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Chapter 15
The flesh about my body felt soft and relaxed, like an experiment in functional background music.

—RICHARD BRAUTIGAN, Trout Fishing in America“SUCH A SENSE of joy!” marveled Coach Vigil, who’d never seen anything like it, either. “Itquite remarkable.” Glee and determination are usually antagonistic emotions, yet theTara(was) humara were brimming with both at once, as if running to the death made them feel morealive.

Vigil had been furiously taking mental notes (Look how they point their toes down, not up, likegymnasts doing the floor exercise. And their backs! They could carry water buckets on their headswithout spilling a drop! How many years have I been telling my kids to straighten up and run fromthe gut like that?). But it was the smiles that really jolted him.

That’s it! Vigil thought, ecstatic. I found it!

Except he wasn’t sure what “it” was. The revelation he’d been hoping for was right in front of hiseyes, but he couldn’t quite grasp it; he could only catch the glim around the edges, like spotting thecover of a rare book in a candlelit library. But whatever “it” was, he knew it was exactly what hewas looking for.

Over the previous few years, Vigil had become convinced that the next leap forward in humanendurance would come from a dimension he dreaded getting into: character. Not the “character”

other coaches were always rah-rah-rah-ing about; Vigil wasn’t talking about “grit” or “hunger” or“the size of the fight in the dog.” In fact, he meant the exact opposite. Vigil’s notion of characterwasn’t toughness. It was compassion. Kindness. Love.

That’s right: love.

Vigil knew it sounded like hippie-dippy drivel, and make no mistake, he’d have been muchhappier sticking to good, hard, quantifiable stuff like VO2 max and periodized-training tables. Butafter spending nearly fifty years researching performance physiology, Vigil had reached theuncomfortable conclusion that all the easy questions had been answered; he was now learningmore and more about less and less. He could tell you exactly how much of a head start Kenyanteenagers had over Americans (eighteen thousand miles run in training). He’d discovered whythose Russian sprinters were leaping off ladders (besides strengthening lateral muscles, the traumateaches nerves to fire more rapidly, which decreases the odds of training injuries). He’d parsed thesecret of the Peruvian peasant diet (high altitude has a curious effect on metabolism), and he couldtalk for hours about the impact of a single percentage point in oxygen-consumption efficiency.

He’d figured out the body, so now it was on to the brain. Specifically: How do you make anyoneactually want to do any of this stuff? How do you flip the internal switch that changes us all backinto the Natural Born Runners we once were? Not just in history, but in our own lifetimes.

Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled at to slow down? Every game youplayed, you played at top speed, sprinting like crazy as you kicked cans, freed all, and attackedjungle outposts in your neighbors’ backyards. Half the fun of doing anything was doing it at recordpace, making it probably the last time in your life you’d ever be hassled for going too fast.

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running.

They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation.

Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we wereperfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion overwild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the firstdesigns? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle—behold, the RunningMan.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived andthrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find amate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to loverunning, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everythingwe sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires”—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. Wewere born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumarahave always known.

But the American approach—ugh. Rotten at its core. It was too artificial and grabby, Vigilbelieved, too much about getting stuff and getting it now: medals, Nike deals, a cute butt. It wasn’tart; it was business, a hard-nosed quid pro quo. No wonder so many people hated running; if youthought it was only a means to an end—an investment in becoming faster, skinnier, richer—thenwhy stick with it if you weren’t getting enough quo for your quid?

It wasn’t always like that—and when it wasn’t, we were awesome. Back in the ’70s, Americanmarathoners were a lot like the Tarahumara; they were a tribe of isolated outcasts, running for loveand relying on raw instinct and crude equipment. Slice the top off a ’70s running shoe, and youhad a sandal: the old Adidas and Onitsuka Tigers were just a flat sole and laces, with no motioncontrol, no arch support, no heel pad. The guys in the ’70s didn’t know enough to worry about“pronation” and “supination”; that fancy running-store jargon hadn’t even been invented yet.

Their training was as primitive as their shoes. They ran way too much: “We ran twice a day,sometimes three times,” Frank Shorter would recall. “All we did was run—run, eat, and sleep.”

