Man versus Beast

Many people think being a runner is unnatural, even dangerous.  They probably have this perception after hearing stories about runners developing knee problems or back problems, even dying prematurely.  They argue that cars were invented so there is no need to run.

There is no way that a human could run as fast as a cheetah, which is the fastest animal with top speeds of 68-75 miles per hour.  But cheetahs are sprinters, not distance runners.  That is where humans have the advantage.

According to Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Biological Sciences at Harvard University, the anatomy of the human body has features that help endurance running.  Humans have spring-like arches in the feet, short toes, long tendons in the legs, large gluteus maximus muscles, and unusually large joints in the legs and spine.  Additionally, there is a ligament at the base of the skull that stabilizes the head when running.  The human body is not covered in fur like many animals and has lots of sweat glands so humans perform better in heat.  Cheetahs, like other cats and dogs, only have sweat glands in their paws and have to rely on panting to regulate their body temperature.  The bottom line is humans may not be built for speed but we are built to run long distances.  We just need to learn how to run and use our bodies as they were intended.

In the documentary “Fair Chase” ten elite distance runners went to New Mexico to prove that a human could run down an animal.  Their prey was the second fastest animal on earth, the pronghorn that can run up to 55 miles per hour.  They were trying to prove before the bow and arrow was invented, early man survived by using persistence hunting where a team of hunters track an animal over long distances.  The objective of persistence hunting is not to outrun the animal but to run it until it overheats.  At that point, the hunters can overtake and kill their prey.  Persistence hunting is still used today in Africa, Australia and parts of Mexico.  Amazingly, the runners in “Fair Chase” chased a buck for over 20 miles in temperatures upwards from 88 degrees before the buck disappeared into a herd.

Although the runners were not successful in taking down their prey, I don’t think that we can say that it would not be possible to run down an antelope.  The antelopes knew the terrain much better than the runners.  The runners also had to climb over barbed wire fences the antelopes easily jumped.  In the prehistoric times, there wouldn’t have been any barbed wire fences.  Fortunately for us, today we just need to hop in the car and drive to the nearest grocery to pick up dinner.  No running involved there.

If you want to try your endurance running skills against an animal, there are a few options.  First, there is the “Man vs Horse” race in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales every June where runners compete against horses on a 22-mile course.  The race has been held every year since 1980.  A human runner has only won twice –  in 2004 and 2007.  The other race is “Man Against Horse” in Prescott, Arizona held in October.  That race was started in 1983.  There are three distances – 12, 25 and 50 miles.  The 12-mile course is over rolling terrain while the 25-mile and 50-mile courses are more challenging, over steep rocky terrain, mountainous trails and back roads with elevation climbs of up to 7600 feet.  Weather can be at either extreme – sunny and warm to snow and hail.  Horses seem to be the overall winners in that race too.

While I have no desire to try racing an animal, I am glad to know that my body is designed to run all these marathons and half marathons that I do.   I don’t worry about knee problems or back problems.  In fact, I feel pretty good.   Yep, I am a marathon racing machine.

Professor Lieberman has co-authored a paper on endurance running with Dennis M. Bramble titled “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo.”  If you want to learn more about why humans are such good endurance runners, check it out.   

Outside Online published this article about the elite runners attempt to catch a pronghorn

Fair Chase was a very interesting film.  Here is a link to their web site.