samedi 6 mars 2010

Run, Sisyphe, run

Running feet

I'll be keeping these shoes for awhile now that I know that all those gel pads and special features aren't worth the fortune the running shoe companies ask you to fork over to protect your feet and make them (the shoe companies, not your feet) fabulously wealthy, while you suffer aches and pains thanks to them.

What happened? My friend David showed up in January with a pair of Vibram fivefingers shoes and told me to get myself a copy of Running World writer Christopher McDougall's book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Since he adopted the "barefoot" running technique, he could run distances he'd never been able to before. Curious, I went straight to and ordered a copy.

So, what's it all about? Here's Washington Post's Dan Zak's review of Born to Run.

In his first book, journalist and former war correspondent Christopher McDougall suggests -- or proves, depending on your degree of skepticism -- that running extremely long distances barefoot is the key to health, happiness and longevity. Brand-name footwear, with its gel-based cushioning and elaborate architecture of super-advanced support, is a common cause of athletic injury, he argues. And running steadily for hours at a time is not only therapeutic but also natural. Primitive humans did it constantly, catching and killing quarry simply by exhausting them in a marathon hunt. Reading all this is enough to make a modern American feel fat, stupid and lazy, especially given the hyper-toned, swift-footed focus of "Born to Run," an operatic ode to the joys of running.

McDougall's subject is the Tarahumara, a tribe living frugally in the remote, foreboding Copper Canyons in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The Tarahumara are legendary for their ability to run extreme distances in inhospitable conditions without breaking a sweat or getting injured. They are superathletes whose diet (pinole, chia seeds, grain alcohol) and racing method (upright posture, flicking heels, clear-headedness) would place them among elite runners of the developed world even though their society and technology are 500 years behind it. It's a fascinating subject, and the pages of "Born to Run" are packed with examples of McDougall's fascination. Running is his religion (he's a contributing editor at Men's Health magazine and has written for Runner's World), and he approaches the sport with the reverence and awe of a disciple encountering the face of his god. In this case, the god is the Tarahumara.

The book flows not like a race but like a scramble through an obstacle course. McDougall wends his way through the history and physiology of running, occasionally digressing into mini-profiles of top-tier racers and doctors, spinning off into tangents about legendary races like the Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon, while always looping back to the main narrative. Back on course, he describes his pursuit of the bashful, elusive Tarahumara and their secret to success on foot; his befriending of an eccentric gringo who became part of the tribe and is the key to McDougall's communication with it; and the realization of the eccentric's dream to pit big-name, corporate-sponsored American marathoners against the near-primeval Indians in a super ultra-marathon in the Copper Canyons. A race to end all races, in other words. A sprint to the finish between old and new.

The scenario is a writer's dream. McDougall found a large cast of crazy characters, an exotic setting for drama and discovery, and a tailor-made showdown with which to cap the book. By and large it's a thrilling read, even for someone who couldn't care less about proper stride and split times and energy gels. McDougall's prose, while at times straining to be gonzo and overly clever, is engaging and buddy-buddy, as if he's an enthusiastic friend tripping over himself to tell a great story. He writes, for example, of a fellow-runner who "sluiced sweat off his dripping chest and flung it past me, the shower of droplets sparkling in the blazing Mexican sun."

A relentless and experienced reporter, McDougall dramatizes situations he did not directly witness, and he does so with an intimacy and an exactness that may irk discerning readers and journalistic purists. "Born to Run" uses every trick of creative nonfiction, a genre in which literary license is an indispensable part of truth-telling. McDougall has arranged and adrenalized his story for maximum narrative impact. Questions crop up about the timing of events and the science behind the drama, but it's best to keep pace with him and trust that -- separate from the narrative drama -- we're actually seeing a glimpse of running's past and how it may apply to the present and the future. McDougall makes himself a character in the book without distracting from the story. He's our hero, a runner stricken with injuries until he began investigating the Tarahumara, who led him to startling revelations about the way we run and the way they run. McDougall finds that running is a danger if done incorrectly and a salvation if done properly. The stories he tells of the Tarahumara and of the world's greatest mainstream runners all herald a return to the basics: running barefoot or with the cheapest, flattest sole possible; and running not for money or celebrity or victory but for camaraderie and the sheer joy of using our bodies for a basic, essential purpose.

