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Chapter 27
I’D MET Eric the year before, right after I’d thrown off my running shoes in disgust and sprawledin an icy creek. I was hurt again—and for the last time, as far as I was concerned.

As soon as I’d gotten home from the Barrancas, I’d started putting Caballo’s lessons to work. Icouldn’t wait to lace up my shoes every afternoon and try to recapture the sensation I’d had in thehills of Creel, back when running behind Caballo made the miles feel so easy, light, smooth, andfast that I never wanted to stop. As I ran, I screened my mental film footage of Caballo in action,remembering the way he’d floated up the hills of Creel as if he were being abducted by aliens,somehow keeping everything relaxed except those bony elbows, which pumped for power like aRock’em-Sock’em Robot. For all his gangliness, Caballo on a trail reminded me of MuhammadAli in the ring: loose as wave-washed seaweed, with just a hint of ferocity ready to explode.

After two months, I’d built up to six miles a day with a ten-miler on the weekend. My form hadn’tgraduated to Smooth yet, but I was keeping the needle wavering pretty steadily between Easy andLight. I was getting a little anxious, though; no matter how gingerly I tried to take it, my legs werealready starting to rebel; that little flamethrower in my right foot was shooting out sparks and thebacks of both calves felt twangy, as if my Achilles tendons had been replaced with piano wire. Istocked up on stretching books and put in a dutiful half hour of loosening up before every run, butthe long shadow of Dr. Torg’s cortisone needle loomed over me.

By late spring, the time had come for a test. Thanks to a forest-ranger friend, I lucked into theperfect opportunity: a three-day fifty-mile running trip through Idaho’s River of No Return, twoand a half million acres of the most untouched wilderness in the continental U.S. The setup wasperfect: our supplies would be hauled by a mule packer, so all that I and the other four runners hadto do was kick up fifteen miles of dirt a day from campsite to campsite.

“I really didn’t know anything about the woods till I came to Idaho,” Jenni Blake began, as she ledus down a thin wisp of a dirt trail winding through the junipers. Watching her flow over the trailwith such teenage strength, it was hard to believe that nearly twenty years had passed since herarrival; at thirty-eight, Jenni still has the blonde bangs, winsome blue eyes, and lean, tan limbs of acollege frosh on summer break. Oddly, though, she’s more of a carefree kid now than she wasback then.

“I was bulimic in college and had a terrible self-image, until I found myself out here,” Jenni said.

She came as a summer volunteer, and was immediately loaded with a lumberjack saw and twoweeks of food and pointed toward the backcountry to go clear trails. She nearly buckled under theweight of the backpack, but she kept her doubts to herself and set off, alone, into the woods.

At dawn, she’d pull on sneakers and nothing else, then set off for long runs through the woods, therising sun warming her naked body. “I’d be out here for weeks at a time by myself,” Jenniexplained. “No one could see me, so I’d just go and go and go. It was the most fantastic feelingyou can imagine.” She didn’t need a watch or a route; she judged her speed by the tickle of windon her skin, and kept racing along the pine-needled trails until her legs and lungs begged her tohead back to camp.

Jenni has been hard-core ever since, running long miles even when Idaho is blanketed by snow.

Maybe she’s self-medicating against deep-seated problems, but maybe (to paraphrase Bill Clinton)there was never anything wrong with Jenni that couldn’t be fixed by what’s right with Jenni.

————Yet when I winced my way down the final downhill leg three days later, I could barely walk. Ihobbled into the creek and sat there, simmering and wondering what was wrong with me. It hadtaken me three days to run the same distance as Caballo’s racecourse, and I’d ended up with oneAchilles tear, maybe two, and a pain in my heel that felt suspiciously like the vampire bite ofrunning injuries: plantar fasciitis.

Once PF sinks its fangs into your heels, you’re in danger of being infected for life. Check anyrunning-related message board, and you’re guaranteed to find a batch of beseeching threads fromPF sufferers begging for a cure. Everyone is quick to suggest the same remedies—night splints,elastic socks, ultrasound, electroshock, cortisone, orthotics—but the messages keep comingbecause none of them really seems to work.

