Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

March 29, 2010

The Marathon Gene

Born To Run author Christopher McDougall tells Gelf why humans are the best endurance athletes in the world.

David Goldenberg

For years, it's been thought that humans made the ultimate evolutionary bargain. In exchange for the energy needed to develop our huge brains, we've had to sacrifice our physicality. We lack the strength, speed, and agility of our mammalian brethren, relying on our wits alone to survive. We are the naked, weak ape who provides for and protects his family by creating tools and outsmarting the rest of the animal kingdom.

As we're starting to learn, though, humans aren't just the smartest animals around: We're also the best endurance runners, and that's no small thing. Sure, being hairless means we're exposed to the elements, but it also means that we can move without overheating, and that our unique sweat glands can keep our body temperature regulated in even the hottest weather. Having more slow-twitch muscles means we're relatively pokey, but we can run longer distances than any other animals. And having smaller muscles means that, yes, we're puny, but also that there's less weight to carry around when we run.

Christopher McDougall
"We've been evolutionarily equipped with a body built for action but a brain devoted to conserving energy any way possible."

Christopher McDougall

Being able to run without resting for long periods of time has allowed humans to escape enemies, settle faraway lands, and even hunt down animals much faster and bigger than us. Indeed, it's becoming clear that for much of human history, we've relied on our legs just as much as our heads.

Learning that humans evolved to be marathoners raised a few questions for writer Christopher McDougall. For example, if endurance running is part of our genetic code, then why do runners get injured all the time? And are there any societies left where everyone looks and acts more like Steve Prefontaine than like Rush Limbaugh?

To find the answer to both of these questions, McDougall headed south to Mexico's Copper Canyon, where he had heard whispers of a secretive tribe of ultra-athletes who were so fit that even the old women thought nothing of jogging for 30 miles up and down the rugged terrain of the area wearing nothing but old sandals.

The group, known as the Tarahumara, initially rebuffed McDougall's requests for access. But then a strange gringo called Caballo Blanco—who has spent the last decade living among the Tarahumara—decided to bring McDougall in as a way to get the word out about a crazy idea. He wanted to bring the best ultramarathoners in the world down to the canyon to run against the locals as a way to show the world that people can be happy and healthy by living simply and running all the time.

In his book Born to Run, McDougall details the resulting 50-mile race and how he was able to overcome his own string of running injuries to compete in it. In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, McDougall explains the dichotomy between man's ultra-athletic past and his obese present, and how anyone can learn to run pain-free.

Gelf Magazine: How has the success of your book affected the Tarahumara? I see that Caballo Blanco's race seems to be getting bigger and bigger.

Christopher McDougall: That's testament to how much the Tarahumara trust Caballo. I was amazed that he got 20 Tarahumara to come out of the shadows for our race. This year, more than 200 showed up. And they were smoking fast, too—I think the first non-Tarahumara runner finished in something like 10th place. I hope the success of Caballo's impossible dream-race helps the word get around that some ancient wisdom still lives on down there in the canyons.

Gelf Magazine: How convinced are you that the ability to run ultramarathons is part of all humans' shared genetic code?

Christopher McDougall: What other physical advantage did we have? As animals, we're the wimps of the wild. We're not strong. We don't have camouflage coloring. We're certainly not fast—Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, and he'd have trouble catching a squirrel. The only adaptive advantage we had is our ability to vent heat by perspiration, instead of respiration, which lets us keep cranking out the miles on a hot day, when every other running mammal will eventually have to stop and cool off. Chase a deer across the savanna, and after about 10 miles, it's got a choice: It can either breathe or cool off. But it ain't doing both. That's why it's no coincidence that humans gather by the tens of thousands on a given Sunday in New York to run 26.2 miles through the streets. If we saw any other species behaving that way, we'd think we were witnessing some kind of mass panic. But for humans, those long runs are an ancient imperative ritualized into recreation.

