ad astra per alia porci


its the attitude, stupid (ok the shoes too, but less so)

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

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If school was not in the way,  I would have finished Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run in a single sitting. I have never been so thoroughly gripped by a book since Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

Exhilarating and attention-grabbing from start to finish, Born To Run reads exactly same way as its subject matter: the excitement, joy and secrets of running. McDougall leads the reader on a scintillating journey (or rather, run) to discover the running secrets of the Tarahumara and the enlightened few who in their own ways found their own secret philosophy of running, like Conrad’s Marlowe on steroids, only with much more optimism and genuine curiosity. Characters from nerdy sports science researchers to the colourful Tarahumara Indian runners, and of course, the crazed and eccentric Caballo Blanco, flit in and out of McDougall’s narrative. McDougall meshes adventure story and a sociologist’s diary with fitness science investigative drama and snippets from the History Channel, and the result is one rocking oddball of a read that serves to inspire even the non-runner.

The one recurring message this book constantly expresses is heart. Running used to be done for its own sake, as a reflection of innocent love and joy, as well as necessity. Unfortunately modern attitudes to running has sharply deviated from its original purpose and goal. Today most of us run because we have ancillary motives, like a desire to avoid an early death or obtain a good figure or to put an end to persistent nagging by others.

And this is what makes running so painful and hard to do for modern men. The “get it over and done” attitude translates to a whole sports industry that focuses on relieving and minimising the runner’s pain and coddling runners from the effects of running. It demeans the activity and the sports goods industry has milked it for all its worth. Sport shoes are designed and repackaged all the time, for no apparently good reason other than to make more profit from consumers who want “the best” for themselves. Ironically this has the effect of making us weaker runners and propagating a whole host of running injuries that were almost never heard of in the context of our primitive ancestors.

A larger observation can be made of human activities in general. Just as how running ceases to be meaningful and joyful once ancillary motives take the place of its intrinsic value, the same can be said of almost anything we do. Is it any wonder why most people hate their jobs? Or why hobbies cease to be pleasurable once one converts it into a career?

It is interesting to see how running and sport in general can be a larger analogy of life. Our own perspectives on our chosen (or rejected) sport is itself a larger reflection on our larger point of view on life. I agree with McDougall when he opined that runners are the happiest and most beautiful people in the world. It is no coincidence that athletes require little makeup to look really good and city people are more depressed than the rural folk. What we do has a curious ability to in turn affect our world view, and vice versa.

Sadly this is not so when it comes to modern attitudes on running. Once an intrinsic element of human life, running has been relegated to merely an optional activity which only “hardcore” workout people or those with time on their hands can engage in. To most, it is a needless pain. Physical prowess is often seen as a secondary and less desirable trait in comparison to mental competency and social skills in our society, and this probably affects social perception of running and other valuable physical activities.

It is a shame. I believe that there is something pure and tangible in running that we cannot derive from other things in life. A run has an end and finishing line, and if you fail to meet the timing, you fail to meet the timing. Things are obvious, innocent and clear. Unlike the tiring and shifting world of human relations and emotions where one never knows what till happen and has to deal with the unsavoury aspects of human character, running is pure and simple.

As a law student, running has a special attraction to me. One standing trend of anything I study in law is the defeasibility of any argument and principle. One can argue for a position, but one must realise that this position is almost always defeasible, either by the opponent’s argument, the teacher’s criticisms or the judge’s final opinion. There is simple no certainty at all.

To this, add the myriad of characters that filter in and out of your life. I am a poor reader of character and I tend to trust people too much. Sometimes this trust results in disappointment. You never know who to trust and who will turn out not to be a friend in the end.

Running is a welcome relief and escape from this uncertain world of smokes and mirrors. Through running, I metaphorically and spiritually run away from my problems. Running helps me sort out my thoughts. Running grounds my life with some certainty; there is no doubt that ten kilometres is ten kilometres and the watch does not lie. If I had a good workout, I had a good workout. If I did not, I simply did not.

That said, I am not the best runner at all, whether in terms of speed, endurance or even heart. I have my off days and sometimes I lose the motivation to even put on my shoes and go for a really short jog.

Which explains why this book has such a hold on me. It provides me with glimpses into the attitudes of others, which I can strive to emulate and learn from. And for this, I am deeply grateful to McDougall for penning such a life-affirming book.

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