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Chapter 15
The flesh about my body felt soft and relaxed, like an experiment in functional background music.

—RICHARD BRAUTIGAN, Trout Fishing in America“SUCH A SENSE of joy!” marveled Coach Vigil, who’d never seen anything like it, either. “Itquite remarkable.” Glee and determination are usually antagonistic emotions, yet theTara(was) humara were brimming with both at once, as if running to the death made them feel morealive.

Vigil had been furiously taking mental notes (Look how they point their toes down, not up, likegymnasts doing the floor exercise. And their backs! They could carry water buckets on their headswithout spilling a drop! How many years have I been telling my kids to straighten up and run fromthe gut like that?). But it was the smiles that really jolted him.

That’s it! Vigil thought, ecstatic. I found it!

Except he wasn’t sure what “it” was. The revelation he’d been hoping for was right in front of hiseyes, but he couldn’t quite grasp it; he could only catch the glim around the edges, like spotting thecover of a rare book in a candlelit library. But whatever “it” was, he knew it was exactly what hewas looking for.

Over the previous few years, Vigil had become convinced that the next leap forward in humanendurance would come from a dimension he dreaded getting into: character. Not the “character”

other coaches were always rah-rah-rah-ing about; Vigil wasn’t talking about “grit” or “hunger” or“the size of the fight in the dog.” In fact, he meant the exact opposite. Vigil’s notion of characterwasn’t toughness. It was compassion. Kindness. Love.

That’s right: love.

Vigil knew it sounded like hippie-dippy drivel, and make no mistake, he’d have been muchhappier sticking to good, hard, quantifiable stuff like VO2 max and periodized-training tables. Butafter spending nearly fifty years researching performance physiology, Vigil had reached theuncomfortable conclusion that all the easy questions had been answered; he was now learningmore and more about less and less. He could tell you exactly how much of a head start Kenyanteenagers had over Americans (eighteen thousand miles run in training). He’d discovered whythose Russian sprinters were leaping off ladders (besides strengthening lateral muscles, the traumateaches nerves to fire more rapidly, which decreases the odds of training injuries). He’d parsed thesecret of the Peruvian peasant diet (high altitude has a curious effect on metabolism), and he couldtalk for hours about the impact of a single percentage point in oxygen-consumption efficiency.

He’d figured out the body, so now it was on to the brain. Specifically: How do you make anyoneactually want to do any of this stuff? How do you flip the internal switch that changes us all backinto the Natural Born Runners we once were? Not just in history, but in our own lifetimes.

Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled at to slow down? Every game youplayed, you played at top speed, sprinting like crazy as you kicked cans, freed all, and attackedjungle outposts in your neighbors’ backyards. Half the fun of doing anything was doing it at recordpace, making it probably the last time in your life you’d ever be hassled for going too fast.

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running.

They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation.

Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we wereperfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion overwild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the firstdesigns? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle—behold, the RunningMan.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived andthrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find amate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to loverunning, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everythingwe sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires”—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. Wewere born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumarahave always known.

But the American approach—ugh. Rotten at its core. It was too artificial and grabby, Vigilbelieved, too much about getting stuff and getting it now: medals, Nike deals, a cute butt. It wasn’tart; it was business, a hard-nosed quid pro quo. No wonder so many people hated running; if youthought it was only a means to an end—an investment in becoming faster, skinnier, richer—thenwhy stick with it if you weren’t getting enough quo for your quid?

It wasn’t always like that—and when it wasn’t, we were awesome. Back in the ’70s, Americanmarathoners were a lot like the Tarahumara; they were a tribe of isolated outcasts, running for loveand relying on raw instinct and crude equipment. Slice the top off a ’70s running shoe, and youhad a sandal: the old Adidas and Onitsuka Tigers were just a flat sole and laces, with no motioncontrol, no arch support, no heel pad. The guys in the ’70s didn’t know enough to worry about“pronation” and “supination”; that fancy running-store jargon hadn’t even been invented yet.

Their training was as primitive as their shoes. They ran way too much: “We ran twice a day,sometimes three times,” Frank Shorter would recall. “All we did was run—run, eat, and sleep.”

They ran way too hard: “The modus operandi was to let a bunch of competitive guys have at eachother every day in a form of road rage,” one observer put it. And they were waaay too buddy-buddy for so-called competitors: “We liked running together,” recalled Bill Rodgers, a chieftain ofthe ’70s tribe and four-time Boston Marathon champ. “We had fun with it. It wasn’t a grind.”

They were so ignorant, they didn’t even realize they were supposed to be burned out, overtrained,and injured. Instead, they were fast; really fast. Frank Shorter won the ’72 Olympic marathon goldand the ’76 silver, Bill Rodgers was the No. I ranked marathoner in the world for three years, andAlberto Salazar won Boston, New York, and the Comrades ultramarathon. By the early ’80s, theGreater Boston Track Club had half a dozen guys who could run a 2:12 marathon. That’s six guys,in one amateur club, in one city. Twenty years later, you couldn’t find a single 2:12 marathoneranywhere in the country. The United States couldn’t even get one runner to meet the 2:14qualifying standard for the 2000 Olympics; only Rod DeHaven squeaked into the games under the2:15 “B” standard. He finished sixty-ninth.

So what happened? How did we go from leader of the pack to lost and left behind? It’s hard todetermine a single cause for any event in this complex world, of course, but forced to choose, theanswer is best summed up as follows:

$Sure, plenty of people will throw up excuses about Kenyans having some kind of mutant musclefiber, but this isn’t about why other people got faster; it’s about why we got slower. And the factis, American distance running went into a death spiral precisely when cash entered the equation.

The Olympics were opened to professionals after the 1984 Games, which meant running-shoecompanies could bring the distance-running savages out of the wilderness and onto the payrollreservation.

Vigil could smell the apocalypse coming, and he’d tried hard to warn his runners. “There are twogoddesses in your heart,” he told them. “The Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of Wealth.

Everyone thinks they need to get wealth first, and wisdom will come. So they concern themselveswith chasing money. But they have it backwards. You have to give your heart to the Goddess ofWisdom, give her all your love and attention, and the Goddess of Wealth will become jealous, andfollow you.” Ask nothing from your running, in other words, and you’ll get more than you everimagined.

Vigil wasn’t beating his chest about the purity of poverty, or fantasizing about a monastic order ofmoneyless marathoners. Shoot, he wasn’t even sure he had a handle on the problem, let alone thesolution. All he wanted was to find one Natural Born Runner—someone who ran for sheer joy,like an artist in the grip of inspiration—and study how he or she trained, lived, and thought.

Whatever that thinking was, maybe Vigil could transplant it back into American culture like anheirloom seedling and watch it grow wild again.

Vigil already had the perfect prototype. There was this Czech soldier, a gawky dweeb who ranwith such horrendous form that he looked “as if he’d just been stabbed through the heart,” as onesports-writer put it. But Emil Zatopek loved running so much that even when he was still a grunt inarmy boot camp, he used to grab a flashlight and go off on twenty-mile runs through the woods atnight.

In his combat boots.

In winter.

After a full day of infantry drills.

When the snow was too deep, Zatopek would jog in the tub on top of his dirty laundry, getting aresistance workout along with clean tighty whities. As soon as it thawed enough for him to getoutside, he’d go nuts; he’d run four hundred meters as fast as he could, over and over, for ninetyrepetitions, resting in between by jogging two hundred meters. By the time he was finished, he’ddone more than thirty-three miles of speedwork. Ask him his pace, and he’d shrug; he never timedhimself. To build explosiveness, he and his wife, Dana, used to play catch with a javelin, hurling itback and forth to each other across a soccer field like a long, lethal Frisbee. One of Zatopek’sfavorite workouts combined all his loves at once: he’d jog through the woods in his army bootswith his ever-loving wife riding on his back.

It was all a waste of time, of course. The Czechs were like the Zimbabwean bobsled team; theyhad no tradition, no coaching, no native talent, no chance of winning. But being counted out wasliberating; having nothing to lose left Zatopek free to try any way to win. Take his first marathon:

everyone knows the best way to build up to 26.2 miles is by running long, slow distances.

Everyone, that is, except Emil Zatopek; he did hundred- yard dashes instead.

“I already know how to go slow,” he reasoned. “I thought the point was to go fast.” His atrocious,death-spasming style was punch-line heaven for track scribes (“The most frightful horror spectaclesince Frankenstein.” … “He runs as if his next step would be his last.” … “He looks like a manwrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt”), but Zatopek just laughed along. “I’m not talentedenough to run and smile at the same time,” he’d say. “Good thing it’s not figure skating. You onlyget points for speed, not style.”

And dear God, was he a Chatty Cathy! Zatopek treated competition like it was speed dating. Evenin the middle of a race, he liked to natter with other runners and try out his smattering of Frenchand English and German, causing one grouchy Brit to complain about Zatopek’s “incessanttalking.” At away meets, he’d sometimes have so many new friends in his hotel room that he’dhave to give up his bed and sleep outside under a tree. Once, right before an international race, hebecame pals with an Australian runner who was hoping to break the Australian 5,000-meterrecord. Zatopek was only entered in the 10,000- meter race, but he came up with a plan; he told theAussie to drop out of his race and line up next to Zatopek instead. Zatopek spent the first half ofthe 10,000-meter race pacing his new buddy to the record, then sped off to attend to his ownbusiness and win.

That was pure Zatopek, though; races for him were like a pub crawl. He loved competing so muchthat instead of tapering and peaking, he jumped into as many meets as he could find. During amanic stretch in the late ’40s, Zatopek raced nearly every other week for three years and never lost,going 69-0. Even on a schedule like that, he still averaged up to 165 miles a week in training.

Zatopek bald, self-coached thirty-year-old apartment-dweller from a decrepit Eastern Europeanbac(was) kw(a) ater when he arrived for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Since the Czech teamwas so thin, Zatopek had his choice of distance events, so he chose them all. He lined up for the5,000 meters, and won with a new Olympic record. He then lined up for the 10,000 meters, andwon his second gold with another new record. He’d never run a marathon before, but what the hell;with two golds already around his neck, he had nothing to lose, so why not finish the job and giveit a bash?

Zatopek’s inexperience quickly became obvious. It was a hot day, so England’s Jim Peters, thenthe world-record holder, decided to use the heat to make Zatopek suffer. By the ten-mile mark,Peters was already ten minutes under his own world-record pace and pulling away from the field.

Zatopek wasn’t sure if anyone could really sustain such a blistering pace. “Excuse me,” he said,pulling alongside Peters. “This is my first marathon. Are we going too fast?”

“No,” Peters replied. “Too slow.” If Zatopek was dumb enough to ask, he was dumb enough todeserve any answer he got.

Zatopek was surprised. “You say too slow,” he asked again. “Are you sure the pace is too slow?”

“Yes,” Peters said. Then he got a surprise of his own.

“Okay. Thanks.” Zatopek took Peters at his word, and took off.

When he burst out of the tunnel and into the stadium, he was met with a roar: not only from thefans, but from athletes of every nation who thronged the track to cheer him in. Zatopek snappedthe tape with his third Olympic record, but when his teammates charged over to congratulate him,they were too late: the Jamaican sprinters had already hoisted him on their shoulders and wereparading him around the infield. “Let us live so that when we come to die, even the undertaker willbe sorry,” Mark Twain used to say. Zatopek found a way to run so that when he won, even otherteams were delighted.

You can’t pay someone to run with such infectious joy. You can’t bully them into it, either, whichZatopek would unfortunately have to prove. When the Red Army marched into Prague in 1968 tocrush the pro-democracy movement, Zatopek was given a choice: he could get on board with theSoviets and serve as a sports ambassador, or he could spend the rest of his life cleaning toilets in auranium mine. Zatopek chose the toilets. And just like that, one of the most beloved athletes in theworld disappeared.

At the same time, coincidentally, his rival for the title of world’s greatest distance runner was alsotaking a beating. Ron Clarke, a phenomenally talented Australian with Johnny Depp’s dark,dreamy beauty, was exactly the kind of guy that Zatopek, by all rights, should hate. While Zatopekhad to teach himself to run in the snow at night after sentry duty, the Australian pretty boy wasenjoying sunny morning jogs along the beaches of Mornington Peninsula and expert coaching.

Everything Zatopek could wish for, Clarke had to spare: Freedom. Money. Elegance. Hair.

Ron Clarke was a star—but still a loser in the eyes of his nation. Despite breaking nineteen recordsin every distance from the half-mile to six miles, “the bloke who choked” never managed to winthe big ones. In the summer of ’68, he blew his final chance: in the 10,000-meter finals at theMexico City Games, Clarke was knocked out by altitude sickness. Anticipating a barrage of abuseback home, Clarke delayed his return by stopping off in Prague to pay a courtesy call to the blokewho never lost. Toward the end of their visit, Clarke glimpsed Zatopek sneaking something intohis suitcase.