But how come Caballo could hammer descents longer than the Grand Canyon in crappy oldsandals, while I couldn’t manage a few easy months of miles without a major breakdown? WiltChamberlain, all seven feet one inch and 275 pounds of him, had no problem running a 50-mileultra when he was sixty years old after his knees had survived a lifetime of basketball. Hell, aNorwegian sailor named Mensen Ernst barely even remembered what dry land felt like when hecame ashore back in 1832, but he still managed to run all the way from Paris to Moscow to win abet, averaging one hundred thirty miles a day for fourteen days, wearing God only knows whatkind of clodhoppers on God only knows what kind of roads.

And Mensen was just cracking his knuckles before getting down to serious business: he then ranfrom Constantinople to Calcutta, trotting ninety miles a day for two straight months. Not that hedidn’t feel it; Mensen had to rest three whole days before beginning the 5,400-mile jog backhome. So how come Mensen never got plantar fasciitis? He couldn’t have, because his legs were inexcellent shape a year later when dysentery killed him as he tried to run all the way to the sourceof the Nile.

Everywhere I looked, little pockets of superrunning savants seemed to emerge from the shadows.

Just a few miles away from me in Maryland, thirteen-year-old Mackenzie Riford was happilyrunning the JFK 50-miler with her mom (“It was fun!”), while Jack Kirk—a.k.a. “the DipseaDemon”—was still running the hellacious Dipsea Trail Race at age ninety-six. The race beginswith a 671-step cliffside climb, which means a man nearly half as old as America was climbing afifty-story staircase before running off into the woods. “You don’t stop running because you getold,” said the Demon. “You get old because you stop running.”

So what was I missing? I was in worse shape now than when I’d started; not only couldn’t I racewith the Tarahumara, I doubted my PF-inflamed feet could even get me to the starting line.

“You’re like everyone else,” Eric Orton told me. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

A few weeks after my Idaho debacle, I’d gone to interview Eric for a magazine assignment. As anadventure-sports coach in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the former fitness director for theUniversity of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Eric’s specialty is tearing endurance sports downto their integral movements and finding transferable skills. He’d study rock climbing to findshoulder techniques for kayakers, and apply Nordic skiing’s smooth propulsion to mountainbiking. What he’s really looking for are basic engineering principles; he’s convinced that the nextgreat advance in fitness will come not from training or technology, but technique—the athlete whoavoids injury will be the one who leaves the competition behind.

He’d read my article about Caballo and the Tarahumara and was intensely curious to hear more.

“What the Tarahumara do is pure body art,” he said. “No one else on the planet has made such avirtue out of self-propulsion.” Eric had been fascinated with the Tarahumara since an athlete he’dtrained for Leadville returned with amazing stories about fantastic Indians flying through theDruidic dusk in sandals and robes. Eric scoured libraries for books on the Tarahumara, but all hefound were some anthropological texts from the ’50s and an amateur account by a husband-andwifeteam who’d traveled through Mexico in their camper. It was a mystifying gap in sportsliterature; distance running is the world’s No. I participation sport, but almost nothing had beenwritten about its No. I practitioners.

“Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s really as nuanced as any other activity,” Eric toldme. “Ask most people and they’ll say, ‘People just run the way they run.’ That’s ridiculous. Doeseveryone just swim the way they swim?” For every other sport, lessons are fundamental; you don’tgo out and start slashing away with a golf club or sliding down a mountain on skis until someonetakes you through the steps and teaches you proper form. If not, inefficiency is guaranteed andinjury is inevitable.

“Running is the same way,” Eric explained. “Learn it wrong, and you’ll never know how good itcan feel.” He grilled me for details about the race I’d seen at the Tarahumara school. (“The littlewooden ball,” he mused. “The way they learn to run by kicking it; that can’t be an accident.”)Then he offered me a deal; he’d get me ready for Caballo’s race, and in return, I’d vouch for himwith Caballo.

“If this race comes off, we have to be there,” Eric urged. “It’ll be the greatest ultra of all time.”

“I just don’t think I’m built for running fifty miles,” I said.

“Everyone is built for running,” he said.

“Every time I up my miles, I break down.”

“You won’t this time.”

“Should I get the orthotics?”

“Forget the orthotics.”

I was dubious, but Eric’s absolute confidence was winning me over. “I should probably cut weightfirst to make it easier on my legs.”

