It all starts with a simple, five worded question, 'Why does my foot hurt?'. For Christopher, it was not love for the act: “I didn’t love running, but I wanted to.” For me I wanted to run, not because I like it, but because I would like to be in good shape and with good stamina. And cycling is not running, especially steady-cycle cycling. Thankfully, I haven’t hurt myself the way he did, but yes, I’ve never run either, the way he did. I am a heavy hipped sedentary pedantric. And also, I don’t WANT to gym, in the gym. (Everyone says ‘We were born to be wild’ but no one actually wants to be one.)
I’d read something about this book, long back once, where some article was explaining that humans were born to run, and also got into the physiology of how our entire body structure, from the butts, to the chest and abdomen are fine tuned for running and how it gives us the aerodynamic stability and agility. Given that the book was published in 2009, and I presume I read it after coming to the metros, I read it somewhere after 2011. Since then, I’d always had this book in my mind when office colleagues geared up for two Airtel Half-Marathons, while I wondered why would one want to pay for running? I finally got my hands on it (and read it in a reading marathon, with quick breaks to type down excerpts lest I may have to re-read it to find them!) So, it must have been something like a 24 hour marathon, if I removed the breaks. I’m a slow rider, you see. Here I am marvelling at the scenery and lo! a sparrow takes flight!
Anyhow, this book is about running, running long, very long marathons - 50 miles, 100 miles, 150 miles, no stop. From a single question ‘Why does my foot hurt?’, Christopher takes us on a bumpy ride into the Copper Canyons of Mexico where an ancient tribe of men (the Tarahumara) live sticking to their roots of running, even when the temperature rises up to 150 degrees (Farenheit, 67 Degree Celcius). Christopher is quick in his digressions and had it not been a story within a story within a story in many places, the book wouldn’t last 60 pages. But what amusement, I didn’t mind at all! In fact, I wondered, since I too am prone to digressions, ‘how did he do that?’ (Of course, he admits that it was his editor who trimmed him dapper, but still!).
The language is beautifully simple and amusing, sometimes, ribtickling. Take this for example,
"Tarahumara are so mysterious, in fact, they even go by an alias. Their real name is Raramuri - the Running People. They were dubbed 'Tarahumara' by conquistadores who didn't understand tribal tongue. The bastardized name stuck because the Raramuri remained true to form, running away rather than hanging around to argue the point."...
"...a biologist's occupational hazard, second only to falling in love with your research assistant, was falling in love with your hobbies."
Note that this was followed by something amusing, but something we are all prone to.
"You become your own test subject; you start seeing the world as a reflection of your own life, and your own life as a reference point for just about every phenomenon in the world."
While, I believe that as we become more conversant in some subject, and more expert in it, we start to see everything else in terms we are familiar with. This is for our own simplification. The hazard obviously is, when you lose hooks on the basis of this simplification which is meant to serve as a suitable analogy, not a solution. The solution may or may not be true. Take this for example:
“A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident at night.
Two cab companies, the Green and the Blue, operate in the city.
You are given the following data:
85% of the cabs in the city are Green and 15% are Blue.
A witness identified the cab as Blue. The court tested the reliability of the witness under the circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colors 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.
What is the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green?”
[Taken from ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman]
I re-read it as:
“Consider a binary symmetric channel in a noisy environment. Due to noise, the transmitted bit may get flipped 20% of all times it is transmitted. A ‘1’ or ON may be transmitted 15% of the times, and a zero would be transmitted 85% of the time. If the receiver received the bit as a ‘1’, what is the probability that a ‘1’ was actually transmitted?”
If you want to give it a shot, please go ahead. The answer is at the bottom. Nay, just kidding, it’s (12/29, or 41.379%). And I’m not even an expert. I failed to get the answer in the first shot!
