Run, fitness, fatness, run some more

Week 36 of the column, in which I stare at myself naked in the mirror, crying:

The Rarámuri are an indigenous people who live in the mountains northwestern Mexico, in the Sierra Madre. They didn’t always live here – this is where they fled to when the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, and their remote location kept them safe from harm and from many attempts by various agents of ‘civilisation’ to homogenise their culture. It would appear that it was a wise move as many of their customs and traditions remain intact, such as the tesgüinadas, a sort of beer festival that they hold several times a year. Much of their social activity revolves around the tesgüinadas, which they hold to ask for rain, cures, or a good harvest. They also hold these festivals to mark Sunday gatherings, Holy Week celebrations, and curiously enough, race events. Despite having a thriving drinking culture, the most notable aspect of the Rarámuri is their ability to run – in fact the word Rarámuri, their own term for themselves, means those who run fast. While they do run fast, it is the distance they can run that is remarkable, as they seem to be natural-born ultramarathon runners. In May last year a 22-year-old Rarámuri girl, wearing a skirt, homemade flip-flops with an old rubber tyre for the sole, won the Ultra Trail Cerro Rojo, a 50-kilometre race through the mountains. María Lorena Ramírez had no special equipment, just a bottle of water, and she beat 500 runners from 12 countries. The year before, the goatherd came second in the 100-kilometer category of the Caballo Blanco ultramarathon in Chihuahua. But the success of the Rarámuri isn’t just about terrain – last November a Rarámuri family were finalists in the Polar Bear Marathon in Manitoba, Canada, where the temperature hit minus 20 C.

The Rarámuri are a reminder of the role running has had in human history, how we were able to use it to run from danger, chase down prey, and now, as we slowly eat and drink ourselves to death, it could be what saves us all.

I hated running, but I loved exercise. I started going to gyms two decades ago, and since then there were very periods when I did not train at least three times a week. While most people enjoy the social aspects of team sports, I loved the solitude of the gym, with my headphones on, working through stress and calories at the same time. But running was torture. About six years ago I realised that with a young family, the early morning was the best time to exercise, and that I would need to find a way to do it that was time-efficient, and non-dependant on gym opening times. I would, I realised, have to start running.

So I would be out pounding the road at about 5am. People used to look at me funny when I would tell them this – and, to be honest, when I would encounter another runner I would often think ‘what’s that quarehawk up to at this time of the morning?’ But in running I found a peace that I never found in gyms. Out there, with no-one around, I was all alone with my thoughts, in rain or ice or snow, hammering at the roads and enjoying the loneliness of the short-to-medium distance runner. I never ran more than five or six kilometres, and if I didn’t feel great, I would run slowly (or walk quickly), like you do in the office when someone holds a door open for you but are a bit too far away to it be be more mannerly than annoying.

While running may feel like torture when you start, you adapt very quickly, as you feel the athletic abilities hardwired in your DNA kicking in. Running is part of who we are.

There’s an old (scientifically inaccurate) analogy about boiling frogs – that if you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out. But if you put it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will sit there until it cooks. Gradual change doesn’t feel like change at all. And so it has come to my attention that I have put on weight. Over the last two years I stopped exercising. A change in work patterns and a slight injury to my hip saw my gym attendance and running both dwindle and eventually stop. Then, the final nail in my oversized coffin, I started driving everywhere. My relationship with food and drink changed, as sought more comfort in both than I should have. Life is like a box of chocolates – thanks to those little cards telling you what each sweet is, you know exactly what you are going to get, and if you eat too many, you’re probably going to get diabetes. I haven’t got it, but if I keep going the way I am, it’s only a matter of time.

All this has came to a head with me asking my wife if she had been using the tumble dryer more than usual as I thought my jeans might have shrunk. After she had stopped laughing and realised it was a genuine question, she pointed out that I was just getting old, and maybe it was time to get some more elasticated waistbands. Over my flabby body, I thought to myself. So it is that I face into the new year with the same resolution as everyone else – to live a little better, and a little bit more like the Rarámuri.

Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run, in which he spends time with the Rarámuri and tries to unlock their secrets, is a good inspiration. We may not all have their innate ability, but we can certainly learn a lot from their attitude to running. They don’t do it to win, they do it because they love it. They run in groups more than they do alone – the plethora of athletics clubs here would suggest this applies to all of us – and they also love those beer festivals – anyone who has witnessed an athletic club’s Christmas drinks will know that they aren’t exactly puritans. Neither do the Rarámuri need any high tech gear – you don’t need to break the bank to get state of the art trainers. When I started running I wore a pair of trainers I bought in Heatons for less than 20 euro. When I wore out the soles in them, I went back and bought another. Granted they may seem like high end equipment to a people who run in flip flops made from old tyres, but it shows that once you have the will, a high vis vest and a bottle of water, you can go at 2018 like Forrest Gump.

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