“Born to Run” Running Strong After a Decade

“Born to Run” is one of the most successful and influential books ever written about running. More than a decade since publication I can make that declaration for three reasons.

First, some of the people featured in the non fiction account of the arcane world of ultra long distance running still promote their association with the book as an important part of their credentials. Second, according to author Christopher McDougall’s web site, best actor Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is scheduled to star in a film version of the book.

And my third reason is the most convincing evidence of this book’s outsized influence. During the current COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, my wife and I have desperately searched the house for new books to read. I found and re-read “Born to Run” and loved it all over again. I urged my wife who is an adamant non runner and lover of fiction books to read this non-fiction book about running. She read it in one day. The very next day, she laced up her vintage white Keds sneakers and went for a run! 

“Born to Run” fueled greater interest in running and a new curiosity about running barefooted or in minimalist shoes. Minimalist running shoes were marketed nationwide in the years following. The book’s popularity also probably helped at least a couple of careers and shined light and Ivy League caliber research on an indigenous people for whom running is a preferred mode of transportation.

McDougall introduced his readers to a running niche unknown to the general public and not well known even to most recreational runners in May 2009 when “Born to Run” was published. While most people were familiar with the New York and Boston marathons, fewer people knew that runners were meeting almost every weekend somewhere around the country to run 50 and 100 miles races some lasting more than 24 hours.  During these ultra marathon events runners made brief stops to shovel food in to their mouths, change out of blood stained socks and have their weight checked to make sure they were not dehydrated and risking kidney failure. Runners were lining up in California, Colorado and Tennessee to name a few, not to mention at Badwater 135, the self proclaimed “world’s toughest foot race” starting in Death Valley and crossing through places like Furnace Creek. The asphalt along the route was hot enough to melt the rubber off your sneakers.

But that was not even the most interesting part of “Born to Run”. The primer on the world of ultra marathons was merely a necessary backdrop for the true crux of the book. McDougall takes us on a wild ride to a place most of us have never heard of to meet a motley collection of colorful eccentrics. To tell his story he introduces us to a middle-aged lanky bald runner who Hollywood could never have made up: Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, also known as Micah True.

And that was just chapter one.

“Born to Run” brilliantly weaves together the true story of how the enigmatic Caballo Blanco, an American who re-located to be able to live and run in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, created one of the great running races you never heard of. The book deftly tells the story that brought together the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous people who use running for transportation, recreation and sport and a disparate group of American runners, including a professional with product endorsements, some relative unknown college students, personal trainers, the author and someone who actually defies categorization, Barefoot Ted.

Along the way, McDougall introduces readers to an assortment of physical therapists, athletic trainers, renowned running coaches, a Harvard evolutionary biologist and a New Zealand professor all of whom have devoted themselves to the study and art of running.

The story follows McDougall’s quest to finally resolve his own struggles with recurrent running injuries and his attempt to train and run a 50 mile race through the Copper Canyons. But the book is not an ego trip for McDougall, as many books written by runners turn out to be. In fact, McDougall’s running plays a minor role since he shines the light on those who have mastered the art. He brings us as close as he can to Micah True. He introduces us to the world of the Tarahumara which leaves you kind of flabbergasted that this community lives about 270 miles south of El Paso, TX and is not a lost tribe in the middle of the Amazon.

Tarahumara men running. credit:https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/skeleton

Much of what makes “Born to Run” inspirational is the author’s uncovering of how running is innate to humans and the role it has played in our development as a species. And for that he cites Daniel Lieberman a Harvard professor who studies human anatomy with a focus on anatomical features unique to humans that allow us to run distances longer than any other species. He tells the story of David Carrier, now a professor of Biology who with his brother tried to prove the ‘Running Man’ theory by attempting to run down an antelope to exhaustion over the course of several days. We are also introduced to a South African mathematician who became so obsessed with the idea of humans as persistence hunters that he left college to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari to learn exactly how they used running as their primary hunting tool. 

