By Niobe Thompson
April 2011, Running in Ethiopia
After dropping my running mileage and focusing on floor exercises and cross-training, most of the knee pain of winter disappeared. It happened in time for our first major shoot for The Perfect Runner, in Ethiopia.
We filmed with nomadic Afar camel herders in the scorching Awash Desert, with elite distance runners in Addis Ababa, and in "the town of runners", a remote village called Bekoji in the highlands of Oromia State. Success in distance running is one of Ethiopia's proudest achievements, stretching back to Abebe Bikila's barefoot marathon victory at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Africa's first medal at the Games. It was wonderful to be in a country where running, whether through a crowded Addis slum, a goat paddock in the middle of nowhere or through a poor mountain village, is an ordinary event (although a panting white runner earns some wide smiles).
The running club in Bekoji, perched almost 3000 metres above sea level in the southern Ethiopian highlands, illustrates perfectly what it takes to produce the world's best runners. This district has produced five Olympic gold medallists in recent years: Haile Gebrselassie, Derartu Tulu, Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele, and Fatuma Roba. All of them, with the exception of Haile, were coached by a retired rural schoolteacher named Sentayahu Eshetu, whose running club trains twice a day, six days a week. You'll have to watch The Perfect Runner to discover Coach Eshetu's complete recipe for success, but one of the most important ingredients is a rural childhood. Virtually every elite runner in Ethiopia comes from a relatively poor farming family, and it seems the life of a child on the farm, working and moving constantly, walking and running in bare feet and rudimentary sandals, and eating a simple, teff-based diet builds the perfect bodies for Coach Eshetu to hone into champions.
I did my best to train with the runners in Bekoji and back in the capital Addis, without ever managing to complete a single workout; I could blame the altitude, but the reality is that Ethiopians who run twice a day and hope to compete abroad are living on a different planet than the rest of us.
Toward the end of the shoot, we travelled from Bekoji into the Great Rift Valley to the city of Awassa for a half marathon Running tourists from the United Kingdom and Germany joined thousands of Ethiopians in the early-morning event, seamlessly organised and supported by hundreds of local volunteers. I had fun running my own race, passing giant herons and horses getting their morning bath in the reeds along the lakeshore, but by the finish at 8:30am, the heat was already too much to bear.
Staggering around with heat exhaustion at the finish, it occurred to me that if our ancestors evolved to run down antelope in the heat of Africa, I must be carrying more than the usual dose of Neanderthal DNA in my own line of descent. Here's a clip that contains some footage from that race and finish.
June 2010, Running with the Barefoot Professor
Filming with Dr. Daniel Lieberman at Harvard's Human Evolutionary Biology Lab, I learned more in a day about how I run than I have all year. Professor Lieberman research is largely responsible for sparking the barefoot running movement, which is now transforming the running shoe industry. Lieberman has focused on the thesis that the ancestors of Homo sapiens were evolving into specialised endurance runners soon after their descent from the trees, and that distance running was instrumental in our evolutionary success. Humans, he observes, are one of the most remarkable runners in the animal world, and at distance running in hot climates, we're unbeatable.
But Lieberman's more recent research on running injuries hit a personal chord with me. In his most recent article in Nature, he clearly shows how differently we run in cushioned running shoes than in bare feet. When humans run barefooted, they naturally land on their forefoot, recruiting the natural shock-absorbing mechanics of the double-sprung foot and the Achilles tendon to store and return 52 percent of the downward force of a foot strike. The impact force of this kind of stride is relatively gentle. In contrast, when a runner in cushioned shoes lands on the heel, it sends a shock wave from the foot up the leg into the hips and spine, and acts as a brake on running momentum in the bargain. Professor Lieberman analyzed my own running stride on a very sophisticated treadmill equipped with high-speed cameras, and the results were clear to me. As he put it, "heel strikers are headed to the hospital." Have a look at running mechanics in slow motion.
The Barefoot Professor lived up to his reputation and invited me for a run around the Harvard campus in bare feet. He runs 16 kilometres at a stretch in bare feet, but my own barefoot running basically amounts to playing catch-the-troll with my daughters in our apartment. The problem was, the asphalt was so hot that I couldn't really feel the soles of my feet. Suddenly I had the sense that the skin was swimming, and when I stopped to look at my soles, I saw that I'd torn half the toe-pads off and blood blisters were forming over the balls of my feet. Atthat moment, looking at the carnage, all the feeling in my feet came back in a rush of pain. I felt them for the next week as I hobbled behind my crew from one baking East Coast city to the next.
Just because you run 50 kilometres a week, never assume the skin of your feet is any tougher than rice paper.
July 2011, Death Race Training Camp
"We'll run those two mountains this afternoon so we can put some weight in your legs for the midnight run."
"You'll probably throw up when you try running with a headlamp for the first time - makes you seasick."
"Today's run will introduce you to 'gastrointestinal distress'. Take toilet paper."
"Make sure you eat lots of pizza before you run up Hamel Mountain."
At the 3-day training camp leading up the Death Race, it's founder Dale Tuck (aka Dr. Death) offered up his unending store of race knowledge to the uninitiated. Along with about 40 other racers, I wanted to put my feet on the course and work out some kind of strategy for approaching the event.
More than physical stamina, the Death Race is about logistics. After a year of constant training - long runs, hills, speed, core work - the physical stamina is in place. But on a race this long, high in the changeable and harsh Rocky Mountain environment, often running for long stretches about the treeline, if you don't manage your temperature, nutrition and hydration, your race is quickly over.
There is running in the heat of the day and the dead cold of night. The course is often a minimal forest path, sometimes it is literally a muskeg swamp, and for most of the race it's a marble bag of easy-to-roll, fist-sized rocks. There are long stretches so steep that it's faster to power hike up than run, and brutal descents where you pound your quadriceps for twenty to thirty minutes at a stretch. The trick is not to get hurt and to keep fluids running through a body isn't overheating or becoming hypothermic.
So we Death Race acolytes talked through the lists of things we'd have to remember at each aid station, trying to judge how to pace each leg of the race. A very obscure and confusing conversation that went on all weekend, only interrupted when one of us would run off the trail to barf up the pizza we'd just eaten.