“Poetry, Music, Forests, Oceans, Solitude—They were what developed enormous personal strength. I came to realize that spirit, as much or more than physical conditioning, had to be stored up before a race.”
—Herb Elliot, Olympic Champion and World-Record Holder the Mile who trained in bare feet, wrote poetry and retired undefeated.
Rising up, a head out of water, steeped in porcelain, I need something. The steam coming off the surface of the cotton candy blue water, it’s too hot this time, I think, and raise my leg out to cool my foot. Here I find myself in the bath, yet again. But this is no idyllic cleansing at a wood and tile onsen in the foothills overlooking Kyoto. Not even a sauna at the local public bath to leech out last night’s over-indulgence in alcohol. I’m just hotel-tired and can’t shake the feeling of persistent boredom dogging me like the gaudy fleur-de-lit patterned carpet of this three-story inn on the northwestern shores of middle-of-no-goddamned-where Hokkaido. Despite being covered with water, beads of sweat form on my scalp and drip into my eyes. I want a disrobed woman to be slipping in over me, I want a Jameson on the rocks, or at least a chilly cerveza and lime. I want something, but nothing sounds good. I think of masturbating but that too does nothing to excite me. God I wish I still smoked. I spy the linoleum floor strewn with the strange library of books I packed: The Unknown Orwell, The Decline of the Hollywood Empire, Death in Venice, The Phantom Empire, The Rise & Fall of the British Empire, The Satanic Verses, and the slow realization that there is some kind of weird end-of-empire motif running through my current selections dawns on me, when finally my eyes rest on the bright blue cover of Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run, the lone American offering in the bunch. Sinking just below the waterline I blow air motorboat-style through my mouth sheeshing, “Who brings a book about running to an ice-covered island in the North Pacific?” Thumbing my chest, while little hairs dance like hula girls in the water, I answer myself, “Idiot, that’s who.”I pick up Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed work and admonish myself for being twenty years late to the party and, wondering if the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who ordered the 1989 Fatwā on Rushdie’s life (that had since been long ago rescinded) had actually read the book or had merely had his underlings skim its more lurid Mohammedan highlights, thumb through its first pages until the water goes lukewarm and I waste yet another few moments of my life contemplating angels and demons and death. That feeling in the bath, all hot and bothered about some intangible thing—wanting a woman, wanting a drink, wanting a song to agitate me back into order—that stuck with me. Day after day, and week after week of the same room in the same hotel, literally waiting for my ship to come in, the sense of being frozen alive, became an overarching motif in my life. I had felt the first twinges of it coming on like a leech probing its prongs for a fat vein while living in Tokyo—the largest agglomeration of people the world has ever seen—for more than three years. It could have been the isolated nature of the situation in which I had put myself or something larger and deeper—like the solitude of Tokyo—, more frightening to name, so I chose not to. Remembering that beautiful cliché uttered by Irvine Welsh’s debased character Renton in his classic Trainspotting, “Choose Life,” I smiled and tossed the Verses toward the toilet, grabbing for Born To Run with a wet hand, figuring I’ll only break the dry spell of languishing in want by doing something anti-empire, something against the plans of men in high towers, what I had turned to when living in the heart of Tokyo’s faceless skyscraper culture, something that Renton would do—I ran.
I love to run and have always love to do so. Though if my flat feet could talk, they might say that I am not very good at it. Actually I am execrable, my Nordic body designed more for brooding and drinking. In the irretrievable ten years of my youth that I played soccer (football, et al) I scored one goal. Two if you count the one I scored against my own team. My lack of efficiently-lengthened hamstrings notwithstanding I ran my flat-footed little heart out, all the way to the pizza party where I won multiple trophies for “A-1 Sportsmanship” and “Teamwork”. And while I cannot say that I possess any true passion for taking up bench-space for the baseball and basketball teams for which I paid to play (two years apiece, respectively), nor donating my body as a tackling dummy for the high school football team, I do admit to a love of that one facet that courses through most all sports: running. In almost every single sport, at some point, you have to run as if your goddamned life depended on it. In those notable that you don’t—martial arts, swimming, hockey—the taxation of the body is strenuous enough to demonstrate that the creators of these sports must have hated running to the nth degree.
Which probably explains why I had been carrying around McDougall’s book for more than six months. Never reading past page one, but like a good run, it was always within reach. The subtitle, which read A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, mystified me so when I first read it perusing Powell’s online bookstore that I bought it straight away. I take pride in the fact that advertising generally does not work on me, but this time, it did. Now that’s powerful blurb-writing, I thought, so how can the guts be any less awesome? Exactly.