Gelf Magazine: Sure, humans gather by the tens of thousands to run marathons. But we gather by the millions to watch Celebrity Apprentice. If we're really hard-wired to be ultramarathoners, why aren't more of us actually out running?

Christopher McDougall: Because we no longer have to. I've got a meaty chapter about this in the book, about how we've been evolutionarily equipped with a body built for action but a brain devoted to conserving energy any way possible. Back in our hunter-gatherer days, we had to be ready to bolt off at any time, so naturally we didn't run around willy-nilly until we had to. Unfortunately (or, I guess, fortunately), we rarely rely on muscle power anymore to save our lives or wrestle down our dinner, so many of us are sunk in the sofa in endless, pregame, suspended animation.

Gelf Magazine: Isn't it slightly contradictory that the best diet for endurance running seems to be a vegetarian one, yet we may have evolved to be ultrarunners in order to get meat?

Christopher McDougall: It takes a really affluent society to be vegan, vegetarian, or any other kind of "an." For most of our history, we were opportunists—we ate whatever we could find, kill, or shake out of a tree. Munching into an antelope is a great way to get a burst of condensed calories, but antelopes are hard to catch and their meat spoils fast. So in those pre-tofu times, a tasty cadaver once in a while was an excellent way to fuel our growing, energy-sucking brains, but when you rely on your feet for survival, you can't spend every day trudging around with a bellyful of ribeye or hauling a maggoty carcass after you. Meat was an occasional treat, not a daily diet. We had cousins who ate almost nothing but meat: the Neanderthals. Not too many of them around any more.

Gelf Magazine: So the idea that Neanderthals died out because they weren't as smart as us just isn't true?

Christopher McDougall: Nope. Neanderthals had larger cranial capacity and linguistic capability, and had settled in Europe about 100,000 years before Homo Erectus shuffled into town. They were as smart and possibly smarter than we were. They just refused to adjust when the three-point line was added to the game. As the earth warmed and the savannahs spread, the playing field tilted toward skinny runners and away from musclebound he-men.

A mini-documentary about the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon from the year after McDougall's book.

Gelf Magazine: The book has pretty good things to say about a pretty strange shoe. Do you get a cut from Vibram, considering how many Five Finger Shoes this book must have sold for them?

Christopher McDougall: Nope. One shoe company offered to put out a "Born to Run" signature edition shoe, but of course I said no. I couldn't go around saying, "All running shoes are a scam … except for my shoe." So, no, I don't endorse any shoes. Learn how to run properly, and you can wear anything you want. Emil Zatopek ran in combat boots and did just dandy.

Gelf Magazine: What's the easiest way to learn how to run properly?

Christopher McDougall: Find a nice stretch of asphalt and take off your shoes. Your feet will take it from there. Seriously. Check out that New York Times video of the Roving Runner and I barefooting around Central Park. He'd never run barefoot in his life before, and he easily popped off a six-miler that day.

Gelf Magazine: John Stewart said in his interview with you that this book takes on both the Mexican drug cartels and the American sneaker cartels. I'm not asking you if they're morally equivalent to violent gangs, but do you think the big shoe companies are intentionally deceiving (and hurting) people for profit at this point?

Christopher McDougall: Wait, you're suggesting that a multibillion-dollar industry cares more about money than people? Are you insane? If that were true, nothing would be safe. Our banks would fail, our housing industry would collapse, our Priuses would smash into brick walls

Gelf Magazine: Where are we in the running-shoe revolution, and what impact has your book had? Are most people in the New York Marathon in November still going to be wearing traditional running shoes?

Christopher McDougall: You got me. I live in a place called Peach Bottom. All my neighbors are Amish farmers who only wear shoes to church. I'm not sure what you city folk will be up to this fall.

Related in Gelf:

McDougall spoke to Gelf's podcasters, the Hack and the Flack, last fall.

Related on the Web:

David Attenborough narrates an amazing modern-day video of Kalahari San hunters using persistence hunting to run down and kill a kudu.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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