My Running Changed When I Changed My Reasons for Running
On 31st December 2020, I ran 30k doing the “7 hills of Edinburgh” route with my boyfriend and friend. It wasn’t an ordinary achievement. My longest runs to date were half that distance and on much flatter trails.
“You’ll run as slow as you want and walk whenever you need to,” my boyfriend, who runs ultra-marathons, said to me before we set off. Ultimately, he took the pressure off of that run — which I believe was precisely what allowed me to complete it.
It took around 5 hours, so sure, we weren’t fast. But, it allowed me to enter 2021 with a change to my personal paradigm. What I considered impossible before was, in fact, possible. I couldn’t help but think:
Since I could cover such a distance, with hills, without even nearing it before — am I not indeed “born to run” as a human being?
The Tarahumara phenomenon
For years, running had been my go-to activity to stay fit and build stamina and resilience. Sometimes, it also allowed me to increase my sense of self-worth by impressing others.
“Oh wow, you got up at six to go for your morning run? I wish I could do that!” — these types of comments certainly stroke my ego. They made me feel like I was the tough one.
But when I started running with my boyfriend around a year ago, my outlook on running started shifting. By then, I thought running was mostly about pushing limits and giving it my absolute everything. In other words, if it didn’t hurt, it wasn’t worth it.
But my boyfriend quickly showed me a different way. Even though he could run 5k in 18 minutes, or cover dozens of miles in one outing, he didn’t mind going on much slower, much shorter runs with me. In fact, he enjoyed them. And at first, it was hard for me to believe — all I was doing was slowing him down!
But as we kept running together, he revealed more and more of his running philosophy. Among many other things, he told me about the benefits and joys of barefoot running and the Tarahumara native tribe of Northern Mexico.
The Tarahumara became famous after the huge success of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. In it, he lays out that humans are evolutionarily adjusted to run ultra-long distances. It’s just something our bodies are built for. Being able to run longer than any other animal on Earth gave us an early advantage as hunter-gatherers, when it was all we could compete with against other predators.
The modern, sedentary lifestyle caused most of us to degrade that natural predisposition for running. That’s why to many urban, running-as-a-workout enthusiasts, it feels like a challenge where we have to battle against ourselves.
We forgot how to do it naturally. These days, we feel like we need to “train” running.
This doesn’t apply to the Tarahumara. Running is an integral part of their lifestyle and culture, the way they commute, play, and enjoy themselves. Many of them run in simple handmade sandals or barefoot. In ultramarathons, they often perform better than professional athletes who made running their “job.”
McDougall writes in Born to Run:
“That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle — behold, the Running Man.”
From that perspective, running seems more like a defining trait of being human, rather than a sportive addition to it. Since this natural running paradigm became popularized by McDougall’s book, the barefoot movement, and the knowledge of Tarahumara’s culture, more and more people try to follow that running bliss.
I consider myself to be one of these people. But to change my approach to running, I needed to change the reasons behind running first.
Stripping away the “runner identity”
For a long time, it was tempting to measure the quality of my runs solely by how fast I was progressing. These questions that would repeatedly go through my head exhausted me:
Did I cover greater distance this week than last week? Was I faster on my 5k run? Is my lung capacity improving? And, worst of all: Am I getting closer to such-and-such — or are they outrunning me even more?
That’s what often happens when we look at running as a means to achieve some other external goals. To me, this was the reassurance that I could identify as a “fit person” and someone who constantly pushes her limits. And I wasn’t alone. Promoting the “runner identity” is how running is sold by big companies that make profit out of our natural desire to move.
The “runner identity” became a big part of who I aspired to be — and I see this was because I bought into the marketing. There are so many ideas and images out there of how a “person who runs” should look and behave.
A toned body. A fashionable outfit. Professional running shoes. Optimizing their diet and lifestyle for performance goals. Having performance goals in the first place. Always striving to do better on the next run than on the one before.
Luckily, as the “born to run” narrative is spreading, more and more people are becoming freer to run in any way they want. Slow or fast. Long or short. Dressed in the latest breathable smart fabric — or barefoot and in an old T-shirt.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can just go and put one foot in front of the other any time, because this is what you’re designed to do.
I learned that when attending my first (and, so far, the only) parkrun just before the pandemic. On a 5k run on a Saturday morning, there were all kinds of people enjoying themselves. Young and old, perfectly healthy and disabled, slim and overweight, all running together — because there, the performance goals didn’t matter.
What mattered was that we could do it together — and delight in that natural joy that’s encoded in our bodies.
Running as a prayer
The Tarahumara aren’t just the best runners on Earth. They also seem to be the happiest and healthiest ones. Depression, suicide, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are foreign concepts to them.
There seems to be something different about their way of approaching not just running — but life in general. Will Harlan, who ran the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon with the Tarahumara as well as professional athletes from all over the world, captured it beautifully:
“As I ran, I noticed a startling difference between the Tarahumara and American runners like me. We were grimacing and gritting our teeth; the Tarahumara were relaxed and smiling. Like most Americans, running for me has often been a chore to check off my to-do list, or part of a prescribed plan toward a finish line goal. But the Tarahumara run because they love it — not just the beneficial effects of running, but the intoxicating experience of gliding across the warm earth, feeling the sand between their toes. Running was a path to the divine — not through folded hands, but callused feet.” Copper Canyon Ultramarathon: Secrets of the World’s Greatest Runners (Hint: It’s Not the Shoes)
To the Tarahumara, running seems to be an intuitive, straightforward line of communication with the divine.
Unlike formal prayer, where you recite formulas and address God in an official manner, praying through running is spontaneous and fun. It’s an affirmation of the life force that we all have within — and that each of us experiences so uniquely.
Physical movement is something our bodies are made for — and therefore we can simply enjoy it. There’s no need to overthink this or push ourselves to run. Rather, it’s about tuning into running in the most natural, lively way we know how to. It may look different for you and me in terms of speed or distance. But on the inside, we’re feeling the same.
This is how I ultimately want to run. Forget about the time and mileage. Forget about “performance.” I want to just get out into the woods or fields and keep putting one foot in front of the other for as long as I feel called to.
Then, I may take a break, look up into the sky, and remember: Movement is life. And all life is in constant movement.
Running helps me live that simple truth.