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Born to Run

Long-distance running legend Joe Vigil followed a reclusive tribe of Mexican ultramarathoners into the Rocky Mountains hoping to find the secret of its success—and discovered a way of life.

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Excerpted from Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall, which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in May 2009.

Dr. Joe Vigil, a 65-year-old army of one, warmed his hands around his coffee as he waited for the ?rst ?ashlight beams to come stabbing toward him through the woods. No other elite coach in the world was anywhere near Leadville’s annual 100-mile ultramarathon, because no other elite coach could give a hoot what was going on at that giant outdoor insane asylum in the Rockies. What did that have to do with real running? With Olympic running? As a sport, most track coaches ranked ultras somewhere between competitive eating and recreational S&M. Super, Vigil thought, as he stomped his feet against the chill. Go ahead and sleep, and leave the freaks to me—because he knew the freaks were on to something.

The secret to Vigil’s success was spelled out right in his name: No other coach was more vigilant about detecting the crucial little details that everyone else missed. He’d been that way his entire competitive life, ever since he was a puny Latino kid in Alamosa trying to play high school football in a conference that didn’t have many Latinos, let alone puny ones. Joey Vigil couldn’t outmuscle the meat slabs on the other side of the line, so he outscienced them; he studied the tricks of leverage, propulsion, and timing, ?guring out ways to position his feet so he popped up from a crouch like a spring-loaded anvil. By the time he graduated from Adams State College, the puny Latino kid was a ?rst-team All-Conference guard. He then turned to track and used that tireless bloodhound nose to become the greatest distance-running mind America has ever seen.

Besides his Ph.D. and two master’s degrees, Vigil’s pursuit of the lost art of distance running had taken him deep into the Russian outback, high into the mountains of Peru, and far across Kenya’s Rift Valley highlands. He’d wanted to learn why Russian sprinters are forbidden to run a single step in training until they can jump off a 20-foot ladder in their bare feet; and how 60-year-old goatherders at Machu Picchu can possibly scale the Andes on a starvation diet of yogurt and herbs; and how Japanese runners trained by Suzuki-san and Koide-san could mysteriously alchemize slow walking into fast marathons. He’d tracked down the old masters and picked their brains, vacuuming up their secrets before they disappeared into the grave. His head was a Library of Congress of running lore, much of it vanished from every place on the planet except his memory.

His research paid off sensationally. Vigil took over the dying cross-country program at his alma mater and engineered the Adams State team into an absolute terror. By the time he was through, Adams State harriers had won 26 national titles in 33 years, including the most awe-inspiring show of strength ever displayed in a national championship race: In 1992, Vigil’s runners took the ?rst ?ve places in the NCAA Division II championship meet, scoring the only shutout ever achieved at a national championship. Vigil also guided Pat Porter to eight U.S. cross-country titles (twice as many as Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter, Boulder’s own running god, and four times as many as silver medalist Meb Ke?ezighi). Vigil was named college National Coach of the Year a record 14 times, and, in 1988, was appointed the distance coach for American runners heading to the Seoul Olympics.

It was his perseverance, his relentless itch for a little extra leverage against the Goliaths of the running world, that hauled old Joe Vigil out of his warm bed on that morning in August 1994, and made him the only elite coach in America shivering in a freezing forest outside a dying mining town at four a.m., waiting for a glimpse of seven men in dresses who might be the greatest ultra-runners of all time.

The men were the Tarahumara (pronounced Spanish-style by swallowing the “h”: Tara-oo-mara), a near-mythical tribe of Stone Age super-athletes who live deep in Mexico’s wild, impenetrable Barrancas del Cobre—the Copper Canyons. Legend had it that when it came to ultradistances, nothing could beat the 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 hoofs falling off.” Another adventurer spent 10 hours climbing up and over a Copper Canyons mountain by mule; a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in 90 minutes.

Coach Vigil was a hard-data freak, but he loved the fact that ultrarunning had no science, no playbook, no training manual, no conventional wisdom. That kind of freewheeling self-invention is where big breakthroughs come from, as Vigil knew (and Columbus, the Beatles, and Bill Gates would happily agree). And only in ultrarunning could he be certain he wasn’t being hoodwinked by a phony super-performance, like the “miraculous” endurance of Tour de France cyclists, or the gargantuan power of suddenly melon-headed home run hitters, or the blazing speed of female sprinters who win ?ve medals in one Olympics before going to jail for lying to the feds about steroids. “Even the brightest smile,” one observer would say of disgraced wonder-girl Marion Jones, “can hide a lie.” So whose smile could you trust?

Easy—the smiles on the oddballs in the woods. “Such a sense of joy!” marveled coach Vigil as he watched the Tarahumara whisk past. He’d never seen anyone running that hard having that much fun. “It was quite remarkable.” Glee and determination are usually antagonistic emotions, yet the Tarahumara brimmed with both at once, as if running to the death made them feel more alive.

