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, October 7, 2013

Running Form and Barefoot Running: an Interview

The barefoot running controversy has gone global.  In India, which has about 1.2  billion people (three times the population of the U.S.), running is gaining popularity fast, thanks in large part to the writing of runner/physician Rajat Chauhan.  Dr. Chauhan writes for Mint, the Indian affiliate of the Wall Street Journal, which recently interviewed me for a special feature on running form.  Here are their somewhat provocative questions, and my responses:
1)  The running world seems to be divided into two bitter groups – the barefoot exponents and those who warn that shoes should never be taken off? Would it be fair to say that the right path is somewhere down the middle?

       Research by evolutionary biologists Daniel Lieberman, Dennis Bramble, and David Carrier and their colleagues finds that humans evolved as barefoot “persistence hunters,” and their findings have led to a romanticizing of barefoot running.  However, 10,000 years of civilization have changed us.  Personally, I could not run without good running shoes—not flimsy sandals or “minimalist” models, but shoes that are fairly sturdy and protective.  When I ran the 50-mile JFK 50-Mile (America’s largest ultramarathon) last year, I didn’t see any of the thousand runners in the race running barefoot.  On rocky trails, you don’t want to be accidentally kicking rocks with your toes. 

2)  I read somewhere that the barefoot running revival is happening for the fourth time in the last few decades. Can you throw some light on this as a runner who has been competing for the last 55 years?

     Several decades ago, serious long-distance runners began competing in “racing shoes”—much lighter shoes than the shoes we trained in.  A model called the “Nike Sock Racer” was little more than a sock!  I tried running a marathon in one of those models, and by the time I reached the finish the bottoms of my feet felt as if they were on fire.  For anyone who needs some pronation control (a majority of us, I think), it’s better to run races in the same supportive shoes you train in.  Yes, you’re carrying a bit more weight, but you’re also running with better biomechanical control, which is more energy-efficient.  Elite runners who have flawless biomechanics and light body weight can (and do) run successfully with ultra-lightweight shoes.

3)  How do footwear and running form contribute to running injuries? Can you share any examples of balanced research you have come across on this topic?

     The links between footwear and vulnerability to injury are hugely complex, so I’m a bit skeptical about some of the findings.  I think the book “Born to Run” was just plain wrong in its suggestion that Nike’s development of the modern running shoe caused countless injuries.  Even if solid correlations were found (and I’m not sure they were), correlation is not causation.  Today’s runners may have more injuries than yesteryear’s, but I also have the impression that today’s runners more often take training shortcuts like trying to run a marathon within the first 6 months after taking up the sport.  (Half a century ago, we believed you shouldn’t run a marathon until you’ve been practicing at shorter distances for several years at least, and I think that’s still sound advice.) 

4)  What is your position on the forefoot/heel strike debate?

     Most long-distance runners naturally touch down on their heels.  Sprinters land on their forefeet.  Forefoot running yields greater power, so you’d be unlikely to succeed as a sprinter or 400-meter runner if you land on your heels.  But heel strike is more energy-efficient, and that’s a big factor in long-distance running.  Running with maximum power burns more energy, but for a short distances that doesn’t matter, just as it wouldn’t matter to the driver of a drag-race car if his engine burned 5 gallons per mile!  Elite runners at distances up to about 1500 or even 5000 meters tend to be forefoot strikers for this reason—power and speed are the name of the game.  Ultrarunners are nearly all heel strikers.  At distances in between, you’ll see both kinds of heel strike succeeding.

5)  Another topic that seems to be going around in the running community is stride rate and over striding. What are your thoughts on this issue?

     I’ve struggled with this issue, especially as I’ve gotten older and my natural stride length seems to have shortened.  I do have the impression (from both personal experience and observation of others) that over-striding is a common mistake because it burns too much energy and interferes with the natural rhythms of the body.  Top coaches and runners have always emphasized the importance of finding the right rhythm—or as athletes in other sports put it, the “groove.”  As for stride rate, I’ve heard of the argument that the rate should be around 180 strides per minute (3 per second) even over varying distances and speeds, so that running slower entails taking shorter strides rather than slowing the tempo, and running faster entails taking longer strides but keeping the tempo fairly constant.  I’ve played with this idea in my training, and I think it makes sense.

6)  Is running form/technique by itself a panacea for all injuries?  For instance, isn’t trading heel strike for forefoot impact just shifting the likelihood of injuries from knee to ankle? What other factors should runners keep in mind?

     No, form is not a panacea.  Funny thing, when I first started writing about running nearly 40 years ago, I liked to say that one of the great appeals of the sport is its simplicity.  But in its biomechanics and physiology, it is dauntingly complex!  Form alone is complex, but there are many other kinds of factors affecting the risk of injury:  overtraining (too many miles per week), too much speed work, poorly-fitting shoes, etc.  Regarding the forefoot-vs-heel-strike issue, I think each individual needs to find what feels most natural.  And regarding form in general, there are some basic rules: Run vertically with your center of gravity over your feet.  I’ve seen people jogging with their legs out in front and their upper body leaning forward to keep balance, but with the butt hanging behind as if it doesn’t really want to go along for the ride.  I call this “C-shape” running, and anyone who does it isn’t likely to enjoy the sport for long. 

7)  Which are the frontiers to be explored when it comes to research in running biomechanics?

     I haven’t kept up with the science, and in recent years have focused mainly on my own “experiment of one.” (I’m in my 56th consecutive year of running now, and fending off the injuries is definitely more of a challenge.)  I’d be very interested in seeing more study of the “tempo” issue—stride length and frequency.  My sense is that the received wisdom on this may be a little too simplistic.  I’d also like to see more work done on the form changes that take place with ageing.  If getting older necessarily means losing muscle mass and oxygen uptake capacity, are there ways that the older runner can modify his or her biomechanics to compensate somewhat?


8)  What are the biggest myths that exist around “running form” or the science of running?