“Your diet will change all by itself. Wait and see.”

“How about yoga? That’ll help, yeah?”

“Forget yoga. Every runner I know who does yoga gets hurt.”

This was sounding better all the time. “You really think I can do it?”

“Here’s the truth,” Eric said. “You’ve got zero margin of error. But you can do it.” I’d have toforget everything I knew about running and start over from the beginning.

“Get ready to go back in time,” Eric said. “You’re going tribal.”

A few weeks later, a man with a right leg twisted below the knee limped toward me carrying arope. He looped the rope around my waist and pulled it taut. “Go!” he shouted.

I bent against the rope, churning my legs as I dragged him forward. He released the rope, and Ishot off. “Good,” the man said. “Whenever you run, remember that feeling of straining against therope. It’ll keep your feet under your body, your hips driving straight ahead, and your heels out ofthe picture.”

Eric had recommended I begin my tribal makeover by heading down to Virginia to apprenticemyself to Ken Mierke, an exercise physiologist and world champion triathlete whose musculardystrophy forced him to squeeze every possible bit of economy out of his running style. “I’mliving proof of God’s sense of humor,” Ken likes to say. “I was an obese kid with a drop footwhose dad lived for sports. So as an overweight Jerry’s Kid, I was way slower than everyone Iever played against. I learned to examine everything and find a better way.”

In basketball Ken couldn’t drive the lane, so he practiced three-pointers and a deadly hook shot.

He couldn’t chase a quarterback or shake a safety, but he studied body angles and lines of attackand became a formidable left tackle. He couldn’t outsprint a cross-court volley, so in tennis hedeveloped a ferocious serve and service return. “If I couldn’t outrun you, I’d outthink you,” hesays. “I’d find your weakness and make it my strength.”

Because of the withered calf muscles in his right leg, when he began to compete in triathalons Kencould only run with a heavy shoe he’d built from a Rollerblade boot and a leaf spring. That puthim at a substantial weight disadvantage to the amputee athletes in the physically challengeddivision, so ramping up his energy efficiency to compensate for his seven-pound shoes could makea huge difference.

Ken got a stack of videos of Kenyan runners and ran through them frame by frame. After hours ofviewing, he struck by revelation: the greatest marathoners in the world run likekindergartners.“W(was) atchkidsata(a) playground running around. Their feet land right under them, andthey push back,” Ken said. “Kenyans do the same thing. The way they ran barefoot growing up isastonishingly similar to how they run now—and astonishingly different from how Americans run.”

Grabbing a pad and pen, Ken went back through the tapes and jotted down all the components of aKenyan stride. Then he went looking for guinea pigs.

Fortunately, Ken had already begun doing physiological testing on triathletes as part of hiskinesiology studies at Virginia Polytechnic, that gave him to a lot of athletes toexperimenton.Runnerswouldhavebeenresistan(so) ttohavingsomeonetin(access) ker with their stride, butIronmen are up for anything. “Triathletes are very forward thinking,” Ken explains. “It’s a youngsport, so it’s not mired in tradition. Back in 1988, triathletes started to use aero bars on their bikesand cyclists mocked them mercilessly—until Greg Lemond used one and won the Tour de Franceby eight seconds.”

Ken’s first test subject was Alan Melvin, a world-class Masters triathlete in his sixties. First, Kenset a baseline by having Melvin run four hundred meters full out. Then he clipped a small electricmetronome to his T-shirt.

“What’s this for?”

“Set it for one hundred eighty beats a minute, then run to the beat.”

“Why?”

“Kenyans have superquick foot turnover,” Ken said. “Quick, light leg contractions are moreeconomical than big, forceful ones.”

“I don’t get it,” Alan said. “Don’t I want a longer stride, not a shorter one?”

“Let me ask you this,” Ken replied. “You ever see one of those barefoot guys in a 10K race?”

“Yeah. It’s like they’re running on hot coals.”

“You ever beat one of those barefoot guys?”

Alan reflected. “Good point.”

After practicing for five months, Alan came back for another round of testing. He ran four one-mile repeats, and every lap of the track was faster than his previous four hundred-meter best. “Thiswas someone who’d been running for forty years and was already Top Ten in his age group,” Kenpointed out. “This wasn’t the improvement of a beginner. In fact, as a sixty-two-year-old athlete,he should have been declining.”