Anyhow, back to the book. He cracks me up many times with his witty questions. Now, some of those questions might be something not everyone would find amusing [like you wouldn’t find it amusing that I was solving a probability question in a psychology book only to find that the point was entirely different], but I chortled aloud while I read them. Thankfully my roomies were kind to ignore a guy reading a book and laughing, apparently without reason. For example, he's in the middle of explaining human evolution as exquisite marathoners, when he says,
"When quadrupeds run, they get stuck in a one-breath-per-locomotion cycle," Dr. Bramble said. "But the human runners we tested never went one to one. They could pick from a number of different ratios, and generally preferred two to one." The reason we’re free to pant to our heart’s content is the same reason you need a shower on a summer day: we’re the only mammals that shed most of our heat by sweating. All the pelt-covered creatures in the world cool off primarily by breathing, which locks their entire heat-regulating system to their lungs. But humans, with our millions of sweat glands, are the best air-cooled engine that evolution has ever put on the market.
(The last line is the punch, for me to guffaw)
“So how long would it take to actually run an animal to death? he asked himself. Luckily, the Harvard bio labs have the best locomotive research in the world (as their willingness to insert a thermometer in a cheetah’s butt should make clear)”.
Not to mention that they put the cheetah on a treadmill! Here’s another:
“Okay, so primitive man upgraded his hardware with a bigger brain - but where did he get the software? Growing a bigger brain is an organic process, but being able to use the brain to project into future and mentally connect, say, a kite, a key, and a lightning bolt and come up with electrical transference was like a touch of magic. So where did that spark of inspiration come from?”
I am reminded of Russell Peter’s joke on strange names of people from Africa, when the author mentions, that Louis Liebenberg spoke neither the Kalahari Bushmen’s native tongue, !Kabee (how does one pronounce it?) nor their adopted one, Afrikaans.
Anyhow, the funny tone recedes when he gets down to the story actually, and the race is not funny, at all, but it is majestic, for he puts down quite beautifully what he’d kicked up in the dirt trails of the Tarahumara country. He has a real knack for connecting the footprints, especially those made on the trail tracks, and recreate the scenery for us. He’s telling stories about races he didn’t even see, but he tells them with such adrenaline rush and dramatic sense that you really feel the heat and can’t put down the book until its over. These are some ‘wringing the sweat out of you’ kind of marathons on trails where it would be so hot that runners would have to keep on the white of the asphalt or melt their soles in the simmering asphalt, or so cold atop mountains that if you got lost, you’d not come back and die of cold (okay, too extreme maybe, but frostbite?), and about those who pushed to the finish, as winners.
Caballo Blanco, (The White Horse) is the man Chrishtoper wants to meet, the link to the Tarahumara secrets, and when he does, he comes to know that Christopher already has had plans for his kind of guy. Of all the races Christopher describes, there is one which he would be a part of, the greatest one ever run (according to him) where the America’s current legends of ultramarathons compete against the American legends whose stories haven’t died.
The heroes of the past are well protected there, in the vaults of the past:
But like every champion, he was up against the Curse of Ali: he could beat everyone alive and still lose to guys who were dead (or at least, long retired). Every heavyweight boxer has to hear: "yeah, you're good, but you'd never beat Ali in his prime."...
The heroes of the past are untouchables, protected forever by the fortress door of time - unless some mysterious stranger magically turns up with a key.
While talking about Jenn and Billy, and Lance Armstrong rebounding back from, literally, the 'grave' danger, he makes a beautiful point about these people, and often about those who ever achieve anything for the heck of it (Feynman's word echo is my head here:
They [must have] expected me to be wonderful to offer me a job like this and I wasn't wonderful, and therefore I realized a new principle, which was that I'm not responsible for what other people think I am able to do; I don't have to be good because they think I'm going to be good. And somehow or other I could relax about this, and I thought to myself, I haven't done anything important and I'm never going to do anything important. But I used to enjoy physics and mathematical things and because I used to play with them it was in very short order [that I] worked the things out for which I later won the Nobel Prize.
and here I am, quoting him again). Christopher writes,
"They were expected to accomplish nothing, so they could try anything. Audacity beckoned.
But we can't stop comparing, can we?
"For all his gangliness, Caballo on a trail reminded me of Muhammad Ali in the ring: loose as a wave-washed seaweed, with just the hint of ferocity ready to explode",
he writes. There is a common thread, and a quite cliched one, if you consider the amount of time we’d hear it in everyday lives, or in maxims, and adages. But then, Christopher flirts with this theme so well that you know it must be close, but can’t really tell, until, until he finally tells it, in a quite beautiful manner. It is like, the author is good at sense-making, and of course, building the sense into a story. Mind you, it is not exactly fiction, it is almost real.
