Maybe it was the lengthy book project or the endless music rehearsals, both of which entailed untold sedentary hours, with the heart rate elevated only by coffee and mental athletics. Or perhaps it was just normal ageing, proceeding on schedule but unacknowledged, if not outright denied. The worst thing was, in my mind, I could still do it. In my mind, I could still run up mountains where others had to walk. No matter how temporarily slothful I became, I always had enough residual fitness to be up for any adventure with anyone. Alas, my self-image was seriously out of date, and the strength of the delusion only made greater the shock that followed.
There is a hill called Mt Iron on the outskirts of our town, shaped like a Sphinx and clearly the work of Ice Age glaciers. In other places you might call it a mountain, but in Wanaka, on the edge of the Southern Alps, it’s merely a hill, its zigzagging trails a jogging loop for townsfolk of all ages. In the past, I could easily run up and down this hill, twice in a session.
But this time it was different. As soon as I reached the bottom hairpin bend of the climb, I knew something was wrong. My heartbeat had a subwoofer quality and the tick of a runaway metronome. I couldn’t get enough air and my legs felt as though they were not my own. By the time I climbed to the third bend, my body refused to go on. I stopped, bent double, hands on knees, feeling like I might faint, sucking air like a man drowning.
“You okay, dear?” A woman, her voice tinged with concern, guided me to the track’s verge. “There, sit down and have a spell,” she said. “It’s quite steep through here, isn’t it?”
Permed platinum hair under a visor cap, jogging shorts, ruddy face and a friendly smile. She was 20 years my senior, perhaps more, and had been jogging right behind, though didn’t seem to be exhibiting an ounce of exertion.
“I’ll check on you again on my way down,” grandma said. “You take it easy now, won’t you?” Then she was off, trotting lightly up the long hill, looking quite at ease, as if she could go on forever.
I buried my face in my hands. I wasn’t just out of shape. I was heart attack material.
I walked the rest of the hill while joggers and runners passed me in both directions, grandma among them, hotfooting down the track like someone half her age. Down from the summit I too broke into a cautious trot, and soon found an easy gravity-assisted pace. Suddenly, it felt good to be alive, to just run with next to no effort. I had forgotten the feeling, but I would never forget it again, I vowed. I would get fit, and stay fit. During the descent, I was buoyed by the idea, and the sensations of running—the cooling breeze against the skin, the views, the whiffs of sun-dried wild thyme, the mesmeric rhythm of my footfalls. The runner’s high.
It was a postural specialist—an osteologist—who planted the seed of doubt. More than a decade earlier, I had gone through a bout of back problems from a moment of tomfoolery on skis. It led to X-rays, consultations and, after healing, the inevitable question, “Where to from here?”
Running would have been my first choice of rehab and physio but the good doctor had a different idea.
“I wouldn’t bother with running if I were you,” he said. “In fact, I’d avoid it at all costs. There are better ways of rehabilitation and keeping fit. Get a bike or take up swimming. It’ll be better for you long term.”
Running, he went on, was stressful on the human body, its repetitive jarring on ankles, knees and lower back causing slow but cumulative damage, not obvious at any one time but compounding over the years. “If you feel you have to do it, half an hour three times a week is about the maximum I’d recommend,” he concluded. “Any more and you’ll be doing yourself more damage than good.”
And yet, every day, millions of people put on their shoes and go for a run as if responding to some deep inner compulsion. Running is by far the world’s most popular participation sport and the very reason our anatomy has evolved the way it has.
Evolutionary biologist and champion runner Bernd Heinrich certainly thought so too. “Our specialty as bipedal runners spans a history of at least 6 million years,” he wrote in Why We Run: A Natural History. Humans have evolved as “endurance predators”, Heinrich argued, not catching our quarry during an explosive do-or-die sprint as most predators do, but by running the hunted animal into exhaustion. A deer or a gazelle can easily out-sprint us over a short distance but they have little sense of pacing. Keep at them for a length of time, Heinrich said, and they eventually “blow out” like a sprinter who has unwittingly entered a marathon. He cited many indigenous tribes—the Kalahari Bushmen, the Tarahumara of Mexico, the Navajos and the Australian Aborigines—using this strategy.
