I never imagined myself running a marathon, a grueling 42.195 meters of putting one feet after the other. Most of all because I never saw myself as the athletic type, let alone one of those superhumans that run a marathon for fun. I played some soccer when I was young, did a few years of judo and a few months of tae-kwando. Then puberty happened and you could find me in the gym a couple times a week.Probably had to do something with the opposite sex. But it never was much really, definitely nothing that even remotely comes close to something as brutal as a marathon.
And so the only marathon I was planning to do any time soon was a meditation marathon. Ever since I started practicing mind training a little over a year ago and noticing all the beneficial affects on all aspects of my life, not the least of which was providing answers to my existential conundrums, I wondered what a couple months of 14 hours or more daily meditation practice would do for me. So in some sense, I am crazy enough.
A couple months ago I had a talk with a friend of mine which I met in a monastery in Nepal and he convinced me to try out yoga one more time. And this is how my interest in the body and mind connection sky-rocketed. I had a few yoga lessons on and off before but I never really got it. My flexibility sucked, my breathing sucked and I couldn’t shed the question ‘how can some stretching make you fit?’ Well, I found out it does make you fit, but it also does much more (check out the video below to get convinced). It’s especially great for guys that live more in their head than in their bodies. Emotions start with bodily awareness, and yoga will open an amazing new world for you.
I felt better than ever, strong as a lion, slept like a sloth, stretched like a cat and I was breathing calmly as a whale. Now I totally see why my friend said that ‘yoga is the only way to grow old beautiful’. Have you seen any long time practicioners of yoga? Next to being extremely fit they radiate warmth, strength and beauty and no matter what their age is, their skin is soft and youthful.
So I started doing yoga once or twice a week and quickly made it a daily habit. I was, and still am, hooked like a junkie on crack. Intense focus with physical exercise makes me feel I just ingested some chemical euphoria. But most important, I went from a limited ‘what does it do for me’ perspective to a more open and wider ‘how can I become’ perspective. And, as said junkie, I quickly wanted more, more, MORE! A new question spinned through my mind ‘what else is my body capable of that brings my existence to a new height?’
Why a marathon?
Running, the answer is running. I found out about a new evolutionary perspective on the naked apes we are. I found out that we are born to run. Yes, it sounds cheezy, but that doesn’t make it less true. We humans outrun every single animal on the planet. No, not on speed. And neither on strength. But on endurance. Did you know man can outrun horses in 50 mile races? That it is the only physical sport in the world where woman are just as good as man? That there are still tribes living in the world that run hundreds of miles each week, and they love doing it? That thinking you are not ‘build’ (whatever that means) for running is complete bullshit? And that most people are doing it dead wrong?
When the earth slowly warmed up, forests dissapeared, space cleared up and game was in abundance. A great energy supply for the rise of man. The only problem was how to harvest all this energy. Almost all animals were faster and stronger. But over the course of evolution, we became smarter and better at running. While we dropped our hair we dropped our heat with it. Animals have to stop running at a certain temperature, since they can only shed heat through their breath and if they continue, they drop dead. So we only needed to keep them in sight and run them down. Again and again until they were exhausted.
But then there was another problem. Herds protect eachother. They keep the weak out of sight so they can rest and keep mixing up their position. Ever wondered why zebra’s have stripes? It’s because it makes it harder to tell them apart. If you lose sight of the one you singled out the hunt is over. So individuals who were better at figuring out tracks, keeping the pray in sight and anticipate their behaviour had a better chance of survival. Slowly but surely these ancestors of ours created more offspring untill the genes for complex thought trickled throughout the population. We perfected the hunt.
A complex social system arised where the older males, the most experienced, took the lead for hunting. Finding tracks and drinking areas, spotting weak pray and keeping it in sight during the hunt. The younger and stronger males stayed closer to the females for protection but went for the kill when the time was ready. Females didn’t sit and wait in caves as popular thought suggests. They ran just like everybody else, like the Tarahumara do. Woman, especially ones in labour, needed the protein more than anyone else and if the food was a couple dozen miles away they would never get one bite. They had to run like everyone else. We hunted in packs, as nomads.