Born to Run" is an examination of sport, an allegory of cross-cultural understanding and a catalogue of philosophies of living. At this point in history, life is not necessarily about the survival of the fittest, or even survival of the fastest. We're past survival now; there's no need to run down prey or outrun a predator. But that's no reason, McDougall says, to stay rooted to the couch.

Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

I'd say that's pretty accurate, and completely taken with the book's story, I read parts aloud to Sam in our hotel room, while we recovered from our days skiing down the bowls of Grands Montets. Home last evening, I decided to see if my friend's experience wasn't a fluke and if the method McDougall describes can work for this old distance-fearing half-hearted, wishful, wanna be runner, so I put on my old Asics and set out the door into the night. Closing the gate behind me, I set my heart rate monitor, gave myself a few words of encouragement and started up the street.

Stay on your toes, myself said to me. Like you're running uphill, right?

"What if my feet or calves start to cramp?"

Just do it. Myself can be pretty funny. That's Nike's, the nemesis of barefoot running and marketer of evil-doing super-cushioned running shoes, motto. I shrugged. I can't wear their shoes, but I've always liked their slogan. I took a few first springy steps on my toes, and to keep myself on them, I chose the left at the fork at the end of the street, following Grand Rue up to the top of the ridge rather than the rue de la Charrière à Vie down to the Chemin de Vétheuil (my usual route). The old blond lab was at his post behind the fence of the house halfway up on the left, barking like a madman at me as I bounced "easily and lightly" past him. I'll get to "smooth and fast" later, I said to him, after telling him to shut up. Nicely.

That's the rotten part about running around here, other than the wild boars (which I'll get to later): one dog starts barking and sets off the entire countryside round abouts, just like in 101 Dalmations. Like it's important news that a lone woman is trotting past their fences and on the way to those farther on.

"Ca suffit," I growl at them on the way past. "Tais-toi!" That's enough. Be quiet.

At the top, and not yet in pain, I turned onto the "Transamazonienne", the "new" road that cuts a path from the N13 from Rosny sur Seine to Bonnières sur Seine to the Base de Loisirs, just before Lavacourt, the village from which Monet painted the church of Vétheuil across the Seine. The construction of the new road was intended to deflect traffic from our small village up onto the ridge, which had the sad consequence of draining the pizza restaurant and café just before our house of customers, and closing its doors. The owner still lives in an apartment next to it, while a couple has come to give the spot a second go as a bar and restaurant. Seems to be working well enough for them to stay in business. We have apologized for never coming there for a meal. I did once go over and have a grand café one morning, when I had no more coffee at home.

Trotting on down the gentle slope, as the ridge seeks the riverbank in Lavacourt, I checked my form: abs strong, back tall, legs under my hips, kick back from my toes, the balls of my feet taking my weight, letting the 26 bones and all those tendons in my arches do their job. I imagined my feet flexing and absorbing my weight, reduced by the work I asked my abs to do, running "from the gut". It was easy. Easier than I had ever known running to be. No one could accuse me of going fast here, but both my feet were off the ground with each stride. I was running.

At the next light pole, I checked my heart rate monitor watch. Not even 145 BPM. I was going to keep it low, take it easy. Stay in the fat-burning range and see how far I could go, and somewhere just before Lavacourt, a wild thought came to me: I'd run all the way through Moisson, up to Freneuse, across the field to the road up to Méricourt and down to Mousseaux. I'd heard the boucle was 18 km around. I felt inspired. I was certain (enough) that I could do it

I'd do it.

Heading out of Lavacourt, I checked my heart rate again: 142 BPM. All I had to do was ask, and it dropped to 139. I altered my stride, lifting my knees, kicking my legs back a little more and ran easily into Moisson.

Are you going to do it? Myself asked me. Do you think you can go all the way around the boucle?

"Yeah, I think I am. I think I can."

