Thursday, August 20, 2009

Running the Tarahumara way.

Wendy and I are still up to our eyeballs in crazy. Yesterday was a funeral for my Grandfather who passed away this month at one hundred. This year also saw the passing of his wife, aged ninety-eight and my grandmother on my mother’s side at one hundred and five. It’s been a hard and busy year for my parents. After that we took the two and a half hour drive home, changed clothes and went to dinner with Wendy’s father and his girlfriend Nancy. A game of tennis broke out and twenty years of rust flaked off of Wendy’s and my skills. We still lost 3-6. Frowny face. I was eager like a puppy for two more sets but it was time for dinner.

Today was install another air conditioner, drop the RAV4 off at the garage twenty minutes away, jogging, go shopping, drop off stuff at the charity place, pick up a painting we had had repaired, pick up a necklace Wendy had made, go shopping, pick up the RAV4, write this, prepare for four guests for dinner. Most days are just like that. At least, they seem that way to me.

Two days ago while doing errands I swung into the dollar store for a pair of light shoes. Dock shoes? Deck shoes? Swimmies? Whatever you want to call them, they are a thin piece of rubber with flexible cloth that slides over your feet. Good for walking on a rocky ocean floor or a river or for keeping your balance on the deck of a boat. Not a lot of support, not a lot of weight, protection for the bottom of your feet.

If you remember my entry on the Tarahumara you remember me telling you they run further than anyone else on the planet as a way of life and they don’t have Nikes. They have old tires that they carve into soles and wrap under their feet with strips of cord around their ankle. No arch support, just protection for the bottom of the foot as you run.

I wanted to run like that. Today I did.

Try and remember how you walk across a gravel driveway. With sneakers on you slam your heel down and crunch forward striding easily across the rocks. Now walk that again with bare feet. You don’t walk heel first, you walk toes and balls of your feet first in case you encounter a sharp rock you can adjust weight or even place the foot elsewhere. This is how the human body is designed to walk and run. This is why we have the balls of our feet and an arch. The arch being supported is like putting a large iron support under a Roman archway and pushing up. You’re not helping anything; the arch is already perfectly designed.

Today I tried to run like the Tarahumara in my swimmies. It was quite the learning experience.

I started out running as normal and then switched to running on the balls of my feet. I felt like a ballerina, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I was sure that every person in every car that went by was thinking “Is that guy really flamboyantly gay? Or is there something wrong with him? Should we stop and help? Or maybe shout out the window something vile and derogatory?” (It is really tough to write this while trying to be politically correct. I mean, I have gay friends who are not flamboyant. They have no feminine qualities and unless they told you, you wouldn’t even guess their sexual preference. On the other hand, I have friends who are so feminine, gay and outrageous they are on fire. I feel like I am running like one of those friends. So, I want to write that people want to drive by and scream out “You run like a homo!” I don’t mean all homosexuals, just certain ones who actually do run like that. Or, you would imagine they would anyway.) Onward.

So I’m running like a ballerina and not enjoying it. Of course, I try to adjust and I keep going, trying to figure out how to get the new style to work right. I switch back into regular running just to see how it feels heel to toe in these flimsy shoes and immediately notice that I am smashing into the ground. No wonder people get injured this way. Focusing on it, I can feel the force of the ground traveling into my ankles, up to my knees and then pounding into my hips and back. Having run on the balls of my feet, I can now feel the difference.

I switch back to the Tarahumara way and work on being smoother. Not lifting my feet quite so high, not arching my feet so much that my heels are up in the air for so long on each step. After some more time running like this, it starts to feel more natural. My feet are landing with only an infinite split-second between the ball and then heel. Then I start to notice my calves are really burning. Yes, this method is definitely going to get my calves in shape very fast. I switch back to normal running and again, I am surprised by the pounding just thrumming through my body. I also discover that more air is forced out of the lungs when you run this way; which is a good thing actually, as I am getting quite winded. Your breathing is much deeper, probably because the pavement is kicking it out of you with each step.

