Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Toes, Heels, and Human Evolution

     Maybe you heard the news of a study about the lengths of people's toes (seriously), a couple of years ago.  Published in the Journal of Experimental  Biology, it found that people who have short toes use a lot less energy to run, but not to walk, than people with long toes.  Also in the past few years, several popular books attracted attention to the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's remote Copper Canyon, who run long distances barefoot or with minimal sandals.  I have the impression that both of these events have contributed to the growing popularity of the minimalist running shoe movement.  Remember when running shoe experts always advised us to allow an extra half-size of space in the toe box?  That, plus the sturdy toe box material itself, effectively made our toes longer.  If only I'd known!  Over three decades ago (in 1977 and 1980), I published four articles on the Tarahumara in Running Times. But in those days, most long-distance running was on roads, where there was often a lot of glass shards and trash, and barefoot running probably didn't sound like much fun.  Now, more of us run on trails, like the Tarahumara.
     OK, you might say, so the lengths of toes vary from one person to another, just as the lengths of our whole bodies do.  But why was that worth spending research money on, and why did it make headlines?  Would anyone pay grant money to study whether long-bodied (tall) people are more likely to be good basketball players?
     The answer is, the real signficance of this wasn't about comparing different groups of people, but about comparing people with other primates.  Humans have shorter toes than apes and other primates, but the implications of that weren't entirely clear until the energy-use discovery was reported by two anthropologists interested in human evolution--Campbell Rolan of the University of Calgary and Daniel Lieberman of Harvard.  Suddenly, a theory about human evolution that had been on the margins of academic paleoanthropology--the "persistence hunting" theory that humans evolved not as bipedal walkers but as bipedal long-distance runners--moved a little closer to being widely accepted.
     With the aid of hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised.  Over the past half-century, I've been through a whole odyssey of encounters with questions about how we runners should touch down and push off our feet, and what kinds of shoes we should wear--or not!
     My odyssey began with my first year of high-school cross-country in 1956, when my coach, who apparently had never been a runner himself, shouted repeatedly, "Run on your toes!  Run on your toes!"  I did, and it seemed to work out well.  Where he got that advice, I'm not sure.  Maybe it was one of those old chestnuts passed down from coach to coach, like "No pain, no gain!" (dead wrong) or "Never drink water during a hard workout" (dead wrong and deadly, but common belief in the 1950s).  Or, maybe he'd watched track meets and noticed that all the sprinters and quarter-milers ran on their forefeet (true).  In any case, I didn't question it and my running went well.
     But a few years later, I found one day that both of my feet were in extreme pain.  I went to an orthopedist, who told me I had collapsed my arches, would never be able to run again, and would have to wear full-lenth, rigid stainless steel arch supports in my shoes for the rest of my life.
     I liked running way too much to take that seriously, soon started running again (and wearing the steel arch supports only in my street shoes), and have run another 45 years without a break since then.  After about ten years I lost one of the steel supports, so I gladly threw away the other.  I replaced them with plastic orthotics--but again, only in my street shoes.  When I run, I want to feel the earth under me.
     I continued to run on my "toes" (landing on the forefoot) until 1965, I think it was, when I decided to do my first marathon--the Cherry Tree Marathon in the Bronx.  At around 17 miles, I caught up with a guy named Ted Corbitt, who'd been on the U.S. Olympic marathon team in the 1950s and was kind of a legend among the New York-area runners.  Ted had been one of the founders of the Road Runners Club of America, and is now remembered as the father of American ultrarunning.  By the mid-60s, he had slowed, but was still running road races and was a great inspiration to younger guys like me.  When I pulled even with him, I saw him glance at my feet.  Then he kind of smiled, and said, "You know, you'd probably run better if you let yourself land on your heels!"  I was awestruck; it was as if I were a Little League kid who'd suddenly been offered personal advice by Micky Mantle!
     Over the next four months, I took Ted Corbitt's advice to heart (or should I say "heart and sole"), and relaxed my gait, letting my feet touch down lightly on the heel, roll forward, and push off the forefoot.  In retrospect, I think that one sentence from Ted Corbitt probably extended my running life by 20 years.  Today, at age 69, I run much more mileage than I did in high school, and my feet feel as good now as they did at 16.
     Which brings me back to the study of toe-lengths.  I don't  know whether the researchers addressed the question of forefoot (toe) strike vs. heel  strike, and the rather important biomechanical difference between sprinting and long-distance running.  For a sprinter, long toes wouldn't be a handicap, at least as far as energy use goes.  You don't see a 200-meter guy stopping to grab a banana at the 100-meter aid station!  Even a 1500 meter runner is only going to use less than a tenth of the glycogen energy stored in his muscles, so he can run for maximum power rather than be concerned about energy conservation.  And indeed, as far as I know, all top middle-distance runners, as well as sprinters, are forefoot runners.  They take more energy, but also get more leverage and lift.  The design of a drag-race car doesn't care about MPG.
     And finally, that brings us back to the implication of short toes for the evolution of humans.  For decades, evolutionary scientists tended to dismiss this theory on the grounds that running could hardly be a survival advantage for early humans (hominids) because hominids were slower than all the animals they were chasing, or that might chase and kill them.  What the persistence-hunting theorists suggested was that when the slow-footed hominids chased a faster animal like an antelope, the animal would easily dash away but would soon tire and have to stop for rest.  The hominids were slower but had developed greater endurance, and would keep coming.  The quarry would dash away again, stop again . . . and after a series of such escapes would finally be too exhausted to continue, and the hominids would catch up and kill it with a rock. (We described the Tarahumara doing just this, in our 1977 articles.)  The Darwinian advantage for the humans, then, was not speed but endurance.
     To me, that fact has huge implications not just about the human past, but also about our future.  Right now, I think it's clear that humanity is in trouble.  In the increasingly hectic and often frantic rush of modern civilization, we have become infatuated with speed and power in all things.  As a consequence, we may be inadvertently abandoning the very qualities that enabled us to be good survivors--the qualities that brought us to the dance.  Part of my argument is that with endurance came other qualities essential to long-run survival: patience and ability to anticipate what the eyes cannot yet see.  I'm exploring this concern in a separate website,  Comments are welcome!



