Published: January 2009
Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2009)
“You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running”
This book is an insightful, fascinating and inspirational look into the world of long distance running. There is a group of people, known as the Tarahumara, who live in the cliff sides of Copper Canyon in Mexico. This is a lawless area where Tarahumara enjoy relative isolation. The only other people who spend time in this area are the drug lords. The Tarahumara run long distances as part of their culture and tradition. They are a peaceful people who enjoy longevity and a life without crime or mental illness. They are mistrusting of the outside world, as in the past they have been exploited, enslaved and even decapitated. They eat a diet composed mostly of corn and corn beer. This novel seeks to understand the world of ultra marathoners, both of those who run as part of their culture in the case of the Tarahumara and those who are drawn to it despite their culture.
I always felt that running great distances was a detriment to one’s health, that running should be done in moderation so as not to wear out one’s body. However, this book changed my thinking. The feats that the runners in this book were capable of was awe inspiring. This book makes the reader believe and understand that we were made to run, we should run and furthermore, that running should be enjoyable.
A group of researchers back in the 1980s came to the realization that human beings were not evolved to be walkers like their closest relative, the chimpanzee. Human beings were evolved to be runners, to track their prey over long distances. This is why humans have nuchal ligaments, achilles tendons, an amazing foot structure, a stride greater than a horse’s, and a pattern of respiration that is not fixed to their stride. The injuries we see now from running did not exist prior to the advent of the modern running shoe. With the modern running shoe, feet become weaker. With the modern running shoe, pain signals are not sent to the brain to indicate improper form. Thus, poor form and injuries result. The modern day running shoe has led to an increase in heart disease, knee replacements, and more sedentary lifestyles. If we trained and ran more like our ancestors we would be much healthier and happier.
Listening to this audio book, I was enthralled by the stories, especially of the races. Who knew that telling of an account of a 100 mile race could be so riveting and exciting? Not I. At least, not until I listened to the tales of the races in this book, including Leadville races and the ultimate race in Copper Canyons. This is one sport where women can excel and often prevail over the men. Consider this statistic: 90% of females finish ultra marathons, while only 50% of the men do. There is great psychology involved in these races according to the author. The racers often think of themselves as hunter or prey in order to motivate themselves. In the case of the Tarahumara, there is the joy of sharing a tradition, running together as a people. It is “character” that the author concludes makes a truly great runner. Scott Jurek was able to find his tribe wherever he went, transcending cultures and communities, always demonstrating tremendous character.
There was were amazing pearls of advice streaming throughout this novel. I was mentally storing those I thought would be important for myself and will share some of them here. Stretching leads to more injuries. It is best to skip it. The more cushioned the sneakers, the more likely they will lead to injury. If you are running in a cushioned sneaker, try to add in some barefoot runs in dewy grass. If you start running long distances, diet should come about naturally to aid the running lifestyle. A nutrient rich vegan diet is best for a leaner, healthier body. In the beginning, especially if you are looking to take off some weight, you should run below the aerobic threshold, in the fat-burning zone. Building up endurance in this zone will make you stronger on longer runs. The best form when running is to run with a short stride and quick foot turnover. You should feel as if you have a rope tied around your middle and you are pulling something heavy. Being a good person, it seems makes you a better runner. Improving personal relationships and practicing abundance by giving back are pieces of advice given by running coaches. Vigil, a long time running coach, also advises “ask nothing from your running and you’ll get more than you ever imagined.”
The Tarahumara, a culture of the greatest runners on earth share the following core virtues: patience, strength, dedication, persistence and cooperation. Other great runners seem to share these same characteristics, bringing them together in a beautiful community. The Tarahumara is perhaps the last remaining culture on earth that still incorporates long distance running into their life and culture. They reap the benefits in health, community and joyfulness. As scientists have discovered, we were evolved to be runners. As Dr. Bramble puts it, “Just move your legs. Because if you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.”
This book convinced me that “running is our superpower, entrenched in the human imagination.” I have already started to run more because of this book. I am trying not to be obsessed with heart rate and pace, but to enjoy the meditative aspects of it more. I highly recommend this book to everyone who runs or is even thinking about running.
Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett