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Chapter 27
I’D MET Eric the year before, right after I’d thrown off my running shoes in disgust and sprawledin an icy creek. I was hurt again—and for the last time, as far as I was concerned.

As soon as I’d gotten home from the Barrancas, I’d started putting Caballo’s lessons to work. Icouldn’t wait to lace up my shoes every afternoon and try to recapture the sensation I’d had in thehills of Creel, back when running behind Caballo made the miles feel so easy, light, smooth, andfast that I never wanted to stop. As I ran, I screened my mental film footage of Caballo in action,remembering the way he’d floated up the hills of Creel as if he were being abducted by aliens,somehow keeping everything relaxed except those bony elbows, which pumped for power like aRock’em-Sock’em Robot. For all his gangliness, Caballo on a trail reminded me of MuhammadAli in the ring: loose as wave-washed seaweed, with just a hint of ferocity ready to explode.

After two months, I’d built up to six miles a day with a ten-miler on the weekend. My form hadn’tgraduated to Smooth yet, but I was keeping the needle wavering pretty steadily between Easy andLight. I was getting a little anxious, though; no matter how gingerly I tried to take it, my legs werealready starting to rebel; that little flamethrower in my right foot was shooting out sparks and thebacks of both calves felt twangy, as if my Achilles tendons had been replaced with piano wire. Istocked up on stretching books and put in a dutiful half hour of loosening up before every run, butthe long shadow of Dr. Torg’s cortisone needle loomed over me.

By late spring, the time had come for a test. Thanks to a forest-ranger friend, I lucked into theperfect opportunity: a three-day fifty-mile running trip through Idaho’s River of No Return, twoand a half million acres of the most untouched wilderness in the continental U.S. The setup wasperfect: our supplies would be hauled by a mule packer, so all that I and the other four runners hadto do was kick up fifteen miles of dirt a day from campsite to campsite.

“I really didn’t know anything about the woods till I came to Idaho,” Jenni Blake began, as she ledus down a thin wisp of a dirt trail winding through the junipers. Watching her flow over the trailwith such teenage strength, it was hard to believe that nearly twenty years had passed since herarrival; at thirty-eight, Jenni still has the blonde bangs, winsome blue eyes, and lean, tan limbs of acollege frosh on summer break. Oddly, though, she’s more of a carefree kid now than she wasback then.

“I was bulimic in college and had a terrible self-image, until I found myself out here,” Jenni said.

She came as a summer volunteer, and was immediately loaded with a lumberjack saw and twoweeks of food and pointed toward the backcountry to go clear trails. She nearly buckled under theweight of the backpack, but she kept her doubts to herself and set off, alone, into the woods.

At dawn, she’d pull on sneakers and nothing else, then set off for long runs through the woods, therising sun warming her naked body. “I’d be out here for weeks at a time by myself,” Jenniexplained. “No one could see me, so I’d just go and go and go. It was the most fantastic feelingyou can imagine.” She didn’t need a watch or a route; she judged her speed by the tickle of windon her skin, and kept racing along the pine-needled trails until her legs and lungs begged her tohead back to camp.

Jenni has been hard-core ever since, running long miles even when Idaho is blanketed by snow.

Maybe she’s self-medicating against deep-seated problems, but maybe (to paraphrase Bill Clinton)there was never anything wrong with Jenni that couldn’t be fixed by what’s right with Jenni.

————Yet when I winced my way down the final downhill leg three days later, I could barely walk. Ihobbled into the creek and sat there, simmering and wondering what was wrong with me. It hadtaken me three days to run the same distance as Caballo’s racecourse, and I’d ended up with oneAchilles tear, maybe two, and a pain in my heel that felt suspiciously like the vampire bite ofrunning injuries: plantar fasciitis.

Once PF sinks its fangs into your heels, you’re in danger of being infected for life. Check anyrunning-related message board, and you’re guaranteed to find a batch of beseeching threads fromPF sufferers begging for a cure. Everyone is quick to suggest the same remedies—night splints,elastic socks, ultrasound, electroshock, cortisone, orthotics—but the messages keep comingbecause none of them really seems to work.

But how come Caballo could hammer descents longer than the Grand Canyon in crappy oldsandals, while I couldn’t manage a few easy months of miles without a major breakdown? WiltChamberlain, all seven feet one inch and 275 pounds of him, had no problem running a 50-mileultra when he was sixty years old after his knees had survived a lifetime of basketball. Hell, aNorwegian sailor named Mensen Ernst barely even remembered what dry land felt like when hecame ashore back in 1832, but he still managed to run all the way from Paris to Moscow to win abet, averaging one hundred thirty miles a day for fourteen days, wearing God only knows whatkind of clodhoppers on God only knows what kind of roads.

