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Reading ‘Born to Run’ in Mogadishu

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The book: Born to Run: The hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen, Christopher McDougall

The place: Mogadishu 

I am truly terrible at running. I have both the wrong shape and the wrong mentality for it (short legs, long torso; no stamina, inclined towards great bursts of energy and then lying down at length), and yet for about a year now, I have been running ‘seriously’ – by which I mean I am still rubbish at it, but I am trying very hard to get better. Very little about this is actually about running qua running, because running remains a truly unpleasant experience to put one’s (=my) body through. But I have this wrongheaded idea that pushing myself to do something for which I have no natural ability is Character Building, and I am … learning about persistence, or something?

Last December I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is the ultimate running book for a writer – but in some ways this book was more motivating, given that Murakami admits that he has the physique of a natural runner, while McDougall clearly does not. I get the impression that Murakami is leaping like a scholarly gazelle around various running tracks, whereas for me, running is a constant process of nagging, berating and cajoling my treacherous body into keeping going. It’s only been very recently – the past month or so – that I have ever managed to access that mythical ‘zone’ that runners talk about, where you enter a semi-trance and almost forget that you are running – of course that is much easier to do when you are running through a lovely verdant park in Scotland at 20 degrees than when you are running in an interminable series of figure-eights within a heavily-guarded Mogadishu compound at 35; in the latter case, simply not keeling over from heatstroke counts as an achievement.

I have found myself frantically gathering nuggets of advice and information and metaphor that are useful as motivation for a reluctant runner. Here are some of them.

  • The Blerch, from the Oatmeal’s The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances.
  • Murakami: “The total amount of running I’m doing might be going down, but at least I’m following one of my basic rules for training: I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load step by step, they learn to take it.” This may not be something that works for everyone, or perhaps even most people – but for me, following the Murakami Method is absolutely key. I don’t run every day but I do try and exercise every day, on the basis that, paradoxically, it is psychologically easier to do something physically challenging than something that’s just so-what. A halfhearted trot three times a week does nothing for me, either physically or psychologically.
  • In his book, McDougall asks, if human beings are (as he purports) designed to run, why do so many of us hate it so much? And apparently – in a physiological argument that makes a lot of sense to me – it’s a natural psychological response to unnecessary energy expenditure. Whenever you are running, your brain is all panicky, like WHY ARE WE DOING THIS! WE MIGHT NEED THIS ENERGY LATER, POSSIBLY TO OUTRUN A SABRETOOTH TIGER! SLOW DOWN IDIOT! For me, understanding what my poor benighted brain is trying to say to me is enormously helpful in getting it to quiet down. It’s OK, brain! We don’t have to outrun a sabretooth tiger, and we will replenish with food and water very soon! Just keep going a little longer!

Today, inspired by Ultrarunners, I ran barefoot, much to the amusement of the Somali guards (they find it amusing enough that all the resident gaalo run at all, even with shoes). An interesting experiment – you certainly run differently barefoot: more upright, straight-backed, balanced on the balls of the feet rather than hitting the ground with the heels. McDougall argues convincingly that the foot is a machine, minutely designed to adapt to the ground beneath it, and that running shoes prevent it from doing so, thus causing running injuries, rather than preventing them. I am not sure I 100% buy this, and I don’t have any problems with my feet (yet – if anything’s going to stop me running it’s going to be my ridiculous gangly clown-hips), but while I am only able to run in a fairly controlled environment, it’s perhaps worth a try. I shall see how it goes.



Where I wish I could be running: triumphal arch of some sort, downtown Mogadishu (as ever, seen through bulletproof glass)


Written by Jess

September 14, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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