While running in the Tri-Lakes region, be sure to check out Cornerstone Multisport in Palmer Lake for apparel, sports nutrition, knowledge of the local trail running scene, and more.
For every human enterprise there is that book: the one that captures, methodically or by luck, the vitality of a living subculture in the kind of iconic still shot destined for immortality. Christopher McDougal’s Born To Run is such a book. But whatever kind of book you think it is (based on its bestselling success), it probably isn’t that. Born To Run is, to use one of its own favorite words, a bricolage: a hodgepodge of anecdote, travelogue, biography, sermon and science-backed discourse assembled to give McDougal’s pet theories and prescribed practices the traction of something road-worthy and dependable for now and for all time. Departing stylistically from former running bestsellers, Born To Run’s chapters read with the sweep and formlessness of a picaresque novel. The work seems more akin to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road than to any of the sports-writing reads to which we might be tempted to compare it. Its pages brim with surly characters (all the more colorful for being real) playing loose and reckless with social mores while mocking conformist running wisdom. One senses that its runners run not so much for the sake of sport as from hermetically-sealed hometowns, damning diagnoses, and the chafing fetters of convention. If these features fail to square with our profile of an elite athlete, probably it is our profile that needs adjusting. Whatever private existential demons are driving McDougal’s transient characters on from invisible city to invisible city, they seem to agree on one thing: “[they] ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”; instead they’ll run far and wide and with aboriginal abandon. Rendered in Gonzo journalistic prose, McDougal’s characters are equal parts Fear And Loathing and Chariots of Fire. With McDougal’s book, the “running bum” rounds into form for our classifying intellect and rubbernecking amusement. Now the question is, will he shake off his hang-over and finish—even win—the race? The hang-over is no less a trophy than his first-place medal; later he’ll call attention to each with equal braggadocio.
In chapters where McDougal leaves off recounting the antics of his ragtag cast (of which he’s self-consciously the least talented member), it’s to wax primitive, to soliloquize about poverty diets, minimalist footwear, altruism, playfulness, and our Space Oddesey-esque evolutionary journey from walkers to the finest endurance runners on the planet. He asks us to accept as living proof his literary diorama of a small band of pre-industrial Mexican natives known to the world as the Tarahumara, the running people. The Tarahumara, it turns out, are McDougal’s kind of rebels: they are great guzzlers of corn beer, happy to clear the training calendars they don’t keep for the wild, licentious multi-day raves they do keep. When they are not fuelling up on pinole, chia seeds and tortillas, they crave gringo cigarettes and Coca-Colas, and will warm to the tourist who comes bearing them. Still, when it comes to running, the Tarahumara don’t just excel, they excel wearing sandals and skirts and being more oblivious to concepts like training cycles, tempo runs, VO2 max and electrolyte balance than your 5-year old son or daughter. Running comes so naturally to the Tarahumara that if no foreigner had ever told them they were running, they wouldn’t know it. The Tarahumara, preserved for centuries from the modern world in the amber of a nearly inaccessible and forbidding canyon land, the Copper Canyons of The Sierra Madre, are (now that they are becoming known through books such as Born To Run) like a recruiting poster that Nature tacked to a wall where loiterers have been reported to gather. Ironically, their message for modern man, homo technicus, interpreted by the likes of McDougal and his peers, is “Be all that you can be.” So much for our advertised progress.
What begins as a casual recognition of resemblances between McDougal’s and Kerouac’s styles becomes, by mid book, a growing conviction that the author, in channeling his Beat-writer muse, is doing something more sublime than just plying a provocative writing style to sell copies. It’s about then that we learn that one of Born To Run’s characters, the party girl ultra-runner known as “Brujita,” is in fact a big Kerouac fan. Just as there are said to be no coincidences in life, it seems there are none in Born To Run. If it reads like Kerouac, there’s got to be a reason. But we’d be wrong to look to McDougal to give it. We’d be wrong to think that he can give it. Like the runners who get lost in Born to Run’s shadowy Copper Canyons—and they all, including McDougal, seem to get lost at times—we’re left to find our own way out of the conceptual arroyos into which the book casts a slanting light.