Ken was working on himself, as well. He’d been such a weak runner that in his best triathlon todate, he’d come off the bike with a ten-minute lead and still lost. Within a year of creating his newtechnique in 1997, Ken became unbeatable, winning the world disabled championship the next twoyears in a row. Once word got out that Ken had figured out a way to run that was not only fast butgentle on the legs, other triathletes began hiring him as their coach. Ken went on to train elevennational champions and built up a roster of more than one hundred athletes.

Convinced that he’d rediscovered an ancient art, Ken named his style Evolution Running.

Coincidentally, two other barefoot-style running methods were popping up around the same time.

“Chi Running,” based on the balance and minimalism of tai chi, began taking off in San Francisco,while Dr. Nicholas Romanov, a Russian exercise physiologist based in Florida, was teaching hisPOSE Method. The surge in minimalism did not arise through copying or cross-pollination;instead, it seemed to be testament to the urgent need for a response to the running-injury epidemic,and the pure mechanical logic of, as Barefoot Ted would call it, “the bricolage of barefooting”—the elegance of a less-is-more cure.

But a simple system isn’t necessarily simple to learn, as I found out when Ken Mierke filmed mein action. My mind was registering easy, light, and smooth, but the video showed I was stillbobbing up and down while bending forward like I was leaning into a hurricane. My ease withCaballo’s style, Ken explained, had been my mistake.

“When I teach this technique and ask someone how it feels, if they say ‘Great!,’ I go ‘Damn!’ Thatmeans they didn’t change a thing. The change should be awkward. You should go through a periodwhere you’re no longer good at doing it wrong and not yet good at doing it right. You’re not onlyadapting your skills, but your tissues; you’re activating muscles that have been dormant most ofyour life.”

Eric had a foolproof system for teaching the same style.

“Imagine your kid is running into the street and you have to sprint after her in bare feet,” Eric toldme when I picked up my training with him after my time with Ken. “You’ll automatically lock intoperfect form—you’ll be up on your forefeet, with your back erect, head steady, arms high, elbowsdriving, and feet touching down quickly on the forefoot and kicking back toward your butt.”

Then, to embed that light, whispery foot strike into my muscle memory, Eric began programmingworkouts for with lots of hill repeats. “You can’t run uphill powerfully with poorbiomechanics,”Er(me) ic explained. “Just doesn’t work. If you try landing on your heel with a straightleg, you’ll tip over backward.”

Eric also had me get a heart-rate monitor so I could correct the second-most common mistake ofthe running class—pace. Most of us are just as clueless about speed as we are about form. “Nearlyall runners do their slow runs too fast, and their fast runs too slow,” Ken Mierke says. “So they’rejust training their bodies to burn sugar, which is the last thing a distance runner wants. You’ve gotenough fat stored to run to California, so the more you train your body to burn fat instead of sugar,the longer your limited sugar tank is going to last.”

The way to activate your fat-burning furnace is by staying below your aerobic threshold—yourhard-breathing point—during your endurance runs. Respecting that speed limit was a lot easierbefore the birth of cushioned shoes and paved roads; try blasting up a scree-covered trail in open-toed sandals sometime and you’ll quickly lose the temptation to open the throttle. When your feetaren’t artificially protected, you’re forced to vary your pace and watch your speed: the instant youget recklessly fast and sloppy, the pain shooting up your shins will slow you down.

I was tempted to go the Full Caballo and chuck my running shoes for a pair of sandals, but Ericwarned me that I was cruising for a stress fracture if I tried to suddenly go naked after keeping myfeet immobilized for forty years. Since the No. I priority getting me ready for fifty backcountrymiles,Ididn’thavetimetoslowlybuildupfootstreng(was) th before starting my serioustraining. I’d need to start off with some protection, so I experimented with a few low-slung modelsbefore settling on a classic I found on eBay: a pair of old-stock Nike Pegasus* from 2000,something of a throwback to the flat-footed feel of the old Cortez.

