Its 3:45 AM on a Saturday and the alarm beeps. It’s a cold winter and the sun will not be up for another couple of hours. Still drowsy, I find my way to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Time to get prepped up for my weekend long run – the staple diet for marathon training. There is always a sense of anxiety before a long run as the body is already fatigued from the week’s gruelling training, which consists of fast tempos and interval runs. But it’s choosing between being sore from the run or sorry for not making that effort the following day.
It is not easy gearing up for a run. More mental than anything else, I know that the most difficult hurdle is crossed – which is to get out of bed. Looks like its going to be a lovely morning. I set the timer on my garmin gps watch and hit the start button. The first few steps are difficult from strain of previous runs but as the body warms up running starts to feel effortless again, the breathing starts getting rhythmic, and the chilly air does not hurt anymore. I am reminded again of how heavenly it feels and why I choose to run.
A number of people have asked me why I run, and it has always been very difficult to explain my real feelings – the sensation of being alive, being one with nature, the runner’s high and how awful I feel if I missed my scheduled run…I think the list goes on and on, but in the end it is a very personal choice. People start running for a variety of reasons. Some want to lose weight, improve their health, compete in races, suits them better than other sports, rediscover happiness or freedom maybe? But all runners agree that it is the most natural activity – something that our body is designed to do…something that we humans are supposed to do.
“Designed to do? What do you mean designed to do? I can’t even run ten meters!” is something one might say, “You’re going to damage your knees permanently”, is another. But the fact is that humans are the best runners compared to any mammal on earth especially over longer distances. This is true. We humans are designed or rather have evolved to the perfect running machine, better than any other mammal – provided we do not sit on the couch the whole day and watch TV. Humans have the ability to outrun any mammal (even a horse!) over long distances and especially when it is hot. If you don’t believe this, I can tell you that there is an annual race in Wales called the ‘ Man versus Horse Marathon’, where humans on foot compete with horses over a distance of about 35 kilometers and ever since the race started in 1980, there has been at least two occasions were humans have won, one with a huge margin of about 11 minutes. For the other years in this race, humans have been almost at par, with the fastest horse edging the fastest human by minutes if not seconds. So how is this possible? You must have seen the classic evolution drawing showing the chimp transitioning to a Modern Man- but what that graphic doesn’t tell us is how it actually happens. What were those evolutionary forces that caused the ape to stand upright, lose body hair and become smarter.
Humans were not the fastest or strongest out there and had to scavenge, hunt or gather food. This allowed humans to adapt to different set of conditions and develop a number of physical traits that enhanced the ability to gather food and survival as a species. Our bodies evolved to perfect running machines, which could out-run any animal over long distances. We hunted by persistently running after a prey till it dropped dead with exhaustion. An easy kill.
Our unique muscular development such as springy ligaments, big gluteus maximus (big butts!) and the fact that our bodies perspire naturally gives us this edge. Our furless bodies with densely and widely spaced sweat glands give us the ability to regulate body heat very efficiently. Try walking your dog in summer and you’ll see that he will really stick out his tongue as this is one of the only places were a dog can reject heat. We humans can reject heat from all over.
While running as a tradition has almost died our in our modern civilization, we can still see some reminiscence of running in a few native cultures. For example the Tarahumaras of the Copper Canyon in northwestern Mexico have been widely admired for their endurance running abilities. The Bushmen of the Kalahari still practice persistent hunting. Women were not allowed to run Marathons till the 1960s because they were thought to be too weak to run such a long distance. However the irony is that when it came to longer distances such as an ultra marathon (like the 135 mile Badwater Ultra-marathon for instance), it is women who start outdoing the men- they are able to manage pain much better than men. Amazing isn’t it? Our own backyard, the West Khasi hills (Mawkyrwat and Nongstoin area) is home to a number of good distance runners like Bining Star Lyngkhoi who represent India in long distance running and has huge potential to excel in the international arena.
I know that you cannot just jump our of bed tomorrow morning and start hunting gazelles, but what I am saying is that running has deep evolutionary roots that makes us who we are. Our bodies are not meant to stay stationary but to move, to walk, to run, to be alive. These days we see more people queuing up hospital lobbies than we see out in the streets walking or exercising in the morning. How ironical that we can spend so much time getting sick, but cannot spend some time a day getting healthy. I came across a cartoon the other day where a doctor was giving his overweight patient some advice, “What works better with your schedule, exercising 30minutes a day or being dead 24 hours a day?”.
Three hours into the run and I can start feeling the strain. Glycogen in the body has almost depleted and thirst has also started setting in. I have a last hard climb for about two miles and my long run is done. The uphill is hard, the body aches and the panting starts picking up, as I try and push a little bit more to end with a strong kick, I only get what nature gives me. I hit the stop button in my watch and bend my knees to catch my breath. As I recompose, the pain fades into the background and I am filled with a sense of deep inner peace and happiness. Why I love running? I don’t really know…I just love running.