In the old Beat standard, On The Road, Kerouac’s first-person narrator is a kind of pilgrim moving through geo-spiritual space. Deliverance is a geographical horizon that always recedes from his grasp. It isn’t in Denver and the people he meets in Denver. It isn’t in San Francisco. Surely it’s in the next city, as Kerouac’s protagonist ricochets eastward. Zen too has its path, its pilgrim and its goal; and monks who walk great distances from monastery to monastery in search of the master who’ll ignite in them the spark of enlightenment. As runners, we’re used to negotiating a kind of fitness-spiritual space. We chase deliverance now in this marathon program, now in that method aimed at straightening some feature of our crooked form. This summer we’ll finally run without injury. This fall, in this city, we’ll be in shape to run our PR marathon. This will be the year when, at long last, we’ll qualify for Boston. We follow, for years and for decades, scores of plans, often contradictory, like the fingers that pointed the Conquistadors on to hundreds of false El Dorados, the imaginary cities of gold that endlessly diverted them. This is the receding horizon to which we runners are susceptible to being drawn. The space we seek is the one in which some master alchemist finally teaches us the trick to transforming our dirt into gold. Try to find it in the Copper Canyons. It isn’t there. In the lessons of the Tarahumara: Not there. In Born To Run: Again, no. As fine as these things are, the gold just isn’t there. As anyone who’s ever seen the film The Treasure of The Sierra Madre knows, it isn’t anywhere if we haven’t got it in us already (which of course we do, and must discover the fact in sequels of our own directing). And when we don’t find the gold where we thought we’d find it, there’s only one thing to do: keep moving. From Kerouac to McDougal to you and me, we are all on the road.
For those of us over 25 or so, while we slept, ran and lived, a relatively rare event occurred: a sport was born—quietly. Prior to the 90s, glossaries of running failed to recognize the terms ultramarathon, ultramarathoner or ultrarunner. Editors of such wordlists aren’t to be blamed; these terms, like the neologism World Wide Web, were but twinkles in a lexicographer’s eye. Sure, someone somewhere was covering belief-defying distances on foot and at a run. But those someones either weren’t aware they were doing anything noteworthy or their feats were never circulated beyond the limits of their hometown’s or village’s gossip mills. Of course one might argue that an ultramarathon (ultra, for short) is only a new event within an existing sport. It is, after all, still running. Indeed the very word marathon within the compound term betrays its consanguinity with the older guard of running. (Ultimately look for the suffix marathon to be left behind like the straggling runner who fails to clear a 30-mile checkpoint). On the sports family tree, it must be conceded that running and ultrarunning are undeniably more closely related than, say, water polo and badminton. Nevertheless, the cultural and demographic differences between the two spheres of endeavor are great enough to suggest that what was once the amusement of a few fringe eccentrics (and de rigueur for a smattering of African and Central American tribesmen) has become a sport in its own right. While the winners of both endeavors are still recognized on the basis of the fastest finishing times, ultras go out of their way to slow the field of athletes down with demoralizing distances, death-defying terrain and off-world climate conditions. In ultrarunning, a seven-minute mile pace (warm-up speed for an elite road-racer) is the kind of speed that kills even its superheroes.
To a great extent, ultrarunning is touted as catering to the athlete who just can’t get his or her fill from the standard road-running menu. Ultrarunning meets that hunger with an all-you-can eat man-versus-nature buffet. Man-versus-man is a dessert for those who’ve somehow managed to save room after several trips through the buffet line. Man-versus-himself is the dramatic element found wherever running shoes are laced up; it’s the water that washes all the fare down. Here, not all the eyes are bigger than the stomachs.
With ultra events, finishers (as opposed to just winners) enjoy considerable bragging rights. This is no concession to the “everybody is a winner” brand of affirmation that sometimes finds itself under attack by pedagogues of sport. Whether one survives a 100-mile ordeal in 19 or in 29 hours, one has, after all, survived a 100-mile ordeal. She who does it joins a microscopically tiny family of human beings who have, in a day or so, traversed—on foot—a distance nearly equivalent to the length of Connecticut. To her we say, “Take a seat at the winner’s table and regale us with your story. From the first to the last, all are fit to tell the world what happened here.”