So how can we use this information to optimize running? Listen to the barefoot professor and read the tips I’ve gathered in my research and experience:
Lesson 1: Make it fun.
If you’re not having fun, you’re pushing too hard. I see too many people staring at the ground and dragging along. We already do too many things we don’t enjoy, and if running is one of them, you’ll quit in no time. Running in nature and with friends will definitely help and make sure you concentrate on how good and fit you feel afterwards, this helps to imprint a positive memory and makes it more fun and easy to go at it again.
Lesson 2: Run barefoot.
There has never been a single study that showed that running shoes prevent injuries while there is increasing evidence that they are the leading cause. Which, of course, is great for shoe companies so they can use planned obsolescence, product differentiation, creating new needs, you name it, to get you buy more shit you don’t need. But it’s not so great for shoe consumers. Our natural feet contain 25% of all the bones in our body, it’s one of the best natural springs that has ever evolved. Running barefoot has the additional benefits that it makes running much more fun and that it’s much easier to have good form.
Since I do like some protection for my feet, since I run around at places where there is shit lying everywhere, both Jordan and I highly recommend Vibram FiveFinger shoes. We prefer the KomodoSport line (most comfortable and versatile), but make sure to look at all of the options available to find the best fit for you.
Lesson 3: Pain is your friend.
As Socrates proclaimed: “Suffering leads to wisdom”. This is definitely true for running. After an hour of running there is no problem left unsolved, no past or future event that will trouble you, no stress that harms the body. And if you can keep on going it makes you stronger in all areas of your life.
Lesson 4: Relax into it.
Your body knows how to run. We are wired to run. So don’t tense up, just let everything relax. Try to synchronize this with your out-breath. You will save much needed energy, it makes it easier to get into runners flow and will do wonder for your stress levels.
Lesson 5: Have your back straight at all times.
Push your pelvis forward, this will help your body to relax and your feet to land properly. It will reduce tension in your shoulders and keep your head straight, which in turn opens your chest for easy breathing. It also makes you more confident and happy compared to drop your head and look at the ground method.
Lesson 6: Get into runners flow.
The fastest way to do this, as with any other activity, is to concentrate on only a few sensations. Let it permiate your whole awareness. I learned this from chi-running and my own meditation experience. It’s easiest to bring your attention to your feet and your breath, and every time you get distracted, just go back to the sensations.
Meeting a friend in a corridor, Wittgenstein said: “Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth, rather than that the earth was rotating?” His friend said, “Well, obviously, because it looks as if the sun is going round the earth.” To which the philosopher replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?”
In exactly the same sense I personally like to do an experiment in ontological relativity while running. Where normally you experience yourself moving with the environment that stands still, I like to focus on experiencing that I myself stand still and everything else moves around me. It helps me relax into the eye of the storm, or, as Empedocles put it most elegantly, where “the nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere.”
Lesson 7: Use a fore-foot strike.
As you can see in the barefoot professor’s video above, heel striking is sub-optimal. It’s quite easy to come to this conclusion yourself, try a short sprint on concrete while heel striking and let me know how it goes :)
Here is a slow motion of a correct fore-foot strike.
Lesson 8: Breath deeply into your belly.
Most people breath in and out with their chest. While this is comfortable in stressfull and scary situation it is most definitely poor use of your body while working out. Always try to breath slowly, through your nose, into the belly. This is the area where most oxygen will be transported to necessary parts of your body.
Lesson 9: Don’t rush.
Make the transition to fore-foot and bare-foot running slowly, since you have probably worn shoes all your life most of the muscles in your feet got deteroriated. They need time to regain their strength and flexibility. Flexing your calves and massaging your feet helps to remove scar tissue and speeds up recovery. Yoga is great for this and will also help tremendously with your breathing.
I’ve used all these lessons myself in the month or so I have been training. My goal is to run a half marathon in February and the whole Amsterdam marathon in about 12 months while running on my Vibrams and enjoying every single step. From what I have heard it is an amazing experience and will make you feel extremely good and after finding out about all this there is no reason why I should refrain myself from going for it.
Hope to see you at the finish line sometime!