Friday, March 11, 2011

Overcoming Adversity, and the Amazing Story of Anne Audain

     In my last post, I ruminated about competitiveness, and how conflicted I can be about whether competitiveness is the magical trait we Americans have been taught from the time we were old enough to run to first base in Little League.  Yesterday, I got an email from a woman who ranks among the top competitive runners of all time, and her story puts a whole different light on my question.  If you are old enough to recall the golden age of road running, in the 1980s (before a lot of us gravitated to the trails), you know the name Anne Audain.  Anne was born with deformed feet, and couldn't walk correctly until she had reconstructive surgery at age 13.  Three years later, she qualified as a middle-distance runner for the New Zealand Olympic team!  She then came to the United States to run in our major road races.  In the 1980s, Anne Audain won more races than any other runner in the world.  For Anne, competitiveness was a path to leaving adversity in the dust.  And she reminds me that that's been true for many others.  Here's the email she sent me yesterday:

     30 years ago this month, I arrived in the United States at age 25 from my native New Zealand, in hopes of reviving a running career laid to rest by the 1980 Olympic boycott and a tough time with my first coach.  At the end of 1980, I joined my second coach, John Davies, and he suggested I try going to the USA, where women were being given the chance to run the longer distances.  You'll recall that at that time, the longest distance in the Olympic Games for women was 1500 meters.  John thought I would be better at the longer distances.
     I came with my savings, and my first race was the Crescent City CLassic 10K in New Orleans.  Having come from an island nation, I questioned the city being below sea level, and asked what would happen if the levees broke!  But I digress!  I raced my first-ever 10K, finishing third behind Patti Catalano, who broke the American record, and Joan Benoit Samuelson -- I think you know her!  I actually fell down at the start, and after recovering ran well enough to finish in 33 minutes, 12 seconds.
     People were very encouraing and supportive, and I caught a train with Jeff Galloway and his wife Barbara to their home in Atlanta, where I stayed for two weeks  Jeff introduced me to all the new changes in the sport.  I then moved on to Eugene, Oregon, to join the Athletics West team. 
     Then it was on to Denver, Colorado, where I was introduced to altitude for the first time in my life.  I thought I would die!  There, Creigh Kelley found a running couple for me to live with, and became my first "agent"--at a time when the sport was still officially amateur.  Fast-forward to June, 1981, when Phil Knight (co-founder of Nike) put up $50,000 in prize money for a race in Portland, Oregon, and encouraged us road-racers to attend and pledge to take a stand and turn the sport professional.  The consequences of accepting any money as a runner at that time was a lifetime ban!  I was running out of money, though, so I was happy to enter--and I won!  I received a $10,000 prize and a lifetime ban as promised (later rescinded, as all the big races began offering prize money and giving runners a chance to earn a living at what they loved).  I was also threatened with deportation, as I was here on a visitor's visa. My parents weren't too happy.  But that race began a memorable decade for me, as I won 75 races in that span.  Upon retirement in 1992, I founded what is now the largest 5K for women and children in the USA--the St. Luke's Women's Fitness Celebration in Boise, Idaho--a way to give back to a country that gave me so much!
    No longer running in competition, but still happily running every day!

Anne Audain

Ed's note:  Anne's website is, and the St. Luke's website is

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Do we all have to be competitive?