Vigil had been furiously taking mental notes: Look how they point their toes down, not up, like gymnasts doing the ?oor exercise. And their backs! They could carry water buckets on their heads without spilling a drop! How many years have I been telling my kids to straighten up and run from the gut like that? But it was the smiles that jolted him. That’s it! Vigil thought, ecstatic. I found it! Except he wasn’t sure what “it” was. The revelation he’d been hoping for was right in front of his eyes, but he couldn’t quite grasp it; he could only catch the glim around the edges, like spotting the cover of a rare book in a candlelit library. But whatever “it” was, he knew it was exactly what he was looking for.

Over the previous few years, Vigil had become convinced that the next leap forward in human endurance would come from a dimension he dreaded getting into: character. Not the “character” other coaches were always rah-rah-rah-ing about; Vigil wasn’t talking about “grit” or “hunger” or “the size of the ?ght in the dog.” In fact, he meant the exact opposite. Vigil’s notion of character wasn’t toughness. It was compassion. Kindness. Love.

That’s right: Love.
Vigil knew it sounded like hippie-dippy drivel, and believe him, he’d have been much happier sticking to good, hard, quanti?able stuff like VO2 max and periodized-training tables. But after spending nearly 50 years researching performance physiology, Vigil had reached the uncomfortable conclusion that all the easy questions had been answered; he was now learning more and more about less and less. He could tell you exactly how much of a head start Kenyan teenagers had over Americans (18,000 miles run in training). He’d discovered why those Russian sprinters were leaping off ladders (besides strengthening lateral muscles, the trauma teaches nerves to ?re more rapidly, which decreases the odds of training injuries). He’d parsed the secret of the Peruvian peasant diet (curiously, high altitude supercharges the metabolism), and he could talk for hours about the impact of a single percentage point in oxygen-consumption ef?ciency.

He’d ?gured out the body, so now it was on to the brain. Speci?cally: How do you make anyone actually want to do any of this stuff? How do you ?ip the internal switch that changes us all back into the Natural Born Runners we once were? Not just in history, but in our own lifetimes. Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled at to slow down? Every game you played, you played at top speed, sprinting like crazy as you kicked cans, freed all, and attacked jungle outposts in your neighbors’ backyards. Half the fun of doing anything was doing it at record pace—probably the last time in your life you’d ever be hassled for going too fast.

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: They’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s ?rst ?ne art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into ?uid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors ?nally did make their ?rst cave paintings, what were the ?rst designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle—behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable, the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to ?nd a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everything we sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires”—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.

But the American approach—ugh. Rotten at its core. It was arti?cial and grabby, Vigil believed, too much about getting stuff and getting it now: medals, Nike deals, a cute butt. It wasn’t art; it was business, a hard-nosed quid pro quo. No wonder so many people hated running. If you thought it was only a means to an end—an investment in becoming faster, skinnier, richer—why stick with it if you weren’t getting enough quo for your quid?

It wasn’t always like that—and when it wasn’t we were awesome. Back in the ’70s, American marathoners were a lot like the Tarahumara; they were a tribe of isolated outcasts, running for love and relying on raw instinct and crude equipment. Slice the top off a ’70s running shoe and you had a sandal: The old Adidas and Onitsuka Tigers were just a ?at sole and laces, with no motion control, no arch support, no heel pad. The guys in the ’70s didn’t know enough to worry about “pronation” and “supination;” that fancy running-store jargon hadn’t even been invented yet.

Their training was as primitive as their shoes. They ran way too much: “We ran twice a day, sometimes three times,” Boulder’s Frank Shorter would recall. “All we did was run—run, eat, and sleep.” They ran way too hard. “The modus operandi was to let a bunch of competitive guys have at each other every day in a form of road rage,” one observer put it. And they were way too buddy-buddy for so-called competitors: “We liked running together,” recalled Bill Rodgers, a chieftain of the ’70s tribe and a four-time Boston marathon champ. “We had fun with it. It wasn’t a grind.”

They were so ignorant they didn’t even realize they were supposed to be burned out, overtrained, and injured. Instead, they were fast—really fast. Frank Shorter won the ’72 Olympic marathon gold and the ’76 silver, Bill Rodgers was the No. 1 marathoner in the world for three years, and Alberto Salazar won Boston, New York, and the Comrades ultramarathon. By the early ’80s, the Greater Boston Track Club had half a dozen guys who could run a 2:12 marathon. That’s six guys, in one amateur club, in one city. Twenty years later, you couldn’t ?nd a single 2:12 marathoner anywhere in the country. The United States couldn’t even get one runner to meet the 2:14 qualifying standard for the 2000 Olympics; only Rod DeHaven squeaked into the Games under the 2:15 “B” standard. He ?nished 69th.

