Random item from my box of running memorabilia.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nefarious Nike: Can Chris McDougall be Serious?

     It will be interesting to see if the barefoot and "minimalist" running shoe phenomenon turns out to be a fad.  My guess is that it won't, and that in some ways, for some runners, it will be a part of our running gear for the future.  But not everything about this phenomenon adds up.  With the aid of a half-century's hindsight, here's my belated view of where we're going with this.
     I say "belated" because I see that a lot of the impetus for this phenomenon came from the huge popularity of Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, which I admit I did not read until quite recently.  McDougall recounts the story of the barefoot-running or minimalist-sandals-running Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's remote Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyons), and then spins off into the history of the modern running shoe.  His basic messages are (1) that the Tarahumara are the greatest runners in the world by far, and (2) that the modern running shoe is a terrible thing, ignorantly designed and cynically marketed for profit at the expense of thousands of unnecessarily injured runners, including McDougall.
     I'm a little embarrassed to be reacting so belatedly, because I may be the most experienced long-distance runner in America (is there anyone else out there who has run competitively for 54 consecutive years?) and my experience has incuded (1) fairly good knowledge of the Tarahumara, and (2) fairly extensive familiarity with the history of the modern running shoe.  In 1977, as the founding editor of Running Times magazine, I published three articles about the Tarahumara, and in 1984 a fourth article--shortly before the first scientific articles on the "Running Man" theory of human evolution were published..  And what our articles made clear is that while the Tarahumara are indeed amazing, they are not uniquely amazing.  What made them remarkable was not that their best runners were "superathletes," as suggested by the subtitle of McDougall's book, but that everyone in their society runs.  We of the USA have superathletes too (as McDougall eventually acknowledges), but we also have a huge number of people who are sadly sendentary and soft.
      In the way he starts his story, suggesting that there 's a kind of god-like superhuman out there in the canyons somewhere, McDougall is over the top, as I'll discuss in a forthcoming post devoted specifically to reviewing his book.  (And  by the way, I won't totally trash the book, because in some respects it is really good.)  And as for the origins and future of the modern running shoe--well, I think McDougall is just plain wrong.  At Running Times, I published numerous independent reviews (by sports podiatrists and test runners) of running shoes from all the manufacturers--Adidas, Tiger (later Asics), New Balance, Nike, Etonic, Saucony, Brooks, Lydiard, Hi-Tec, Reebok, Turntec, Puma, and a few others.  Over the years, we got feedback from hundreds of experts on biomechanics, anatomy, sports inuries, etc., and I don't think they could all have been as blindered as Born to Run suggests.
      McDougall writes that the modern running shoe was invented by Nike's co-founder Bill Bowerman in 1972, and that Bowerman didn't know diddly about running.  Which is a little like saying Dwight Eisenhower didn't know diddly about war.  His implication seems to be that until Bowerman came along, all running shoes were what we'd now call minimalist.  The new "modern" shoes introduced cushioning, pronation control, and more rubber under the heel, etc.  McDougall's assessment is that these new developments were big mistakes.  I disagree.  Minimalist-shoe or barefoot running may be great for some people, but for others those modern shoes he disparages were a godsend.  
     I ran in my first pair of modern running shoes before McDougall was born, and long before Nike existed, so those shoes couldn't have been invented by Nike!  (The waffle sole, yes, but the enhanced cushioning and stability, no.)  I had started running cross country at Westfield (New Jersey) Senior High School in 1956, and all the kids on my team were given the standard distance-running shoes of that era--low-cut, black canvas-top shoes with no cushioning and only a small, narrow outsole under the heel.  They were what we'd now call minimalist.  But then I heard about the new kind of running shoe that some of the top runners were wearing, that you could get from a company called Adidas.  I couldn't find a store anywhere in New Jersey that sold them, but I heard that you could get them at a place called Carlson Import Shoe Co, in New York City.  I caught a train to New York and found the company in a dingy, second-story walk-up in lower Manhattan.  There wasn't even a sign on the street.  The shoes I bought were green and white, with kangaroo-skin uppers (later made illegal), good cushioning, and nice support in the heel.  They fit me like kid gloves.  They were magic, and I wish I still had them.  I went from 7th man on my team to 7th in the state championship.
     The thing is, those Adidas shoes were a huge improvement, at least for me, over the canvas flats.  Today, I see tens of thousands of runners (many of them fairly new to the sport) going in the opposite direction, swept up in the thrall of McDougall's "naked tour" and the romance of the myth of the barefoot Tarahumara, denouncing the shoes of the past four decades as rip-offs.  And I wonder if the shoe manufacturers, who have responded by offering lots of new minimalist models, are being swept up a little too easily themselves.
     It's going to take me a while to sort this all out (and to learn more about the "barefoot debate"), but my present inclination is to think a lot of runners may have overreacted to the romance of the Born-to-Run cult.  Philosophically, I like the idea of taking a cue from our ancient ancestors.  (We need to do that in a lot of ways beyond just how we decide on footwear, as I discuss on the website http://www.willhumansendure.com/.)  I think the science of the Running Man theory is sound.  But civilization has subjected us to 10,000 years of cultural intervention and breeding that have separated us from our origins so drastically that it's unrealistic to think we can simply throw off our shoes and run free.  Some can, but a lot of us can't.  If you're starting to run at age 30 or 40 and have spent three or four decades letting your feet be carried around in rigid plastic or leather coffins on smooth floors or pavement, the muscles, tendons, and bones in your feet may retain very little of the strength and resilience our ancient ancestors had--or that today's Tarahumara still have.  You may be better off doing what I did when I got those green-and-white Adidas.  That was 52 years ago, and I'm still running strong.  I have never bothered with shoes that cost $100 or more (McDougall is more on target in suggesting that buying one of the more expensive models can be a fool's errand), and for the past few years I've been happy with fairly basic Saucony or Asics models priced around $60 to $80, which have the same basic features those magical Adidas shoes had half a century ago.  I hope the shoe companies keep making shoes like that for people like me.  And if Chris McDougall would like to set up another "greatest race the world has never seen" with some of the over-70-year-old Tarahumara included, those guys can run in their sandals and I'll be there in my Sauconys.  And I think I'll do pretty well.
    


