A little over a year ago, I had a breakthrough with my running. Once I had struggled and huffed through every quarter-mile, glancing repeatedly at my Garmin to see how much longer I had to go before I could mark the run off my daily checklist and move on to other, more enjoyable things.
But then, one day, I was out running and I realized I was no longer consumed by the twin flames of boredom and agony. My legs felt strong, and so did my lungs. My stride had transformed from what felt like a lurching Frankenstein-like lumber to what I envisioned as a smooth, cheetah-esque glide. Even when I pushed my limits during speedwork or long runs, I rarely felt that same kind of painful grind that had characterized almost all of my early runs.
Muscle and blood and breath and mind and bone had combined in one fluid blur of movement, and it left me feeling positively transcendent.
It occurred to me that the only other times I felt like this was during sex or a full-body bout of laughter or while eating really delicious food.
I felt like I was doing exactly what my body was meant to do.
Part of me suspected that this was evidence of some latent masochism that had remained unexplored until I became a runner, like I secretly really enjoyed pain and suffering and this was the only socially acceptable way to indulge those tastes.
The idea that running could be something pleasurable and fun was foreign to me. My coaches had made us run stairs and laps when we sucked it up on the basketball or volleyball courts. At least half of the girls in my gym classes came down with menstrual cramps every Friday, then used those cramps an excuse for not running the mandatory mile. Everyone complained and moaned every time we had to run for any reason at all. I never once heard anyone say they thought running was fun – not even people I knew from the cross-country team.
So when I realized that I was actually enjoying this thing that almost everyone else I’d ever known agreed was about as fun as poking oneself repeatedly in the eye as a stick, I wondered whether this meant I was somehow deformed psychologically. (Actually, I know I am somewhat deformed psychologically, but I wondered if this was just another dimension of my weirdness.)
But then I read “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, and it turns out that I am not so odd when I say that I feel as though I was made to run. If the science behind this book is correct, then I absolutely was born to run.
In his book, McDougall lays out his evidence – that our bodies have evolutionary features that are usually found in animals that run, not animals that walk. Things like the Achilles tendon, the nuchal tendon in our necks, our short toes, our long legs, our ability to sweat all over our bodies and our ability to breathe while running all point to the theory that our bodies were evolved to run long distances.
This is a relatively new theory, though. It used to be that running was considered one of the worst things a person could do for their body, a fast way to ensure systematic breakdown of joints and muscles and tendons. It was considered unnatural, and the idea that we had actually evolved as runners was scoffed at, perhaps because humans aren’t particularly fast runners.
But what we lack in speed, we make up for endurance. The proponents of the endurance running hypothesis say it’s our gifts for running long distances that helped us come down out of the trees and onto the grasslands, where we succeeded because we learned to run our prey to death.
And all of those injuries so many runners are constantly battling? It’s because the one thing we hoped would make running easier – heavily cushioned shoes – leads us to run in a way that is counter to the way we’ve evolved to run. McDougall makes the argument that we were better off when we ran in minimal shoes, or even better, with no shoes at all.
The book goes much more in-depth into the theory, and in a way that I found both highly compelling and terribly exciting. But it was more than just a confirmation of what I’d secretly come to believe was true. Entire passages read like McDougall had peered into my soul and written down what he had seen.
The soles of my feet itched with anticipation as I read, and all I wanted to do was put down the book, slide into my running shoes and run from my Clearwater home to Atlanta and back again.
Since finishing the book, I’ve made the commitment to increase my weekly mileage, to train for a marathon and to take the ultramarathon out of my “maybe some day in the future” list and into my “I will do this” list. (Oh yes, I said it – “ultramarathon.”) I haven’t been entirely seduced by the promise of barefoot running, because I do most of my running on scary, hot asphalt, but I am more anxious than before to get my grasping little paws on a pair of minimalist running shoes.
It’s like I’ve been given permission by the universe to go further with this strange little pursuit of mine than I’d ever thought possible. I look forward to seeing just how far I can take it.