After five minutes of this, I have more breath and my calves aren’t burning anymore so I switch to running on the balls of my feet again. I am now achieving a smooth, sliding step each time and feel much more natural. Again, the difference in force traveling through my body is gone. Not significantly reduced, but entirely gone! I feel like a primeval hunter, moving as swiftly and silently as he can to catch up to prey. I feel like Drizzt. I feel smooth, sure-footed… natural. I also feel as if someone would have to look hard at my running to notice any difference from a standard running style.

But my calves are on fire.

I switch back to “normal” running mode and let them rest. The pounding again assaults my body and again I can feel myself breathing easier, as if the force is helping me expel more air out of my lungs. I run normal for a bit then run the last half a mile the Tarahumara way. This time I notice that I don’t run slightly hunched over with this method, but instead run with my back straight, head up. In a bizarre twist, my left leg understands the way I am trying to run better than my right. My left leg swings forward lightly in a mastery of my new style. The right leg is doing it right, but not as smoothly, like it can’t seem to get the gait right or something. It feels like a prosthetic compared to the left. It feels separate from the rest of my body running this new way.

I love it. I end my run and walk over to the house and excitedly tell Wendy how it went.

It went amazing. It was nothing like what I expected, but so much more. So much more natural and enriching and just… correct. In other news, as I type this, five hours later, I have a small blister on the ball of my left foot. The right foot is fine. And my calves are still burning.


  1. You are insane. I love you man. I look forward to your next book "Running like an Indian"

    We watched Ultramarathon Man last night, the Dean Karnazes documentary. It was not at all what I expected. When he ran the first of his 50 marathons, he ran it as slowly as I ran mine, I figured he would be faster. However I was destroyed the next day, while he did 49 more in a row with no problems. The guy is truly Forrest Gump. After the 50th he decided he needed more so he ran halfway across the country. The guy ran at least 26.2 miles per day for 140 days straight.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Dean Karnazes is a freak. He's not human, he's a drop of quicksilver that doesn't ever stop moving. He's probably going last as long as Jack LaLane, which by my count will make him over 200 years old (Jack is, and likely will always be alive). So I guess what I'm saying is that Jamie, be more like Dean.

    I've also been on a Latin music kick these days, with a lot of Gypsy Kings, Buena Vista Social Club and Julieta Venegas.

    Julieta - Me Voy

    Good luck with the running thing.

  4. Hi Jamie,

    Yesterday I was looking for one of your last pieces from the dojo time, wondering if it coud be found anywhere on the web. It had been litteraly years since I last read something from you. After some googling, I came across your blog, and pretty soon I realized that many things had changed since the 90's.

    I was quite into magic at that time, and I have great memories of your tourney reports, because they were interesting, fun, and had that rare human quality. I didn't know where Vermont was, or what it was, yet I coud relate to most of the stuff you wrote.

    I am not a big believer in virtual friendships and living online. But yesterday, learning about the events in your life affected me in an unexpected way, a bit like news about an old friend who's been through tough times. Your writing certainly deserves credit for establishing this kind of connection, although regrettably it only works one-way :-)

    Anyway, cheers for your resilience, for still writing and starting over. And for the choice of Spain, a country I am fond of !


  5. This was a lovely read. It made me want to go out and give it a try.

    What are your thoughts now, a few days later?

  6. He's probably nursing two broken ankles!

  7. So far, all is still good! Going to bring my swimmies back to Madrid and keep running that way. Leaving tomorrow so more regular blog posts will resume.

    Thank you Olivier for the kind comments.

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  10. This WORKS!!!

    I watched the YouTube videos and tried my best to 'mimick' the Raramuri style.

    I did a run like that and added 32% to my distance, and stopped cause I was scared I may have 'overdone my run' and pushed too hard. Of course I hadn't.

    In hindsight - I could have gone another 32% more!

    It WORKS!

  11. I just found you piece after trying out the Tarahumara Style, stupidly or not so I tried it out during a 10 mile run, I've been plagued with a sore left knee and twinges in my shins and ankles. I couldn't believe how instantaneously changing to this style worked - it did slow my pace down having to think about it at first though. The next day my calves were solid and the balls of my feet were burning and pulsating so I didn't run but the day after ran another 3 miles in the same style and I will not go back now, its brill. Just need to sort out which barefoot trainers to get.

  12. Awesome Caroline. So glad this helped you. Oliver, thanks for the kind words, glad you're enjoying the blog.