You would be forgiven for not seeing modern humans as natural runners. We have moving walkways at malls and airports, elevators in our offices and apartments, all comforts designed to keep us from exertion. And yet, though we long ago exchanged brains for brawn, endurance running is as human as community or society, and perhaps an indirect progenitor of those other two.
You see, we were born to run. Our ancestors were not as strong as gorillas or chimpanzees; they were not as big as lions or bears, nor were they as fast sprinters as zebras or gazelles. However, over long distances, no other animal can match our prowess, not even a horse. We are excellently designed to run. Our sweat glands and lack of hair kept our ancestors cool as they chased down prey in the midday sun. Our ankles and feet have endowed us with a powerful, efficient stride. Most of all, our upright posture both allows us to regulate our breathing as we run and to keep our center of mass moving forward with each step.
These physiological adaptations helped us catch food and outcompete other animals both as scavengers and hunters, yet they also had a major unintended consequence. At the same time as our ancestors’ brains were growing, their hips were becoming more vertical, which created the logistical problem of an ever larger head having fit through an ever smaller birth canal. The evolutionary solution was that human babies were born relatively helpless compared to their primate relatives. This helplessness required parental care and support for far longer than other animals, a delayed adulthood. The long-term demands of caring for children may have motivated early humans to form communities as a shared investment in their progeny. In time these communities grew in size and complexity until the first traces of society emerged.
As a competitive runner for eight years, (and a less competitive one for the past three) running has provided an intimate understanding of my own physiology. Racing is an act that pushes your body to the red-line: your lungs burn, your heart throbs, and your muscles ache. The challenge of this experience has a few perplexing effects. Firstly, as a runner, you become utterly attuned to your body. I recall many times sitting in Math class and thinking, “is my breathing labored? Is my knee sore? Is my stomach upset?” Likewise, these small annoyances that are often missed by others can become grave anxieties on race day. A little congestion may cause you to clear your throat as you walk, but two miles into a cross country race, it can feel like you are being strangled from inside. In the years since I stopped running competitively, these feelings have attenuated, but occasionally that hyper-awareness returns.
The next curious observation I have about racing concerns not the body, but the mind. Running is a remarkably mental activity; perhaps its physical simplicity allows the mind to take such a dominant role. There is something terrifying and exhilarating about knowing that you are pushing yourself as hard as you think you can go. I say “think you can go,” since the body (at least many bodies) could run a sub-four minute mile if it could only leave the head behind. Thus, the equation for winning a race is talent plus training plus mental toughness. I had a friend a few years ago who wanted to break six minutes in the mile. He had never run competitively and had asked me to coach him. I went out with him and watched him run a mile in 6:30. The next week, I paced him around the track in 6:15. Winded, he told me he didn’t think he was ready to run sub-six. I told him it was clear he was in shape to run his goal, he now just had to focus only on staying with me and realize he was capable of pushing himself much farther than he had before. A couple days later, we ran 5:52.
Running is not just a mental act; it acts on the mind as well. During a race, your senses dim, your brain sending blood to the big muscles of the chest, arms, and legs. It is common to see a race course bordered by spectators, each one yelling various words of encouragement. However, to the racer, this din can is translated into distant white noise. Likewise, all the hyper-sensitivity to bodily sensations fades in the heat of the moment. An errant spike, a twisted ankle feel like nothing more than the brush of a feather. Even with six teammates out there and hundreds of other competitors surrounding you, the race is a battle for the mind. “One-hundred meters more”, “just up this hill,” “just past the green jersey.” These are the sorts of exhortations that become a runner’s mantra. And despite all the vividness of the exertion and how deeply personal the race may be, the moment you cross the line those feelings dissolve away. Indeed, it has been impossible for me to fully imagine how I feel in a race; it is an experience that cannot be simulated or vicariously experienced. Despite watching so many races, and running over the old trails I raced on, I must admit I lack the empathy to conjure those feelings again. If we could experience what we felt in the midst of competition, perhaps we would never race again.
Yet against this backdrop of struggle, I continue to run. Why? The world flies by me as I drive my body forward to the next street, the next mile, the next challenge. I love that sense of the ground passing quickly beneath my feet. I love the primal rush that comes over me as I pass someone else. It is antique and wonderful, I am the predator, the pursuer. When I am in shape, it feels like I am walking on air, that I am strong, that I am complete. I am fast. Fast is natural. Fast is right. All these years of civilization and I can break free of their yoke simply by lacing up my shoes and hitting the road.
My name is David Carlin. I’m from Scarsdale, New York and I graduated from Williams College as a History and Psychology major in 2012. I lived in Pittsburgh after graduation and really loved getting to know that city. I am back in New York now and working as a consultant. I am trying to find avenues for my creativity whether it is in volunteering, entrepreneurship, or writing. I love to travel to different places and learn about their history and cultures. A fun fact about me is that my sister, Carly, is curating this blog!