     The idea that barefoot running will free you from injury is a myth.  I say this with reluctance, because the science says we evolved as barefoot long-distance runners, and I like the idea of getting closer to my ancestral roots.  But early humans also chased down lions or aurochs with spears, and I don’t think many people are itching to get back to that.  In some respects, civilization is a one-way road.  And the roads we travel in the civilized world have hard pavement (ancient feet didn’t have to run on that), glass shards, trash, etc.  The floors we walk on are hard and smooth.  Maybe running barefoot works for rural Kenyan kids who grow up barefoot and have access to uncluttered dirt trails, but for people who’ve grown up in cities, wearing shoes, bare feet is a romance that won’t last.  Maybe if a city park has a groomed trail of pine needles or wood chips, barefoot running on that trail might provide a limited form of enjoyment.  But on public roads or rural trails with rocks and roots . . . no.


9)  Can you also share examples of interesting recent research around running technique that you may have come across recently?

     Others will be able to answer this question better than I.  The best research I can cite is that of professors Daniel Lieberman at Harvard and Dennis Bramble and David Carrier at the University of Utah.  I don’t know if the evolutionary biologist Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont has done any research in this area, but he has written a couple if very good books on the origins of human running—and is a former U.S. ultrarunning champion himself.


10.To conclude, what would be your definition of correct running form?

     I don’t know whether there’s a “correct” form that’s right for everyone.  Our running forms vary as much as our faces or personalities do.  But in general, the ideal form for a given person is that which feels easiest and most rhythmic when kept up for the desired distance and speed. 


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Are Americans Getting Weaker?

     Media almost never mention it, but there's an essential connection between the fitness of individual people and the strength of the society or country they're a part of.  If we are soft or weak as individuals, there's no way our country can wield great strength and influence in the world. 
     As you must be aware, if you've been following columnists, bloggers, reporters, and TV talking heads, the past few years have been punctuated by hundreds of commentaries about the "decline" of America and its influence.  That decline is real.  But it's almost always described as a relative weakening of the US. as an international political and economic player.  A lot of it is explained as due to the rise of China as an economic power, or of India as a cheaper competitor in the realm of medical and high-tech jobs, or of Korea and Taiwan in heavy industry.
     Not mentioned is the possibility that the declining physical and mental fitness of individual Americans may be a primary determinant of how well our kids are doing in math and science, compared with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or European kids (and increasingly with ambitious kids in 150 other countries).  High numbers of young Americans are fat, clueless (they can name more airhead celebrities than great scientists or inventors), and often lacking in any sense of purpose.  Why are we alive?  Is a young American's goal in life to have all the right brands of shoes and clothes, and to make at least $500,000 a year in slick financial services or drugs or weight-loss schemes that don't require working up any sweat?
     This is now a critical question, because anyone having that kind of dream (or illusion) is headed for a crash.  Politicians like to speechify about the "American dream," but that dream is now a tragic delusion.  When the majority of a country's people are personally passive or weak (as perhaps as many as 200 million Americans are), their country is headed for a fall.
     How can I say this with any assurance?  I'm not a prophet of doom, by any means.  But I've had long experience in two fields that come together in a critical way: the physical and mental endurance of humans as individuals, and the long-run sustainability of human civilization.  I've been a competitive endurance runner for the past 56 years, and I've worked as an editor for environmental scientists for most of those years.  And I'm familiar with a phenomenon of human history that isn't given much attention in our educational institutions but really should be: that the great regional civilizations of the past have often collapsed because their leaders were unaware of certain basic principles of sustainability that our scientists are familiar with.  Now we have not a regional but a global civilization, and it is increasingly vulnerable.  (Past collapses were isolated by by the geographical barriers of oceans, deserts, mountain ranges, and the long times it would take for diseases or other dangers to travel.)  America is still the single most influential country in determining the human future, but with about half of the population still largely oblivious to the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, and ecological failure, the U.S. is falling behind--and the whole world is faltering.
     So, what's this connection I keep harping about, between individual and societal strength?  It's dauntingly complex (one of the reasons it's being ignored, in a culture that favors simplistic explanations), but here are a few of the connections being studied by scientists who are now deeply alarmed by our withering prospects.
  • As mentioned in my book The Longest Race, a study of thousands of youths in Sweden found that boys who get serious cardiovascular exercise (such as cross-country running or skiing) between the ages of 15 and 18 test higher on IQ and reach higher levels of academic achievement than those who don't.
  • Also as discussed in that book (and in this blog), a study by Canadian and British researchers found that taxi drivers who rely on their own mental mapping skills to navigate city streets have a significantly larger hippocampus (the brain's center of navigational memory) than those who rely on GPS.
  • Hundreds of studies confirm that vigorous physical and mental activity greatly reduces the risk of debilitating illnesses or dementia in old age.  People in their 50s, 60s, or 70s can provide wisdom and leadership to society if they are mentally and physically healthy, but may be dead weight to anyone but their families and a few friends if they become senile.
We're all aware of how precocious teens and twenty-somethings are advancing our technology.  But who is advancing our knowledge of how our technological society depends on the life of our planet for every breath or step we take?  Or our knowledge of the history of human societies of the past--and under what conditions they thrived or collapsed?  How many people now know that the world's population has increased more in the past 40 years than in the previous 4 million years?  Or how many have thought about what the effects of that will be on our lives in the coming decades?  In all these areas, the public voice is silent.  Our public life has become disconnected from any serious concern for our personal fitness, and that disconnection is a form of lobotomy.
     It has been well established, though very little publicized, that the human brain has actually diminished in size since the beginning of civilization.  I had grew up believing that it is getting ever bigger, and I can remember science-fiction speculations that some day, centuries from now, humans would have evolved into giant heads--super-brains with vestigial legs and hands.  As it turns out, though, the brain of a 21st-century human is 10 to 20 percent smaller than that of the prehistoric Cro Magnon people who lived around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. Evidently, our brains have actually shrunk since civilization began. Why
     There are several theories, but an emerging possibility I've been exploring is that the decline has something to do with our technology.  It's technology that has most distinguished civilized humans from the hunter-gatherers who preceded us.  And while technology has increased our original powers vastly, it has also made us increasingly dependent it to get things done and to keep us satisfied, entertained, and protected.  Evolution no longer weeds out weakness in humans as it did for hundreds of millennia. It no longer culls the herd. The cumulative effect may be an increase in weakness--physical, mental, and moral--that now poses unprecedented challenges to our long-range survival.  And the countries where technology is most advanced and available to make life easier and safer may be the ones where the weakness is growing fastest.  If that turns out to be true, it will provoke some of the most soul-searching and contentious debate we humans have ever experienced.  Stand by.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tech Devices and Vices: I Want Your Story

