Lessons of the Type A Tribe
I’ve got beef with Born to Run. Not the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. The Boss is boss and I have only respect and lust for him.
I’m talking about Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. It’s nothing but a dog-eared, paperback book—just ink on a page. Or it was before I tore it up and threw it in the trash—along with my beloved running shoes.
I’m a runner. Actually, I was a runner. I was never fast and I could never run very far, but this didn’t stop me from waking up at 6 a.m. to get five miles in every other day for five years. For those who don’t run, sunrise is probably best seen from your bedroom window as you roll over and go back to sleep for another hour. For me, sunrise is best with the fog of breath, the pound of sneakers on pavement, and Madonna.
The thing I loved most about running is that I knew, with certainty, that I would never be the best. I wouldn’t even approach mediocrity. When the bar is set so high, so long-legged and Kenyan, it would be foolish of me, with my stumpy legs and mud-flap-saggy ass, to assume I could reach it.
People often said that I must like running because I have a competitive spirit. No. It was the lack of competition, the acknowledgment of my own inadequacy that kept me going each day. It was the only area of my life where I could fail and not beat myself up about it.
Even a bad runner can reap tremendous benefits from it. Every time a doctor listened to my heart through the headphones of the stethoscope, she’d proclaim that I had the slow beat of a runner. My blood was flowing, my waistline was steady, my breath was as strong as a zephyr. Running made me, a former fat girl, feel like I’d finally taken command over my own body. It made me feel powerful and confident. Even when I held up the back-end of a race. At least, I thought, I’m in this thing.
I ran that way for four years with few injuries and little boredom. I went through at least a hundred running shoes, seven men, five geographic moves, and countless hairstyles. Running was the constant: the salve for every wound, the cure for my anxiety and my melancholy. It would have been foolish of me to ask anything more from a hobby.
I’m an absolute fool, though. In a deck of tarot cards, I’m the one standing on the edge of cliff with a bottle of vodka, a wad of one dollar bills, and an effeminate man I believe is my boyfriend. So, when a friend from yoga class suggested that I read Born to Run, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought the book. For two days all I did was read and run. Read and run. Phone off. E-mails piling up.
I was transfixed—spiritually. It was similar to the first time I read Tich Nhat Hanh’s book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. That was the pre-yoga era, often referred to as my angry/introverted/highly anxious/bitch phase, which was the entirety of my life up to that point. My boss slid the book over my desk one day. She didn’t say a word, but I got it. I really got it. Four months later I was doing yoga and a bit kinder to my co-workers. Anger changed my life.
Born to Run is the true story of a tribe of Mexican Indians who run hundreds of miles, seemingly without effort, injury or exhaustion. They are an isolated people, who have little exposure to the American idea of running as a sport—a sport that requires $150 shoes and Camelbaks and personal trainers. The Tarahumara run without shoes and energy drinks and Map My Run. They run through rough, unforgiving terrain—often after a long night of drinking their own strong, homemade alcohol.
The book attempts to show that the only thing stopping most people from running is the running industrial complex—shoes, running clinics, cross-training regiments. The author, Christopher McDougall, describes a cast of characters from around the world who run on passion. He says of the Tarahumara:
“They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching our pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. “
Well, damn. I’d never thought of it that way before. For years I’d been running with a digital wrist-watch that told me my mileage and time and heart rate. For years I’d been lifting weights to strengthen my thighs and calves. What a sucker I’d been spending all that money on motion control shoes when I could’ve worn Chucks—or, as the new trend dictated, nothing. All those precautions and rest days were illusions that prevented me from connecting with my perfect, primal self.
I stashed the watch in my sock drawer and surrendered my trusty Adidas in favor of runners that gave me that caveman feeling. I stopped keeping track of my mileage and just ran, sometimes for three or four hours at a time. I did away with rest days, and if my yoga practice was telling me that my hamstrings were dangerously tight, I skipped yoga. The new research said that yoga was dangerous, anyway. I’d found a new way to meditate.
And a new kind of joy. I could run longer and faster than ever before. Always happy with my nine minute pace, I was now astonished to find myself at seven minutes with no struggle. In one day, I ran a half-marathon, mowed and manicured my lawn, wrote for several hours and went dancing. I couldn’t be exhausted now that I had Born to Run as my guide.
The funny thing about a spiritual awakening is that it can be a good thing.
It can be Malcolm X in Mecca with a vision of peace. It can be Buddha and Gandhi. It can also be a schizophrenic breakdown or a 100 year war. Spirituality looks cozy from the storefront window, but it’s rampant with rip-offs and false claims. Any religious or spiritual person should be joyously, profoundly skeptical. God doesn’t mind doubt. The Bible is filled with doubt—it’s part of the package. If it wasn’t, Jesus would’ve offered to work the money lending table in the temple instead of flipping it over.
I doubt my yoga practice daily. I doubt I will fit it in during a busy day. I doubt re-incarnation. I doubt the world is a loving place. I doubt I will ever do side crow. I never doubted that I had the ability to run 50 or 60 miles a week without injury. McDougall convinced me that this was my birthright as a human being.
My doctor felt otherwise. After too many races and not enough rest, I developed plantar fasciitis in both feet. An old case of sciatica returned. I was unbelievably tired and weak. I didn’t admit it to anyone—blaming my slow walk on a desire to stop and smell the roses. My friends, especially the yogis, told me that I had pushed my body too far. Did I honestly think it wouldn’t rebel?
Months before the injury, I’d signed up for the Chicago Marathon—inviting friends and family to join me in the post-celebration. The plans were made and hotels were booked. Not only that, but my mind had convinced me that this would be my greatest victory. If I can do this, I told myself, I can do anything.
The pill swallowed was bitter. There were tears and why me’s and an embarrassing moment at the gym as I kicked a defenseless treadmill. I had over-done it. Duh. It shouldn’t have taken paralysis to reach this realization, but as I said earlier I’m a blind fool.
I’ve been in recovery since April, and though I’d hoped for healing by now, I missed the Chicago Marathon this past weekend. I may not ever run a marathon or run again, for that matter. I don’t blame McDougall for writing a beautiful book filled with inspiration and wonder. He gave me permission to believe in perfection. He gave me a boundaryless self filled with possibilities. He gave me doctor’s bills and Orthodics.
In the end, he led me back to the mat—a place of healing, transformation, and safe failures. There is nowhere to run anymore. I have returned home.
I got up on Saturday morning and took a long walk with my dog. I wished all those marathoners in Chicago (you lucky bastards) the best of luck. I hope they ran for those who couldn’t. I hope they ran slowly and with compassion for their beautiful bodies. Maybe you really were born to run. I’m finding, again and again, that I was born for the mat.
Editor: Brianna Bemel