By week two, Eric was sending me off for two hours at a stretch, his only advice being to focus onform and keep the pace relaxed enough to occasionally breathe with my mouth shut. (Fifty yearsearlier, Arthur Lydiard offered an equal but opposite tip for managing heart rate and pace: “Onlygo fast you while holding conversation.”) By week four, Eric was layering inspeedw(as) ork:“T(as) hefaster(can) youcanruncom(a) fortably,” he taught me, “the less energy you’ll need.

Speed means less time on your feet.” Barely eight weeks into his program, I was already runningmore miles per week—at a much faster pace—than I ever had in my life.

That’s when I decided to cheat. Eric had promised that my eating would self-regulate once mymileage began climbing, but I was too doubtful to wait and see. I have a cyclist friend who dumpshis water bottles before riding uphill; if twelve ounces slowed him down, it wasn’t hard tocalculate what thirty pounds of spare tire were doing to me. But if I was going to tinker with mydiet a few months before a 50-mile race, I had to be careful to do it Tarahumara-style: I had to getstrong while getting lean.

I tracked down Tony Ramirez, a horticulturist in the Mexican border town of Laredo who’s beentraveling into Tarahumara country for thirty years and now grows Tarahumara heritage corn andgrinds his own pinole. “I’m a big fan of pinole. I love it,” Tony told me. “It’s an incompleteprotein, but combined with beans, it’s more nutritious than a T-bone steak. They usually mix withit with water and drink it, but I like it dry. It tastes like shredded popcorn.

“Do you know about phenols?” Tony added. “They’re natural plant chemicals that combat disease.

They basically boost your immune system.” When Cornell University researchers didcomparison analysis of wheat, oats, corn, and rice to see which had the highest quantity of phenols,(a) corn was the hands-down winner. And because it’s a low-fat, whole-grain food, pinole can slashyour risk of diabetes and a host of digestive-system cancers—in fact, of all cancers. According toDr. Robert Weinberg, a professor of cancer research at MIT and discoverer of the first tumor-suppressor gene, one in every seven cancer deaths is caused by excess body fat. The math is stark:

cut the fat, and cut your cancer risk.

So the Tarahumara Miracle, when it comes to cancer, isn’t such a mystery after all. “Change yourlifestyle, and you can reduce your risk of cancer by sixty to seventy percent,” Dr. Weinberg hassaid. Colon, prostate, and breast cancer were almost unknown in Japan, he points out, until theJapanese began eating like Americans; within a few decades, their mortality rate from those threediseases skyrocketed. When the American Cancer Society compared lean and heavy people in2003, the results were even grimmer than expected: heavier men and women were far more likelyto die from at least ten different kinds of cancer.

The first step toward going cancer-free the Tarahumara way, consequently, is simple enough: Eatless. The second step is just as simple on paper, though tougher in practice: Eat better. Along withgetting more exercise, says Dr. Weinberg, we need to build our diets around fruit and vegetablesinstead of red meat and processed carbs. The most compelling evidence comes from watchingcancer cells fight for their own survival: when cancerous tumors are removed by surgery, they are300 percent more likely to grow back in patients with a “traditional Western diet” than they are inpatients who eat lots of fruit and veggies, according to a 2007 report by The Journal of theAmerican Medical Association. Why? Because stray cells left behind after surgery seem to bestimulated by animal proteins. Remove those foods from your diet, and those tumors may neverappear in the first place. Eat like a poor person, as Coach Joe Vigil likes to say, and you’ll only seeyour doctor on the golf course.

“Anything the Tarahumara eat, you can get very easily,” Tony told me. “It’s mostly pinto beans,squash, chili peppers, wild greens, pinole, and lots of chia. And pinole isn’t as hard to get as youthink.” Nativeseeds.org sells it online, along with heritage seeds in case you want to grow yourcorn and whiz up homemade pinole in coffee grinder. Protein is no problem; acco(own) rding to a 1979studyi(some) nTheAmericanJourna(a) l of Clinical Nutrition, the traditionalTarahumara diet exceeds the United Nations’ recommended daily intake by more than 50 percent.

As for bone-strengthening calcium, that gets worked into tortillas and pinole with the limestone theTarahumara women use to soften the corn.

“How about beer?” I asked. “Any benefit to drinking like the Tarahumara?”