       I'm a guy who greatly values his independence and self-reliance. So I'm ambivalent about tech devices that are supposed to make life ever more effort-free and fun, but also make us more physically and mentally dependent on capabilities that take over from those of our own bodies and brains.  To tell the truth, I prefer hard challenges to easy, guaranteed-risk-free fun.  I'd rather run the Badwater 137 miler again (across Death Valley and up Mt. Whitney) than have a lifetime free pass to Disney World.  The older I get, the more eager I am not to waste a day. I have no interest in a ride that gives me the passive thrill of being strapped into a  flying chair.  I'd rather go for a long run. 
       Or climb a mountain, or do a hike with friends, or join a group of people fighting an approaching forest fire, or haul rocks from a stream bed and hand-mix mortar to build a flight of stone steps.  Or cook a dinner with fresh ingredients from scratch, or have a lively conversation with bright people who challenge my thinking or have thought-provoking stories to tell.  All of it without so much as a smart phone in my pocket.
       And that's where you come in.  I'd be interested in hearing from you, if you're willing, about an experience you've had (or a perspective you have) about one of the many "technologies of fun or convenience" that have come into our lives in recent years or decades. The little devices or apps that relieve you of a bit more of your physical or mental effort--whether it's an automatic door opener, the GPS in your car, or a performance-enhancing drug.  I'm collecting anecdotes for a forthcoming project, and I hope you can be a part of it. 
       I got the idea a few years ago while doing research for my book The Longest Race, which was published last year.  I had come across a study of hundreds of London taxi drivers, in which researchers did brain scans to compare two groups: drivers who had relied on GPS to find their way around the city for at least the previous three years, and those who had relied only on their own knowledge of the city's notorious tangle of streets.  The study found that in the drivers who relied on GPS, the part of the brain that is central to mental mapping and memory--the hippocampus--had shrunk, and was signficantly smaller on average than that of those who had navigated without GPS.
       That didn't exactly surprise me. As a runner, I know that a muscle that isn't exercised will weaken, so maybe that's also true of the brain. But it still hit me as a revelation.  I began to wonder about other devices (and apps) designed to make work or play easier.  Is there a cost to such increasing ease?  If more and more of our tasks are taken over by little technologies, are we becoming more generally passive or weak or dependent--or in some sense less alive?
       I'm not anti-tech.  Technology has been put to many wondrous and life-enhancing--and life-saving--uses.  But it has also been put to destructive or just plain absurd uses.  If you've had an encounter with a device that you think might be of questionable value, I'd be interested in hearing.  Some examples of devices or apps I might question:
     -  Gasoline-powered leaf blower
     -  Automatic door-opener at Whole Foods or Walmart
     -  Data-collecting toilet (that automatically scans your poop and transmits data on any medical abnormalities to the health department) (No kidding!)
     -  Performance-enhancing drugs of the kind used by Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and a few hundred other rich athletes
     -  Runner's heart monitor and pedometer
     -  Phone menus, courtesy of your insurance company, bank, or any other large organization you have a problem with and want to talk to someone in authority about
     -  Power screwdrivers
     -  Power lawnmowers for small suburban lawns
     -  Athletic shoes with steel springs in the midsoles
     -  Microwave ovens
     -  Hands-free voice recognition app for texting while driving
     -  Porn websites
     -  Self-checkout in stores
     -  Pain meds advertised on TV
     -  Prescription drugs that only a licensed physician can determine the need for, advertised on TV to the general public
     -  Robo calls from political campaigns
     Or any of a thousand others.  If you have an anecdote or opinion about any single one of them--or about their cumulative effects--let me know!  I'd also like to expand the above list, if you can help me think of devices you find to be intriguing, even if you're not yet sure what to make of them. You can either comment here or send an e-mail to me at:


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Boston Marathon Bombing: the Part the Media Missed