As McDougall discovers that the Tarahumara, the Bushmen and even Barefoot Ted can run just fine in flat sandals or, in Ted’s case, bare feet he questions the need for our modern over engineered running shoes and the multi national industry behind them. McDougall proceeds to take down modern running shoes and in the process the industry leader Nike. He draws support for the idea from physical therapist Irene S. Davis who’s treatment for injured runners evolved to recommend that they strengthen their feet, not their shoes. Cushioned over built shoes have existed only since the 1970s when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman brought the world cushioned Nike running shoes. Nike provided their shoes to competitive runners than marketed them to a growing number of recreational runners as the jogging boom began to ramp up.

The story concludes with an epic ultra marathon pitting modern running technique and technology against an ancient one as Caballo Blanco managed with difficulty to bring together some of the best ultra marathoners in the United States to race against the best of the Tarahumara runners over 50 miles in the Copper Canyon.

“Born to Run” has not only inspired people to run and still ranks among the best selling running books but the book likely had an influence on the running world. Barefoot running had a moment after the publication of the book with introduction of stripped down shoes which tried to mimic the unstructured sandals worn by the Tarahumara. I saw a young man trail running in New Jersey with a home made version of the ‘hurrache’ sandals the indigenous runners would make themselves and I saw a woman hiking steep terrain in the Catskills barefooted. Even today running races of various lengths and terrain will often have at least a couple of barefoot runners.

Corporate money capitalized on the barefoot running phenomenon too. Vibram, an Italian leading manufacturer of rubber soles for shoes and boots, launched the Vibram Five Fingers, a ‘shoe’ that looks like a glove but for the foot with shaped toes. The rubber bottom provides some protection for the sole of the foot. Vibram was sued for allegedly making some claims that running in Vibram Five Finger shoes “reduces running injuries” based on how the shoes changed a person’s gait. Vibram settled the lawsuit putting aside up to $3.75 million but denied fault and liability. The shoes are still sold. And as for Nike, “Born to Run” did not hurt the world’s leading shoe brand. Nike has gone from selling shoes that give you more support to their now famous very engineered Vaporfly that give you even more cushioning plus a carbon fiber plate to propel runners faster.

While mass enthusiasm for barefoot running has waned, the notion that our feet are stronger than we realize lives on. Physical therapist Irene S. Davis who was at the University of Delaware at the time of the book and now heads Harvard’s Spaulding National Running Center encourages patients to strengthen the muscles in their feet through a series of exercises and not to rely on over built shoes. Daniel E. Lieberman, at the time of publication already an established professor at Harvard and author of the idea that humans are anatomically adapted for long distance running, began studying the running biomechanics of the Tarahumara in 2012 adding to his research on natural barefoot runners in Kenya and attempt to fully understand just what our feet are capable of.

Some of the runners featured in the book went on to further success. Jenn Shelton who was in the early days of running ultras at the time “Born to Run” was written  went on to compete around the world and win various marathons. She now is a running coach. Scott Jurek was already one of the most winning ultra marathoners at the time he was featured in “Born to Run”. He went on to set a fastest known time running the 2, 190 mile length of the Appalachian Trail and for running 167.5 miles in 24 hours. Jurek’s bio on his web site proudly proclaims in large font Born to Run.

Other runners featured in the book openly promote their association with this juggernaut of a running book more than 10 years after publication. Eric Orton, the author’s running coach during the build up to the first ever Copper Canyon ultra and an author himself advertises on his coaching web site that he was “a featured character in the worldwide best selling book Born to Run”.  Barefoot Ted mentions his “Born to Run” bonafides in the first line of his web site and he mentions his appearance in the book multiple times. He also sells his own line of minimalist running sandals and leads running trips and races in the Copper Canyon. For that matter, Christopher McDougall’s web site also mentions “Born to Run” in the first line above the titles of his more recent books. But he is the author after all.

And the Tarahumara continue to live and run in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, with their health and safety challenged by environmental threats and the risk of violence from drug cartels. The first ultra marathon organized with great effort by Micah True featured in “Born to Run” continues as an annual event, drawing runners from around the world. And as for the Caballo Blanco, several years after publication of the book he collapsed while running in his beloved mountains where his body was recovered. His spirit runs on.

Howard E. Friedman

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Fund Raising through Outdoors Adventure:Have we taken a wrong turn?

