The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

Book Review

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall (Alfred A. Knopf 2015)

51fN0mD37nL._AA160_ Anyone on the trail either hiking or running invariably wonders at some point, “How far could I go if I had the time?”. With a subtitle of “How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance”, Christopher McDougall attempts to answer the question of just how much we can endure, both physically and psychologically, when put to the challenge. And in answering those questions he aims to understand “the art of the hero”, and to explore the “foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action.”

The book, which follows his 2011 best-seller ‘Born to Run’ about endurance running, retells a war story that occurred in April 1944 during World War II on Nazi occupied Crete, an island known for its isolationism, spirit of rugged individualism and adherence to what resembles a “paleo” diet since they eat mostly home raised meat plus vegetables which were either grown or foraged in the surrounding mountainous forests.

McDougall opens his book with a retelling of how a band of British Special Operations soldiers together with Cretan resistance fighters kidnapped the Nazi General Heinrich Kriepe. The kidnapping occurred near the general’s Nazi headquarters with a daring display of “chutzpah” on the part of the kidnappers. Once the general and his car had been commandeered, the British-led team than spent more than two weeks navigating the very rugged Cretan backcountry on little sleep or food while they transported  the general to a point where he could be conveyed off the island as a prisoner of war.

The journey was arduous and required truly superhuman physical skill and nerves and resolve of steel. And the mission proved fatal for some of the resistance fighters as well as Cretan citizens of the town of Anogia who were massacred by the Nazis as they struggled to re-capture their general. But it is the endurance of the soldiers that McDougall explores in the book and the topic of endurance in general often in a zig zagging manner darting between the main narrative and long diversions into ostensibly related topics.

Weaved between the narrative, McDougall details a history of military survival training and takes a questionable detour to look at the world of Parkour, and finishes with several chapters devoted to a history of nutrition especially as it has been practiced by endurance athletes. McDougall contends that the gods of Greek mythology learned to survive adversity while dealing with human scale challenges even as they inhabited a godly abode. Some of those gods such as Zeus originated on Crete and they created a Grecian zeitgeist of heroism that was embodied in Crete during the war where men, women and children of the Crete countryside embodied paideia, arete and xenia (skill, strength and desire) but understood that “heroes are protectors” but, “your’e only strongest when you have a weakness for other people”, McDougall writes.

And he discusses the ancient Greek military technique of pankration, a type of free form wrestling, which has its roots in Greek mythology and dates to the Olympic games of 648 B.C.  He touches on ancient martial arts and “The Natural Method of Training” published by Edwin Chekly in 1890, among other techniques, after introducing us to suburban English women who have mastered the art of Parkour. Named for the French parcours,  Parkour acolytes learn to turn an urban landscape into a playground in which they have taught themselves to scale brick walls by running up them, balance and jump off of railings, landing in a somersault, only to spring back up and over the next obstacle. Parkour, McDougall posits, proves that humans have an innate ability to overcome physical obstacles tapping the ‘elastic coil’ stored up in our tendons, ligaments and even our fascia. (see a video of these Parkour moms here).

McDougall strains at times to make the case that the British special ops and Cretan resistance fighters were successful because they harnessed the skills and spirit embodied in these ancient techniques that have some Grecian roots. But one of the main focuses of the author’s thesis rests in his theory about the benefit of the Cretan diet, essentially a paleolithic meat and vegetables diet. McDougall interviews and visits with world renowned  South African exercise physiologist  Timothy Noakes Ph.d as well as tracking down the enigmatic chiropractor turned nutritional  consultant both to the stars and to star athletes, Phil Maffetone D.C.

Both Noakes and Maffetone eschew our mainstream carbohydrate laden diet as unnatural, unhealthy and down right dangerous. They both explain that from an evolutionary point of view humans have evolved to eat meat and plants and if those plants contain carbohydrates, then they are at least complex carbs, not the simple sugars that appear in almost all of our processed food, from Ketchup to soda to breakfast cereals and even packaged bread. Our consumption of large amounts of sugar, they explain, stimulates our body to release insulin, which stores the sugars in our bodies as fat and than drives us to consume even more sugar laden food to repeat the cycle.

When you retrain your body to burn fat as fuel, and not carbohydrates, you can increase your endurance and remain more satiated for longer periods of time, the experts explain. When Dr. Noakes adopted the eating lifestyle he professed, he lost weight and cut his time in the famous South African Comrades 56 mile ultra-marathon by two hours and reduced his time to run a 5K race by more than 20%, all that at the age of 56. Even the entire Los Angeles Lakers basketball team finally cut sugar out of their diet, began eating grass-fed beef, nuts and  kale chips. The exercise and nutritional guru Phil Maffetone went a step further and maintained that not only was the no carb or very low carb diet healthier but combined with some training tips, the eating lifestyle changes would reboot the subject’s metabolism to start burning fat as its primary fuel source instead of glycogen and sugars.  And since the body stores much more fat than sugars, endurance will naturally improve. He is even beta testing an app to help make the switch.