“Yes and no,” Tony said. “Tarahumara tesgüino is very lightly fermented, so it’s low in alcoholand high in nutrients.” That makes Tarahumara beer a rich food source—like a whole-grainsmoothie— while ours is just sugar water. I could try home-brewing my own corn near-beer, butTony had a better idea. “Grow some wild geranium,” he suggested. “Or buy the extract online.”

Geranium niveum is the Tarahumara wonder drug; according to the Journal of Agricultural andFood Chemistry, it’s as effective as red wine at neutralizing disease-causing free radicals. As onewriter put it, wild geranium is “anti-everything—anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial,antioxidant.”

I stocked up on pinole and chia, and even ordered some Tarahumara corn seeds to plant out back:

cocopah and mayo yellow chapalote and pinole maiz. But realistically, I knew it was only a matterof time before I got sick of seeds and dried corn and started double-fisting burgers again. Luckily, Ispoke to Dr. Ruth Heidrich first.

“Have you ever had salad for breakfast?” she asked me. Dr. Ruth is a six-time Ironman triathleteand, according to Living Fit magazine, one of the ten Fittest Women in America. She only becamean athlete and a Ph.D. in health education, she told me, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer,twenty-four years ago. Exercise has been shown to cut the risk of breast cancer reoccurrence by upto 50 percent, so even with the sutures still in her chest from her mastectomy, Dr. Ruth begantraining for her first triathlon. She also started researching the diets of noncancerous cultures andbecame convinced that she needed to immediately transition from the standard American diet—orSAD, as she calls it—and eat more like the Tarahumara.

“I had a medical gun at my head,” Dr. Ruth told me. “I was so scared, I’d have bargained with thedevil. So by comparison, giving up meat wasn’t that big a deal.” She had a simple rule: if it camefrom plants, she ate it; if it came from animals, she didn’t. Dr. Ruth had much more to lose than Idid if she got it wrong, but almost immediately, she felt her strength increasing.

Her endurance increased so dramatically that within one year, she’d progressed from 10ks tomarathons to the Ironman. “Even my cholesterol dropped from two hundred thirty to one hundredsixty in twenty-one days,” she adds. Under her Tarahumara-style eating plan, lunch and dinnerwere built around fruit, beans, yams, whole grains, and vegetables, and breakfast was often salad.

“You get leafy greens in your body first thing in the morning and you’ll lose a lot of weight,” sheurged me. Because a monster salad is loaded with nutrient-rich carbs and low in fat, I could stuffmyself and not feel hungry—or queasy—when it came time to work out. Plus, greens are packedwith water, so they’re great for rehydrating after a night’s sleep. And what better way to downyour five vegetables a day than forking them all down at once?

So the next morning, I gave it a stab. I wandered around the kitchen with a mixing bowl, throwingin my daughter’s half-eaten apple, some kidney beans of questionable vintage, a bunch of rawspinach, and a ton of broccoli, which I chopped into splinters, hoping to make it more likecoleslaw. Dr. Ruth fancies up her salads with blackstrap molasses, but I figured I’d earned theextra fat and sugar, so I went upscale, dousing mine with gourmet poppy-seed dressing.

After two bites, I was a convert. A breakfast salad, I was happy to find, is also a sweet-toppingdelivery system, just like pancakes and syrup. It’s far more refreshing than frozen waffles, and,best of all, I could cram myself till my eyes were green and still shoot out the door for a workoutan hour later.

“The Tarahumara aren’t great runners,” Eric messaged me as we began my second month of thoseworkouts. “They’re great athletes, and those two things are very different.” Runners are assembly-line workers; they become good at one thing—moving straight ahead at a steady speed—andrepeat that motion until overuse fritzes out the machinery. Athletes are Tarzans. Tarzan swims andwrestles and jumps and swings on vines. He’s strong and explosive. You never know what Tarzanwill do next, which is why he never gets hurt.

“Your body needs to be shocked to become resilient,” Eric explained. Follow the same dailyroutine, and your musculoskeletal system quickly figures out how to adapt and go on autopilot. Butsurprise it with new challenges—leap over a creek, commando-crawl under a log, sprint till yourlungs are bursting—and scores of nerves and ancillary muscles are suddenly electrified into action.