HW-nodates-2

Henry Worsleyi n the Antarctic, shackletonsolo.org

This past week brought news of the death of  Henry Worsley, a retired officer from the British military who had dedicated himself to Antarctic travel, inspired by his hero Ernest Shackleton. Worsley, who was attempting a coast-to-coast trek of the Antarctic continent, was airlifted only 90 miles from his objective after 71 days and 913 miles of self-supported travel — pulling up to 300 pounds of gear — before dying in hospital from complications of peritonitis. Others have made Antarctic crossings but Worsley’s was to be the first unaided trek . Before his trip, Worsley raised $142,000 for charity to go to the Endeavour Fund, managed by Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, a charity that aids wounded British service men and women.

A few days prior to the news of Worsley’s death, I received an e-mail from a relative I do not regularly hear from, a letter announcing his plans to participate in a 170 mile bike ride to raise money for a camp for children with disabilities, a worthy cause. Like Worsley, my cousin is using his participation in a strenuous event to raise money for charity. And he is far far from the only one trying to raise money by participating in an outdoor adventure. In fact, I would say the practice has become an epidemic. Every 5-K and marathon seems to be a fund raiser. And even if you do not win the lottery to run in the vaunted New York marathon, there is a back door to get a guaranteed spot in the race by running with and financially supporting the New York Road Runner Team for Kids by raising $25,000 for a team of ten runners. Even establishment institutions like Backpacker magazine promote their annual ‘Summit for Someone’, a way to raise money for Big City Mountaineers to support outdoor adventures for disadvantaged youth. Participants must raise several thousand dollars to earn a spot on a guided climb of famous peaks like Mt. Rainier or others.

6a014e894ef9bd970d01b7c7771434970b-800wiSo what is going on here? For hundred of years, adventurers needed no outside encouragement for their adventures. They were self-motivated. Sir Edmund Hillary famously quipped that he climbed Everest “because it was there”. That was actually a throw-away line answering a reporter. He climbed Everest out of a deep attraction to the outdoors and a desire to see just what humans can accomplish. And so it has been with expeditions around the globe. Alexander von Humboldt  attempted in 1799 to climb Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador, thought to be at that time the highest mountain in the world, documented so well by Andrea Wulf in the beginning of her 2015 book “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World“.  Sir Ernest Shackleton’ famously attempted to cross the Antarctic.  The world’s highest and most difficult mountain peaks have all been summited by intrepid and driven individuals, for example Mt. Meru, climbed in 2011 and featured in a recently released visually stunning documentary.

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imdb.com. But somewhere along the way, the populace has started associating personal challenges in the outdoors as the perfect way to raise money from friends and family for a worthy non-profit.

Why do we as a society think that participating in a 5-k race or marathon or 3-day bike riding event is worthy of fund raising? Why do we as participants in these events think that our friends will want to donate money based on how may miles we run or bike ride? And why should we as friends and relatives of the runners, bikers and climbers give anyway?  What exactly is the message of “sponsor me to run” that we are conveying?

Outdoor adventure was once a necessary way of life for much of our history, from providing food and fuel to building shelters and  settling new territory, with all that is entailed. Physicality was just a part of life.

Until recent times.

For most of us, our lives are strikingly without great need for physical prowess, No need to hunt or gather or pack up the home and move camp miles away to higher ground when the season’s change. So perhaps, we satisfy our innate need for adventure and physical challenge by setting goals that are a true physical reach for us. For some, the reach is running 5 kilometers ( 3.1 miles), without stopping. For others that challenge is running 100 miles. In either case we are quenching a deeply entrenched human need to push ourselves toward our physical limit and at least know what that limit is.

But the question remains:  Why connect that need for personal challenge to raising money for charity? Shouldn’t my desire to challenge myself remain personal? Fund raising is that thing you do by naming buildings and libraries and college campuses for wealthy donors or for the more plebeian among us, simply asking your Facebook friends and people in your e-mail address book to support your worthy cause.

Running 26.2 miles, on the other hand, is that thing you do to see if you can do it. Could you follow that marathon and swim 2.4 miles and bike ride for a 112 miles to complete a triathlon? Can you cross the Antarctic from coast to coast self supported? Yet for some reason we connect the two events, endurance and charity, and they are connected week after week with the ever present 5k rfund raising ace that take pace on so many weekends. Indeed, in the past year or so, more than 500,000 people in the U.S. completed a marathon and many of them were no doubt raising money for charity.