     Here's a question I've been debating for the past 45 years.  Are all runners, at heart, competitive?  Are all humans?  You may think the answer is obvious:  it's Darwinian, it's in our nature.  I don't know.
     When I started Running Times in 1977, the idea was to have a magazine for "serious runners."  I lived in Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Roadrunners would put on races every week or two, year-round.  Maybe 50 of us hard-core runners would show up for each race.  But there was a new phenomenon developing in those days -- the advent of the "jogging," and the booming popularity of recreational running as a means of losing weight, looking fit, and meeting members of the opposite sex.  Some of us road racers found that whole scene a bit annoying.  It was too commercial, for one thing.  We began to see ads for ridiculous jogging products, apparently invented by people who wanted to cash in on the boom but had themselves never "jogged."  One ad was for a jogger's rear-view mirror, which you were supposed to strap on your arm near the elbow.  Of course, when you run your elbows swing back and forth, and I tried to imagine a runner swinging his head back and forth trying to see what was in his mirror. Wouldn't it be easier just to turn his head and look back?  Another product we saw advertised was a pair of shoes with giant springs built in, ostensibly enabling the wearer to run in giant leaps like a kangaroo.  I never did see a pair of those shoes at a road race.
     Within a few years, though, most of us hard-core types had relinquished our scorn.  We were won over by the sheer enthusiasm of the joggers, some of whom were our own wives or kids.  At Running Times, we received -- and published -- voluminous reports of people going from fat to fit, giving up smoking, overcoming depression, lowering their cholesterol or blood pressure, and finding new vitality and enjoyment of life.  Many, when they ran, talked as animatedly as if they were at a party. Competitiveness seemed to have little to do with why they were there.  And I'd seen this in marathons and ultras, too.  As I grew older and slower, I'd find myself among groups in a race who were regaling each-other with stories, clearly enjoying the companionship and appearing to have no interest in beating each-other's brains out.
     On the other hand, they were doing this in races, which sometimes they had paid good money to come to from hundreds of miles away.  And within a few years, the number of fun-loving runners entering races reached staggering numbers.  One year in the 1980s, if I recall, over 100,000 men and women ran the Bay-to-Breakers 8-mile in San Francisco.  About 80,000 ran the Bloomsday run in Spokane, Washington.  Last year, over 40,000 ran the New York Marathon, and a similar number were turned away.  Wasn't there, under all that chatty camaraderie, at least a little flame of competitiveness?
     There's also the not-insignificant matter of how Americans have been exposed to an almost never-questioned doctrine of "being competitive" as the key to success in all things.  Whether it's school, sport, business, or national supremacy, we're taught that the goal is to be winners.  I don't know how many times I've heard a political or business leader quote the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, saying "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."  I've never heard anyone challenge that.  Yet, addicted to competition that I am, I think Lombardi was wrong.
     As anyone who is an alcoholic or who struggles with an addiction to cocaine, or cigarettes, or gambling  knows, addiction gives us our momentary highs but in the end is crippling.  America was on a half-century-long high up until the first decade of the 21st century, but half a century is only a moment in evolutionary time.  If the human journey on this planet began around 5 million years ago, as the most recent finding suggests, that half-century high out of a 5-million-year evolution is the equivalent of less than the last second of a 24-hour day.  And now we may be starting to feel some of the crippling.
     Back in the 1970s, there was a lot of talk about the "positive addiction" of running, and the "runner's high." There was some joking about LSD, which was a popular narcotic in the 70s but for a few of us stood for "Long Slow Distance".  Running can trigger the release of endorphins, which can mask pain and may be part of what's going on when you find yourself in what athletes who've just had fantastic performances call "the zone."  But undeniably, competition can be addictive in ways that are not always positive.  How else to explain the fact that many of the 400 richest Americans, who together have as much wealth as 150 million other Americans combined, recently fought as if their lives depended on it to win still more of the country's wealth by extending the Bush tax cuts?  They can't stop!  Fighting the rest of the country for financial ascendance is the only game they know.
     Having been a competitive runner for over 54 years, I know I  probably can't stop what I do, either.  There are times when running feels terrific, just as there are times when an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler claims to feel terrific.  But ultimately, any addiction--even a "positive" one--is a burden.  I no longer tolerate cold weather as well as I once did, and on a dreary winter day I can experience a wrenching internal tug-of-war between two parts of myself -- one wanting to keep training for the next race, the other wanting to curl up with a blanket and good book.  Sometimes the book wins; sometimes the frigid outdoors.  I also know that if I weren't addicted enough to get out for at least a good many of those forbidding days, I wouldn't be in touch with the genetic messages I'm accessing from my early hominid ancestors -- about what terrible ordeals they endured, and how their experience and adaptations to hardship ultimately enabled us modern humans to have the adaptive capabilities we now enjoy.  We wouldn't have had the endurance, patience, and ability to envision a place that still lies out of sight ahead of us (to dream, to plan), if our hunter-gatherer ancestors had not built these capabilities over many millennia.
     Sport can sometimes be painful, exhausting, or disappointing,  but at least it doesn't leave us dead on the side of the road, like the losers in a war over ideology, oil, or control of territory.  Sport allows us to compete with others without maiming or murdering them.  And if I'm, still wondering why millions of people who don't seem as compulsively competitive as I am still run races, a conversation I had one day with the former NFL football player David Meggyesy (see my earlier blog) may offer an answer.  David offered an explanation for the seeming paradox of players beating each-other up yet still being good friends:  "The players need each-other.  If they don't have the other players, they don't have a game."  And of course, that's true for runners too: it helps to explain why there's so much camaraderie even in a competition.  If we don't have other runners who are friendly and not trying to spear us like enemy warriors, we won't have a way of enjoying the social ritual of running together -- we won't have a race.  On a global scale, competition can stimulate new inventions and more efficent production, as economists stress.  But if the great majority of people can't do it with good will and mutual cooperation, we won't long have a human race.