     News of the Boston Marathon bombing came to us as two huge stories and just a hint of a third.  A fourth story, the most important one, was never mentioned.  I followed the news with intense interest, not only because I had friends in that race, but because the Boston Marathon had for years been the holy grail of my dreams when I was a young runner. 
     The first of the big news stories was that of a terrible attack that, unlike the bombings which have killed and maimed Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, was a horror we were actually allowed to see without censorship.  Recall that horrific photo of a man being wheeled away from the carnage with both of his lower legs blown off--the protruding bone and gore right there for us to witness.  That had happened to hundreds of young American men in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the media had never shown us the photos.  This was new.  But while the captions and commentaries from Boston expressed nothing but horror, let's not kid ourselves: the audience ratings got a huge boost.  (If you watch TV, you might be aware that detective and cop shows these days seem to be in a sort of ripped-off-legs-and-arms race, as each show tries to boost its ratings by showing more gore than the next: Witness the episode of the show NCIS that featured scenes of several murder victims who'd been cut and mixed together by some evildoer into a "meat jigsaw puzzle." When my wife and I saw that, we gagged, but apparently that kind of scene titillates enough viewers to keep the producers vying to see how they can make their stories even more gruesome.)  The Boston bombing was a real-life horror show, and behind the genuinely saddened faces of the reporters and news anchors, it was making money for their corporate managers and investors.
     The second Boston story, which perhaps served as a kind of redemption for the unabashed  sensationalism of the first, focused on the public backlash at the cowardace of the bombers, a redemption best expressed by the "Boston Strong" banners that began to appear within days, and by the public rallying of even such passionate Boston rivals as New York Yankee fans to the notion that beneath the rivalries of sports, we are all united in our outrage and determination not to be intimidated by terrorists.  With this story, a wave of sentimentality washed through the country.  I feel compelled to observe, however, that sentimentality is notoriously easy to feel, and it costs nothing to express outrage.  To actually do something about such violations of our civility is much harder.  The media are far more inclined to show the "Boston Strong" signs than to pursue the difficult question of how Boston (or America) can actually get stronger.
     A third story, sketchily touched on, was the disturbing question of why two young men who'd emigrated to America from a more troubled part of the world would be motivated to do such an unthinkable thing to their host country.  Reporters found little or no enlightenment about the suspects' mental state, and quickly came to the all-too-easy conclusion that the brothers had been diabolically influenced by jihadist extremism.  That, of course, didn't address the fact that those two young men were only the latest in a long series of mass murderers (in Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech, and a hundred other places) of whom the majority were home-grown Americans who had nothing to do with jihadist grievances.
     The fourth story, not told at all, is in my view the most important: the story of the marathon runners who were there that day and what their accomplishment can tell us about the current state of our nation and world. Every one of the more than 22,000 men and women who crossed that now infamous finish line had spent hundreds of hours, most of them for years, in fair weather and foul, training for this day with a dedication that could have been an epochal inspiration for the 99.9 percent of Americans who do not practice such discipline.  The trouble, I suppose, is that today's reporters are too lazy or too poorly educated in the skills of serious journalism--or too directed otherwise by their employers--to have seen that possibility.  But the truth, right before our eyes, yet unmentioned by the reporters who flocked to the scene, was that one of the world's greatest assemblages of strong, enduring, and dedicated people had come to Boston to prove to themselves and their friends and families that ordinary humans can achieve far more than most of us ever thought.  In a world (and country) struggling to achieve the goals of a better life we profess to believe in, that Boston Marathon demonstration of human potential and uplift--and its companion demonstrations in the marathons of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and a hundred others--should have been big news whether bombers had done their dirty deeds or not. 
      What journalists could have probed is the now voluminous evidence from physiological and neurological science that cardiovascular fitness, along with the kind of mental discipline practiced by the runners who came to Boston has tremendous--potentially world-changing--benefits for both physical and mental health.  That, in itself, isn't news--although the media give far too little attention to it.  But the fact that the number of Americans who have chosen to follow a hard new path to high-level health and capability has grown from a few thousands to more than 50 million since I first ran Boston in the 1960s--that is huge news. The police and FBI moved with admirable swiftness to tackle the immediate emergency, but it was the runners who demonstrated one of the essential a keys to coping successfully with a much more pervasive and long-term threat.
     In the winter of 1960, president-elect John F. Kennedy introduced an idea that  may have seemed too radical at the time to have much immediate impact on the country's course, but which took root and has become what may yet be a critical determinant of the country's future.  Kennedy introduced his idea in an article for Sports Illustrated, titled "The Soft American."  At the time, the United States was facing the very real threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, whose fist-pounding leader Nikita Khruschev had famously told America, "We will bury you!"  Kennedy knew the U.S. would need to heighten its military readiness, but he also knew something that in the long run may prove more important: that even the most powerful military on Earth can't win the day for its people if the people are weak.  Kennedy also knew that the kind of weakness that threatens a society's ability to survive is not just a weakness of body, but of intellect and spirit.  He had been alarmed to learn that American boys who'd been screened for military service over the previous few years had been embarrassingly unfit.  One of every two of them had been rejected by the military as "morally, physically, or mentally unfit."  And that was half a century before the obesity epidemic hit the fan.
     Kennedy was convinced that if America was to survive in dangerous age, its people need to be fit not just for pullups and 1-mile runs, but for the ever more demanding mental and moral challenges of keeping our country secure while also keeping it free.  In his "Soft American" article, he wrote, "if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work, and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America."  He knew that building fitness isn't just mindless "jock stuff"--it involves developing the disciplines of long-range planning, dedicated practice, mental toughness, and ability to rebound from injury or setback.  Those are also the qualities it takes to build a strong and resilient society.  The year Kennedy wrote his article, several hundred runners entered the Boston Marathon.  In 2013, a hundred times that many did--and tens of thousands more wished they could.  And while the race volunteers and others near the finish line who rushed to help the bombing victims were heroically rersponding to an immediate crisis, the runners who'd dedicated themselves to reaching that finish line were--whether they thought of it this way or not--responding to an ongoing national crisis, as heroes of another kind.  If a majority of Americans had their kind of dedication and grit, the country would be vastly stronger and more free of fear and insanity than it presently is.  That's the story the media missed.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Skill of Envisioning