In the radio interview before his trip, and subsequent death, and in response to the incredulity of the interviewer at the sheer difficulty of his planned Antarctic trip Henry Worsley humbly said, “It’s no black art to sliding one ski  in front of the other, but what will drive me on is raising money for these wounded soldiers…”, referring to the charity he was supporting, the British Endeavour Fund

Worsley. then, touches on the answer. We do not give money to charity to see people punish themselves physically. Quite the contrary. We give to help motivate the athlete motivate himself, to keep running when he wants to quit, to keep cycling when he wants to rest, and to keep pulling a sledge with hundreds of pounds of supplies across the frozen landscape of the Antarctic in sub-zero temperatures against all odds.We help motivate him and he gives money to a good cause. He does our work.

Clearly, millions of dollars are raised each year for charities through sponsored events. And for that reason, I should leave this question alone. As a society, we should be very proud that we rally around supporting our non-profit organizations, the not so hidden fabric of many of our lives. And for spectacular high-profile never-before-accomplished feats like the one attempted by the late Henry Worsley, the endeavor is a great opportunity to shine light on a worthy cause. For those people who will not get themselves out but for the fund raising angle, then the charity connection is indeed mission critical. And you could even say that by donating in support of a run or bike ride you build a stronger connection to the charity you are supporting. It’s all good, it seems.

But perhaps the point at which we as a society have arrived today, where so many either need the motivation or the validation to challenge themselves to run for a cause or summit for someone should make us stop and think. Will we push ourselves when there is no cause? We should ‘summit for someone’ if we can, or run to raise money for the kids, but, I feel, we should also aspire to return to the status quo ante when we valued physical challenge and adventure as an integral part of life, where enduring a daily physical challenge was simply part of what it meant to be a human being.

By the way, I plan to support my cousin’s bike ride.

Howard E. Friedman

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Battle of the Sexes on the Appalachian Trail

Jennifer Pharr Davis who set the record for fastest know time for a supported hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011 has probably set another record- authoring the longest known essay about the same trail ever to be published in the New York Times. This essay consumes an entire page and a half, including pictures and will complement the long distance hiker and author’s previous record for her supported hike of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, a record just broken by ultra-marathon runner and author Scott Jurek.

Pharr Davis, a serious long distance hiker but with minimal ultra marathon running experience, hiked the 2,100 mile AT in 46 days with the aid of a crew to provide her with food and a chair or van to get some rest at road

Pharr Davis resting during  her AT record setting hike. New York Times, Melissa Dobbins

Pharr Davis resting during her AT record setting hike. New York Times, Melissa Dobbins

crossings along the way. Jurek, a 7 time in-a-row winner of the 100 mile Western States Endurance Run trail race which takes place each year in the mountains of northern California and a celebrated ultra marathoner, broke Pharr Davis’s record this past summer, but only by three hours, which is a surprisingly narrow margin over more than 46 plus days.

In a long piece supra titled ‘essay’ and titled ‘Gender Gap Narrows as

Pharr Davis on the trail. Appalachianjake.wordpress.com

Pharr Davis on the trail. Appalachianjake.wordpress.com

Miles Add Up’ which appeared in the sports section of the Times on November 4, 2015, Pharr Davis discusses the trail and the records for fastest known time on it. But her real subject is exploring the role of gender in feats of endurance. She recalls the incredulity she received after posting her AT record as she received suggestions that “she must be an exceptional woman-or, an androgynous one-to hike the trail so quickly”, comments, that she writes, caused her ” to doubt my own accomplishment. I wondered, what was different or wrong with me?”.

Pharr Davis recounts the successes and failures of other long distance hiking and ultra running superstars, such as Karl Meltzer and Heather Anderson, the latter of whom recently set a fastest known time for an unsupported hike of the AT, another record for a female. The author goes on to interview exercise physiologists and other experts, even Scott Jurek himself, who offer thoughts about the advantages or disadvantages of either sex when it comes to completing long distance endurance activities, debating the value of men’s strength and muscle build versus women’s lighter weight skeletal frames and increased levels of estrogen.

