"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thinking Aloud 3: running communities

The Tarahumara came to the world's attention during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The host nation had an indigenous tribe with their own sport that involved kicking a ball for 150-300 kilometers on mountainous trails. It was assumed that they could be converted into marathoners with little difficulty; as it happens, they had culture shock (rich foods, synthetic fabric uniforms, language barrier, etc.) and could not grasp the idea of running very fast for very short distances like the marathon. They have since had some notable performances in 100 mile trail races, especially in hot mountainous areas.

There were some widely-read reports of the tribe in the 1970's in Natural History and Runner's World. The Tarahumara were reported to have a diet that consisted mostly of corn, beans and common vegetables. On their long runs, they ate only pinole, which is ground dry-roasted corn; the preparation of this transportable and durable food converts the starches into maltodextrin and the carbohydrate is matched with 11% fat and 12-13% protein, high levels of potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and some sodium, calcium, zinc and iron - favorable to many commercially available products for endurance runners.

A study of the Tarahumara diet in the 1990's shows that the early reports of low calorie consumption (and reports of unusual longevity) was erroneous or had changed. There have been many changes in their lives recently. The railroad through their native Copper Canyon, which is in actuality six canyons with a total area four times the size of the Grand Canyon, started in the late 1800's, was finally completed in the 1960's. The rugged, sparsely-populated land was briefly a favorite route for drug smugglers. Crop failures led to starvation, emigration to cities and the government introducing soybeans to their diet. The report of their diet has an average young man of 5'4" and 130-135 lbs consuming 2800-2850 calories per day, with all nutrients in WHO acceptable ranges (I cannot see how they manage 1 microgram per day of vitamin B-12 when their animal food sources consist of 2 eggs per week and chicken or goat once monthly). This "modern" diet is remarkably high in calories (21.5 kcal/lb.), but the typical Tarahumara man walks or runs 10-15 miles per day in mountains every day and the subset of the tribe who run have very low percentages of body fat, though they tend to be quite stocky compared to Olympic-caliber marathoners. Among other traits seen as unusual among runners, they create their own shoes, huaraches, from discarded automobile tires and they frequently smoke ceremonially before runs.

A second group of famous ultramarathoners are the Tendai Buddhist monks of Mt. Hiei near Nagano, Japan, which, like the Tarahumara, came to prominence when the Olympics were held nearby. In their practice, monks in their first year complete 26 miles per day on a trail on Mt. Hiei for 100 consecutive days - hence their nickname of "Marathon Monks." By the sixth year, they are running 54 miles per day for 100 consecutive days. They, like the Tarahumara, make their own shoes, in this case, from braided rope. Their daily runs include stops for 100 ritual prayers and they bring no food with them (they do carry a knife; reportedly, they are expected to commit suicide if they do not complete their run - one monk famously cut off an injured toe to continue his run). Their diet, from sketchy reports, appears to resemble the Okinawan diet, largely a thin noodle soup and cooked vegetables.

There is another similar group of monks, the lung-gom-pa of Tibet, about whom very little information is available. The common report of those who have seen one is that they run with a "1000 yard stare" as they appear to run in a trance state - much as the great Greek ultramarathoner Yiannis Kouros is reported to do. Kouros also maintains a diet that is almost vegetarian and is extremely high in carbohydrates.

Next: where the high-carb diet for runners starts to fall apart

1 comment:

Joel said...


You've read Born to Run? Certain you have. I'm in the middle and can't believe how much I like it. Experimenting with barefoot right now.
Maybe a solution to all your injuries?