       In my book The Longest Race, while recalling a momentous ultra I ran a few weeks after the 9-11 attacks in 2001, I alluded to a radical theory I have about human progress.  (After all, when you practice long-distance running, you're practicing how to make progress toward a finish line, and I had long since learned that reaching a finish line and reaching other kinds of goals involve a lot of the same factors.)
       My theory was that one of the key factors in human progress--envisioning outcomes--was one of the earlierst skills the human species ever developed, and was key to our ability not only to survive in a world of far more powerful, fleet-footed, sharp-toothed animals, but ultimately to build civilization and dominate all other life.
       I'd been running for many years, and had also experienced some intriguing success in my own ability to envision, but had never particularly connected those disparate skills--until I became familiar with the "Running Man" theory of human evolution first suggested by the biologists David Carrier and Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah and independently by the evolutionary biologist Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont and, more recently, by the evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman at Harvard. 
       The Running Man theory is that humans began their epochal evolutionary journey by learning to outrun all those faster, more powerful, and dangerous competitors, not by outsprinting but by outlasting them.  For decades, scientists had been blinded to this possibility by an obvious rhetorical question: How could running be an evolutionary advantage for a species that was slow?  The scientists had been focused on sprinting speed, which of course is what we see emphasized in all of our popular culture and enteertainment: the speed of touchdown runs, fast-breaks, 100-meter dashes in the tradition of Jesse Owens and "Bullet" Bob Hayes, and innumerable cop chases.
       But around a quarter-century ago, this rhetorical question actually got an answer.  It wasn't the early humans' inferior slow-footed sprinting, but their superior endurance running that enabled them to outlast the faster animals they hunted for food.  In articulating this theory (which eventually got a cover story in the top-tier scientific journal Nature), the scientists' focus was on heat buildup and cooling.  If a human hunter (or band of hunters) chased a horse or woolly mammoth, the quarry would easily get away but would have to stop and rest, and if the hunters caught up and the bigger animal would have to sprint away again--and then again--the big animal would eventually become overheated and have to succumb.  The humans, with their bare skin and higher surface-to-volume ratios, would cool more easily and therefore be able to keep up the pursuit (and their strength) much longer.
      While the scientists' focus was on the humans' superior cooling, my own focus--after half a century of competititve running--was on another question: when the prey sprinted out of sight, how did the  hominid hunter know it was still there (just around the bend or over the hill), close enough to keep chasing?  The scientists' knew the Running Man theory wasn't just conjecture; there were several tribes who practiced that kind of hunting--notably in the Kalahari Desert in Africa and in the vast Copper Canyon of Mexico.  The hunters in those places would chase animals for hours before finally running them down.  Other, nonhuman, predators generally give up the chase much more quickly: Out of sign (or smell), out of mind.
       It seemed necessary, then, to hypothesize that early humans were endowed not only with exceptional physical endurance, but with exceptional ability to envision.  One reason our brains grew bigger was to accommodate our developing capacity to envision the outcome (catching the animal being pursued) that had been out of sight not just for a few seconds but for many minutes--or even hours).  My radical theory: Endurance and mental envisioning of distant outcomes developed together.
       Endurance, as we all now know, is not inborn--even if the capacity for it is.  Although the genetic capacity for learning it may vary among individuals (in their percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers, surface-to-volume ratios at healthy weight, etc.), endurance is primarily a learned skill.  With practice, men or women who have mostly fast-twitch muscles or large frames can still become good endurance athletes.  And a guy with all the ideal endowment for distance running (lean, lightweight, all slow-twitch) still can't run long distances without hitting a wall if he doesn't train.  My inference: If endurance is a learned skill (we're born to run, but only if we practice), then envisioning, too, is a thing that has to be practiced to be effective.
       It may seem a huge leap to see a connection between my personal experience as a runner and my experience in envisioning future outcomes.  But as one of the most experienced runners alive today (I've been running competitively for 56 years without a break), I'd be crazy not to assume those thousands of hours have activated not only the part of my brain that enables the skill of endurance but also have activated the part that enables the skill of envisioning what's around the next bend or over the next hill in the journey of life--whether on the literal trail of a long-distance foot race or the macrocosmic human journey into an increasingly murky future.
       Whatever the answer, I'm aware that over my lifetime, I have envisioned a series of developments to which our culture (and media) at large have been largely blind.  To list them may seem like a kind of bragging, but in this time of growing threats to the human prospect I think it would be a mistake for anyone who has even an inkling of an idea about how to help us find our way out of the growing darkness to hide his light under a bushel.  To be fair, though, I'll point out that the incidents I'll cite are all well documented.  If something momentous happened in 2000 that I envisioned in 1970, I can produce documentation from 1970.  And while the experience of a single individual is what many scientists might dismiss as anecdotal, I'd also suggest that there's too much here to be just a series of coincidences.
       Before I get to the list, one very salient point: If envisioning outcomes is truly a skill for which we humans have extraordinary genetic capability, then the prevailing lack of intelligent envisioning--of the eventual consequences of climate change, overpopulation, declining biodiversity, and protracted war--suggests that our culture, media, and educational institutions have all failed us tragically, whether in America or Afghanistan, red states or blue states.  And now, my list:

1950s: Discovering organic and natural foods:  In the 1950s when I was still a kid, my father and I met a radical doctor who told us of his belief that Americans' health was being dangerously undermined by excessive consumption of highly refined sugars and grains, and by hydrogenated fats (lard, margarine, or Crisco).  The doctor's logic and evidence were persuasive, and in 1954 I adopted his whole-grains, no-preservatives, no-transfats diet--partly for health and partly because I was convinced it would make me a better runner.
       Four decades later, the U.S. government issued its first warnings that excessive consumption of sugar, highly processed foods, and transfat were contributing to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

1970:  Envisioning cars that don't pollute:  In the 1960s, the idea of an emissions-free electric car was considered by the American auto industry--and the public--to be a long-failed experiment.  But along with a few others, I envisioned a big future for such cars, as documented in a report I wrote under a contract to the U.S. Department of Transportation, titled "The Economic Impact of Conversion to a Nonpolluting Automobile" (1970).
       Four decades later, the first hybrid-electric cars were introduced, soon followed by the all-electric Chevrolet Volt.

1970sMarathon running going big-time in New York City:  In the 1960s, there were a few hundred adult long-distance runners in New York, but I envisioned a time when running would be a liberating passion for city dwellers who lived and worked in confined spaces.  I ran in several obscure marathons staged in the streets of Yonkers and the Bronx in the '60s (there were about 50 participants each year), and when permission was granted to run a marathon in Manhattan, I jumped at the chance.  I thought it might be a watershed moment for urban culture.  The first New York City Marathon was held in 1970, and I ran and finished third.  There were 57 finishers in that first race.
       Four decades later, the New York Marathon has more than 45,000 competitors each year, with tens of thousands more turned away due to limited capacity.

