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.
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 ﬂoor 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 ﬁght 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, quantiﬁable 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 ﬁre 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 efﬁciency.
He'd ﬁgured out the body, so now it was on to the brain. Speciﬁcally: How do you make anyone actually want to do any of this stuff? How do you ﬂip 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 ﬁrst ﬁne 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 ﬂuid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors ﬁnally did make their ﬁrst cave paintings, what were the ﬁrst 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 ﬁnd 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 artiﬁcial 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 ﬂat 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.