September 2, 2010

10 Spiritual Lessons from Running Barefoot.

Are your shoes making you an a**hole?

Do you jump out of bed at 5 A.M., ready to hit the road for your daily run? I’m sorry, I hate you. And I say that with deepest admiration and envy. Most days, I’d rather pay my taxes than go for a run. I mean, I’ll do it, but you’d better provide a pre-torture coffee and promises of post-torture brunch before I’ll even consider it.

In high school, I joined the cross country team, but only because it was the only sport that didn’t involve a ball (hand-eye coordination is thoroughly beyond me). That and it somehow seemed like the most solitary of all the team sports — even if I sucked, it didn’t seem like I’d really be letting the team down — or at the very least, it wouldn’t be too hilariously humiliating. Since then, I’ve often shaken my head in disbelief, watching people running in the park. Why would you do such a thing on purpose? It just seems so unnatural.

For some reason, though, despite all my cynical disdain for running, I can’t shake this strange desire to do it, anyway. I’ve always secretly envied the freedom, exuberance, and lightness that many runners exude. I’d love to burst out the door for my daily run, pound the pavement, clear my head, and return ebullient and victorious.

It was this strange fantasy that led me to pick up Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, last year. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Even I, a total nonrunning schlub, was captivated.  There were stories of crazy college kids running through the woods listening to Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and a mysterious tribe in Mexico who run ultramarathons for fun and McDougall’s own fascinating quest to find out if running is truly natural and healthy or not. I finished the book in two days, inspired to run like never before.

McDougall presents a convincing case for the idea that, over the course of our evolution, we humans survived by running animals to death in hunting packs. Compared to other animals, the theory goes, we’re weak, slow, and pretty defenseless — but since we cool ourselves by sweating, not panting, we can continue breathing even when we’re overheated. This gives us a major advantage in distance running, and allowed us to hunt animals before we developed tools.

But that wasn’t the only strange, new idea I found in Born to Run. Based on his research and personal experience, McDougall argues that:

1.  The marathon, far from being the pinnacle of human achievement, is really just the beginning when it comes to our endurance prowess.
2.  Expensive running shoes lead to the very problems they’re supposed to correct, and the healthiest way to run is as close to barefoot as possible.
3.  Somehow, kindheartedness and the ability to run long distances are intimately related.

I’d love to tell you that I finished the book, threw away my shoes, and instantly became a better, faster version of me. Well, that didn’t exactly happen. But I did get a running buddy and we ran together for a few months. And it actually was great. There was a fair amount of pre-run crankiness and during-run kvetching, but the post-run glow over omelettes was bright enough that I started to think there was something to this whole running and kindheartedness connection.

Since I moved to Boulder this month, though, I’ve been a little lost (read: lazy) without my running buddy. But when I saw Christopher McDougall was speaking at Boulder Book Store last week, that running exuberance was piqued, if ever so tentatively. By the time I arrived, there were no chairs left (I guess since I walked and didn’t run?), but that meant that I got to sit cross-legged on the floor, inches away from the author’s very own, bare and slightly grimey, feet. It was awesome.

McDougall’s just as engaging a speaker as he is a writer, and the heart of his message came through even more clearly in person: the enterprise of running, particularly barefoot running, is about much more than exercise, fun, or even exhilaration. It’s about being a better person. As I sat there, contemplating Christopher McDougall’s toes, I was struck by how many of his principles for better running paralleled common spiritual lessons. If you’re into cross-training, then, this list is for you.

Top ten ways to become a better runner and a better person. Simultaneously.

1.  Get naked. Big, padded, expensive running shoes often cause more problems than they solve.  We run best when we let our bodies operate in as natural a condition as possible.  It’s all too often that we let our remedies become our maladies.  Starting from a more natural, authentic place is usually the best way to go, in your exercise routine, love life, or spiritual pursuits.

2.  Have fun. The Tarahumara, a tribe of legendary ultramarathoners, smile huge during the hardest parts of the race. We all do our best when we’re having fun. Notice and nurture what you enjoy, and pour a little whimsy into the hardest parts of your day.

3.  Get devotional: The Hopi and Navajo do ritual running as a prayer to give their own strength to those in need. What greatness could you achieve if you were devoting yourself to something greater, if you weren’t doing it all for your own ego?
4.  Get compassionate: While marathoners are often cutthroat, ultramarathoners, who run four times that distance, are shockingly generous, often helping eachother along the way. We seem to actually perform better when we’re cooperatively, not combatively, competitive. Compassion is far better fuel than greed.
5.  Get egalitarian:  While men trounce us ladies in sprints, longer distances completely equalize this difference. Aging also impacts distance running far less than it does most other sports. According to the theory that we evolved in running packs, it was important that women and elders kept up with the group on a hunt. Elders were given particular respect since they had the know-how to track animals, something that takes the better part of a lifetime to master. We post-moderns cherish the ideal of equality and respect for all — isn’t it stunning to consider that this respect might be an ancient birthright, that even helped us survive as a species?

6.  Speak your mind: Communication was essential between members of the hunting pack to ensure they were tracking the right animal. Our ability to relate to each other is nothing without our willingness to communicate. What can you contribute to your tribe by speaking up?

7.  Get imaginative:  There comes a point in tracking an animal, McDougall claims, where following isn’t enough, and you must begin anticipating its next move. This need for anticipation might well have led to our greatest gift of all, imagination. Our ability to look across a plain and envision a city, our ability to listen to silence and hear poetry, is what makes us quintessentially human. This capacity drives all creativity, and propels us into an ever more complex future. Celebrate your imagination, and use it wisely.

8. Get free: It’s awfully hard to run long distances weighted down by physical possessions — or emotional baggage, for that matter. Running light is the way to go, for your finish time and your soul.

9.  Get Zen: Jenn Shelton, one of Born to Run‘s most colorful characters, explains why she started running ultramarathons:

I thought, man, if you could run 100 miles, you’d be in this Zen state. You’d be the f@#king Buddha. Bringing peace and a smile to the world. In my case, it didn’t work.  I’m the same old punk ass as ever. But there’s always this hope that it’ll turn you into the person you want to be. You know, like a better, more peaceful person. And when I’m out on a long run, the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going ‘bleh bleh bleh bleh.’ Everything just quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow.

I’ve found a certain clarity during runs when I can get myself to stop resisting the pain and just be. It’s raw and real and just as meditative as anything I’ve experienced in a zendo [meditation hall].

10.  Get fearless: We’ve developed a strange phobia about running over the last few decades that McDougall finds preposterous. Running, he claims, “gets the machine operating the way it should be. End the baloney, the hysteria about running, that it’s dangerous — ‘Don’t do too much! Don’t take your shoes off!’ — Regain the use of your legs, get the engine off the block and running how it should be, and your whole bodymind will run more smoothly.” I don’t kow about you, but I make my biggest mistakes when I let fear paralyze or hypnotize me, and I’m at my best when I’m living courageously, heart at full throttle.

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So, it sounds like running might make us better people, and being better people just might make us better runners. Too good to be true? Maybe. But as long as I get coffee before and an omelette afterwards, I just might give it a go.

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