But it was not all about hunting either. In Born to Run, the best-selling book that acquired something of a cult status among the sport’s enthusiasts, Christopher McDougall took in a larger view of our evolutionary adaptations as runners. “Distance running was revered because it was indispensable,” he writes. “It was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and to impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else.” Running, McDougall reasons, is not a passion or sport. It is a genetically encoded ancestral necessity.
Why then such polarised views? If we were born to run, how could running be bad for us? And if it wasn’t bad, why were running-related injuries so prevalent? Chondromalacia (runner’s knee) and ankle sprains, snapping hips and stress fractures, shin splints, plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis—if you ran regularly, you were almost guaranteed to suffer from these at one point or another. Was it the running itself, or the way we did it?
Fortunately for the world of modern running, one New Zealander did not suffer from such confusion, though his wake-up call from the slumber of poor fitness was not dissimilar to my own.
Arthur Lydiard was 27 as World War II was coming to an end and, being a swimmer, rugby player and well-rounded athlete, considered himself in decent physical shape. Until a friend invited him for a 10 km run.
“My pulse rate rose rapidly,” Lydiard recalled. “I blew hard and gasped for air, my lungs and throat felt as if they’d been scorched, my legs were like rubber.”
There seemed to be a lot more to fitness than splashing in a warm sea or chasing after a ball, Lydiard realised. He set out to investigate, subjecting himself to a series of experiments—running daily, building up mileage and varying intensities, at one point clocking as much as 400 km a week. It took him nearly 20 years to perfect his system, to understand the nature of human endurance, how it can be built efficiently, and what benefits it can bring in daily life. Almost as a by-product of this new regimen, Lydiard became the country’s top long-distance runner, at a time when marathons were still considered potentially harmful. Soon, several young track athletes—Murray Halberg, Peter Snell and Barry Magee—began gravitating to him, following the controversial “Lydiard method” of running far in order to run fast.
This collaboration resulted in a golden era in New Zealand running during the early 1960s. Halberg became the first New Zealander to run a sub-four-minute mile, and at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, he won gold in the 5000 metres. On the same day, Peter Snell won the 800 m gold in a record time, and four years later, he won double gold in Tokyo in the 800 and 1500 metres. (In February 2000, he was named New Zealand’s Sports Champion of the 20th Century.) Also at the Rome Olympics, Barry Magee came third in the marathon, only two minutes behind the barefoot sensation Abebe Bikila, becoming the world’s fastest non-African marathoner.
Though it was fascinating to watch the super-athletes chase one another and shave seconds off the world records, for Lydiard, running wasn’t just a spectator sport. It was about participation. About the time Snell and Co were stomping out their mark in the history of athletics, Lydiard entered into another collaboration with a PR specialist and running convert, Garth Gilmour.
Appalled by the general state of health and fitness, both men set out on a crusade to prolong ordinary lives. “New Zealand shares with the US, Canada and Australia the dubious privilege of having one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world,” they wrote in their 1965 manifesto Run For Your Life. More New Zealanders over 50 died from a dicky ticker, they suggested, than from all other causes combined, including cancers and car accidents. Yet there was an easy and practical solution, a panacea for the ills of increasingly stressful and sedentary lifestyles.
“It’s almost exclusively in your hands whether you enjoy a healthy vigorous life to a ripe old age or whether you succumb to the slovenly, non-energetic existence and probable premature breakdown of health which happens to most people in countries with a high standard of living,” wrote Gilmour and Lydiard.