For herself, Pharr Davis surmises that “maybe women have a genetic and evolutionary advantage when it comes to enduring physical pain and stress”. Frankly, anyone who can go fast over 100 miles and especially 2,100 miles gets my attention and respect, and, this may indeed be one area where guts and grit make the difference more than an X or Y chromosome.

50,000 Ways to Spend a Sunday

This past Sunday morning about 50,000 people of all ages and abilities challenged themselves to run the New York City marathon, 26.2 miles through the streets of the city, finishing the last 6 miles in Central Park. The elite runners ran at close to 13 miles an hour, finishing in a bit over 2 hours. About half of the runners finished in less than four hours and fifteen minutes and some, well, let’s just say, they could have walked as fast.

This past Sunday night about 50,000 people sat for more than 3 hours to watch what would be the final game in the 2015 baseball World

Series, where the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets, winning their 4th game out of five. The baseball fans were encouraged to get up and stretch after the completion of the seventh inning and people were free to walk around during the game as well. But watching a baseball game is a spectator sport.

There were most likely some people who ran the marathon in the morning and went to the baseball game at night, for a memorable Sunday participating in two significant annual events. If someone was lucky enough to fill their day with both those events, that would indeed be a day to remember.

Mostly though I suspect there were the runners and there were the watchers. And on this past Sunday they were pretty well balanced, at about 50,000 people apiece.

The runners and the watchers. Or, to think of it another way, the doers and the sitters, neither one inherently superior to the other just markedly different types of activities. On a broader societal scale, we can categorize ourselves, at times, as either consumers or producers, each necessary and invaluable. We all can not be exclusively consumers for than who would produce what we consume? And this past Sunday, the runners benefitted from the cheering crowds who had lined the streets to watch them, not so different from the 50,000 people who sat in Citi Field to cheer on their favorite baseball team.

USDA foot recommendations (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)

USDA foot recommendations (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/)

As a city, a community, a country, and even a world, we need both the runners and the watchers, the producers and the consumers. But as individuals, we also need our own varied diet of activity, similar to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Plate, which recommends a variety of types of foods in healthy amounts. Not all carbs and not all proteins. Not all fruits and not all vegetables. Similarly we need to mix up the watching with the running, the consuming with the producing.

“My Feet” Chart

What if in addition to a ‘My Plate’ diagram, we also referred to a ‘My Feet’ diagram, which would suggest where our feet should be throughout an average day. About one quarter to one third of the day would show our feet in bed, a third or so of the clock would show our feet at work, in school, creating and producing or otherwise involved in some type of sedentary activity. A portion of the My Feet pie chart would show our feet under the kitchen table and a miscellaneous slice would allow for personal needs. But a solid slice of the daily pie would show our feet in a pair of sneakers, either indoors or out, getting some exercise.  And there would also be the ‘Weekend My Feet’ chart which would replace a portion of the work/school slice with even more time exercising or otherwise being active.

This past Sunday was an interesting look into how so many people  chose to spend their time in a major metropolitan city. The runners we know also prepared by training for a few months in advance.  And the World Series attendees had to hustle somewhat to get their ticket and the price may even have caused them to break into a sweat although their chosen activity was mostly sedentary with some periods of standing and cheering.

But in a well balanced life, we would all run some and watch some, consume some and produce some, win some and as reality would have it, lose some too.

Howard E. Friedman

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Wet Foot, Cold Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot

This morning was a crisp autumn one, cool, azure sky with feathery brush strokes of cumulus clouds scattered about. No precipitation I thought, until I ran through ankle high grass and weeds. My feet became saturated since I do not wear water proof shoes and the thin dewy moisture on the grass blades and small clover petals soaked right through my fabric shoes, penetrated my mostly polyester socks and sent a distracting cold and wet sensation directly from my toes to my brain.

Water proof shoes are heavily advertised as a must have feature. Gore-tex lined shoes whether for running or hiking are de rigueur, it seems. But I have persisted in buying only non water proof foot wear, with the exception of winter boots. One way or another, your feet will be getting wet. Wear water proof shoes and your feet will perspire yet the shoes will not release all of the moisture. Wear non water proof shoes and your feet will absorb moisture from the dew or rain on the ground or when you land in a puddle or tip toe through a stream.