Hunh. What if --

"I get tired?" I asked myself.

Yeah. I hate to bring it up, but --

"I can walk."

Or so I thought. Trying once, later, my legs wouldn't let me. The little stride on my toes had become automatic. My legs kept going. I had no choice but to tell my head to get back to work.

It was after the cemetery at the far edge of Moisson that I heard the first wild animals, off in the trees at the sides of the road. There are deer and wild boars. There are foxes and probably rabbits, although I have never seen a rabbit here, personally, although I see tons of them over near Rosny. My keys jingled in my pocket. I held them through the cloth of my jacket to make them be quiet. Animals do not carry keys, and I wanted to pass for one of them. The jingle sounded too much like tags on a dog collar, and dogs mean one thing: the hunt. Later, I took them out and stuck my finger through the ring and let them nestle in my palm so as not to grasp them and lose any precious energy. I could see the lights of La Roche-Guyon marching up the steep ridge across the Seine through the trees to my right. Then, its church began to toll the hour.

Two, three, four
, myself counted. I picked up.

"Five, six, seven, eight. Eight O'clock." The bell struck again. Nine.

Nine? Nine O'Clock?
Merde!, said myself. How can that be? You left just before seven, and you've run a little more than an hour.

I must have left an hour later than I thought I had. My husband would be home from work before I got back, and he'd have no idea where I was. He'd find the car keys on the ledge, the car out on the street. My bag on the stairs. The dogs crashed in front of the wood stove with the cats.

Elle n'est pas sortie ni partie promener les chiennes
, he'd say to himself. Alors, où est elle? He'd never think to check to see if my running shoes were on the floor by my side of the bed.

Looks like your 18 km is over, myself said, unnecessarily.

"I know. I could cut across the boucle, you know, by the forest trail." I replied. I didn't really want to. There are --

But the wild boars --

"I know." Jinx. But, which was worse: get a lecture for worrying him by being gone without leaving any note and having forgotten my cellphone, or get a lecture for risking my life -- should my life be preserved by these huge, tusked beasts -- by returning directly home across the forest? Not that wild boars never crash across the roads around here. Ask the drivers who have had to have their cars repaired, or junk them.

Just don't tell him what you did.

"Alright," I agreed, not sure I wouldn't tell the truth, and scared as hell to head onto that 4 km long path through the home of the boars. I bounced on, as lightly as I could on my toes with the growing fatigue in the insertion point of the quads, my abductors asking me if we couldn't just hitch a ride home from the next car to pass, watching for the the lane leading to La Vacherie. The Vacherie is famous for having been Rommel's home away from home across the Seine from La Roche-Guyon, where he set up the German headquarters during the occupation. The trail through the forest starts there. The road rose gently, the sign for the sudden curves appeared, and then the lane to the right. I turned took a deep breath and steeled myself in my decision before turning left and heading into the forest, the groomed dirt road would turn rough just past the two imposing Victorian houses.

But what if you make a misstep and hurt yourself? What will you do then? Myself started in again, beginning to sound like my worry-wort husband. All this worrying wasn't helping.

"I'll be careful. My eyes will adjust. At least the stars are out and make a little light to see by. I'll take it easy, until I see the first wild boar, anyway." A weak attempt at humor. It was certain that I would. They are everywhere. In the fall, the local hunters organize weekend hunts to kill an established number of the sangliers, who would otherwise continue to reproduce, stampede across the roads, ravishing cars, right along with fields and gardens in the area.

There weren't wild boars wild here before the storm of 1999, but there was a boar farm that raised sangliers for slaughter for sausages and stews. The winds howled during the night of that great storm, and when the farmer went out to check the fences the next day, he found them blown down, and not a boar in sight. He packed up and left, but the boars stayed and became wild. Hence, the fall hunts to thin their numbers.

I left the houses in my back and felt the path deteriorate under my feet. Small animals roused into motion as I passed, scuttling off away from this creature, holding her keys to keep them from jingling and forbidding herself to speak aloud, even to encourage herself.

Don't let them think you aren't one of them. They will know you aren't if you talk, myself told me.