They ran way too hard: “The modus operandi was to let a bunch of competitive guys have at eachother every day in a form of road rage,” one observer put it. And they were waaay too buddy-buddy for so-called competitors: “We liked running together,” recalled Bill Rodgers, a chieftain ofthe ’70s tribe and four-time Boston Marathon champ. “We had fun with it. It wasn’t a grind.”

They were so ignorant, they didn’t even realize they were supposed to be burned out, overtrained,and injured. Instead, they were fast; really fast. Frank Shorter won the ’72 Olympic marathon goldand the ’76 silver, Bill Rodgers was the No. I ranked marathoner in the world for three years, andAlberto Salazar won Boston, New York, and the Comrades ultramarathon. By the early ’80s, theGreater Boston Track Club had half a dozen guys who could run a 2:12 marathon. That’s six guys,in one amateur club, in one city. Twenty years later, you couldn’t find a single 2:12 marathoneranywhere in the country. The United States couldn’t even get one runner to meet the 2:14qualifying standard for the 2000 Olympics; only Rod DeHaven squeaked into the games under the2:15 “B” standard. He finished sixty-ninth.

So what happened? How did we go from leader of the pack to lost and left behind? It’s hard todetermine a single cause for any event in this complex world, of course, but forced to choose, theanswer is best summed up as follows:

$Sure, plenty of people will throw up excuses about Kenyans having some kind of mutant musclefiber, but this isn’t about why other people got faster; it’s about why we got slower. And the factis, American distance running went into a death spiral precisely when cash entered the equation.

The Olympics were opened to professionals after the 1984 Games, which meant running-shoecompanies could bring the distance-running savages out of the wilderness and onto the payrollreservation.

Vigil could smell the apocalypse coming, and he’d tried hard to warn his runners. “There are twogoddesses in your heart,” he told them. “The Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of Wealth.

Everyone thinks they need to get wealth first, and wisdom will come. So they concern themselveswith chasing money. But they have it backwards. You have to give your heart to the Goddess ofWisdom, give her all your love and attention, and the Goddess of Wealth will become jealous, andfollow you.” Ask nothing from your running, in other words, and you’ll get more than you everimagined.

Vigil wasn’t beating his chest about the purity of poverty, or fantasizing about a monastic order ofmoneyless marathoners. Shoot, he wasn’t even sure he had a handle on the problem, let alone thesolution. All he wanted was to find one Natural Born Runner—someone who ran for sheer joy,like an artist in the grip of inspiration—and study how he or she trained, lived, and thought.

Whatever that thinking was, maybe Vigil could transplant it back into American culture like anheirloom seedling and watch it grow wild again.

Vigil already had the perfect prototype. There was this Czech soldier, a gawky dweeb who ranwith such horrendous form that he looked “as if he’d just been stabbed through the heart,” as onesports-writer put it. But Emil Zatopek loved running so much that even when he was still a grunt inarmy boot camp, he used to grab a flashlight and go off on twenty-mile runs through the woods atnight.

In his combat boots.

In winter.

After a full day of infantry drills.

When the snow was too deep, Zatopek would jog in the tub on top of his dirty laundry, getting aresistance workout along with clean tighty whities. As soon as it thawed enough for him to getoutside, he’d go nuts; he’d run four hundred meters as fast as he could, over and over, for ninetyrepetitions, resting in between by jogging two hundred meters. By the time he was finished, he’ddone more than thirty-three miles of speedwork. Ask him his pace, and he’d shrug; he never timedhimself. To build explosiveness, he and his wife, Dana, used to play catch with a javelin, hurling itback and forth to each other across a soccer field like a long, lethal Frisbee. One of Zatopek’sfavorite workouts combined all his loves at once: he’d jog through the woods in his army bootswith his ever-loving wife riding on his back.

It was all a waste of time, of course. The Czechs were like the Zimbabwean bobsled team; theyhad no tradition, no coaching, no native talent, no chance of winning. But being counted out wasliberating; having nothing to lose left Zatopek free to try any way to win. Take his first marathon:

everyone knows the best way to build up to 26.2 miles is by running long, slow distances.

Everyone, that is, except Emil Zatopek; he did hundred- yard dashes instead.

“I already know how to go slow,” he reasoned. “I thought the point was to go fast.” His atroci............
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