By then, they had proof for such a claim. In 1961, a small group of men had gathered around Lydiard, most of them overweight middle-aged businessmen with a history of coronary problems. Lydiard took them to the Auckland waterfront and had them “walk from one telegraph pole to the next, jog to the one after that”. Walk and jog, walk and jog, until they covered a mile. “It took quite a while at first but gradually they got fitter and fitter until they were running the whole distance,” Lydiard recalled. The transformation in the men was such that their associates began asking what was it they did to get into such good shape.
Soon, another gathering took place, in Cornwall Park, Auckland. About 20 people turned up after a general invitation to the public, Garth Gilmour remembered; average age 47 and in all stages of unfitness. Big stomachs and double chins. There was a talk from a cardiologist, then coach Lydiard stepped in, warning all present not to turn the run into a competition. Apparently, they looked around at one another and laughed. There was never any danger of that—most of them could not run more than 400 m, and some barely staggered the distance. But in eight months of Lydiard’s regular “train, don’t strain” regimen, they lost weight, dropped their cholesterol and heart rates to reasonable levels again, and seven of the men comfortably ran a marathon, and in fairly decent time.
In this way, jogging was born. Until the 1960s, it would have been rare to see a person running for pleasure and fitness unless he or she was a serious athlete in training. Now, inspired in part by their Olympians, hundreds, then thousands of New Zealanders took to street and distance running as if their lives depended on it—which, as Lydiard and Gilmour insisted, they did. Out of suburban Auckland, the phenomenon of jogging, and the idea of distance running as the best foundation for all other sports, spread around the globe in a veritable firestorm of enthusiasm. Lydiard was hailed as the world’s best running coach of all time, but even as his gospel of jogging for health and well-being was finding its way into homes and offices, trouble was already brewing.
Foreign coaches began visiting Lydiard to glean his secrets. One of them was Bill Bowerman from Oregon, USA, surprisingly in terrible shape himself. He joined the Cornwall Park outing, which by then was developing into the Auckland Joggers Club, and found himself unable to keep up even with the slowest in the group. Only Andy Stedman, 74 and a survivor of three heart attacks, politely waited for Bowerman.
Lydiard recalled that the incident gave Bowerman the shock of his life and plunged him into the discipline of daily jogging. In the month he stayed in New Zealand, Bowerman trimmed 15 cm off his 132 cm waistline and was able to keep up with Lydiard during a 32 km run around the old goldfields of Arrowtown. He was sold on the idea of jogging and in turn became its most ardent advocate. “Arthur Lydiard is a prophet and I am his disciple,” Bowerman was fond of saying.
In no time at all he had some 3000 people showing up regularly at his jogging class on a race track in Portland, Oregon. He produced a three-page guide to Lydiard’s method which became a national model for fitness programmes in the USA, and later a book titled Jogging. The book sold more than a million copies and is largely credited with being the catalyst for the worldwide explosion of the sport. But for Bowerman, this was only the beginning.
While still together in New Zealand, the two men discussed running shoes. This discussion would become a critical juncture in the evolution of jogging. Lydiard was a shoemaker by trade but Bowerman already had his own ideas.
Back in Oregon, he began experimenting with soles, cushioning and support. He wanted to make the running experience more comfortable by cushioning the runners’ feet, protecting them from the ground with layers of soft rubber and arch support. Eventually, he added gel cushions under heels to soften the impact of footfalls against the asphalt. Bowerman wanted people to jog and run, and he wanted them to run in his shoes. In this he succeeded.
The first jogging shoe was called Cortez and, like the conquistador it was named after, it would take the New World by storm. Bowerman formed a company to sell it, and after the Greek goddess of victory, he named it Nike. Its current annual revenues are in excess of NZ $22.5 billion.
Other manufacturers followed suit, and by the end of the century, there was no shortage of soft-soled running shoes.
However, according to contemporary research into human biomechanics, those “silicone implants” under heels fundamentally alter the way we run. The studies of Dr Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, conclude that running shoes encourage longer, heavier strides. Instead of using the shock-absorbing capacity of the foot arches, our natural suspension mechanisms, we let the gel cushion absorb the impact of the stride. But this impact is only fractionally dissipated by the gel, Lieberman points out—the rest of the shock force travels up the limbs and the skeletal structure, compounding into wear and tear, bringing about a plague of running-related injuries.
