Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 17, 2017
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Running free

Does a reclusive Mexican tribe hold the secret to injury-free running?

Here’s a question: in a 35-kilometre race, human versus horse, who wins? In an annual British race run for the last 22 years, the human has won twice. In the rest, a horse has crossed the finish line first but usually by less than 10 minutes. Stretch the distance out to 80 kilometres, as they do in a similar race out of Prescott, Arizona, and the two-legged mammal nearly always wins.

Humans have been running around for eons chasing things they wanted to eat. When it comes to running, we have two things going for us, intelligence and endurance. And what have we worn on our feet during these past hundreds of thousands of years? Mostly nothing.

In January 2001, Christopher MacDougall, author of the new book Born to Run, asked his doctor: “How come my foot hurts?”

Dr Joe Torg, US co-author of The Running Athlete, the definitive radiographic analysis of running injuries, X-rayed his foot and diagnosed an aggravated cuboid. “Running is your problem,” he told MacDougall.

Little surprise there. Up to 80 percent of runners get hurt every year. They strain Achilles tendons, sprain ankles, damage the knee, rip hamstrings and develop pain in their arches. Nothing the $20 billion a year running shoe companies have come up with has done anything to slow these injuries. Dr Torg suggested he buy a bike.

But MacDougall likes to run and wasn’t about to give it up. On assignment in Mexico for the New York Times Magazine, he heard about the Tarahumara, a small reclusive tribe who lived at the bottom of the formidable Copper Canyon in northwestern Mexico. The tribe were said to be able to run for days and they did so in thin-soled sandals made of tire rubber.

Dr Dale Groom visited the tribe in 1971 and published an article in the American Heart Journal. He wrote: “Probably not since the days of ancient Sparta has a people achieved such a high state of physical condition.”

So MacDougall just had to meet them and, if possible, run with them. That encounter is largely what Born to Run is about. It’s a tremendous adventure story.

The key to being properly introduced to these shy runners was an elusive American called Caballo Blanco who had been living in the canyon for 10 years and whom he eventually tracked down.

MacDougall heard stories about the Tarahumara running over 500 kilometres in this canyon where altitudes vary thousands of metres and temperatures soar over 40°C. He assumed they must be as highly disciplined as Zen monks.

Not so much. “When it comes to marathoning, (they) prefer more of a Mardi Gras approach,” writes McDougall. “In terms of diet, lifestyle and belly fires, they’re a track coach’s nightmare. They drink like New Year’s Eve is a weekly event, tossing back enough corn beer in a year to spend every third day of their adult lives either buzzed or recovering.”

This mind-boggling and inspiring yarn sprints toward its conclusion: the description of an 80-kilometre race in the canyon organized by Caballo Blanco featuring the best of the Tarahumara and many of the top ultra-marathon runners in the US, including eccentric Barefoot Ted (www.barefootted.com).

MacDougall takes part too and by the end of the race he is a runner reborn. He returns to his Pennsylvania home and runs the way the Tarahumara do, in thin sandals, favouring the midfoot instead of the heel. His experience is destined to change the way we run.

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