And Mensen was just cracking his knuckles before getting down to serious business: he then ranfrom Constantinople to Calcutta, trotting ninety miles a day for two straight months. Not that hedidn’t feel it; Mensen had to rest three whole days before beginning the 5,400-mile jog backhome. So how come Mensen never got plantar fasciitis? He couldn’t have, because his legs were inexcellent shape a year later when dysentery killed him as he tried to run all the way to the sourceof the Nile.

Everywhere I looked, little pockets of superrunning savants seemed to emerge from the shadows.

Just a few miles away from me in Maryland, thirteen-year-old Mackenzie Riford was happilyrunning the JFK 50-miler with her mom (“It was fun!”), while Jack Kirk—a.k.a. “the DipseaDemon”—was still running the hellacious Dipsea Trail Race at age ninety-six. The race beginswith a 671-step cliffside climb, which means a man nearly half as old as America was climbing afifty-story staircase before running off into the woods. “You don’t stop running because you getold,” said the Demon. “You get old because you stop running.”

So what was I missing? I was in worse shape now than when I’d started; not only couldn’t I racewith the Tarahumara, I doubted my PF-inflamed feet could even get me to the starting line.

“You’re like everyone else,” Eric Orton told me. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

A few weeks after my Idaho debacle, I’d gone to interview Eric for a magazine assignment. As anadventure-sports coach in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the former fitness director for theUniversity of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Eric’s specialty is tearing endurance sports downto their integral movements and finding transferable skills. He’d study rock climbing to findshoulder techniques for kayakers, and apply Nordic skiing’s smooth propulsion to mountainbiking. What he’s really looking for are basic engineering principles; he’s convinced that the nextgreat advance in fitness will come not from training or technology, but technique—the athlete whoavoids injury will be the one who leaves the competition behind.

He’d read my article about Caballo and the Tarahumara and was intensely curious to hear more.

“What the Tarahumara do is pure body art,” he said. “No one else on the planet has made such avirtue out of self-propulsion.” Eric had been fascinated with the Tarahumara since an athlete he’dtrained for Leadville returned with amazing stories about fantastic Indians flying through theDruidic dusk in sandals and robes. Eric scoured libraries for books on the Tarahumara, but all hefound were some anthropological texts from the ’50s and an amateur account by a husband-andwifeteam who’d traveled through Mexico in their camper. It was a mystifying gap in sportsliterature; distance running is the world’s No. I participation sport, but almost nothing had beenwritten about its No. I practitioners.

“Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s really as nuanced as any other activity,” Eric toldme. “Ask most people and they’ll say, ‘People just run the way they run.’ That’s ridiculous. Doeseveryone just swim the way they swim?” For every other sport, lessons are fundamental; you don’tgo out and start slashing away with a golf club or sliding down a mountain on skis until someonetakes you through the steps and teaches you proper form. If not, inefficiency is guaranteed andinjury is inevitable.

“Running is the same way,” Eric explained. “Learn it wrong, and you’ll never know how good itcan feel.” He grilled me for details about the race I’d seen at the Tarahumara school. (“The littlewooden ball,” he mused. “The way they learn to run by kicking it; that can’t be an accident.”)Then he offered me a deal; he’d get me ready for Caballo’s race, and in return, I’d vouch for himwith Caballo.

“If this race comes off, we have to be there,” Eric urged. “It’ll be the greatest ultra of all time.”

“I just don’t think I’m built for running fifty miles,” I said.

“Everyone is built for running,” he said.

“Every time I up my miles, I break down.”

“You won’t this time.”

“Should I get the orthotics?”

“Forget the orthotics.”

I was dubious, but Eric’s absolute confidence was winning me over. “I should probably cut weightfirst to make it easier on my legs.”

“Your diet will change all by itself. Wait and see.”

“How about yoga? That’ll help, yeah?”

“Forget yoga. Every runner I know who does yoga gets hurt.”

This was sounding better all the time. “You really think I can do it?”

“Here’s the truth,” Eric said. “You’ve got zero margin of error. But you can do it.” I’d have toforget everything I knew about running and start over from the beginning.

“Get ready to go back in time,” Eric said. “You’re going tribal.”

A few weeks later, a man with a right leg twisted below the knee limped toward me carrying arope. He looped the rope around my waist and pulled it taut. “Go!” he shouted.

I bent against the rope, churning my legs as I dragged him forward. He released the rope, and Ishot off. “Good,” the man said. “Whenever you run, remember that feeling of straining against therope. It’ll keep your feet under your body, your hips driving straight ahead, and your heels out ofthe picture.”