If one follows ultrarunning very far, one can’t help but notice in its wide-open spaces a palpable air of rebellion against mainstream running, the splinter-group defiantly postured against the pro-establishment parent. Not accidentally, the ultra community represents running’s counter-culture—sometimes to the point even of caricature. Its athletes are as likely to run in tie-die t-shirts, huaraches and mountain-man beards as they are in any piece of running apparel that flashes even a hint of corporate branding. This attitude of defiance was built into what I believe to have been–at least until it discovered its own considerable internal momentum—ultrarunning’s original and to some degree unconscious raison d’être. When Everette Lee, in 1966, outlined the causes of human migration in terms of push and pull factors, he might as well have been describing the running scene in the final decade of the millennium. As the generation of U.S. runners inspired by Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine began to accept both their own middle age and the fact that the road-racing dominance of African-born runners was no short-lived anomaly, some of its still ravening competitors migrated to pastures where the grass looked to be, if not initially greener, far less trammeled. On the high mountain trails or under extremes of heat and cold, youth and world-class speed (while never quite out of fashion anywhere) were not the most important honorifics on one’s calling card. Within a few years mainstream running’s expats were claiming that the grass was in fact greener past 26.2 miles. Few could argue with them, at least not from a place of experience. Ultrarunning had come of age.
Legitimacy and recognition aside, ultrarunners can’t be accused of following the money trail. There isn’t a great deal of endorsement or prize cash in ultrarunning, a fact in which ultrarunners ought to take heart. A 2013 article entitled, “The aspect of nationality in participation and performance in ultra-marathon running,” suggests that both African-born and younger world-class runners show limited interest in ultrarunning events owing to the absence of significant ultrarunning cash purses, which by contrast may climb into the tens of thousands of dollars for professional road-racing events. If you are among the very best runners in the world, why not earn a living by your rare and fleeting talents, especially when your extended family’s quality of life may depend upon it? Accordingly, winners of major ultrarunning events are, the study claims, usually American, European or Japanese and between the ages of 39 and 45, a combination of demographic facts that would most likely exclude them from top contention in major professional road-racing events.
What’s not poetic about a marginalized class of athletes running on the very margins of civilization, the forsaking of one kind of green for another? Just as Boethius, in exile, found consolation in philosophy, many American and European ultrarunners found consolation in nature, even in her most uncongenial moods. Who needed large prize purses and world fame? Wasn’t the world itself—experienced under conditions of extreme privation—reward enough? Ultrarunning came with perks that had nothing to do with its standard prize gold belt-buckles. Ultramarathons became spiritual pilgrimages. Ultramarathoners now worshipped in the same canyon cathedrals as that great lover of walking and nature, John Muir, had. Spiritual pilgrim and ultrarunner alike grappled with the burden of the body, the weight that holds the flights of the spirit in check.
Ultra legend Scott Jurek once used the term “existentialists in shorts” to describe the running family to which he happily belongs. Indeed ultrarunners are far more likely than road runners to speak the words “spiritual,” “sacred,” or “mystical” in sentences describing their cardio experiences. And if an ultrarunner smiles a trifle amusedly at our claims of runner’s highs, we’d do well to bear in mind that his path wends through successions of highs and lows that ought to stagger our minds…and that’s before he’s reached the half-way turn-around. He is a Bodhisattva who returns to us from a journey: wiser, stronger and hungry enough to polish off two large pizzas.
Running is, according to its first philosopher, George Sheehan, “A monastery—a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” If Sheehan found all of that in fewer than 26.2 miles, imagine what one might find in 100.
Knechtle B, Rüst CA, Rosemann T. The aspect of nationality in participation and performance in ultra-marathon running – A comparison between ‘Badwater’ and ‘Spartathlon’. OA Sports Medicine 2013 Feb 01;1(1):1.
This article may also be read in The Good Men Project, June 25, 2015.
