Monday, November 12, 2007

Why do we run?

It´s fun. It´s healthy. It´s ... Hogwash!

I´ll start again.

Why do we run?

There are several theories.

One. We run because we are "running toward ourselves", i.e., to reflect upon and ponder life while we are on our own with our thoughts (and our pumping heart and rattling lungs). Former German Foreign Minister, Green politician and irregular hobby marathoner Joschka Fischer several years ago wrote a book titled "The Long Run To Myself", where he stated that at around the 10k mark, he usually reached the point of getting a clear head. (Too bad he didn´t maintain the habit of running when he was part of the German government!)

And indeed, sometimes I have the best ideas when running. Sometimes things that I just wouldn´t get straight are sorted out while I´m out on a run. But at other times, admittedly, I am just too preoccupied with split-times, bad shape, or distracted by everything around me (or just plain too lazy to use my gray cells in addition to my hamstrings and calves) to do a lot of thinking. And on some days I just enjoy to float.

Two. We run because we are running away from something. Not in a literal sense, but in the sense of resorting to sports as an escape, as an excuse for not having to deal with all sorts of nasty things in life (stress on the job, taxes, unpaid bills, relationship troubles ...). While there is certainly a piece of truth in this, perhaps it is closer to the heart of the matter that running (or sports in general) is a great way to reduce stress. While it doesn´t solve money or tax problems (unfortunately), it might still help indirectly because - as I said above - it may help to get things back into perspective.

Three. We run because we have to. Running is part of our evolutionary history, according to a recent study by Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman. We are, so to speak, born to run. Hard to believe, eh? ;) They make the point that certain body traits that we humans possess which our closest non-human mammal relatives, the chimpanzees, are missing (no, this time I am not referring to the thumb, make us perfect long-distance runners who - in the very long run - can even outpace just about every other animal on this planet:

From our abundant sweat glands to our Achilles tendons, from our big knee joints to our muscular glutei maximi, human bodies are beautifully tuned running machines. "We're loaded top to bottom with all these features, many of which don't have any role in walking," Lieberman says. Our anatomy suggests that running down prey was once a way of life that ensured hominid survival millions of years ago on the African savanna. (You find the article here).

While when it comes to speed, we humans stand no chance of winning against most quadrupeds, we are perfectly equipped for endurance running. And, apparently, this was a useful trait when hunting for food (or trying to be near a carcass that some bigger beast had killed and left behind) way back when.

As Czechoslovakian running icone and marathon gold-medalist of the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, Emil Zatopek, put it: "Bird flies, fish swims, man runs." Not that he himself always looked as if he was really enjoying it. (Neither does Paula Radcliffe, but she runs and wins.) In fact, he wore an expression of torture on his face, his tongue sticking out, while running, and both his unelegant gait and his way of breathing earned him the nickname "Locomotive".

All of which, of course, does not explain entirely why some of us derive not only pain, but also pleasure from the act of running, whilst others can only look upon runners with a mixture of amazement and pity, shake their heads and take another deep puff. ("Crazy buggers! Ah! That´s better!")

But probably even among our forefathers, there were those who´d join in the hunt, whilst others would rather stay at home and do other useful things, such as protecting women and children against potential evil forces. Or just hang out by the fire.

Those of us who nowadays engage in the pleasurable, on occasion nevertheless painful actvity of running might at some earlier point in history have even made a profession of this passion (linguistic note: the origin of the word "passion" is - not entirely coincidental - the Latin verb "patere", which also means "to suffer"; similarly, the German equivalent "Leidenschaft" contains the verb "leiden", which also means "to suffer"), to become a messenger in areas where horses were not an option.

Like the famous ancient Greek messenger-runner Pheidippides, who is often credited with having run "the father of all marathons" between the ancient site of Marathon and Athens. However, some sources say that it is highly unlikely that Pheidippides was the runner in question (if the Marathon-Athens race took place at all, which is a matter of debate). Pheidippides had some days earlier been sent to cover the 240 km (150 mile) -distance to Sparta (which took him 2 days - pretty good, eh?) to get help from the Spartanians in an imminent battle against the Persians. As logic has it, for him as a professional runner, the 40-odd-km (26 miles) distance between Marathon and Athens would have been a cakewalk, not a challenge, so it is unlikely that he would have died after that race.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The original marathon from Marathon to Athens probably was run - if it was run at all (there are no contemporary sources) - by a soldier who had fought in the battle of Marathon agains the Persians prior to the race.

