Chasing the Perfect Runner
Chasing the Perfect Runner
By Niobe Thompson

This began as a journal about an extraordinary year of my life, exploring the science of endurance running and our evolutionary past as "the running ape" for the Nature of Things documentary, The Perfect Runner.

First a clarification: I'm not the perfect runner of the title - that refers to humans as a species. Instead, I'm a 38-year old who's passionate about running, a pretty good example of a too-sedentary urban Canadian who started this project nursing two bad knees and a growing sense of resignation that his running years were behind him. I'd always taking running for granted, something the body instinctively does right. But the miles were taking a toll, and I was seriously worried about how I'd live my life without the meditation and the joy of getting out on trails every other day.


So I committed to tackling this crisis, using my own body as a laboratory and running as a tool of anthropological research. I visited some of the world's leading researchers in running biomechanics and human evolutionary biology, I travelled to the Ethiopian highlands and Arctic Siberia to run with some of the world's last remaining running cultures, and I learned from some of North America's best running coaches at the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre.

But in making my body a laboratory for The Perfect Runner, the biggest challenge I would face would be the Canadian Death Race, held in a remote mining town in Alberta's Rocky Mountain every summer.

The race course alternates between three mountain peaks and the river valleys in between, and as though the 125-kilometre length isn't daunting enough, the 17,000 feet of elevation change ensures the Death Race only appeals to a small and off-balance tribe of masochists. They reassure you on the website that, "No one has ever died on the Death Race."

A year of solitary training lay ahead. As it turned out, some extraordinary coaches and scientists helped me change how I ran so that my injuries became less of a problem. When it was over, I had a new understanding of how remarkably specialized human bodies are for running. With dedication to intelligent training, I was able to rebuild my own body, from the feet up, and I'm back on the trail.

And if I can run the Death Race (with a little training), it shows that that all of us are capable of a lot more than we think and that we haven't lost the genetic inheritance of a running hunter-gatherer.

November 2011: Training for the Death Race begins

"You have to build a lot of capillaries. And you'll be sore all the time, which is good, since you need to learn to run even when you're exhausted." This was some of the advice I got from Death Race veteran Kamren Farr , who the race in 16.5 hours. Kamren came over to help me put together my training plan, but I think we spent more time staring at his missing toenails. He also let my wife know that I'd need so much sleep and food to deal with the training that it would be like living with an unresponsive and insatiable zombie, which wasn't helpful, since she hadn't been planning to become a single parent.

Kamren is a "trials of miles" runner - a believer in high-mileage training - an approach that worked for him. Adopting his training plan means clocking about 2500 kilometres over the next eight months, with weekly mileage peaking at 120 kilometres one month before the race.

But over at my local running shop, Fast Trax , owner and ultra-running guru Jack Cook suggested I try a lower-mileage approach involving more speed and hill work, and designed to prevent training injuries. As he put it, training for ultras is a balancing act between improving fitness and staying healthy. With a pronounced sense of relief, I let Jack adjust my mileages downward.

Now I only have to run 1800 kilometres in the next eight months, much of it through a Canadian prairie winter. Weird that this feels like good news.

January 2011: Winter training

Mask, mitts, two layers of toque, some days with ski goggles. Screw-in shoe spikes. Gaitors. Sometimes the snow never comes on the prairies, but this year makes up for the last five. I wonder how many summer miles a 10-miler in ankle-deep snow is worth?

Behind the Scenes video of Niobe Thompson training

For Death Race soloists, winter is an important training season. For most of us, training happens in the dark, either before work begins or after it ends. In the deep snow, other than the sound of your own body panting and creaking, it's completely quiet. When it gets really cold, anything below minus 25º Celsius, a body begins get hot and cold in different places at the same time. Hot head, sweating hands, but a frozen chin below an iced-up mask and a chilled, wet back.

I miss all the other things I used to do before I had to run six times a week.The other day I walked past my daughter playing in the back yard with a friend, on the way to the corner store, and she said, "That's my Dad. He's going out for a run." Whenever Dad isn't at home, he's running.

February 2011: Injury

For the first week, my right knee was just stiffer than the left, and I developed a lop-sided running gait: stiff strike, soft strike, stiff strike. The next week, I couldn't get up the stairs without wincing. A week after that, I was asking my new sports physiotherapist whether there was any realistic chance of making an attempt at the Death Race in five months. She told me there was, but I'd have to follow a very strict program.

Fifteen years ago, I sprained my ankle, and the result was an unbalanced foot posture and a little instability migrating up to my now very sore knee. This was my first lesson in the doctrine of "everything is connected". My physiotherapist asked me to do a one-legged squat and to hold the position without losing sight of my big toe just inside my bent knee. Five seconds in, my hips were wobbling like a seesaw and my knee was crashing inward to deal with the strain. This was my second lesson: even a habitual runner can develop some serious weaknesses. Core and hip strength not only powers a runner's stride, it also ensures proper alignment up and down the chain of movement and affects the tracking of the most vulnerable joint in the system - the knee.  For their part, the foot and ankle need to be strong and flexible, so that they can absorb the force of the landing foot without transferring distortions up the leg.

My problem, in a nutshell, is that I've got the leg muscles of a Clydesdale anchored to the rest of my body with masking tape. The prescription: floor exercises every day to strengthen and stretch the foot and ankle, targeted muscle-building in the calf, hamstring, quadriceps and gluteus muscle areas, and core-strengthening exercises specifically designed for runners.