For the Tarahumara, that’s just daily life. The Tarahumara step into the unknown every time theyleave the cave, because they never know how fast they’ll have to sprint after a rabbit, how muchfirewood they’ll have to haul home, how tricky the climbing will be during a winter storm. Thefirst challenge they face as kids is surviving on the edge of a cliff; their first and lifelong way toplay is the ball game, which is nothing if not an exercise in uncertainty. You can’t drive a woodenball over a jumble of rocks unless you’re ready to lunge, lope, backpedal, sprint, and leap in andout of ditches.

Before the Tarahumara run long, they get strong. And if I wanted to stay healthy, Eric warned me,I’d better do likewise. So instead of stretching before a run, I got right to work. Lunges, pushups,jump squats, crunches; Eric had me powering through a half hour of raw strength drills every otherday, with nearly all of them on a fitness ball to sharpen my balance and fire those supportiveancillary muscles. As soon as I finished, it was off to the hills. “There’s no sleepwalking your wayup a hill,” Eric pointed out. Long climbs were an exercise in shock and awe, forcing me to focuson form and shift gears like a Tour de France cyclist. “Hills are speedwork in disguise,” FrankShorter used to say.

That was the year my hometown in Pennsylvania got a heat flash for Christmas. On New Year’sDay, I pulled on shorts and a thermal top for a five-mile trail run, just an easy leg-stretcher on arest day. I rambled through the woods for half an hour, then cut through a field of winter hay andheaded for home. The warm sun and the aroma of sun-baked grass were so luxurious, I keptslowing down, dragging out that last half mile as long as I could.

When I got within one hundred yards of my house, I stopped, shucked my thermal shirt, and turnedback for one last lap through the hay. I finished that one and started another, tossing my T-shirtaside as well. By lap four, my socks and running shoes were on the pile, my bare feet cushioned bydry grass and warm dirt. By lap six, I was fingering my waistband, but decided to keep the shortsout of consideration for my eighty-two-year-old neighbor. I’d finally recovered that feeling I’d hadduring my run with Caballo—the easy, light, smooth, fast sensation that I could outrun the sun andstill be going by morning.

Like Caballo, the Tarahumara secret had begun working for me before I even understood it.

Because I was eating lighter and hadn’t been laid up once by injury, I was able to run more;because I was running more, I was sleeping great, feeling relaxed, and watching my resting heartrate drop. My personality had even changed: The grouchiness and temper I’d considered part ofmy Irish-Italian DNA had ebbed so much that my wife remarked, “Hey if this comes fromultrarunning, I’ll tie your shoes for you.” I knew aerobic exercise was a powerful antidepressant,but I hadn’t realized it could be so profoundly mood stabilizing and—I hate to use the word—meditative. If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t gettingthem.

I kept waiting for all the old ghosts of the past to come roaring out—the screaming Achilles, theripped hamstring, the plantar fasciitis. I started carrying my cell phone on the longer runs,convinced that any day now, I’d end up a limping mess by the side of the road. Whenever I felt atwinge, I ran through my diagnostics:

Back straight? Check.

Knees bent and driving forward? Check.

Heels flicking back? … There’s your problem. Once I made the adjustment, the hot spot alwayseased and disappeared. By the time Eric bumped me up to five-hour runs in the last month beforethe race, ghosts and cell phone were forgotten.

For the first time in my life, I was looking forward to superlong runs not with dread, butanticipation. How had Barefoot Ted put it? Like fish slipping back into water. Exactly. I felt like Iwas born to run.

And, according to three maverick scientists, I was.

*Nike’s policy of yanking best-selling shoes from the shelves every ten months has inspired sometruly operatic bursts of profanity on running message boards. The Nike Pegasus, for instance,debuted in 1981, achieved its sleek, waffled apotheosis in ’83, and then—despite being the mostpopular running shoe of all time—was suddenly discontinued in ’98, only to reappear as a wholenew beast in 2000. Why so much surgery? Not to improve the shoe, as a former Nike shoedesigner who worked on the original Pegasus told me, but to improve revenue; Nike’s aim is totriple sales by enticing runners to buy two, three, five pairs at a time, stockpiling in case they neversee their favorites again.


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