Anthropologist and host Niobe Thompson begins his journey with the "barefoot professor", the Harvard scientist who sparked the barefoot running boom with his theory that humans are "born to run". In a visually stunning exploration of the human body and our apelike ancestors, we learn how Homo sapiens survived in a changing African environment – a world teeming with predators. Unique footage of the only "persistence hunt" ever filmed helps unlock the mystery of why humans made a series of paradoxical trade-offs as they evolved, losing strength and natural defenses as they became hairless bipeds on the scorched African plain.

Reindeer in Siberia

But as Homo sapiens left Africa and adapted to the cold, did humans lose the running body? To answer this question, Niobe travels to the most remote part of Arctic Russia, a place where running is still a way of life. A runner himself, it's all he can do to keep up with nomadic reindeer herders during the autumn roundup. A herder's life is constant movement – these are cowboys without horses, running alongside their reindeer over the ankle-breaking tundra. So what makes humans on every continent and in every climate such exceptional distance runners? Back in Harvard, the barefoot professor shows us how the human body is loaded with specialized running features.

A question many viewers will be asking is, "If humans are such natural runners, why does it hurt to run?" Decades of research to build the perfect running shoe may have created a multibillion-dollar industry, but running injuries are now more common than ever.  Niobe travels to the kingdom of distance runners in Africa and makes an astonishing link – the runners raised in rural poverty without running shoes become the fastest athletes. In an explosive revelation, newly published research shows why.  In the Harvard lab, Niobe learns that modern running shoes could be contributing to running injuries.

Director Niobe Thompson trains for the Death Race

If humans evolved as nature's finest distance runners, can we still run like our ancestors? To answer this question, Niobe makes his own body the laboratory and takes on one of the world's most grueling physical challenges: a mountain ultramarathon, the 125-km Canadian Death Race. In an emotionally charged and harshly beautiful final act, we learn the true limits of human strength. Some among us are built to achieve the unimaginable.

A documentary that travels the planet and goes back in time to deliver a revelation we can't afford to ignore: humans are the perfect runner.

Experts appearing in The Perfect Runner

Daniel Lieberman is a Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and his research on the evolution of the human body has led to two influential pieces of research published in Nature at the heart of the "barefoot running" movement. His research combines experimental biology and paleontology to ask why and how the human body looks and functions the way it does. He is especially interested in the origin of bipedal walking, the biology and evolution of endurance running, and the evolution of the human head. He was educated at Harvard (AB, MA, Ph.D.) and Cambridge University (M. Phil). He also loves to run, and the "the barefoot professor" can often be seen on the streets of Boston without running shoes.

Dr. Larry Bell is one of Canada's foremost sports chiropractors and has been a national team therapist for many different sports at a range of international events, including the Olympic Games and the World Championships. He collaborates closely with the University of Alberta's Canadian Athletics Coaching Center, where he works with a number of Olympic–level athletes, including Adam Kunkel, Krysha Bayley, Carline Muir and Christopher Tyler (retired). He is a leading proponent of the principles of natural running and the importance of foot strength and mobility for recreational and professional athletes.

Dr. Herman Pontzer is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College (NY) and focuses on linking functional morphology to ecology in hominids. His current research focuses on the relationships between limb design, locomotor performance (especially locomotor energetics), and ranging ecology. He is also involved in the ongoing excavations in the Lower Paleolithic site of Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia.

Dr. Ian Tattersall is currently Curator of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Born in England and raised in East Africa, he has carried out both primatological and paleontological fieldwork in countries as diverse as Madagascar, Vietnam, Surinam, Yemen and Mauritius. Trained in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, and in geology and vertebrate paleontology at Yale, Tattersall has concentrated his research since the 1960s in two main areas: the analysis of the human fossil record and its integration with evolutionary theory; and the study of the ecology and systematics of the lemurs of Madagascar.

Coach Sentayahu Eshetu is a retired schoolteacher living in the Ethiopian highlands town of Bekoji, and the local running coach. Since his protégé Derartu Tulu became the first African woman to win an Olympic gold, he has trained many of the world's greatest athletes, including the Beijing winners Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele.

Diane Van Deren is a professional ultramarathon runner from Colorado. She has completed some of the world's toughest endurance challenges, including the Canadian Death Race, Colorado's Leadville 100 and the Hardrock 100 (six times!). In 2008 she won the 300-mile version of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, vowed at the finish she was done with racing in temperatures of 50C below zero, and then won the 430-mile version of the same race the following year. In 2012, she is preparing to run the 1000-mile Sea-to-Mountain trail in North Carolina.

Tracy Garneau is one of Canada's best ultramarathon competitors. In 2008 she was part of the Canadian team that won the Transalpine Run in the Alps. In 2009 she placed third at the 50-mile San Francisco North Face Endurance Challenge. The next year she won the Western States Endurance Run in a time of 19 hours, 1 minute, and 55 seconds. She qualified for the Western States by winning the American River 50-mile Endurance Run. In 2010 she also won four separate 50-mile races. She set the Hawaiian Hurt 100 course record of twenty four hours and six minutes at the 2010 race, breaking the previous record by two hours and finishing third overall. Tracy was the 2010 UltraRunning Female North American runner of the year.

The Wild Canadian Year

Wild Canadian Year

Visit our website to watch the series online, discover extra behind-the-scenes stories and view Canada's nature scenes in 360. Visit Wild Canadian Year

From CBC Kids

The Nature of Thingies