In Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” a lot has been written about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and their almost superhuman ability to run hundreds of miles over rugged terrain while suffering little in the way of fatigue or injury. It appears that the Tarahumara are the last members of the human race to live up to our true evolutionary potential. You could chalk up their success to a lack of junk food, stress and the evils of 21st century society, or perhaps they have been somehow genetically endowed with endurance abilities that the rest of us lost at the beginning of the Industrial Age. We learn that this seemingly lost ability is actually alive and well in the strangest places and people.
In “Born to Run”, McDougall tracks down members of the reclusive Tarahumara Indian tribe in the Mexican Copper Canyons. After being repeatedly injured as a runner himself, McDougall marvels at the tribe’s ability to run ultra-distances (over 320 km) at incredible speeds, without getting the routine injuries of most American runners. The book has received attention in the sporting world for McDougall’s description of how he overcame injuries by modeling his running after the Tarahumara. He asserts that modern cushioned running shoes are a major cause of running injury, pointing to the thin sandals called huaraches worn by Tarahumara runners, and the explosion of running-related injuries since the introduction of modern running shoes in 1972.
Alongside his research into the Tarahumara, McDougall delves into why the human species, unique among other primates, has developed traits for endurance running. He promotes the endurance running hypothesis, arguing that humans left the forests and moved to the savannas by developing the ability to run long distances in order to literally run down prey. If you look at humans from a physiological point of view, we are an upright biped, a body type that would make us very vulnerable to attack on the plains of Africa. There is no physiological advantage that we have that can exploit in order to hunt and be successful, apart from the ability to run long distances.
Running, for the Tarahumara is integral to their societal structure and even the way in which they run, in strategic formation in respect to social rank, improves their endurance and their speed, as well as having incalculable benefits on their fitness, mental well-being and social health. The fact that in the Tarahumara society, clinical depression, greed, crime, war, violence, domestic abuse, as well as a host of modern illness such as cancer and heart disease is virtually unheard of. The Tarahumara lives to a ripe old age and is extremely happy in doing so. The greatest race the world has never seen refers to the Copper Canyon Ultra marathon but it could equally refer to the Human Race, and its history of development which is intertwined with running. Running helped make us who we are, and it IS who we are, it is one of the purest expressions of our humanity and deserves its place as so.
When it comes to going ultra-distances, nothing could beat the Tarahumara not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not even an Olympic marathoner. Very few outsiders had ever seen the Tarahumara in action, but amazing stories of their superhuman toughness and tranquility have drifted out of the canyons for centuries. One explorer spent 10 hours crossing a mountain by mule while a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in 90 minutes. One reason the Tarahumara squeeze so much mileage out of their feet is because they don’t baby them. The Tarahumara add strength to their stride from childhood by passing a wooden ball with their feet as they race through the woods. Keeping the ball in play means lunging, backpedalling and twisting all movements that later translate into powerful, economical self-propulsion.
Your body needs to be shocked to become resilient and for the Tarahumara, that’s just daily life. They step into the unknown every time they leave their caves because they never know how fast they’ll have to sprint after a rabbit, how much firewood they’ll have to haul home, or how tricky the climbing will be during a winter storm. Before the Tarahumara run long, they get strong. Personally I think the Tarahumara Indians motive people to do their best in running. At least I know they have motivated me to do better in my events in Track and Field. And with this in mind I can see improvement and so have my coaches.