The Athenians had just against all odds successfully battled the Persians, despite the fact that the latter ones had the larger army. The Spartans, because they were in the midst of some religious ceremony, never showed up, so it was up to a comparatively small army of Athenians to look after themselves.

Immediately after the battle, a messenger, still in his battle gear, was sent to Athens to break the good news. Why he had to run on foot rather than taking a horse remains somehow of a mystery, but some theories have it that the area was too rocky and generally impassable for a horse in a decent time. So the poor guy, who had just been involved in an exhausting several hour fight, raced the distance, arrived in Athens exclaiming "Nike! Nike!" (no, not a request for a pair of more suitable running-shoes by the brand that carries this noble name, but the Greek word for "Victory!"), collapsed and died.

Nowadays, runners have it a lot easier. For starters, we don´t have to fight a battle before the race (not a literal one, anyway); more often than not - unless you are part of the Olympic team running the original distance in Greek mid-summer temperatures around mid-day, or you are running the Dead Sea Ultra-Marathon - marathons are run in temperatures that are more becoming for exhaustive endurance sports activities; we do not run in some entirely inadequate battle-gear (unless we chose to dress up in that way, but we don´t do so by force), but we do have extra-cushioned sneakers and functional sports-apparel; there´s ample supply with Gatorade and/or water along the way, not to mention PowerBars and bananas.

Plus, there are all these cheering spectators, and all sorts of bands - in New York, the range goes from heavy metal, to jazz, to bagpipers on the way into the Bronx - playing along the way, and they provide modern day runners with enough of an adrenaline and euphoria rush to keep going. (Aside: On my training runs, I try to go for one just over 30k several weeks before the actual marathon date; these runs in the middle of nowhere are invariably disheartening experiences, at which point I usually question if I can actually make it through a marathon, if the entire thing is such a great idea after all, and if it wouldn´t be indefinitely more snug to just roll up on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a cigarette ...).

So, in the vast majority of cases, modern day marathoners reach the finish line, without exclaiming "Nike! Nike!" (though we might stil carry that feeling inside us for having just successfully battled the 42.195 km (that is 26.something miles).

It is a great experience. It is painful, yet addictive (the pain, I imagine similarly to that of giving birth, is erased from memory after a while). The atmosphere is filled with adrenaline. And starting out on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on a beautiful, crisp, sunny morning with almost 40,000 fellow runners, with a great view of the Manhattan skyline, has got to be the ultimate runner´s high.

Before the start: Runners waiting at Fort Wodsworth. It´s a bit like Woodstock, only without the smoke and the music ;) In the background the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

The New York crowd is unlike any other I´ve ever come across (ok, aside from New York I´ve only run Munich and Berlin, so my experience is somewhat limited), and the cruise through large parts of Brooklyn and Queens lets you travel through an entire macrocosm of different neighbourhoods and cultures.

And when you finally arrive in Central Park ("Oh sh ... Two more miles! How am I ever going to survive them?"), you have no choice really but to keep running. The last half mile ("Hey! That´s only 800 m!") ... And then - after a last small ascent - the finish line is finally in sight. Try and smile into the cameras (I didn´t; honestly, I couldn´t be bothered, because I simply didn´t have the power to force my grimaced face into anything at least resembling a smile). And - phew!!!!

After having then walked the approximate equivalent of 20 blocks (from the entrance to the final stretch in Central Park at Columbus Circle/ 59th street, to where the truck with your clothes is parked, which is probably around 82nd street), you´ll finally be able to breathe.

And it´s bound to feel a little unreal, partly because your body is still readjusting, partly because you´ve probably spent the last 7km in some sort of exhausted dizziness, and partly because you are bound to feel exhilarated and still high on adrenaline. Unless, of course, you happen to be Paula Radcliffe, and you have just won the New York Marathon - again! - in one of those amazing races where a co-runner is glued to your heels, up until the final stretch, which is like your home run and you shake her off, though not without visible effort.

And every other runner around you, this entire army of exhausted, but happy looking bipeds who, wrapped in their tin-foil finisher blankets, have somewhat of an alien look around them, feels the same. Well, come to think of it, although it might be more of a routine for her, Paula probably feels that way, too. Although there´ll be a far smaller group of tin-foiled co-runners around her.

Special thanks to my sweetheart for making me go for it and for supporting me, and ultimately propelled me across the finish line (even if I took one hour and 10 minutes longer than Paula ... we´re still discussing what went wrong, and how to improve this), and for being simply incredibly ... incredible.

And to my lovely friends Steven and Michael who gave me shelter in their "house filled with love and laughter" ;), and who fed and generally pampered me before and after the race.

And to all of you who were there, one way or the other.

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