For all Bowerman’s good intentions, his shoes, which so profoundly affected the biomechanics of running, may have caused more damage than good.
Lydiard, on the other hand, was adamant that running shoes should not be technological marvels with their own built-in suspension, orthopaedic corrections and structures that protect the foot. “We ran in canvas shoes,” he said in Born to Run. “We didn’t get plantar fascia, we didn’t pronate or supinate, we might have lost a bit of skin from the rough canvas when we were running marathons, but, generally speaking, we didn’t have foot problems.”
For Lydiard, the matter was rather simple: “You support an area, it gets weaker. Use it extensively, it gets stronger. Run barefoot and you don’t have all those troubles.”
(It’s worth noting that, for all the mileage he clocked up, alone and training with athletes around the world, Lydiard never had an injury from running. When he did ruin his knee it was by helping a contractor to lift a concrete pipe on his property in Manurewa, which spelled the end of his daily jogs.)
Following Lydiard’s advice, I found myself tiptoeing on the grass of the postage-stamp size park in downtown Queenstown, wearing a pair of shoes that looked like frog feet.
There were about a dozen of us milling about the park that crisp autumn morning, all wearing funny shoes called FiveFingers. Developed by the climbing shoe manufacturer Vibram, the FiveFingers are like gloves for the feet, protecting your feet and toes from harsh surfaces while maintaining the sensation of being barefoot.
It was the day after the annual Routeburn Classic, a race which follows one of our greatest walks, from the Divide to the trailhead north of Glenorchy. The man around whom we gathered was still mildly disappointed. James Kuegler, an elite endurance athlete and coach, top-10 Coast-to-Coast competitor and winner of notable ultra-marathons, came all the way from Auckland to claim the Routeburn trophy but in the end, out of 350 runners, he placed only fourth. “Just didn’t have it in me when it mattered most,” he laughed.
At 23, Kuegler is a new force in New Zealand running and a standard-bearer for a revolution sweeping the country. The funny shoes are an accessory, but the main thrust of the movement is towards natural running—re-learning to run the way our bodies were meant to perform. Kuegler’s seminar was the first such event in the South Island.
“Your feet each comprise 26 bones, 33 joints, numerous muscles and countless sensory receptors,” said Kuegler, who is also completing a chiropractic degree. “They are amazing suspension mechanisms, working with harmonious fluidity, constantly reading the ground, adjusting to it. If we let them, that is, and most of the running shoes we wear do not.”
An efficient runner is like a wheel rolling along the ground, Kuegler explained, with his or her centre of gravity being the hub and the feet connecting with the ground directly beneath it like L-shaped spokes. There is no bobbing up and down but a sensation of falling forwards, hingeing from the ankles. The footwork, which converts this falling into forward propulsion, is light, short and fast, with the optimal frequency at around 180 steps per minute. The feet are kissing the ground, not stomping it, landing slightly forward of the mid-sole, then touching down with the heel as if an afterthought. The gait, at least as demonstrated by Kuegler, is nearly silent.
I thought back to Daniel Lieberman’s study, published in the January 2010 issue of Nature. Using sensitive scales, high-speed cameras, and 3D motion analysis, Lieberman and his team compared running styles, and especially the foot strikes, of five groups of athletes, including American runners and the natives of the Rift Valley in Kenya.
“Humans have engaged in endurance running for millions of years but the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970s,” Lieberman wrote. Those modern shoes make us run heel-first and the impact this causes, he calculated, is the equivalent of up to three times your body weight. On every step.
Lieberman analysed running styles of youngsters from two Kenyan schools whose nation has led the world in long-distance events for decades. The students of one school were still barefoot; in the other, they wore shoes. The difference was startling, the conclusion obvious: put even Kenyans into modern running shoes and soon enough they will start running differently as well, putting them on track for a range of the injuries afflicting joggers in developed countries.
