What can human beings do better than any other animal on the planet? We don’t have sharp claws or teeth to fight with. We’re not large, overpowering beasts. And we’re certainly not very fast compared to other animals, even ones in our backyard: the fastest Olympic sprinters would get dusted by a squirrel or rabbit. We are uniquely adapted to do one thing: run long distances without overheating.
This was one of the central insights in Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run, which revealed how running has been key to the survival and evolution of our species. Our ancestors chased their prey to exhaustion in persistence hunts that continue to this day in hunter-gatherer societies.
If running is our birthright, where did we go wrong? We screwed it up in the same way that we screw everything up: we tried to cash in on it. We were sold fancy cushioned shoes, expensive clothing, and high-tech gear. Products became more important than people. Running became a mundane chore endured for 30 minutes on a treadmill to burn off last night’s pizza.
But for most of our existence, running has been a joyous cultural, social, and spiritual experience. The Tarahumara—an indigenous tribe living deep in Mexico’s Copper Canyons—continue to live that running tradition. They run for dozens of miles in handmade huaraches—old tire tread fastened to their feet with goat leather. Sometimes they are chasing deer to exhaustion or running between villages to deliver produce carried on their backs. But mostly, they are running because it’s fun. Running to the Tarahumara—and to our ancestors—was a celebration of life.
Now McDougall is launching another fitness revolution with his new book Natural Born Heroes. It’s not just runners who can benefit from a rediscovery of their primal roots, he argues. All athletes need to take fitness out of the gym and into the wild.
Outdoors, you might get caught in a downpour or stumble over a few rocks, but there’s nothing wrong with falling down. It’s okay to get hurt sometimes, McDougall reminds us. Our culture seems to fear knee scrapes and bruises, but we do even more harm sheltering ourselves from them.
This is about more than fitness. Athletics are meant to make us stronger, more resilient human beings who can adapt to the unexpected challenges of everyday living. In the woods—as in life—there’s unpredictability that the sanitized gym can never prepare you for. And the deepest and most lasting rewards are not in calories burned, but in the moments of sublime beauty which can’t be experienced behind glass.