Imagine it’s 1972. At the drive-in movie theater, a low-budget sci-fi film called Silent Running is playing. Despite how it sounds, it has nothing at all to do with running (our kind of running, that is). Meanwhile the first wave of the running boom is in full career. Tens of thousands of people are, for the first time in their lives, running…silently, as it were. As a cultural phenomenon, the headphone and “jogging” have not yet met at the intersection of motivation and distraction danger. Fast forward 40 years, and runners and headphones are as close as two peas in a proverbial pod (or should I say, iPod?). In the modern world, the “Sounds of Silence” increasingly refers to an almost forgotten Simon and Garfunkel song, and not much else.
Readers with a long memory may recall that someone using my name once spilled some ink talking up the iPod as a running partner. Confession: that was me. I don’t repent of it. But, as psychologists and philosophers remind us, human variability is one of the few invariables on which we may count. In recent years, I have heard a different calling: nature. It is perhaps no coincidence that this about face has accompanied a personal shift from road to trail running. Whether your bliss is the trail or the road, the benefits of plugging into nature instead of the MP3 are many. Here’s a short list.
- Hear your dog. In case your GPS dies on your run, use your dog’s panting to independently check your level of effort. For that matter, use your own breathing, which you can now hear.
- So that’s what nature sounds like! Birds, rabbits and mice in the scrub oak, locusts in the fields, toads in the marsh reeds. They—and their sounds—have been present all along. The only thing that’s different is that now YOU are present. Bravo.
- Would a cheetah, a Tarahumara, a zen master, Kung Fu, Micah True or Chuck Norris ever wear headphones in their zone? Enough said.
- Dances with headphones…and cords…and controls. Imagine a run that doesn’t involve your reinserting ear buds and cord jacks for the umpteenth time, fumbling for your iPod or iPhone’s volume control, repositioning that 70s-style hi-fi speaker headset that’s large enough to be detectable from satellite (and which happens to weigh more than your running shoes). These gyrations and other tell-tale signs of inefficient and needless technological struggle have made you the butt end of several sylvan animal jokes, only you can’t hear the laughter in the trees because…well, you know why.
- Be a minimalist. Shoes have gone minimalist. Running clothes, while mercifully not matching the loincloth minimalism of the 70s, employ the most lightweight designs and fabrics available. Take the minimalist movement an additional step. Feel the breeze brush past your ear, feel nothing weighing down your pockets, nothing tugging on your waistband or squeezing on your arm. Less may not really be more. But it can be more fun.
- Return to sociability. Wouldn’t it be something to have actually heard what that approaching runner said to you as she passed? Maybe the two of you were like two ships passing in the night without so much as an “Ahoy!” And wouldn’t it be comforting to have heard what those worried looking hikers appeared to have been warning you of as you were entering that thickly-wooded canyon? Save nodding and smiling for your long-winded uncle’s stories. Welcome back to the human race.
- Safety. Never again be taken unawares in the forest by that mountain bike on an intercept course with you and your knees (or your dog’s sweet mug). Runners—when they do hear–hear mountain bikers before mountain bikers hear runners. Fact: runners wearing headphones sometimes end up wearing mountain bikes as well. Headphones are easier to remove.
- If a tree falls in the forest, YOU will hear it. This goes for falling rocks as well. A variation on this theme could come in handy if you’ve unwittingly blazed a trail through someone’s secret backwoods firing range.
- Never again have to postpone your run for an hour while the iPod you forgot to charge recharges. You may find that while your iPod regains its charge you’ll have lost yours.
- The sound of silence. Use it to meditate. Use it to analyze your gait or your breathing. Use it to draft that novel or to work out the grand unified theory of physics. Use it to insert a mantra. Use it however you like. Or don’t use it for anything. It’s a gift. And it’s absolutely free. It may be the only waking silence you experience in the course of a day. Why fill it with noise?
What do you call a running partner who’s always eager to run, perfectly accommodating of your schedule, not afraid to drive the pace but able to ease off uncomplainingly when you ask him or her to, and who’ll never push the boundaries of “conversational pace” with a tempo run yak fest? How about Buddy, Molly, Duke, Jack, Coco or any of the entries on a list of popular dog names. That’s right, I’m talking about man’s best running partner (other than the iPod maybe, but that was another story).
