It’s a week before I am scheduled to run a marathon and I am nervous, jittery, and sluggish. There is an article in the NY Times reviving the controversy that slower runners (undefined but I definitely include myself in that category) who take walk breaks (also me) are not really true marathoners and are messing up the sport for the other fast runners. My training partner has the flu. I’m still battling a nagging hamstring injury. Why did my physical therapist mention scar tissue at my last visit? My work office is closed this week so I don’t have that as a distraction – more time for self doubt. When I started training, the race was 24 weeks away. How did it get to be 6 days, 5 days…? I’M NOT READY! I CAN’T DO THIS!
But then something guided my hand to a recent addition on my bookshelf: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. McDougall is a journalist, also a runner, also plagued with recurring injuries. In his search to answer the question “Why does my foot hurt?”, McDougall learns about and then goes in search of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons. The Tarahumara are legendary for their ability to run long distances (hundreds of miles) seemingly effortlessly in just sandals. Not only that, they are supremely healthy and happy.
McDougall is a wonderfully entertaining writer. He gives us a crash course in the evolution of Homo erectus – how and when – and proceeds to describe each feature of our anatomy that supports the argument that we are designed to run. He takes us on a persistence hunt in which African Bushmen actually capture a kudu by outlasting the animal in a foot chase. And with all of this background, he is setting us up for the climax: a 50-mile foot race between some of the Tarahumara, a few of the fastest ultra distance runners from the US, and McDougal himself. Each of the other American runners comes with an amazing story – as you would expect of people who run 100+ miles for fun in the extremes of temperature and terrain. Each has his and her own reason for joining the race. For McDougall, it’s “Just beat the course…No one else. Just the course.” When he limps in last, taking more than twice as long as the fastest finishers, the others are there to congratulate him. When he demurs about being “amazingly slow”, the second place finisher tells him, “I’ve been there, man. I’ve been there a lot. It takes more guts than going fast.”
That’s what I needed to hear. Now I’m ready for the race. After all, I was born for this.