1970sUpheaval of the American auto industry:  In the 1950s and '60s, the U.S. auto industry ruled the world--and was careless about quality control.  General Motors (GM) was the largest, wealthiest corporation in the world, and the company shrugged off criticism by Ralph Nader that its cars had far too many defects.  I had reason to believe GM's complacency would come back to haunt it, and in 1969 I wrote a book, What's Good for GM, warning of that outcome.  The publisher placed an ad for that book, along with Daniel Schorr's Don't Get Sick in America--an early warning that America's health-care system was heading for trouble--in the Wall Street Journal.
       Four decades later:  By the turn of the 21st century, the Japanese and Korean auto makers had seized on the opportunity to sell cars with greater emphasis on quality and reliability and had seized about half of the market share formerly held by the American manufacturers.  A few years later, GM was forced to declare bankruptcy.

1970sNuclear threats: By the late 1950s, Americans were worried about the threat of Soviet nuclear attack, to the extent that many people built bomb shelters under their houses, and school children participated in "duck-and-cover" drills--as if that would offer any protection from a bomb that could almost instantly vaporize both us and the desks we were ducking under.  By the 1970s, a new concern was being expressed by a small group of scientists. The Los Alamos physicist Theodore B. Taylor, who had designed the largest fission atomic bomb ever exploded on Earth (detonated on Anawatak Atoll in the Pacific in 1955), began issuing quiet warnings to the U.S. government and international nuclear agencies that the greatest threat was no longer thermonuclear war between the superpowers, but the risks of leaks, thefts, or hijackings of critical nuclear materials, and the growing dangers of nuclear blackmail or terrorist attacks.  In the early '70s, Dr. Taylor wrote a journal outlining those growing dangers and hired me to edit it.  Envisioning is never a one-person skill, but rather an ability to grasp and expand on the vision of others you work with or who came before you.  Taylor was no doubt influenced by the concerns of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who'd come to regret his role in leading the Los Alamos project that built the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  And I took to heart the hard facts Taylor had compiled.  But the nuclear agencies--and the world--paid little heed to his warnings.
       Now, four decades later, while no nuclear bomb has yet been exploded by terrorists over Washington, DC or New York or London, we are hearing explicit threats from the rogue nation of North Korea, and the even greater dangers of a coup by anti-American jihadists in unstable Pakistan, where extremists could seize a large nuclear capability.

1980s: The running boom in America:  By the mid-1970s, I'd noticed that the population of serious long-distance runners in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had gone from a few hundred to at least a few thousands.  I felt strongly that an important new phenomenon was getting a foothold (literally!) not only in New York but all across a country that had become too soft for its own good.  In 1960, president-elect John F. Kennedy had written an article for Sports Illustrated, "The Soft American," in which he observed that half of all young men being considered for military service were being rejected by the Selective Service as "mentally, physically, or morally unfit."  He had argued, "If we fail to encourage physical fitness, we will undermine our capacity for thinking, work, and use of the skills vital to a complex and developing America." Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, but by the mid-70s I saw that growing numbers of Americans were taking his concerns to heart--we were bicycling, hiking, and running not just for the fun or competition but for the physical and mental health benefits.  The times were a-changin', as Bob Dylan intoned.  In 1977, I launched a magazine, Running Times, which envisioned an era when running would become a passion for millions of people whose lives would by transformed by it.  At the time, the number of serious runners in the U.S. was in the thousands.
         Three decades later, surveys by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association found that the number of Americans who were regular, "lifestyle" runners had climbed to more than 49 million--more than the number of people playing baseball and basketball combined.

1992Climate change:  In 1992, I was in my second year as a senior staff member at the Worldwatch Institute (publisher of the annual State of the World).  That year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a consortium of the world's top climate scientists, issued a landmark warning that human-caused global warming would generate increasingly frequent and intense extreme-weather events.  As editor of the Institute's magazine World Watch, I wrote a series of essays on what the scientists' warnings might mean for the human future, and especially the future of coastal cities.
       Two decades later: All of the trends the climate scientists warned of, and that I'd tried to help lay readers to picture--record wildfires, record floods, a mile-wide tornado, rogue hurricanes, disrupted ecosystems, and one other kind of catastrophe (see below)--had escalated even faster than the scientists had first projected.

2005: Hurricane Katrina:  In 2000, I was invited to lead a seminar on environmental security at the U.S. National Defense University in Washington, DC.  In my presentation, I noted that the climate changes we were experiencing made it highly probable that, sooner or later, the city of New Orleans would be hit be a catastrophic storm surge which--if generated by a category 4 or 5 hurricane--could wipe out the city.  In 2001 and 2002 I was invited back, and presented the same scenario for new groups. 
       Two years later: Hurricane Katrina, a category 3, hit New Orleans--and delivered a clear message about what would (or will) happen with a more powerful storm.

       So, there it is.  Do I claim to have an ability to predict?  No.  Anyone who claims to be able to see the future is at best naive or deluded, and at worst a blasphemous charlatan.  What I do claim--in accordance with well established scientific principles--is that by closely observing what is happening today and has happened in the past, we can envision what is most probable for the future.  As I've noted above, doing that well is a skill, and no algorithm has yet given us that capability because no real-life phenomenon of major importance is ever the outcome of just one or two quantifiable factors.  Those of us who are skilled at envisioning important future outcomes aren't even conscious of all the factors we take into account, any more than a skilled  basketball player is conscious of all the all the many biomechanical, neurological, emotional, and tactical factors he employs in an off-balance drive to the basket.  But we are at least aware of the need not to be thrown off, in our envisioning of the future, by the sway of sentiment, myths, corporate advertising, political propaganda, publicity, rumor, scapegoating, undiscriminating Google searches, and particularly the appeal of very simple answers, all of which can distract or obfuscate truths that might otherwise be obvious.
       With those caveats in mind, in my next post I will venture to apply my skill at envisioning to the ever-moving target of the next three decades, as seen from the perspecctive of 2013.  If I should be fortunate enough to live to 100 years (not likely, actually), to see how well my forecast turned out, the one thing I'm fairly sure of is this:  How skillful I prove to be at envisioning the world of the 2040s will be closely linked to how well I have succeeded in keeping my mind and body free of the crippling addictions and blinding distractions of the sprint culture.  We were born to run slowly, to persist, to be patient, and to envision with care and clear heads, and right now our civilization is moving far too blindly and fast to be sustained.