"Don't you think they can smell that?" I replied, barely suppressing a snideness in my voice that really wasn't very nice.

Well, it gives you a chance, if the wind is blowing away from them.


I ran on.

It seemed forever. The trees went on and on at either side. I knew how long it felt from having driven it slowly in the car with a visitor last fall, the day of a wild boar hunt, in fact. I wanted to show her the grand Victorian houses and get back home quickly. The lane, I learned that day, is murder for the suspension of a car, let alone for me in the dark; no one gets anywhere quickly on it. The hunters had stared at me like I had lost my mind. This night, brambles grabbed my running leggings, trees felled in the recent storm tripped me, the pads of my feet sometimes landed on smooth pine needles, other times slipped on a stone or in a rut. I listened for the unmistakable sounds of the wild boars.

Then, I heard them. I saw their dark forms first. There, just to my right. My heart stopped, but my feet kept moving. I thought I saw a single, glaring eye send me a warning.

Stop or keep going? Quick.

"Keep going, don't talk, no jingle -- get away."

Right. Right. We heard a loud and aggravated snort from just next to me along the path.

"Oh God."

Keep going, myself ordered me. We listened to see if it had changed directions to follow us. Memories of my husband's story about crossing a mother wild boar in the forest while out walking with his kids when they were little flew through my mind.

What did he say? Do they charge? Is it best to move or to stay still, actually. Should you stop? Hunh? Myself was starting to sound panicked. That was not helpful. I didn't need to have to get a panicked self out of there, I was already worried enough for two.

"Sh! Will you? Please? I think it's okay. I think it went on into the forest. I don't think it, or it's friends and family, wants to meet us any more than we want to meet it."

But, what if it is hungry. Do they eat us?

"No, they don't eat us. They just try to protect their young ones, but it's got to be too early for there to be babies around."

It had grown quiet around us again, and I ran on, toward the lighter sky showing in a slit from between the trees on either side of the path some unmeasurable distance ahead of us. The path kept rising, back up from the banks near Moisson to where the boucle rises to a crest above our street in Mousseaux, and then my foot came down farther than it had before. The path was heading downward. My legs were begging me to stop, but the faster I got out of there, the better. I kept the fastest past I dared to go, and could go, and still the path went on.

And on.

I was looking for the little farm and the hunting lodge, recently painted in precisely the colors of our renovated house. Of course I got there -- I wasn't running in place --, and the relief was enormous. I wasn't going to be gored by a wild boar in the silence of a late winter night, and some small distance farther along, I'd cross the Transamazonienne and continue on the paved portion of the same route, past the new elementary school, past the small community center, past the cemetery, down a steep street to our road, and, finally, to our house. The church bells were quiet when I passed, some minutes later, and it wasn't yet 10 pm when I finally stopped my heart rate monitor, saw it flash 142 BPM average and tell me I'd been at it for 1 and hour 52 minutes.

Not exactly a frantic pace, commented myself.

"That wasn't my point," I reminded myself, pushing open the gate and approaching the warm, cozy light showing through the French doors around the corner. My husband was having a whiskey, standing in his spot in front of the TV. The fire in the wood stove had turned to embers. I tried the handle. Locked. I tapped softly on the pane of glass. He turned and smiled at me, shook his finger "no", teasing me. I nodded "yes". The door opened.

"Où étais-tu?" he asked.

I told him the truth, and went to measure my distance in the car, slipping ColdPlay into the CD player to keep me company.

What if a wild boar charges the car in the forest? Myself started in again.

"It won't. I'll drive slowly. They only run into cars, you know, when cars are going too fast to avoid them. They're pretty stupid."

Oh. Alright then. We drove off the way I had set out, two hours before. It was 15.1 km, with 4 of them being the trail through the forest. I have never run that far before.

It worked, the "barefoot running" method carried me farther than I had ever run before, and I could walk this morning, ride a stationary bike at the gym for an hour, stretch and still move. My personal trainer is a Doubting Thomas, telling me to wait until I injured something or another. He likes to think he knows it all.

I let him.

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