    
  

Monday, May 2, 2011

John F. Kennedy and the Origin of Modern Ultrarunning

     NOTE:  This is a followup to my last blog, about President John F. Kennedy's worries that Americans were becoming too physically and mentally soft.

     In the winter of 1962-63, during his ruminations about whether Americans were fit enough to meet the challenges of an increasingly dangerous age, President Kennedy came across an Executive Order that had been written half a century earlier by another president who valued physical vigor and had been similarly concerned.  In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt had declared that all U.S. Marines should be able to prove their fitness by walking 50 miles in three days, doing the last half-mile by alternating 200 yards of double-time marching and 30 seconds of rest, then sprinting the final 200 yards.  The records showed that some of TR's officers had done the distance in one day, and Kennedy wondered whether the Marines of 1963 were as fit as those of 1908.  He sent a memo to the Marine commandant, General David Shoup, suggesting "Why don't you send this [Roosevelt's order] back to me as your own discovery?  You might want to add a comment that today's Marine Corps officers are just as fit as those of 1980, and are willing to prove it.  I, in turn, will ask Mr. Salinger [Pierre Salinger, the White House Press Secretary] for a report on the fitness of the White House staff."
     That began the great "50-mile walk" phenomenon of 1963--a phenomenon that was regarded both then and later largely as a "craze".  On February 5, the White House put out a press release about Roosevelt's order, noting that the president had suggested to General Shoup that he find out how well his Marines could do, compared with Teddy Roosevelt's Marines.  A group of officers was called up to do the test.  However, JFK's brother, Bobby Kennedy, decided he was going to do it too, and wasn't going to wait for the Marines.  That Sunday, Bobby set out on a 50-mile hike with four of his aides, on the C&O Canal Towpath from the Washington, DC suburbs to Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  The weather was freezing, the towpath was covered with slush, and one by one the aides all dropped out.  As the last one quit at mile 35, Bobby Kennedy said to him, "You're lucky your brother isn't president of the United States."  Kennedy reached 50 miles in 17 hours, 50 minutes.
     Within days, thousands of civilians, likewise, had responded to the challenge intended for Marine officers.  A 15-year-old, Paul Kiczek, did the distance and decades later revisited the experience in an Internet search of 1963 newspaper stories about the hikes.  A New Jersey newspaper, The Daily Record, reported on February 15, 1963 that a 24-year-old policeman and ex-Marine, Francis wulff, had done the feat on the spur of the moment.  "I read about some army officers shooting off their mouths about the Marines and I decided to give it a try," Wulff told the reporter.  On February 16, the same paper reported that a group of eight teenagers from Boonton, New Jersey had set out in sub-freezing weather and three had gone the distance.  One of them, 17-year-old Ken Middleton, remarkably finished the 50 miles in under 12 hours--which meant he had to have run a good part of the distance.  On February 22, the paper reported that The Mansion House Tavern, in Boonton, had announced a competition, a "Fifty-Mile Endurance Walk," to take place on March 10, with a $25 Savings Bond for the winner and free draft beer for everyone who finished.  Meanwhile, in Marin County, California, 400 high-school students set out to do the 50 miles, presumably even without the incentive of free beer, and 97 of them finished.
     Across the country, the "fad" was met with quick scorn and skepticism from medical and health experts.
     From the American Medical Association:  "People can endanger themselves.  We get distressed when people go out and strain themselves."
     From the National Recreation Association:  "The 50-mile hike verges on insanity."
     From the Soviet Union's Olympic track coach:  "So a man walks 50 miles in one day--what of it?  Tomorrow he catches a taxicab again to go four blocks."
    