Eric had recommended I begin my tribal makeover by heading down to Virginia to apprenticemyself to Ken Mierke, an exercise physiologist and world champion triathlete whose musculardystrophy forced him to squeeze every possible bit of economy out of his running style. “I’mliving proof of God’s sense of humor,” Ken likes to say. “I was an obese kid with a drop footwhose dad lived for sports. So as an overweight Jerry’s Kid, I was way slower than everyone Iever played against. I learned to examine everything and find a better way.”

In basketball Ken couldn’t drive the lane, so he practiced three-pointers and a deadly hook shot.

He couldn’t chase a quarterback or shake a safety, but he studied body angles and lines of attackand became a formidable left tackle. He couldn’t outsprint a cross-court volley, so in tennis hedeveloped a ferocious serve and service return. “If I couldn’t outrun you, I’d outthink you,” hesays. “I’d find your weakness and make it my strength.”

Because of the withered calf muscles in his right leg, when he began to compete in triathalons Kencould only run with a heavy shoe he’d built from a Rollerblade boot and a leaf spring. That puthim at a substantial weight disadvantage to the amputee athletes in the physically challengeddivision, so ramping up his energy efficiency to compensate for his seven-pound shoes could makea huge difference.

Ken got a stack of videos of Kenyan runners and ran through them frame by frame. After hours ofviewing, he struck by revelation: the greatest marathoners in the world run likekindergartners.“W(was) atchkidsata(a) playground running around. Their feet land right under them, andthey push back,” Ken said. “Kenyans do the same thing. The way they ran barefoot growing up isastonishingly similar to how they run now—and astonishingly different from how Americans run.”

Grabbing a pad and pen, Ken went back through the tapes and jotted down all the components of aKenyan stride. Then he went looking for guinea pigs.

Fortunately, Ken had already begun doing physiological testing on triathletes as part of hiskinesiology studies at Virginia Polytechnic, that gave him to a lot of athletes toexperimenton.Runnerswouldhavebeenresistan(so) ttohavingsomeonetin(access) ker with their stride, butIronmen are up for anything. “Triathletes are very forward thinking,” Ken explains. “It’s a youngsport, so it’s not mired in tradition. Back in 1988, triathletes started to use aero bars on their bikesand cyclists mocked them mercilessly—until Greg Lemond used one and won the Tour de Franceby eight seconds.”

Ken’s first test subject was Alan Melvin, a world-class Masters triathlete in his sixties. First, Kenset a baseline by having Melvin run four hundred meters full out. Then he clipped a small electricmetronome to his T-shirt.

“What’s this for?”

“Set it for one hundred eighty beats a minute, then run to the beat.”


“Kenyans have superquick foot turnover,” Ken said. “Quick, light leg contractions are moreeconomical than big, forceful ones.”

“I don’t get it,” Alan said. “Don’t I want a longer stride, not a shorter one?”

“Let me ask you this,” Ken replied. “You ever see one of those barefoot guys in a 10K race?”

“Yeah. It’s like they’re running on hot coals.”

“You ever beat one of those barefoot guys?”

Alan reflected. “Good point.”

After practicing for five months, Alan came back for another round of testing. He ran four one-mile repeats, and every lap of the track was faster than his previous four hundred-meter best. “Thiswas someone who’d been running for forty years and was already Top Ten in his age group,” Kenpointed out. “This wasn’t the improvement of a beginner. In fact, as a sixty-two-year-old athlete,he should have been declining.”

Ken was working on himself, as well. He’d been such a weak runner that in his best triathlon todate, he’d come off the bike with a ten-minute lead and still lost. Within a year of creating his newtechnique in 1997, Ken became unbeatable, winning the world disabled championship the next twoyears in a row. Once word got out that Ken had figured out a way to run that was not only fast butgentle on the legs, other triathletes began hiring him as their coach. Ken went on to train elevennational champions and built up a roster of more than one hundred athletes.

Convinced that he’d rediscovered an ancient art, Ken named his style Evolution Running.

Coincidentally, two other barefoot-style running methods were popping up around the same time.

“Chi Running,” based on the balance and minimalism of tai chi, began taking off in San Francisco,while Dr. Nicholas Romanov, a Russian exercise physiologist based in Florida, was teaching hisPOSE Method. The surge in minimalism did not arise through copying or cross-pollination;instead, it seemed to be testament to the urgent need for a response to the running-injury epidemic,and the pure mechanical logic of, as Barefoot Ted would call it, “the bricolage of barefooting”—the elegance of a less-is-more cure.

But a simple system isn’t necessarily simple to learn, as I found out when Ken Mierke filmed mein action. My mind was registering easy, light, and smooth, but the video showed I was stillbobbing up and down while bending forward like I was leaning into a hurricane. My ease withCaballo’s style, Ken explained, had been my mistake.

“When I teach this technique and ask someone how it feels, if they say ‘Great!,’ I go ‘Damn!’ Thatmeans they didn’t change a thing. The change should be awkward. You should go t............
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