The good news was that we naturally correct our running form the moment the shoes come off. The heels just hurt too much to go on when pounding the pavement. Modern running shoes block the pain, rather than the impact—and pain is the best teacher of how to run correctly.
In the Queenstown park, James Kuegler was taking us through his drills. “The biggest thing to remember is that it takes time to wake your feet up again, especially for the calf muscles and Achilles tendons to regain their elasticity,” he said. “They’ve been locked in a state of sensory deprivation for decades. It’s like people who had been deaf their whole life and after an operation they gain their hearing. At first, they perceive any sound as pain. The body needs time to readjust.”
I should have listened. Back home in Wanaka, and still wearing the FiveFingers, I ran the new Deans Bank trail above the Clutha River, my daily dog walk. It felt effortless and light, like one long foot massage. And so I kept on, and on, way beyond where I should have stopped. For the next week, my calves felt as though they had been tenderised with a shot gun. In the runner’s vernacular this was called DOMS—delayed onset of muscle fatigue. The pain was excruciating.
“There are three kinds of pain in running,” Lisa Tamati told me in the foothills of the 12,947 ha Northburn Station near Cromwell. “There is the superficial pain, like chaffing and blisters, deep throbbing pain usually caused by inflammation, and the systemic pain from torn muscles, ligaments and tendons. It’s really important to differentiate between these types. The first two can be worked through. But don’t be a hero and try running through the third type of pain as it’s likely to cause long-term damage.”
As the country’s top ultra-marathon runner, Tamati has become intimate with all three kinds of pain, and the ways of surviving them. Twice she completed the 243 km Marathon des Sables, which involves six days running across the sandscape of the Moroccan Sahara, and twice she finished the 217 km Badwater ultra-marathon across Death Valley, USA. In 2009, she ran the length of New Zealand, 2200 km in 33 days. Now she had just sent 30 competitors out into the drylands of the Northburn 100, the first 100-mile race in the country, and almost certainly the toughest ever.
The 160 km trail run, a combination of farm tracks and goat paths across bare-bone Otago schist country, sun-burnt and bristled with runaway briar rose, incorporated a total ascent of 8000 m—a Himalayan climb—then the same amount of descent, which is even harder because the downhill is more punishing on the leg muscles than the climb. Tamati set the cut-off time at 48 hours.
“This may not be everyone’s idea of going for a run,” she told me, “but overall, New Zealanders love tough race events and here we are hoping to raise the standard of ‘tough’ to a whole new level. It also shows the wider public just what human bodies and minds are capable of. You need only to look at someone like Dharbhasana Lynn to see that we not reaching anywhere near our full potential.”
In 2010, Lynn, then resident in Hamilton, completed the world’s longest footrace: 4990 km, averaging some 96 km a day for 52 days straight. He didn’t do it for the scenery, because the race track was an 883-metre loop around a residential block in Queens, New York. During the race, he wore out 15 pairs of running shoes and developed a detachment from pain that to the rest of us would seem miraculous.
Lynn is a follower of a Bengali spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy, whose philosophy proposes the use of running as a form of self-transcendence. During long-distance running, Chinmoy suggested, the mind gets exhausted long before the body does, and it drops off into silence, and what’s left in its place is the mystical zone, a space of no-mind from which artists and elite athletes create and perform. After completing the nearly 5000 km run, Lynn offered this morsel of wisdom: “We tend to judge ourselves by our limitations and not by our greater potentiality,” he said. “Set no limits [on yourself] so you’ll have none.”
This was advice the Northburn 100 participants could have taken to heart. Hours after the pre-dawn start, I watched the first two, Martin Lukes and Matt Bixley, coming into the race checkpoint. Though they had just covered more than 50 km of hard cross-country terrain, they looked as fresh as if indulging in a Sunday morning jog. They bantered while refilling their hydration packs and snack pockets, and then they were gone again, into the great rocky vastness of the Northburn, out of sight and into their own mindscapes—or perhaps already beyond them. Watching this, I felt a pang of desire to be out there with them. Running really isn’t a spectator sport.