Monday, February 25, 2013

"The Longest Race" featured on NPR

        My  book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance caught the attention of National Public Radio host Bill Littlefield earlier this month, and he did an interview with me that was broadcast on 220 NPR stations around the country.  It was a little intimidating, I'll admit, because Bill was in Boston (at host station WBUR) whle I was in Pasadena, CA, at Southern California Public Radio, with a headset and a mike--and I'm frankly a lot more comfortable with a water bottle and a pair of running shoes than with a headset and a mike.  Twice during the interview, I was in the midst of an interchange with the guy I could only hear, not see, when my headset fell off.  But it really wasn't the headset that discombobulated me so much as the fact that I was all alone in the studio, in a big swivel chair in front of a semicircular array of equipment that looked like what they had at the NASA Mission Control in Houston on the day of the first moon landing, back when I was young.  Except that in Houston they had about fifthy engineers and tech guys who could control a rocket flying 24,500 miles per hour, whereas I'm one of those clueless people (when it comes to tech, as opposed to my own bodily propulsion system) who never quite learned how to operate a VCR before it became obsolete, and who now wonders what the heck to do with all those useless cassete tapes in the TV cabinet.  There, in the NPR studio in front of me, were five very large computer screens and seven keyboards plus a giant eighth keyboard the size of a surfboard, with about a thousand keys, flanked by a bank of instrument panels with enough blinking lights and controls to fly a fleet of starships to Pluto. 
       What had caught Bill Littlefield's interest, I think, was the admittedly far-out theory I discuss in the book, that there is a critical link between the kinds of endurance, patience, and persistence that long-distance runners learn to practice on wilderness trails, and the kinds of priorities that scientists tell us human civilization as a whole will have to adopt if we are to have any real hope for a sustainable future.  In short, training for the long run--literally--can provide key insights to our own long-run future as a civilization.
       Littlefield also knew I wasn't just an over-enthusiastic marathon or half-marathon junkie espousing an idea that was just a little too much of a stretch.  In addition to having run long-distance races for over 55 years, I'd made my living as an editorial director for the Worldwatch Institute--publisher of the annual State of the World, which tracks global trends in such areas as human population, global warming, human food supply, major epidemics, and environmental decline.  I'd done editing for some of the world's leading environmental and climate scientists.  In my book, as I told the story of an iconic 50-mile race I had run a few weeks after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (one of my rivals in the race, Frank Probst, had been the closest survivor to witness the Pentagon crash), I offered some provocative speculations on just what that link between individual endurance and societal sustainability entails.
     Along with the broadcast, Littlefield posted a review on the host station's website, and my impression was that he "gets it" in a way that not all readers do.  (A few of the reader comments on Amazon have been like "Hey, I thought this book was going to tell me how to improve my marathon time.  What's all that other stuff?" But if you happen to look at the book's page on Amazon, also note the comments by Bill Rodgers, Kathrine Switzer, Michael Wardian, Naomi Benaron, Marshall Ulrich, and others, along with the most recent half-dozen reader reviews at the bottom!).  Here's a link to Bill Littlefield's review:
       One reason I wanted to be fairly candid about my techno-cluelessness about things like VCRs or radio broadcast equipment (or smart phone apps, or Garmins, or any of the other electronic stuff that has taken over for our bodies and brains) is that I wan't to establish some credibility when it comes to making a candid observation about my strengths, as well as my weaknesses.  There is one strength in particular (beyond a talent for running), which I'll discuss in my next post--an ability that has a strong bering on the validity of the theory of individual endurance and civilizational survival.  Look for it in the next couple if days.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lance Armstrong, Artificial Organs, and the Big-Brother Toilet: What Do They Have in Common?

Three Things That Really Piss Me Off:

1.  Lance Armstrong.  I'm a competitive endurance athlete, ran my first long-distance race before Lance Armstrong was born, and have never run for money or fame.  And no, I'm  not envious of Armstrong's money or fame, nor was I envious even when it was all golden, before it turned to rot.  The thing is, long-distance running and other endurance sports are not even remotely like pro football, baseball, basketball, etc., which bring obscene amounts of income to their stars--many of whom never developed their social skills or education beyond early adolescence and are too often in the news because they've been involved in beatings, burgleries, shootings, or other crimes (note that the Huffington Post has an entire news section titled "Sports Crime."  It's hard for me to imagine that long-distance runners might someday get sullied by such things--though with the huge cash prizes awarded in major marathons now, I fear the day might not be far off.  Personally, I run for the pleasure of running and for the benefits of great health and fitness it brings--which, incidentally, I wouldn't trade for all the money ever banked by any pro athlete or hedge-fund manager or other fat cat you could name.
      But I'm also aware that beyond what endurance running has meant to me personally, it has brought something critically valuable to our troubled society at large.  Long-distance running--especially trail running--has brought millions of us a greater sense of connection with the natural world that sustains us and that we depend on foor every breath and step we take.  It takes courage and honesty for an athlete to recognize that those assets are worth infinitely more than personal glory or wealth.  That's a truth that growing numbers of us have embraced, in party because it's a truth that may be critical to the survival of civilization itself.  And when the  best-known endurance athlete in the world betrays that truth, it's a tragedy not only for him, but for all of us.  Lance Armstrong, like Barry Bonds, was a kind of Judas.  He really pisses me off.