But at least in my case, I know that eventually my feet will dry, since moisture can evaporate out of my unlined shoes, especially as they are warmed by my hyperthermic feet. In a gore tex lined shoe, moisture is trapped inside your shoe and can not evaporate until you take them off and let them air dry. Your feet are cocooned in a most un-natural layer of impermeable fabric.

I accept that feet will get wet on the trail or off road, and even cool of chilly.  I am not running or hiking on a sidewalk and thus, having some of nature encroach upon my feet is a small price to pay for keeping my feet, and me, more in touch with the ground they tread upon. Of course, if I really wanted to be in close contact with the ground, I would run or hike barefoot, as some intrepid people do. But I am not motivated to that level. Yet I do feel that my rationale, which I adapted after reading the thoughts of ultra long distance hiker Andrew Skurka, a number of years ago, have served me well. I enjoy the unexpected cold burst of wet feet that surprises me from time to time in the same way I am pleasantly surprised by a chance encounter with an unexpected sighting of an eastern bluebird or scarlet tanager or northern oriole, or deer or chipmunk, or very rarely, a bear. The exposure to what nature offers, when dosed in safe and rational measures, is part of the experience of being out doors. And as part of being rational, for example, I do not endorse going coat less in a dousing rain or hat less in a blistering sun, actions which would just be foolish and unsafe.

But wet feet once in a while can actually enhance the day outdoors, connect you to the trail or path you have chosen to follow and help create an all encompassing trail experience.

Trailer for Run Free – The Story of Caballo Blanco

Born to Run, the best selling book by Christopher McDougall, published in 2009, introduced readers to the enigmatic Caballo Blanco (the White Horse),

 Caballo Blanco in the CopperCanyon. Photo by Leslie Gaines.

aka Micah True who lived and ran in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. He was inspired by the native Tarahumara people who lived there and ran long distances just for fun. Micah True went on to host races in the Copper Canyon to bring revenue and support to these indigenous people. He died in 2012, while running in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.

A documentary is making its way across the festival circuit this year about this inspiring person who required little for himself all the while working to make the world better for others. The trailer has been released.

Trailer | Run Free – The Story of Caballo Blanco.

On the Trail: Another New Trail Shoe Trend

(originally appeared in Trail Walker, quarterly publication of the NY/NJ Trail Conference Spring 2015)

Extra thick soled hiking and trail running shoes are being promoted this Spring and hikers will even see extra thick hiking boots heavily advertised soon, as well. Some of these shoes, referred to as “maximalist” shoes, have soles that are more than three times as thick as even standard hiking and trail running shoes. While ‘maximalist’ shoes have been around for a few years, they were mostly a niche product available from the manufacturers on line or in independent outdoor gear stores. Now, national and regional retailers like REI and Campmor are even selling this unique type of shoes.

The maximalist trail shoes stand out primarily for one feature – mid-sole material almost 1.25 inches thick, often made of a proprietary mix of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) foam blended with rubber to create increased cushioning.

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

, like the famous Western States 100 mile race  (Karl Meltzer) and posting speed records on the Pacific Crest Trail (Heather “Anish Anderson”) and John Muir Trails (Liz Thomas).

Hikers, backpackers and ultra-marathoners have embraced these re-designed shoes for three reasons. First, the generous cushioning through the mid-sole layer of the shoes provides shock absorption whether running or hiking on the trail or on the road. Second, the shoes have either minimal “drop”, (the height difference between the heel and the forefoot), or, no ‘drop’ at all. Proponents of shoes with minimal or zero “drop” claim that they promote a natural gait with a less forceful impact and allow for a more efficient functioning of the achilles tendon. Third, the maximalist shoes, which now include mainstream brands such as Vasque, Brooks and Skechers, in addition to the two most popular brands, Hoka One One and Altra, generally have a wider and more anatomically shaped toe box. Altras have zero drop while Hoka Ones have a minimal drop.

A few years ago when shoe manufacturers promoted “barefoot” running and trail shoes, like Vibram Five Fingers, they cited research and quoted biomechanics experts supporting the shoes’ benefits. And, they maintained that their shoes hearkened back to our ancient hominid roots as barefoot walkers. Now, very few ‘maximalist’ companies are citing any research backing their claims and the thick soled shoes in no way mimic human ancient foot wear or ambulation. Yet, the shoes are catching on with elite and recreational trail runners and hikers. And some weekend hikers claim that these cushioned, low drop shoes with a lot of room for their toes, helped resolve nagging problems like heel pain and shin splints. One note of caution, thogh.  Theelevated  platform design of these shoes may prove unstable to anyone prone to ankle sprains. And, if you are getting good results with your current hiking shoes, than, no need to switch.