And just like that, knowledge is discussed in lay terms:
"No wonder the south American dictators had a foot fetish when it came to breaking hard cases; bastinado, the technique of tying victims down and beating the soles of their feet, was developed by the Spanish Inquisition and eagerly adopted by the world's sickest sadists. The Khmer Rogue and Saddam Hussein's sinister son Uday were big time bastinado fans because they knew their anatomy; only the face and hands compare with the feet for instant-messaging capability to the brain. When it comes to sensing the softest caress or tiniest grain of sand, your toes are as finely wired as your lips and fingertips."
"three times, America has seen distance-running skyrocket, and it's always in the midst of national crisis...(Great Depression, early 70s when recovering from Vietnam, One year after September 11 attacks)...Maybe it was a coincidence. Or 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."
"There is something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we're scared, we run when we're ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time."
Why not? Numerous times in the past, I’ve had this… urge to run, and look! I’ve also written about them. Some came as dreams, others were urges. [I wandered lonely as a cloud, Restlessness] They seem to be too distant, but again, the timing is almost in tune with my arrival in the new city.
This book tells you everything, except how to run. Or maybe it does, but not exactly. It tells you about a lot of things: from the evolution of the bipedals, and why we lasted while the close cousins and more gifted Neanderthals became extinct; the beginning of science; the bane of capitalism and of industrialization; the concept of community; how to hunt like the Kalahari men; why we can outrun a horse?; why, if we’re so built for running we don’t love it?; the constructed crisis for himself by Kasparov; and not to forget the marketing gimmicks of Nike. It is a very interesting book in its digressions and in the story too (but personally, the digressions were much more intriguing). I have excerpts filtered from the book [here], but I’d rather refrain from reading those and get the book instead if I were you.
Above all here's the thing about running which I could surmise: Form matters. A few days back, I was trying to grow a proper lotus, still am. It is that when I sit in the lotus, one of my knees hovers in air when it is expected to touch the ground making a tripod base. It has been this way ever since I tried sitting in the lotus, but no one told me that it was wrong (essentially because no one around me knew it was wrong, or really saw me sitting in a lotus either). I searched online forums about how can I grow and improve my lotus, and everywhere I went, I met a very common thread from most people. Okay, two threads. First, more than helpers, there were people who were selling an entirely different drug. A guy is telling that his knee hovers mid air, and the others tell him he is doing meditation all wrong. It is all about relaxing, and being at peace while meditating. They say, if you're comfortable in a chair, so be it. Of course, but...! If the question is a demonstration of ignorance of not knowing, but trying to know, the answers are the show of intellectual ignorance of knowing more, and not trying to know more than that. I think that was this ignorance Alexander Pope was referring to when he talked of the doctoral ignorance of ignoramuses that follows education and creates bookful blockheads. The first kind can be helped. The second kind, alas, is seldom cured once it sets in, until a major setback. But I am getting better at it.
The second thread was that there weren't many/any Indians to be found on these forums. It seems that the west has developed a fondness for the oriental practices, while the orient is silently slurping the can of carbonated water and chugging in pizzas, passing their heritage out with the feces.
Here's an argument from the book:
"Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it's really as nuanced as any other activity... Ask most people and they'll say, 'People run the way they run'. That's ridiculous. Does everyone just swim the way they swim?" For every other sport, lessons are fundamental; you don't go out and start slashing away with the golf club or sliding down a mountain on skis until someone takes you through the steps and teaches you proper form. If not, inefficiency is guaranteed and injury is inevitable...Running is the same way. Learn it wrong, and you'll never know how good it can feel."
(And so does the lotus. And those advocates of comfortable sitting must know the virtue of restraint - not that I am any better - and how the lotus is a self centering pose, where, as we start to concentrate, our spines start to straighten up, and chin rises to a point that we feel that we might fall back.)
It’s a lovely book, overall, and very, very entertaining and informative. If nothing else, it will give the American running enthusiast a tentative map of where topshots run, if they want to prove their daredevil mettle, and of course, the Boston marathon. If nothing else, it does give cogent reasons for one to try and run, and validate if what is said is true. I’m contemplating about ‘to hell with the pollution, I’ll run!’.