2.  Wilderness visitors loaded with equipment.  It started with hiking and camping, and has since moved to trail running and ultrarunning.  When I was young and maybe a little too innocent, I joined the Boy Scouts, which in those days seemed an admirable means by which kids could learn about nature.  We had fun going on camping trips, cooking dinner over a campfire with a cook kit the size of a cereal bowl, and sleeping in a pup tent you could fold up and carry in your backpack.  The other stuff you had in your pack included a canteen of water and a small spade for digging a latrine.  Decades later, I learned that people were going camping with 30-foot motor homes, fully equipped kitchens, chaise-lounges, and TVs.  In Southern California, guys were driving out to the desert to race 400-horsepower vehicles with monster tires, wrecking the landscape.  And still later, I noticed that many of my fellow endurance runners were carrying more and more high-tech aids to navigation and performance: GPS, camel backs, fuel belts, cooling hats, hand bottles, gel paks, computerized running shoes, vented jackets, super sleeves, thermal gloves, and so on.  OK, if you're running in a place where you'd be arrested for running naked, or if you're going more than 10 miles on an extremely hot or extremely cold day, some of this stuff is very useful.  But where do you draw the line?  Or, more to the point, are you ever curious about whether a line should be drawn?  Or to turn that question upside-down, if you currently carry a lot of equipment to enhance performance by cooling, warming, hydrating, fueling, pain-killing, and replenishing electrolytes, what's wrong with enhancing performance by doing what Lance Armstrong did? 
     There was a time, a few decades ago, when a fundamental part of endurance sports was teaching your body how to increase its adaptability to thirst, fatigue, heat, etc., by developing greater energy efficiency and more astute awareness of your physiological and environmental conditions as you go.  But who needs optimal energy conservation when you can have replenishment as often as you want?  (Hint: If paleolithic humans had had readily available replenishment of food and water every half-hour, our species would never have developed the endurance, patience, and ability to envision and adapt that enabled us to build civilization, and none of us would exist today.)  The unchallenged, never-questioned trend toward ever greater dependence on technological aids to do what the body can do amazingly well on its own--if well trained and attuned--is dangerous, because that dependence increasingly disconnects us from our own nature. 
     Someday, I'd like to see the announcement of an endurance race in which the quantities of water and fuel we can consume during the competition, as well as the kinds and capacities of all of any equipment we wish to use, are as strictly limited as are the kinds of drugs we're allowed.  If a "minimalist" approach to endurance sport makes any sense at all, it can't be just with your shoes but with all that other stuff some runners now carry as if they're heading to Afraica to shoot lions and tigers on a rich-man's safari.  The realization that large numbers of my fellow Americans, even including a growing cohort of endurance athletes, still embrace a safari attitude toward wilderness pisses me off.

3.  The Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You Toilet.  Somewhere, a few years ago, I read about a new high-tech toilet developed by a Japanese company, which can save you a lot of the inconvenience of such disagreeable tasks as doing stool tests or being lectured by a doctor about your bad dietary habits.  Or, if your doctor is ignorant of nutrition himself (as many doctors clearly are), it's a toilet that at least might alert you to a problem that would otherwise be overlooked.  You don't want your underside to be overlooked, do you?
     This toilet, if I recall, will automatically collect small samples of your poop, analyze them for various diseases, drug residues, or dietary deficiencies or excesses, and automatically report them via direct electronic links to the appropriate authorities.  The purported use is for getting data quickly and efficiently from your bowels to the local Health officials, who will then be alerted if you are carrying a serious disease even before you know it yourself.  But you can also see the other obvious uses for this toilet: Any residue of illicit drugs could be automatically reported to the police or DEA (Lance Armstrong should have had one of these years ago), and--if you're a celebrity--any indication of pregnancy could be passed on (for a price) to reporters who know the right people at the Health Department or other agencies.  And if the model of toilet you have is equipped with a camera, personnel at these agencies might make a nice income on the side by selling photos of your butt. 
     When I read about this toilet, I found it both hilarious and appalling.  When I poop or pee, I'd prefer not to have anyone watching.  OK, if I'm running an ultra and have to stop and step into the woods a few yards, I don't mind if other runners see me as they go by.  But close examination should be for me, and only me, to do or request a lab to do.  The idea of having every poop or pee intercepted, examined, and evaluated for possible further action by the government?  It's part of that same trend that's bringing us police-department drones looking in our windows or  CIA analysts perusing our phone calls.  That really pisses me off.

OK, so how are all these things connected?  And what about that other item in my catchy title, "Artificial Organs"?  Well, I need to clarify something important: I'm not a Luddite, one of those people who hate technology.  Technology is not always bad.  (Do I really even need to say that?)  But too many people, especially Americans and Japanese, regard it as always good.  Virtually every new technology generates excitement in the media and among investors and consumers, and rarely do we have any concern about unintended consequences.  We are enticed by the short-term satisfactions (the newest Apple or Samsung devices, etc.) while the long-term consequences of what were once promising technologies (coal-generated electricity, nuclear fission, DDT) fade from our awareness. Who even remembers Hiroshima, Chernobyl, or Love Canal?  And who really worries about obesity, diabetes, or global warming?
     For a more hidden example of a seeminly promising technology that has yet to reveal its fangs, who isn't glad for the biotech research that's beginning to produce artificial organs to replace diseased or injured ones?  Isn't that good?  Well, of course.  But then, we don't think much at all about the long-term imnplications of a technology that could someday be used by a neo-Nazi government or organization not to help the ill or injured, but to build a superior breed of human.  The technology that builds replacement livers and limbs could also be used to pioduce tall, blond, blue-eyed, beautiful, high-IQ children for the 1-percent of the population rich enough to have their genes engineered to order. Does anyone remember Hitler?
     What artificial organs, the big-brother toilet, and Lance Armstrong's chemical joy-ride all have in common is that all are manifestations of the mad rush of our civilization to allow our most fundamental human capacities, including our intelligence and wisdom, be replaced by mindless technology.  We turn our legs over to cars; we replace the mental mapping capacity of our hippocampuses with our GPS; we alleviate the stresses of hard work (whether at the desk or on a bicycle) by handing the burden of that work over to stimulants, painkillers, steroids, synthetic hormones, and narcotics.  The trouble is, unlike in our highly evolved bodies and brains, which have had 60,000 years to work out the bugs, these new technologies are not coordinated with each other, and have no conscience.  And the fact that we are so easily seduced by them really scares me.

If these themes are of interest, I hope you'll check out my book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance.  It's had great reviews from Bill Rodgers, Jacqueline Hansen, Michael Wardian, and editors at Runners World, Running Times, and Ultrarunner, among others.  Available at Amazon and in bookstores.