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On the Trail: Personal challenges and personal agency.

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

Six wild turkeys emerged from the wooded shadows into a clearing,  single file, variously walking on and sinking in to the foot of snow on the ground. Than another six than another dozen emerged, walking, sinking, moving slowly and circumspectly, stopping to forage among twigs branches and fallen tree trunks.

I had just finished running and walking among the same trails as these wild, ungainly birds. I knew a bit about the challenges they faced moving over uncertain and unwelcoming terrain, having sunk through the snow myself. Moving overland in the winter woods was laborious.

Today’s temperature was 20F, much warmer than last week’s low teens. But there was still a sense of accomplishment in managing the environment, wearing three layers instead of 4, one pair of gloves instead of two.

‘Manage the environment, don’t let the environment manage you’, an intrepid outdoors friend commented.

Humans have been struggling, and mostly succeeding, to manage their environment for thousands of years. And there is a satisfaction that comes with surviving frigid temperatures, avoiding hypothermia and frostbite and yet enjoying the out of doors, with its rich palette of colours, shapes and textures. It is the pleasure of matching personal agency against the challenges of the environment.

And we have largely mastered our environment, be it climbing tectonic uplifts soaring five miles into the hypoxic frigid sky, like Everest, or submerging to study thermal vents miles below the surface of the ocean, like the Marianas Trench, or, of course, the ultimate mastery by man- space exploration.

Yet assuming our personal agency always results in ‘mastery’ is a fallacy. It is a fallacy in the outdoors as witnessed by the many fatalities- Rob Lowe, dying on the cold shoulder of Everest moments after calling his wife in New Zealand to say ‘I love you’, Chris McCandless whose death by starvation trapped in the Alaskan back country was famously chronicled in the book ‘Into the Wild’, to name only two of hundreds, if not more.

And personal agency as ‘mastery’ is a fallacy in our day to day lives, as it only takes us so far. This is truest especially when faced with overwhelming challenges against which no one can prevail, not the smartest, the prettiest, not the wealthiest or the most accomplished, not the most important. No one.

In the test of man against nature, the latter always prevails. As for our personal agency, we can manage, or try to manage, our responses especially in the face of impending loss.  We can take small comfort that we have, at the least, participated in the process. The winter trail will test your ability to survive the inhospitable, the uninviting, the unnatural for us warm blooded, furless mammals. And it is that mere survival that makes the successful days on the hard packed snow among the barren trees and frozen ponds so gratifying, even as it gives a fleeting, albeit false, sense of invincibility.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Winter and the Big Bang

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

In a week riddled with more senseless and barbaric killings around the globe one small item of astrophysical import did not  garner much attention, even though it addressed the fundamental question of how the universe began.

The mercury began this morning in the teens when I awoke.  Dressed in layers I ran  to the nearby woods to see what I would see. In winter, all is hidden yet all is revealed. I saw no animals running about but only remnants of their activity from the day or night before. Squirrel tracks galore, raccoon and opossum prints, the occasional deer tracks and even the footprints of a family of mallards on the ice covered portion of the slow moving creek, webbed toes pointed toward open water. Two red tailed hawks and a great blue heron took off from their hidden perches, quickly, silently, vanishing like actors disappearing into the wings.

I ran a familiar route on snow and ice and came to the small pond, now frozen solid, a rare opportunity to walk out on the ice. The water is never deep here so the only risk would be wet and frigid feet if the ice cracked below. But it held.

The harsh frozen landscape seems ancient, as if it could exist for eternity, in contrast to Spring where flowers and their petals seem so fragile, even at the peak of their beauty. Winter conjures images of frozen planets in our solar system, or the frozen dark side of the moon, dry, seemingly lifeless. And thus winter makes me ponder the origins of our universe and the earth itself.

