[ Originally published October 28, 2009]
In Tuesday’s NY Times, an article entitled “The Human Body is Built for Distance” begins with this rhetorical question:
“Does running a marathon push the body further than it is meant to go?”
Sometimes, rhetorical questions about running become tedious, and this is one of those times. The trap-door in the question is the word “meant”, which has at least two meanings here. Our bodies might be “meant” to run marathons in the sense that we have certain adaptations that make it possible, even advantageous to go long distances without stopping. On the other hand, it could be that we are not “meant” to run marathons because they’re really hard, and they expose most of us to all sorts of risks and insults.
So, let’s answer the unanswerable question: yes, human beings were meant to run marathons, and no, as a rule, most of us were not meant to run marathons — especially when the entry fees are a hundred bucks or more.
The fact is, some of us do run long distances and are better for it. Most of us do not run long distances, and are glad that marathons are not mandatory. Some of us consider ourselves to be runners, and yet have no need or desire to run longer than a few miles at a time.
However — and I hope you are following my train of thought here — all of us get hungry and need to eat. The most interesting item in the NY Times article was the link to the study, Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers. In it, the author describes the modern use of endurance running to track and kill game.
I love the term “persistence hunting” and I love the idea that human beings, running in small packs, can out-smart and out-endure animals like the eland, kudu, gemsbok, hartebeest, duiker, steenbok, cheetah, caracal, and African wild cat. Wow. Doesn’t that list, alone, make you want to up your mileage? It turns out, that one of the keys to running down game is chasing them during the hottest part of the day. Humans have a huge advantage in being able to cool themselves via sweating, so all though it’s hot out there for everyone, it’s a lot hotter for the hartebeest.
So I encourage you to skip the Times article and go right to the paper. And when you’re done, instead of picking up Chris McDougall’s book, read “Why We Run” by Berndt Heinrich, which offers a unique mix of anthropology, physiology, biography, and first-person race reporting.
And then meet us at 9:00 a.m. Sunday for our weekly hunt.