In an age when 1 in every 2 relationships is begun online, it won’t come as a surprise that one can find a four-legged running partner online as well. That’s where I met Dakota (the name his Foster dad had given him): on Craigslist. Dakota is a 2 year-old Border Collie who had been rescued from a high-kill shelter in New Mexico by 4 Paws 4 Life (find them on Facebook at or meet with them at area PetSmarts during Saturday morning adoption events.) The little I’ve been able to glean of Dakota’s history, coupled with his initial unfamiliarity with indoor spaces, and his high-level of canine sociability, leads me to suppose that he had spent his pre-running days carousing with a pack on a reservation, probably with no consistent and reliable source of food, human attention or veterinary care. Fortunately his physical and mental health was excellent, leading to his being deemed adoptable—a very fair assessment considering how well he has adapted to life with a family.
For the runner in search of canine accompaniment, there are many considerations. Endurance athletes should seek the companionship of dogs whose breeding suites them for the style of running in which the athlete participates most frequently. How fast does the athlete run? How often? How far? Over what surfaces? In what weather? There are few healthy dogs that wouldn’t make a great running partner for someone, somewhere. But the key is to find the perfect pairing for human and canine athlete alike. Some of this is just common sense. An elite runner and a short-legged, long-haired, pug-nosed, aging dog? Never should the twain meet—except on the couch over a good film or book. As a running partner, a pug—no offense to your improbably fleet pug—may be better suited to jogging around the neighborhood with a grandma (unless that grandma is Joan Benoit Samuelson). For the faster runner, numerous breeds of hunting, herding or racing dog may be his or her ticket to finding a running partner that can actually keep up. For help in selecting the breed of dog that is right for your running style, consult the Runner’s World article “A Breed Apart” at http://www.runnersworld.com/running-tips/breed-apart.
When running with a dog, I prefer trails over the road, which is not to say that a dog cannot—like a human—adapt to a sensible degree of road running. Asphalt and concrete can be hard on the paw pads. Walk barefoot across an asphalt parking lot on a hot day and you’ll think twice about asking your dog to run on a road in 95-degree heat. Bring water, especially of you are asking your dog to run long and in hot weather. Pay attention to your dog’s step and gate before, during and after running. Give your dog rest if you notice him or her exhibiting signs of tenderness or distress. If the symptom persists, seek veterinary care. Always remember that when your dog isn’t performing feats of endurance athleticism on the trails, he or she is a member of your family and unlike a pair of running shoes will be front and center throughout many of the 22 or 23 hours a day you and she are not running. Expect your athletically-trained dog to exhibit—like its owner—restlessness when weather or circumstances interfere with your regularly scheduled run. Unlike you, your dog cannot go to the gym and hop on the treadmill (though I’m sure there’s a YouTube video out there ready to prove me wrong).
With Dakota being my third Border Collie running partner, I’ve learned some of the ropes of running with canines, especially Borders (bred to uncomplainingly chase herd animals all day). Like humans, canines can anticipate a learning curve as they tackle the art of controlled running. Be patient with your new running partner. Expect a few tumbles as your dog masters running basics like don’t stop abruptly in front of your human: catastrophe will follow. Bring treats to reward your runner during and especially after a smooth run. Expect to be pulled into the occasional vigorous stride or sprint as a rabbit, fox or bird happens by. Do not expect to run a clean time-trial with a canine, as potty breaks of varying lengths are a requirement and can happen any time (and usually do just when you’re trying to make a mile split look good); be prepared. Keep your dog on leash in neighborhoods as well as urban and suburban trails. Become adept at using a retractable leash or at gathering in the length of your traditional leash to allow the safe and easy passage of fellow pedestrians and cyclists. Remember to cover your car seats if— following a hard rain—you’ll be driving to that trail with the red mud. Don’t be alarmed when your dog goes into a sleep coma hours after an exhausting run. Do read up on running with dogs. There are experts who think it’s a great idea, and experts who don’t. But then there are experts who maintain that human running is a bad idea. And we’ve all decided what to make of that.