Professor Brian Koberrlein expanded on an article explaining how our universe did not necessarily begin with one defined singular moment, the ‘Big Bang’. Rather, the professor at Rochester Institute of Technology wrote in Physics Letters B, citing research from the University of Benha in Egypt and Letherbridge University in Alberta, Canada this month, the universe always existed and will always exist. A ‘big bang’ happened along the way, but that moment, referred to as “singularity” by astrophysicists, does not have to have been the first moment.

“Singularity”, one point from which all else emanates, is a comforting idea, and, we each can identify defining moments in our lives that marked a new beginning. But, outdoors in nature, peering down the snow covered trail that fades into a sun filled patina of white and ice, the infinite seems more real than the finite.

And I am glad to welcome “infinity” back into the model of how the universe began. The concept of timelessness helps frame our own travails and challenges. Whatever will be, the universe always was and always will be and we are a part of that timelessness. And while winter on the trail evinces a natural timeless quality, you can follow that same path in the Fall, or Summer, or Spring, and it will still take you to forever.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Ski shoeing, a mix of cross country and snow shoeing.

Ski-shoeing In the Altai Mountains (https://altaiskis.wordpress.com/, Nils Image)

Ski-shoeing In the Altai Mountains (https://altaiskis.wordpress.com/, Nils Image)

Thanks to ancestors of Mongolian horsemen and warriors who trace their lineage to Genghis Kahn, winter hikers do not have to choose between either cross country skiing or snow shoeing. Rather, they can benefit from the centuries of experience of the Altai people, the indigenous Chinese citizens of the Altai mountain range, bordering China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, who have mastered a hybrid form of winter snow travel, best described as “ski-shoeing”. This technique uses short and wide skis designed to enable walking up snowy hills as with snowshoes, but allows skiing downhill like with cross country skis yet enables sliding across level snow covered ground. And, ski-shoes, which are about 70-75% the length of traditional skis and weigh about 5-6 lbs. per pair, can break trail too.

The ski shoes, called Hoks, which means “skis” in the native Tuwa language of the Altai people, includes a fabric climbing ‘skin’ built in to the undersurface of the skis, as well as metal edges, commonly found on backcountry skis. The Altai Hok skis were designed to be more efficient than snow shoeing yet easy to learn even for non-skiers, Nils Larsen, president of Altai Skis, interviewed by phone from Curlew, WA, said. In fact, hikers can use their existing hiking or backpacking boot with the ski’s universal binding, or, use a cross-country ski boot with a different binding for increased control.

Altai Hok skis, front, and back, showing climbing skin (http://altaiskis.com/)

Altai Hok skis, front, and back, showing climbing skin (http://altaiskis.com/)

The Altai people have been using similar type skis for centuries or longer. They use horsehide, however, as the climbing skin, with the stiff hairs facing downhill to provide traction when climbing. The Hok skis use a similarly stiff but synthetic fabric. Unlike traditional cross country and down hill skis, the Altai people use only one pole, made of larch or birch wood, not two poles. Called a ‘tiak’ this one pole is held by both hands and dragged behind the skier to provide balance when skiing downhill. Larsen explained that using the one pole in this manner really improves stability. The pole is not used to propel the skier forward.

The Hoks could be used on as little as several inches of snow, Mr. Larsen said, and can be used to climb most hiking trails with the exception of thinly covered icy trails. They excel, though, in deeper snow. The Hoks can traverse exposed rocks but the skier has to walk over them like with snow-shoes. Compared to cross country skis, the Hoks are slower both on flat terrain and downhill, and they do not fit into groomed cross country tracks, Mr. Larsen said. But, he maintained, they are more efficient than snow shoes since the user can slide his foot forward each step instead of lifting it up. And, the shorter ski length makes the Hoks more maneuverable than longer skis when navigating around trees in wooded areas, he added.

The Altai people use their ski shoes for daily travel around their villages as well as tracking of Elk in their nearby forests. An Altai Elk hunt on ski shoes was well documented by National Geographic in their December 2013 issue (including some video footage of the Altai skiers nationalgeographic.com). Researchers suggest that short, wide skis lined with animal hair could date back thousands of years and may represent some of the earliest skis ever. Winter hikers may find that this simple design could enhance their winter adventures by making snow travel on the trail more efficient than with snow shoes and more versatile than with cross country skis.

Howard E. Friedman

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