Where does this leave lunchtime joggers and accidental runners, weekend warriors and would-be competitors? With excellent prospects, according to Richard Keene.
Keene is a retired Manukau businessman, a recreational athlete and an importer of innovative running equipment. We are indeed a nation on the run, he told me. Looking at the national calendar of events, barely a day passes without an organised run somewhere, from after-work trots and weekend ultras to Auckland’s Round the Bays, one of the world’s largest fun-runs, with an estimated 70,000 participants following the 8.4 km contour of Waitemata Harbour.
Knowledge of the proper biomechanics of running has so far been largely the domain of elite athletes, their secret weapon against other competitors, Keene went on, but now, thanks to the work of coaches such as James Kuegler, this is rapidly changing. But while barefoot running is a beautifully pure idea, it needs to be considered as a method of retraining only, Keene cautioned. We no longer live in a barefoot environment.
“There is more to this natural running revolution than just getting away from cushioned shoes and into minimal footwear,” Keene told me. “In New Zealand, the last 10 years have seen an explosion of interest in running in more natural environments, along tracks and trails so far frequented only by trampers.”
Keene became a trail-running convert while working on a contract in California, brought the new-found passion home with him and began exploring the country as if for the first time. “It is such a joy to travel light and fast,” he told me.
“Just a hydration pack and a bite to eat, ultra-light raincoat and a good pair of shoes. And off you go, alone or with friends. There are trails everywhere, and no cars, no noise or pollution. A total immersion in nature. That’s how, I believe, we were always meant to run, not along the verge of a motorway during rush-hour traffic. And look around New Zealand. We live in the country of trails.”
I did look, and saw a whole new layer of geography, a spaghetti of unlimited trail runs. “We are preparing an internet database [at www.trailslesstravelled.co.nz] of trails from the point of view of runners’ needs,” said Keene. “Grading trails by difficulties, suggesting optimal direction of travel and transport arrangements. What to expect and what to avoid. Running something like the Abel Tasman track, for example, is a whole new experience from walking it over a few days.”
Indeed. And how about the other famous tracks—Heaphy and Milford, Tongariro and Croesus Crossings, Avalanche Peak and the loop around Lake Rotoiti—each suddenly an epic and a high personal challenge.
Arthur Lydiard died on December 11, 2004, while on a lecture tour in Texas promoting his training method, a framework based on endurance and periodisation which continues to be fundamental to athletics and general fitness the world over.
There are no rest days in his regimen—even recovery is done on the run, albeit a slow one. I have become a regular on the Mt Iron track. I have run for my life there, reclaimed my old fitness and bettered it. Sometimes, I see grandma there and, would you believe, she too sports a pair of FiveFingers, though hers are Day-Glo pink, no doubt to go with those platinum curls. She tells me she’s in training for the Kepler Challenge, using Mt Iron as her Stairmaster for the Kepler’s punishing climb, the Luxmore Grunt.
Of the myriad running events in this country, the 60 km Kepler Challenge is one of the oldest, grandest and most popular, the essence of all that is most appealing in trail running. It begins with a long and hellishly steep climb up Mt Luxmore and continues along a ridgeline traverse of unparalleled scenery before descending in sharp zigzags to finish with nearly a marathon’s worth of lake and riverside forest trails silenced with beech leaves.
“It’s a long way to run but if you go quietly and pace yourself it’s nowhere near as far as it seems,” grandma told me as we were catching our breaths after another lap of Mt Iron. “And after you’ve done it, well, you sort of feel invincible. If I can run the Kepler, with all its hard miles up and down, I can do anything.”
Perhaps, fitness and good health aside, challenges such as the Kepler may be worth doing for this reason alone.