So just who are the Tarahumara, the so-called “best ultradistance runners of our time?” and how the hell did a semi-overweight American with foot problems get into the greatest race the world would never see? This description, by the way, is on page nine. Much like his eventual tale of said race, in no way in the ensuing apt and well-written 278 pages does McDougall’s stamina ever give out. He may stutter-step or falter a bit here and there, but shit, it is an ultradistance marathon the likes of which the world has never seen, so who wouldn’t stub their toe at least once on the rocky, trailless terrain the Tarahumara call home? Overall, he gains speed and loses those twenty pounds, both literal and prosaic, throughout the course of his search for Caballo Blanco, adventures with the Tarahumara and the binge-drinking, double-marathoning, multi-ethnic horde of super-athletes he meets along the way.
In the end, I got my answer, but only after I found myself in the middle of the greatest race the world would never see: the Ultimate Fighting Competition of footraces,an underground showdown pitting some of the best ultradistance runners of our time against the best ultrarunners of all time, in a fifty-mile race on hidden trails only Tarahumara feet had ever touched. I’d be startled to discover that the ancient saying of the Tao Te Ching—“The best runner leaves no tracks”—wasn’t some gossamer koan, but real, concrete, how-to, training advice.
And all because in January 2001I asked my doctor this:
“How come my foot hurts?”
And all because in January 2001I asked my doctor this:
“How come my foot hurts?”
The Tarahumara are the natives made famous in Carlos Castaneda’s trilogy of books you found on your college girlfriend’s nightstand about Don Juan and the Yaqui brujos of northern Mexico. Castaneda lied about several things, but especially that his brujo mentor was a Yaqui rather than a Tarahumara, who had grown up so well-versed in running over vast distances of mostly impenetrable and trailless mountain climes, that whenever the obese Castaneda took Peyote, he appeared to fly and move like a wizard. Of course he did. The Tarahumara, who call themselves the Rarámuri—literally, the running people, managed to avoid the conquistadors of Spain by running away from them, into the Baranca del Cobre, one of central Mexico’s hottest and toughest places to survive. Set deep in the Copper Canyons where they have managed to hide themselves from the world, the Rarámuri have developed a moneyless economy based on favors and alcohol, where there is no war, theft and little of the disease that plagues modern society, where they barter goods based on goodwill and when the tension crests before a big run, they have an all-day-all-night drink-off of their favorite beverage, tesgüino—corn beer. Yet in the age of the internet, industrial development and Mexican narcotraficantes, could the Rarámuri avoid the media frenzy that awaited them if they truly were the world’s most advanced race? Only a writer—and runner—with McDougall’s temerity would venture down, and invite his crazy runner friends, to find out.
Running pits the two most awesome human emotions both against and for one another: fear and pleasure. When I played soccer, I was mostly afraid of getting anywhere near the ball, for fear of what to do with it when other people’s spasmodic children came chasing after it. Rather than remain inactive, I usually kicked it the wrong way, a very good reason I was placed on the defensive side of the pitch for the majority of my career. Yet there was one sunny Southern California day when, powered by orange slices and multiple Capri Sun, I achieved pleasure in running, made even sweeter by the knowledge that it was pure and unbridled fear that propelled me forward, this time in the right direction. It happened that a ball finally rebounded to me off the nearby goalpost (for no one actually passed it to me), and something awoke deep inside and I ran like I had never run before. In retrospect I swear that it was a smile that appeared on my face as I raced black-stallion-esque toward the opposite goalpost, but it may have been the sheer look of terror that everyone else described later that may have propelled me onward. It may have helped that I had a well-known history of never having done anything and therefore the other team had no expectations that I should actually do anything with the ball, other than flail about for a bit before kicking it out of bounds. So when I did manage to successfully run while kicking the ball just far enough ahead to time the preceding poke of my suddenly extremely athletic-seeming feet, it shocked the other team—as well as my own—into a dumb silence and inert awe the likes of which my ten-year-old brain would never forget. I ran like the wind that passed from my behind after eating the cardboard triangles of pepperoni and cheese-covered crust at the pizza party at Chuck E. Cheeses immediately following our surprise one-goal upset of the league powerhouse Blue Jays. Maneuvering my way around the frozen children in their short shorts with their eyes bugging out of their still-overly large heads, I heard the cries of their coaches in slow-motion sound, silent until then finally come to life, and confused by my moplike haircut, shouting, “Stop her, er him” and even began questioning myself if I hadn’t broken some obvious rule and the referee had yet to blow the inevitable whistle and forever halt my one chance at glory. I approached the opposing goal and kicked and the goalie, still too zombiefied to react within time of my lethargic kick, missed the ball and I was king for a day, lifted upon shoulders and ass-patted by one and all. I think my mother fainted and my step-father was looking away at the cooler full of chilled cans of Budweiser, a fact which emerged when he continuously denied the goal at said pizzeria, shoving a piece of pizza deep into his craw, saying it must have been a freak Santa Ana wind which blew it in. He may have been right, but the fact remains that for the first time in my life I was both exhilarated and terrified by the single, simple act of running, an act I have never been able to forget nor to improve on since that fated Southern California Saturday. It’s just that now when I run, I have no goal in mind at all.
