I was only 7 years old when the several hundred shards of an early Australopithecus afarensis skeleton was discovered and carefully brushed out of an Ethiopian desert. Later, sometime in middle school or high school, we studied this early human, named Lucy, and I thought what a funny name to choose for a skeleton. First I had ‘Lucille Ball’, then “Lucy in the Sky”, and now an ancient partial skeleton as namesakes. By this point in my life, I was already well on my way to becoming the runner I would eventually be, but I was too early in my training to understand the significance of this early Lucy and the modern early Lucy I was. That she was found in Ethiopia—whose long distance running athletes I would soon be learning to admire, emulate and observe closely-- was also beyond my consciousness at that point. Having run since I was a little kid, I was already efficient and sort of a natural. The 3 million year old version of ourselves that had been found in 1974, had only just evolved to walking upright, so she wasn’t all that gainly, graceful or even adapted yet for running, let alone walking.
In the 3 million years that separate ‘Lucy” from my community of runners today, a lot has happened. The one I find most interesting, because when I am not running or coaching, I am an avid digester of anthropology, social psychology and culture, is how our ancient necessity to evolve into superior endurance runners in order to survive the mammals that we both wanted to eat and who were chasing us, is all but gone. These days we run because we can. (Or have to, for our declining health). For most of us lifelong runners, we run purely because it feels good. I am not running away from anything anymore. We all have used running to run away from our lives at times, to squash our fears and struggles as humans. We use running to overcome obstacles and self-doubts and bad days at the office. But this is only the metaphoric tiger lurking in the forest beside the trail.
So, if I’m not running away from anything, and I am not even running to something, why do I run? Sometimes I run towards a finish line, sometimes I run to catch my kid in a game of tag, but you know what I mean. It is not a matter of life or death, but for my current running ability I owe my ancestors of several million years ago: all those early humans who ran for several days just so they could eat some meat and survive to produce another generation of...well...runners.
Running efficiency, bare foot running, minimalist footwear, and biomechanics are the current issues facing the multitudes of new runners. But history is also so important and so fascinating. It seems that 500 years of civilization, industrialization and leather shoes, have all but undone the millions of years of evolution that created the naturally great runners out of humans.
While I didn’t have the good fortune to be born in the highlands of Ethiopia, I was lucky in that I born into the generation before Wal-Mart, cheap goods and really really cheap stiff as boards shoes. As a kid I was either in bare feet, tennis sneakers, or soft rubber soled Clarks. I really owe it my parents, for always putting me in flexible soled shoes when I was a kid and for letting me wander around the neighbourhood barefoot. Sure, I used to cut my feet on glass, step on nails and scrape them on barnacles, but I seemed to survive all this (with a few tetanus shots and a lot of wild smelling Dettol) and what’s more, I got the North American version of growing up barefoot.
As I grew older and my passion for running developed into a career, I had a program where I did a lot of barefoot running after run practices, doing drills, plyometrics and strides on the infield!
Obviously there are few more factors I can be thankful for, like my mum’s interest in growing her own vegetables, feeding us whole food, and the limited family budget that generally kept us out of fast food restaurants. But as far as developing into a good runner, the current research on barefoot running, human endurance, and efficiency I can’t help but think that all this barefoot running I did as a kid was a huge help, even if I didn’t have to run 10 miles to and from school every day, like those kids in Ethiopia did and maybe still do.
I believe in fundamentals, simplicity and form. Runners need to practice and maintain efficiency and natural functional strength of movement as they add volume and intensity to their training. I love passing on this joy in the form of graceful running and have developed the Run For Joy clinic around the basic principles of form and efficiency coupled with a positive mind set. In my Run For Joy clinic, I coach this strong, balanced, and efficient run posture, allow runners to connect with their natural core strength, and focus on a powerful and relaxed mind, body and stride. I have coached hundreds of kids, as I believe we teach kids ball and stick skills, game skills, sport skills, and we should teach basic run skills as well. I have coached hundreds of adults, hoping to pass on a few tidbits that will keep them out of injury, and more consistently happy with their running. It is such a simple sport, one you can do alone, or with a group, in any weather and at any time of day. Running can be your thing, or it can be part of your cardio vascular training for another activity. But however you do it, Run For Joy!
For more about Run for Joy clinics and more writing on the life of running, please visit my website!
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.