     So, what was Kennedy thinking?  Had he had second thoughts about his comment [in his Sports Illustrated article] that his goal was not to train our youth to be warriors like the ancient Spartans?  One clue may be that unlike some of the more cocksure politicians who would succeed him, Kennedy had an abiding interest in military history and in the rises and falls of empires.  He may have been more conscious than some of his generals that in the history of civilization, the capacity to conquer or destroy often turns out to be only the beginning of the story.  Often, a decisive part of the story is a people's capacity to wait and endure.  JFK was doubtless familiar with the history of the Arab revolt led by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in 1917, which dramatically demonstrated how consequential that capacity can be.  The British, who were encouraging the revolt against the Ottoman Empire, wanted the Arabs to attack the Turks at their stronghold in Medina.  But whereas the Turks had thousands of men, Lawrence had only a few hundred.  The Turks had unassailable power, but the Arabs had something else--an ability to hit and run, striking repeatedly at the railroad that supplied the Turkish garrison.  With all their heavy armor, the Turks couldn't effectively chase down their attackers, who travelled light and could fade into the desert,  In  his well-researched article in the May 11, 2009 New Yorker, "How David Beats Goliath," Malcolm Gladwell notes that Lawrence led his Bedouins over 600 miles in summer heat while the Turks stayed fixed in their garrison.  He quotes Lawrence: "Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets are movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of country...."  In the end, the tribesmen killed or captured 1,200 Turks while losing only two men of their own.  In this context, Gladwell quotes the 15th-century French general Maurice de Saxe, who famously said that the art of war is about legs, not arms.  And, noted Gladwell, "Lawrence's troops were all legs."
     However, I suspect Kennedy wasn't just thinking about the physical endurance of the Marines, but a broader set of concerns: the role of persistence as well as power, of patience as a reality check to impulsive urgency, and the long view as an essential factor in planning, especially in response to emergencies.  I wonder if he may have sensed, even before its outlines were clear, that the world was headed toward a global emergency even more all-encompassing--and fateful--than that of the global war that had ended a few years earlier.  Scientists had not yet foreseen the specter of catastrophic climate change.  And the threats of ecological failure, resource wars, peak oil, and Malthusian outcomes were then only faint shadows on the horizon.  Whatever JFK  had in mind, he never got to fully explain in a thoughtful memoir,or even in policy discussions, as his life was suddenly cut off.  But his call was taken to heart by more than just the Marines.
     A few months after the 50-mile phenomenon began, President Kennedy was assassinated and the hiking party was over.  The accepted view was that it all had been basically a fad, and that with the charismatic president gone, whatever real inspireation there had been in it had died with him.  The decade would quickly turn to graver, and more turbulent, concerns.  If anyone had sensed that personal fitness might be a precondition for societal wellbeing, that sense was numbed by the violence of the following years--from the assassination of Martin Luther King and Kennedy's brother Bobby, to the Vietnam War, the protests and riots, and the fast-spreading drug culture--a much quicker route to gratification in a country where ever-quicker routes were becoming the rule of the rising sprint culture-- than taking long hikes on winter days.  Even as seemingly well-researched a history as Paul Kiczek's posting on the JFK hikes concluded that by the mid-1960s, the 50-mile fad had ended.  "Interestingly, only one 50-mile event appears to remain active in the U.S.," Kiczek quite mistakenly wrote in 2009.  Maybe he can be excused for not knowing, because such events are almost never seen or mentioned by sports shows or reporters, and rarely seen by the general public, as they usually take place on remote mountain or desert trails.  But in fact, more than 500 ultramarathons were held in the United States that year.  And the number has continued to grow since then.
     The "one remaining" event Kiczek referred to was the appropriately named "JFK 50-mile," which was first held in 1963 and has been held every year since.  The JFK 50 started as a hike, was soon changed to a "hike/run" and then to just the "JFK 50-mile run."  It is the largest ultra in the U.S., and probably second only to Western States as the most competitive. This fall will be its 49th year, and I plan to be running.