much and stop is guaranteed to create whole legions of people who would rather rent videos and eat pretzels.
You get sweaty, it can hurt, and if you’re running around a track or along a road, it’s boring. That’s all true.
The secret is to push harder to the point of pleasure. That may sound warped or weirdly masochistic, but the cliché is true: no pain, no gain.
Once you start running long distances, a lot starts to happen. For one thing, you cross a threshold and it gets easier. You get faster. You start to get hooked and the daily run becomes the high point if not the focus of every day. Your body changes for the better, no matter what. You get stronger all over. You become a devotee. Your pants fit better. Guaranteed. And you will try to convert non-believers.
On top of all that, it feels great. Despite the lies perpetuated by doubters, the hard-earned sensation known as runner’s high is real. Sometimes it’s mild, sometimes it hits you like a velvet hammer. It can come during a run or not until you’re done.
I remember the first time I got it. I was five miles into an eight-mile run, cruising down a trail beneath a leafy canopy in Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. It was a Sunday afternoon and I headed back home when all of sudden I felt like I was floating and hurtling forward at the same time. I was running fast but I couldn’t feel my feet hit the ground. They just knew where to go. The trees around me got blurred. I was overwhelmed with euphoria. The closest comparison is the shot of Demerol I got in the hospital after a sports injury. Except on Demerol I was paralyzed with pleasure. Running, I was gliding through the woods and very pleasantly high.
Granted, getting naturally stoned from running remains the exception, not the rule. But still there’s always the healthy warm afterglow of a satisfying run. The anxieties and troubles you gnashed over mentally during the run have faded to pettiness. You could care less about some squabble at work or an intimidating cell phone bill. The best part is you earned it, you didn’t buy a six-pack of it on the way home. Once you start running races and marathons, it can be measured with official numbers.
Is that why you should run? No. Why was Bob such a serious runner? For him, it made him a competitor. He felt good about himself, just as anyone does who achieves something they can be proud of. He was good at running and he transcended into the lofty strata of triathlons. You should run because it’s a great way to get in shape. And, as has been confirmed recently, it’s what humans were born to do, even if you might get a rock thrown at you for running down a lonely road in a faraway land.