What happened? How did we go from leader of the pack to lost and left behind? It’s hard to determine a single cause for any event in this complex world, of course, but forced to choose, the answer is best summed up as follows: $.

Sure, plenty of people will throw up excuses about Kenyans having some kind of mutant muscle ?ber, but this isn’t about why other people got faster; it’s about why we got slower. And the fact is, American distance running went into a death spiral precisely when cash entered the equation. The Olympics were opened to professionals after the 1984 Games, which meant running-shoe companies could bring the distance-running savages out of the wilderness and onto the payroll reservation.

Vigil could smell the apocalypse coming, and he’d tried hard to warn his runners. “There are two goddesses in your heart,” he told them. “The Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of Wealth. Everyone thinks they need to get wealth ?rst, and wisdom will come. So they concern themselves with chasing money. But they have it backward. You have to give your heart to the Goddess of Wisdom, give her all your love and attention, and the Goddess of Wealth will become jealous and follow you.” Ask nothing from your running, in other words, and you’ll get more than you ever imagined.

Vigil wasn’t beating his chest about the purity of poverty, or fantasizing about a monastic order of moneyless marathoners. Shoot, he wasn’t even sure he had a handle on the problem, let alone the solution. All he wanted was to ?nd one Natural Born Runner—someone who ran for sheer joy, like an artist in the grip of inspiration—and study how he or she trained, lived, and thought. Whatever that thinking was, maybe Vigil could transplant it back into American culture like an heirloom seedling and watch it grow again.

Vigil already had the perfect prototype. There was this Czech soldier, a gawky dweeb who ran with such horrendous form he looked “as if he’d just been stabbed through the heart,” as one sportswriter put it. But Emil Zatopek loved running so much that even when he was still a grunt in army boot camp, he’d grab a ?ashlight and go off on 20-mile runs through the woods at night. In his combat boots. In winter. After a full day of infantry drills.

When the snow was too deep, Zatopek would jog in the tub on top of his dirty laundry, getting a resistance workout along with clean tighty whiteys. As soon as it thawed enough for him to get outside, he’d go nuts; he’d run 400 meters as fast as he could, over and over, for 90 repetitions, resting in between by jogging 200 meters. By the time he was ?nished, he’d done more than 33 miles of speed work. Ask him his pace and he’d shrug; he never timed himself. To build explosiveness, he and his wife, Dana, used to play catch with a javelin, hurling it back and forth to each other across a soccer ?eld like a long, lethal Frisbee. One of Zatopek’s favorite workouts combined all his loves at once: He’d jog through the woods in his army boots with his ever-loving wife riding on his back.

It was all a waste of time, of course. The Czechs were like the Zimbabwean bobsled team; they had no tradition, no native talent, no chance of winning. But being counted out was liberating; having nothing to lose left Zatopek free to try any way to win. Take his ?rst marathon: Everyone knows the best way to build up to 26.2 miles is by running long, slow distances. Everyone, that is, except Emil Zatopek; he did 100-yard dashes instead.

“I already know how to go slow,” he reasoned. “I thought the point was to go fast.” His atrocious, death-spasming style was punch-line heaven for track scribes (“The most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein.” … “He runs as if his next step would be his last.” …

“He looks like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt.”), but Zatopek just laughed along. “I’m not talented enough to run and smile at the same time,” he’d say. “Good thing it’s not ?gure skating. You only get points for speed, not style.”

Zatopek was a balding, self-coached, 30-year-old apartment dweller from a decrepit Eastern European backwater when he arrived for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Since the Czech team was so thin, Zatopek had his choice of distance events, so he chose them all. He lined up for the 5,000 meters, and won with a new Olympic record. He then lined up for the 10,000 meters, and won his second gold with another new record. He’d never run a marathon before, but what the hell; with two golds already around his neck, he had nothing to lose, so why not finish the job and give it a bash? Zatopek snapped the tape for his third Olympic record.

Races for Zatopek were like a pub crawl. He loved competing so much that, instead of tapering and peaking, he jumped into as many meets as he could find. You can’t pay someone to run with such infectious joy. You can’t bully them into it either. Certainly not Zatopek. When the Red Army marched into Prague in 1968 to crush the prodemocracy movement, Zatopek was given a choice: He could get on board with the Soviets and serve as a sports ambassador, or he could spend the rest of his life cleaning toilets in a uranium mine. Zatopek chose the toilets. And just like that, one of the most beloved athletes in the world disappeared.