Overall, Chris McDougall presents a compelling argument that anyone could probably push themselves much harder, set higher standards and tap in to inner resources. You hiked 10 miles today? You could definitely push on. You ran a marathon?  Start training for an ultra. The key to ‘mastering the lost secrets of strength and endurance’ then, would be to understand human evolutionary history and make a course correction in one’s nutrition. Assiduous training and having resolute confidence in your abilities like the Parkour moms would also help. And having a tantalizing goal like kidnapping a Nazi general right from under the noses of his hapless soldiers would help as well.

Howard E. Friedman

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A Tale of Two Paddlers

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A lone canoeist in the morning mist (H. Friedman 2015)

Last week two dedicated freshwater paddlers both made the national news. Although the arc of each of their lives differed greatly, their dedication and attachment to the outdoors and to paddling its rivers, lakes and byways was one thing they shared in common. Unfortunately, their deaths on the water was also their final point in common too.

Douglas Tompkins, 72, the founder of the international apparel company the North Face, a kayaker and adventurer, a land conservationist and a multi millionaire, died of hypothermia after his tandem kayak capsized in cold waters in General Carrerra Lake in Chile where he had been on a multi day expedition with friends, including fellow adventurer and outdoor apparel founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. The lake is the second largest in South America. Tompkins’ kayak capsized when water conditions became rough. He was in the water reportedly for two hours until rescued by the Chilean Navy. He died in hospital. The other members of his expedition survived. This story was widely reported in major news publications around the world.

Less widely reported, in fact only reported in the weekly U.S. magazine The New Yorker, as far as I know, was the presumed death of another adventurer and truly dedicated paddler, Dick Conant. Spotted by a duck hunter, his  overturned plastic canoe was abandoned along the shore of the Big Flatty Creek in North Carolina several weeks ago with all of Mr. Conant’s possessions, leading authorities to conclude that the paddler had died although  his body has not been found. In an article published last week in the magazine called “The Wayfarer, A solitary canoeist meets his fate” New Yorker staff writer Ben McGrath introduces us to a man of sparse financial means who has spent the past number of years paddling his plastic canoe on rivers covering the length and breadth of the eastern United States, mostly camping out but occasionally accepting the kindnesses of strangers. His home base for several years had been a makeshift campsite in a swampy area in Bozeman, Montana, until the camp site was burned in what Conant suspected was arson.

Mr. McGrath  met Mr. Conant by happenstance along the shore of the Hudson River where the canoeist was on a journey toward the Florida panhandle and interviewed him at length. In fact, one can even hear the iconoclastic Mr. Conant speaking in a New Yorker podcast based on the magazine article. Mr. Conant, who was about 64 years old,  had been a class president and graduated near the top of his high school class  in Pearl River, New York in the 1960s, according to the article. Conant, who was not in regular contact with any of his siblings, had received a scholarship to attend SUNY Albany where he studied art and played varsity soccer.  He did not graduate due to academic issues and possibly the beginning of some psychiatric issues, specifically paranoia. He received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1989.

But where Mr. Conant did not complete college and went on to drift through a series of jobs working variously at a hospital or library,  Mr. Tompkins who did not even complete his private high school  succeeded in building a small outdoors apparel store in San Francisco in 1966 into a multi million dollar international adventure clothing empire. And after he sold his multi million dollar share of that business, he reinvented him self again as a land conservationist in Chile and Argentina.

At around age 43, Mr. Conant began to re-make his life into that of a near full time adventurer and a writer, keeping meticulous journal entries for his various river trips each of which lasted many months. Indeed, Mr. Conant described himself as a “canoeist who writes”, Mr. McGrath reports. But where Mr. Tompkins and his colleagues had access to the latest kayaking boats and gear, Mr. Conant began his last journey in a $300 14-foot Coleman plastic ‘Scanoe’ he bought at a sporting goods store near his put-in.  And he packed as much as he could into that boat stuffing canvas duffle bags and plastic sacks and covering them with tarps.

It is ironic that Mr. Conant is exactly the kind of person Mr. Tompkins would have wanted as a North Face customer, if only Conant had any disposable income to buy a decent rain slicker or warm winter jacket. Moreover, while North Face and other gear companies tend to glorify the outdoors life as a superior liberating and natural one, Dick Conant flatly rejected that notion. He stated emphatically that he was not heading out to spend months paddling his way around the country to ‘find himself’, but to see interesting things and meet interesting people. In in a touching moment recorded by Mr. McGrath, Conant volunteers that he would much rather be living in a home with a wife, had his life  worked out that way.

But it didn’t. And instead of sulk about Mr. Conant set out under his own power to truly be the captain of his ship. Thanks to Mr. McGrath’s timely and excellent reporting and writing in The New Yorker, the public now knows about the extraordinary life and perseverance of Dick Conant.  At a time when we pause to note the tragic and untimely loss of Doug Tompkins, adventurer, entrepreneur, extremely successful business man, land owner and conservationist, a man with good and influential friends, a wife and  loving children and a man whose obituary was printed around the globe, we should also take a moment to remember and appreciate the equally untimely and tragic loss of Dick Conant, “a canoeist who writes.”

Howard E. Friedman

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