The next season I suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee, caused by what—hubris, karma, or merely having worn out my joints at the tender age of ten? Having already gone myopic the year before I was learning early on what a cruel mistress life could be. Had I already peaked? This question remained unanswered, but another one would eventually occur to McDougall: was it the soccer career-ending knee injury or the expensive training shoes that came first? McDougall’s research showed him that up to eight out of every ten runners are injured every year and “no invention has been invented to slow the carnage…if anything, [the injury rate] has actually ebbed up; Achilles Tendon blowouts have actually seen a ten percent increase.” Why is that? Shouldn’t we be getting better results as technology improves? Isn’t Nike making our lives better? Why is the overwhelming opinion of the medical profession that running is bad for you? “Because it makes our feet hurt…” Why don’t gazelles and cheetahs and horses feet hurt? What happened to us along the way to modernity? Or had we always been voted least likely to run in the yearbook of life on earth? Figure out how to stop your feet from hurting and you could unlock the key to running. Are we actually born to run? This is McDougall’s quest.McDougall soon finds out that the Rarámuri aren’t great runners, they’re great athletes. “Those two things are very different. Runners are assembly line workers; they become good at one thing…Athletes are Tarzans. Tarzan swims and wrestles and jumps and swings on vines. He’s strong and explosive. You never know what Tarzan will do next. Which is why he never gets hurt.” One other thing: Tarzan loves what he does. There is the sense of play at the heart of every action Tarzan makes. Same too with the Rarámuri, whose version of soccer, called rarájipari, is more like an exhilarating ball race over rough terrain that, more than the 90 minutes of our own modern game, can last for two days. These guys, pounding cups of corn mash mixed with chia seeds and smiling the whole time, are wearing homemade sandals and there is no halftime. At last count in 2006, there were anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 Rarámuri living throughout the northwestern part of Mexico’s rugged Sierra Madre range which has caverns deeper than the Grand Canyon and altitudes that top 3000 meters (more than 9000 feet). How have these peaceful running people survived in an age when indigenous natives have been eradicated, assimilated and pushed to the brink of extinction?
An elder teaches a group of Rarámuri children. “You’re alive because your father can run down a deer. He’s alive because his father could outrun an Apache war pony.” Is it true? Can a man run down a deer and outrun a horse? Or is it more than tiring out your prey and outrunning your predators? Is it for the pure love of running that the ancient Rarámuri have thrived in their athletic way of life more than any other people since the Spartans? Is that why they do not war amongst fellow tribes and heart disease has no grip on their arteries, because instead of expecting miracles from technological innovations, they know the truth: that the greatest invention of all time is the human body.
Soaking up the invigorating injection of potential there in the tub, I read on. McDougall points out that “three times America has seen distance-running sky-rocket.” And it’s always in the midst of a national crisis: the Great Depression, Vietnam and 9/11. He goes on, “…maybe there’s a trigger in the human psyche, a coded response that activates our first and greatest survival skill when we sense the raptors approaching.” It dawned on me that back in Tokyo, I had began running in earnest after meeting with a priest from the local Zen Buddhist temple, whom I had approached to learn how to meditate in the traditional Zazen style. After undergoing several painful sessions of attempting to sit in the lotus position (unachievable due to my old soccer injury) while emptying my mind of all clutter, which is to say too many damn things, the rishi took me aside and, offering me green tea and strawberry cake, laughed, “Bald head, sitting toward wall, beaten with stick, eating rice gruel, begging for change…Zazen not for everyone. Ha ha.” He continued, laughing, cake crumbs falling from his fingertips, “ You find your Zazen. Maybe travel and writing haiku, like Bashō. Don’t think, just do…and smile.”
For me, I found my form of Zazen in running. Not waiting to finish the book, exploding out of the bath I threw on a thin, wicking long-sleeve, shorts and shoes and bounded out of the hotel room and onto the narrow paths next to the sea buffeted by a wall of frozen snow. Almost immediately lost, once again I experienced the blissed out emptiness of satori I knew in racing across Tokyo’s traffic-jammed cityscape to the peace of Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine, continuing past one, two, five, ten miles into a run I not only had no idea when would end, but the thought never occurred. Finally, mystically, making my way back to the hotel, rapturously tired, beatifically smiling, vacant of everything except glittery eyes and buzzing axons, a thought finally wheedled its way into my Zenned-out brain—that despite all the doctors telling me I was not made to run, like McDougall found out in the far and gone reaches of the Copper Canyon from an ancient people, I too, like you as well, was born to run.
Author’s Note: On March 27, 2012, Micah True, “Caballo Blanco”, left from the Gila Wilderness Lodge in New Mexico for a morning run, and never returned. On March 31, Micah’s body was found by the side of a stream, about a mile south east of the Gila Cliff Dwellings. He died as he lived: running. A series of Born To Run Ultra Marathons was held last week in which Caballo Blanco was listed an an entrant in the 100km. Here for more information.