Why Are Humans Born to Run?

Four cultures for whom running is a way of life, and a way to survive

By Turner Wright—In his book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall explores several theories concerning the “running man” argument in human evolution: why should we as a species be able to run? Compared to most animals, we’re pitiful when it comes to speed, and we gave up a great deal of strength by freeing up our arms.

Nevertheless, it seems as though man is unique in its running ability; we are the only species of mammal that can take more than one breath for each step, and our ability to sweat allows us to run down prey over time.

Antelope don’t get shin splints. Wolves don’t ice-pack their knees. I doubt that 80 percent of all wild mustangs are annually disabled with impact injuries. It reminded me of a proverb attributed to Roger Bannister, who, while simultaneously studying medicine, working as a clinical researcher, and minting pithy parables, became the first man to break the four-minute mile: ‘Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up,’ Bannister said. ‘It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle—when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.’
—Christopher McDougall in Born to Run

If you could ensure an open playing field where no species could veer off course or hide in the shadows, who do you think would be the first place finisher in a race of running animals?


The cheetah would start at a huge lead, but tire quickly. Rabbits aren’t much better—capable of sustaining 45 mph over 800 meters. In an hour or two, man will be the only animal that doesn’t need to stop and rest.

Just as McDougall asserts, we are all natural born runners with an eternal mind-body debate. We have the means to conserve energy and not run for survival (ordering Chinese food, online dating to find a mate), so our brains take control and tell us to relax, grab a beer, and set the TiVo.

However, with many nations (even third-world countries) becoming modernized as the world gets smaller, there are few remaining places on Earth where running is still a way of life, essential to survival, not thought of as fitness or a way to relieve stress after a day of TPS reports—cultures in which running is life, and deeply ingrained in the minds and hearts of natives who would find it impossible to imagine what it would be like otherwise.

But where can we find such “running cultures?”

Mt. Hiei, Japan: Marathon Monks

Visitors to Kyoto typically enjoy the rock gardens in Buddhist temples and trying to catch the eye of a Geisha in the Gion District (fat chance). What they fail to realize is just how close they are to some of the greatest endurance athletes in the world.

The marathon monks, who live in the Enryaku Temple atop Mount Hiei, are one of the great anomalies of Japanese society, if not the world; few people choose to live their lives according to such strict guidelines, especially with regard to the monks’ feats of physical prowess. The pilgrims who set themselves on this monastic path are called gyoja (literally, “moving man”), and their practice of circling the mountains again and again kaihogyo.

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Wearing only straw sandals (replaced often), white robes, a staff, and hat, each marathon monk daily begins walking or running approximately 30 miles around the mountain, to return in time for meditation and the meal. This is done every day for 100, 700, or 1000 days, depending on how far along the initiated is in his monastic training.

Had enough?

After hundreds of days of running 30-plus miles, the monks begin a fast: nine days in a fixed meditation position—sitting full or half lotus, back straight—without water, food, or sleep. It is believed that by bringing the body so close to death, the monks will develop a greater appreciation and sensitivity to life, being able to “hear ashes fall from incense sticks, smell and identify foods from miles away and see the sun and moonlight seep into the interior of the temple.”

In case you’re wondering, there have been only 46 men to successfully complete the 1000-day quest.

Running meditation is well known in Buddhism; people unfamiliar with practices in these temples always assume that monks’ minds are constantly in motion, working to unravel the secrets of the universe and the deeper meaning of life. In reality, meditation is nothing more than training oneself to focus entirely on the present: the breath going in and out of the lungs, the wind caressing your face, the birds chirping from a nearby tree. Running meditation is only natural, by focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and communing with nature one step at a time.

Copper Canyon, Mexico: The Tarahumara

The featured people of Born to Run, the Tarahumara are an isolated tribe of Rarámuri (running people) living in one of the most remote places on the planet: the mountains of Copper Canyon, just west of Chihuahua, Mexico.

McDougall chose well when he decided to focus his efforts on these runners. Instead of facing off against the conquistadors hundreds of years ago, they chose to run and hide between sheer cliffs in Copper Canyon, and have pretty much been there ever since.

For the Tarahumara, running is life. They run between mesas in Mexico at temperatures rivaling Death Valley, sometimes unsure whether water is waiting for them. More to the point, they find it fun. Runners range from teenagers to grandfathers, often with the same level of skill, and all compete in the games: kicking a ball from runner to runner for over fifty miles, sometimes after a day of binging on corn beer and smoking.

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That’s not to say they don’t have their secrets. Iskiate, a Chia seed-based concoction of liquid energy, is one such trade secret. Huaraches, the leather sole with straps used by the Tarahumara as footwear, is another of their inventions. Westerners will spend $100 or more on streamlined, supported, high-tech running shoes, only to either stop running, get injured, or wear them out prematurely. The Rarámuri, on the other hand, have been running for hundreds of years—millions of miles among them—and have developed what is arguably the most efficient design for a “shoe”—a single leather slab.

Africa: The Maasai and the Bushmen of the Kalahari

My high school cross country coach came up with a great slogan for the team shirt: “In my mind I am Kenyan.” I modified that creed during my Japanese residency:

“I speak like a foreigner, but I run like a Kenyan.”

The Kenyans conjure images of distance running, impossible feats of endurance, and barefoot jogging through grassy fields. It’s no wonder they’ve been players in nearly every major marathon worldwide; with two exceptions, South Korea and Ethiopia, Kenya has dominated the Boston Marathon since 1991.

Although the Maasai, a tribe indigenous to Kenya, still holds on to much of their nomadic heritage, it’s unlikely they still use running as a tool for hunting.

For that, you’d best look at the Bushmen of the Kalahari.

Let’s take a step back for a second: there are over six billion people on this planet. How many rely on running for survival? Obviously the marathon monks need such activity to satisfy the soul, but when they complete their pilgrimage there is food and drink waiting in the temple.

The Bushmen, however, are among the few groups remaining on the planet who choose to keep up with their traditional hunting skills (bows and arrows, tracking), and are able to literally run an animal to death—a practice anthropologists call “persistence hunting.”

As a hunter-gatherer, you’re never off the clock; you can be walking home after an exhausting day of collecting yams, but if fresh game scuttles into view, you drop everything and go. —Born to Run

One particular tribe is known to run in a pack, herding kudus, a type of antelope, for more than fifteen miles before the animals succumb to the heat and their failing hearts. All in all, it’s still more reliable than crouching low, sneaking up on your prey, and hoping the first arrow strikes true.

This story originally appeared on Vagabondish.