“I thought I was smuggling some message to the outside world for him, so I did not dare to openthe parcel until the plane was well away,” Clarke would say. Zatopek sent him off with a strongembrace. “Because you deserved it,” he said, which Clarke found cute and very touching; the oldmaster had far worse problems of his own to deal with, but was still playful enough to grant avictory-stand hug to the young punk who’d missed his chance to mount one.

Only later would he discover that Zatopek wasn’t talking about the hug at all: in his suitcase,Clarke found Zatopek’s 1952 Olympic 10,000-meters gold medal. For Zatopek to give it to theman who’d replaced his name in the record books was extraordinarily noble; to give it away atprecisely the moment in his life when he was losing everything else was an act of almostunimaginable compassion.

“His enthusiasm, his friendliness, his love of life, shone through every movement,” an overcomeRon Clarke said later. “There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zatopek.”

So here’s what Coach Vigil was trying to figure out: was Zatopek a great man who happened torun, or a great man because he ran? Vigil couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept tellinghim that there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to loverunning. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on yourown desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient andforgiving and undemanding. Sex and speed—haven’t they been symbiotic for most of ourexistence, as intertwined as the strands of our DNA? We wouldn’t be alive without love; wewouldn’t have survived without running; maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that getting better atone could make you better at the other.

Look, Vigil was a scientist, not a swami. He hated straying into this Buddha-under-the-lotus-treestuff, but he wasn’t going to ignore it, either. He’d made his bones by finding connections whereeveryone else coincidence, and the he examined the compassion link, the moreintriguingitbecame(saw) .Wasitjustbychancethat(more) the pantheon of dedicated runners also includedAbraham Lincoln (“He could beat all the other boys in a footrace”) and Nelson Mandela (a collegecross-country standout who, even in prison, continued to run seven miles a day in place in hiscell)? Maybe Ron Clarke wasn’t being poetic in his description of Zatopek—maybe his expert eyewas clinically precise: His love of life shone through every movement.

Yes! Love of life! Exactly! That’s what got Vigil’s heart thumping when he saw Juan andMartimano scramble happy-go-luckily up that dirt hill. He’d found his Natural Born Runner. He’dfound an entire tribe of Natural Born Runners, and from what he’d seen so far, they were just asjoyful and magnificent as he’d hoped.

Vigil, an old man alone in the woods, suddenly felt a burst of immortality. He was onto something.

Something huge. It wasn’t just how to run; it was how to live, the essence of who we are as aspecies and what we’re meant to be. Vigil had read his Lumholtz, and at that moment the greatexplorer’s words revealed their hidden treasure; so that’s what Lumholtz meant when he called theTarahumara “the founders and makers of the history of mankind.” Perhaps all our troubles—all theviolence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stoppedliving as Running People. Deny your nature, and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.

Vigil’s mission was clear. He had to trace the route back from what we’ve become to what theTarahumara have always been, and figure out where we got lost. Every action flick depicts thedestruction of civilization as some kind of crash-boom-bang, a nuclear war or hurtling comet or aself-aware-cyborg uprising, but the true cataclysm may already be creeping up right under oureyes: because of rampant obesity, one in three children born in the United States is at risk ofdiabetes—meaning, we could be the first generation of Americans to outlive our own children.

Maybe the ancient Hindus were better crystal-ball-gazers than Hollywood when they predicted theworld would end not with a bang but with a big old yawn. Shiva the Destroyer would snuff us outby doing … nothing. Lazing out. Withdrawing his hot-blooded force from our bodies. Letting usbecome slugs.

Coach Vigil wasn’t a maniac, though. He wasn’t proposing we all run off to the canyons with theTarahumara to live in caves and gnaw mice. But there had to be transferable skills, right? BasicTarahu principles that could survive and take root in American soil?

Because my God, imagine the payoff. What if you could run for decades and never get injured …and log hundreds of weekly miles and enjoy every one of them … and see your heart rate drop andyour stress and anger fade while your energy soared? Imagine crime, cholesterol, and greedmelting away as a nation of Running People finally rediscovered its stride. More than his Olympicrunners, more than his triumphs and records, this could be Joe Vigil’s legacy.

He didn’t have all the answers yet—but watching the Tarahumara whisk past in their wizard capes,he knew where he would find them.


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