At the same time, coincidentally, Zatopek’s rival for the title of the world’s greatest distance runner was also taking a beating. Ron Clarke, a phenomenally talented Australian with Johnny Depp’s dark, dreamy beauty, was exactly the kind of guy that Zatopek, by all rights, should hate. While Zatopek had taught himself to run in the snow, at night after sentry duty, the Australian pretty boy was enjoying sunny morning jogs along the beaches of Mornington Peninsula and expert coaching. Everything Zatopek could wish for, Clarke had to spare: freedom, money, elegance, hair. Clarke was a star, but still a loser in the eyes of his nation. Despite breaking 19 records in every distance from half-mile to six miles, “the bloke who choked” never managed to win the big ones. In the summer of ’68, he blew his final chance. In the 10,000-meter finals at the Mexico City games, Clarke was knocked out by altitude sickness. Anticipating a barrage of abuse back home, Clarke delayed his return by stopping off in Prague to pay a courtesy call to the bloke who never lost. Toward the end of their visit, Clarke glimpsed Zatopek sneaking something into his suitcase.

“I thought I was smuggling some message to the outside world for him, so I did not dare to open the parcel until the plane was well away,” Clarke would say. Zatopek sent him off with a strong embrace. “Because you deserved it,” he said. Only later would Clarke realize that Zatopek wasn’t talking about the hug. In his suitcase, Clarke found Zatopek’s 1952 Olympic gold medal for the 10,000-meter victory. “His enthusiasm, his friendliness, his love of life, shone through every movement,” an overcome Ron Clarke said later. “There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zatopek.”

So here’s what Coach Vigil was trying to ?gure out: Was Zatopek a great man who happened to run, or a great man because he ran? Vigil couldn’t quite put his ?nger on it, but his gut kept telling him there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: Both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you had, being patient and forgiving and undemanding. Sex and speed—haven’t they been symbiotic for most of our existence, as intertwined as the strands of our DNA? We wouldn’t be alive without love; we wouldn’t have survived without running; maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that getting better at one could make you better at the other.

Look, Vigil was a scientist, not a swami. He hated straying into this Buddha-under-the-lotus-tree stuff, but he wasn’t going to ignore it, either. He’d made his bones by ?nding connections where everyone else saw coincidence, and the more he examined the compassion link, the more intriguing it became. Was it just by chance that the pantheon of dedicated runners also included Abraham Lincoln (“He could beat all the other boys in a footrace”) and Nelson Mandela (a college cross-country standout who, even in prison, continued to run seven miles a day in place in his cell)? Maybe Ron Clarke, a champion runner and Zatopek admirer, wasn’t being poetic in his description of Zatopek; maybe his expert eye was clinically precise: His love of life shone through every movement.

Yes! Love of life! Exactly! That’s what got Vigil’s heart thumping when he saw the Tarahumara scramble happy-go-luckily up a dirt hill outside Leadville on that August day in 1994. He’d found his Natural Born Runner—an entire tribe of Natural Born Runners, and from what he’d seen so far, they were just as joyful and magni?cent as he’d hoped.

Vigil, an old man alone in the woods, felt a burst of immortality. He was on to something. Something huge. It wasn’t just how to run; it was how to live, the essence of who we are as a species and what we’re meant to be. Vigil had read what history there was about the Tarahumara. A Norwegian explorer had spent five years with the Tarahumara and called them “the founders and makers of the history of mankind.” Perhaps all our troubles—all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.

Vigil’s mission was clear. He had to trace the route from what we’ve become to what the Tarahumara have always been, and ?gure out where we got lost. Every action ?ick depicts the destruction of civilization as some kind of crash-bang, a nuclear war or hurtling comet or a self-aware-cyborg uprising, but the true cataclysm may already be creeping up right under our eyes: Because of rampant obesity, one in three children born in the United States is at risk of diabetes—meaning we could be the ?rst generation of Americans to outlive our own children. Maybe the ancient Hindus were better crystal-ball gazers than Hollywood when they predicted the world would end not with a bang but with a big old yawn. Shiva the Destroyer would snuff us out by doing…nothing. Withdrawing his hot-blooded force from our bodies. Letting us become slugs.

Coach Vigil wasn’t a maniac, though. He wasn’t proposing we all run off to the canyons with the Tarahumara to live in caves and gnaw mice. But there had to be transferable skills, right? Basic Tarahumara principles which could survive and take root in American soil? Because, my God, imagine the payoff. What if you could run for decades and never get injured…and log hundreds of weekly miles and enjoy every one of them…and see your heart rate drop and your stress and anger fade while your energy soared? Imagine crime, cholesterol, and greed melting away as a nation of Running People ?nally rediscovered its stride. More than his Olympic runners, more than his triumphs and records, this could be Joe Vigil’s legacy. He didn’t have all the answers yet—but watching the Tarahumara whisk past in their wizard capes, he knew where he would ?nd them.

Christopher McDougall is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer and author. E-mail him at [email protected].

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