Thursday, 15 March 2012

Nature of running

Hats off to last night's Nature of Things episode The Perfect Runner. Summarizing two million years of human (running) evolution turned out to be more straightforward than I expected, in part thanks to the show getting straight to the point: we never had a chance of out-sprinting predators so instead we evolved to outrun our prey...eventually. Some of this is explained by Daniel Lieberman (for those who don't already know that name, he started a lot of serious discussion after a front-page Nature article comparing shod and barefoot runners). Niobe Thompson hosted the show, an avid but not professional runner and takes us on a tour of places such as the Reindeer herders in Russia and modern Ethiopians.
Now, the episode does not break new ground but it pieces together a lot of good information. We watch as several cultures exploit our persistence hunting abilities, thereby quelling their feasibility, and doesn't even shy from showing us an actual animal kill or two. We learn, or are reminded, that four-legged animals tire more easily than humans at very long distances. Lieberman quickly goest through all the muscles in our body used exclusively for running.  It would be silly to argue that so many parts were designed for something we barely used (historically speaking). Having read his original papers, his work is outlined nicely here. 

That said, I was especially happy with what The Perfect Runner did not do: it avoided many cliches. There was no mention of Dean Karnazes, neo running brand names like Newton or Vibram shoes (though the latter made a brief appearance in Lieberman's lab, not by name), racial comparisons, fads like the Chi or Pose techniques, Kenyans, name dropping of Lydiard or other modern coach gurus, the recent rise in obesity, oddities like the man versus horse races, or over-used expressions like 'human sprit' (rather they use 'human condition', which sounds gentler). The documentary story remained simple, focusing on humans as a running species. One ultra, the Death Race, is run by the host, but as a point to show how running 100 kilometers is not that hard.

The episode had an implied theme that ultra endurance comes naturally even to those past their prime. A lot of running in the show highlights people in their late thirties to mid sixties. This is a good point to make since most road races are dominated by the 40 to 50-something crowd. Though they do not often win outright, they are never far behind and enjoy the longer distances with age. We're naturally drawn to push our mileage, discovering along the way almost anyone can run much farther than a marathon. I remember how I once ran 52 kilometers around Montreal just to see if I could. It was tiring, but never felt 'inhuman' (whatever that would mean). 

My favorite segment was the focus on Ethiopian running. Ethiopians usually get a back seat in documentaries, books, movies, etc, which is curious since they have often been the world leaders in 5k to marathon distances (Bekele, Defar, Melkamu and Geb to name a few). Their talent is explained by a mix of an early barefoot experience strengthening foot muscles (but they don't fail to mention they wear shoes later on) and desire. Running well means wealth and escaping a dull existence, no less than a US farmhand might dream of football scholarships (my analogy). 

I had only one quibble with the show: the story could have spent some time explaining the link between our intelligence and running. They made point that our big brains needed big game energy, hence eating plants wasn't quite enough for our australopithecus ancestors. What still interests me, and what wasn't quite discussed here, was perhaps persistence hunting required intelligence beyond what is normally needed in a hunt. This point is mentioned in Born to Run but here it was ever so slightly sidestepped. But it was a good sift for all the information -and misinformation- scattered out there. 

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