Sunday, January 27, 2013

Indian running: the remarkable history and achievements of Native American long-distance runners

A Review of Peter Nabokov,  Indian Running, Native American History & Tradition.  Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1981.

For better or worse, Chris McDougall’s Born To Run has ensured that the Tarahumara will never again enjoy the status of a “secret” tribe of running prodigies hidden in the canyons of Mexico.   Some twenty-five years before McDougall’s bestseller, Peter Nabokov also wrote about the Tarahumara’s running prowess. He presents them not as freakish extremes, but as part of a continuum, one expression of a long tradition of Indian running that extended across two continents.

Nabokov invites us to imagine North and South America before the arrival of Europeans as a New World of runners.  From the Arctic to what is now Argentina, the landscape is networked by countless thousands of trails, paths, and roads.  The network extends through the deciduous forests of the Northeast, across the great plains of North America, through the mountains and deserts of the Southwest, through the jungles of Central America and Brazil, and up and down the Pacific coasts of both continents.  Travelling over this landscape, sometimes for journeys of days and many hundreds of miles, are not horses, but light-stepping, supremely fit human runners.   They run as couriers, connecting tribes separated by vast distances, facilitating trade or carrying vital intelligence in times of war.  They run to hunt, tracking deer or antelope for hours until the exhausted animal can be smothered by bare hands.  Men run, women run, children and the old all run.  They run at set times during the year, to mark the movement of seasons, to celebrate and give thanks.  They run for competition and sport, to ensure a good hunt or a good harvest,  to ensure good health, to access altered states of consciousness, to be connected with the sources of power in nature--sun, moon, gods, animals, wind, river, sky.    

What we know of these traditions has for the most part survived only in fragments, reports, stories. Hernan Cortes wrote that within 24 hours of his landfall, a coordinated system of runners had relayed the news to Montezuma, 260 miles away.  In 1690, a mysterious millenarian leader named Po’pay organized a group of runners to fan out from the Taos Pueblo to villages across what is now New Mexico and Arizona. Carrying knotted cords to mark time, the runners triggered a simultaneous uprising across hundreds of miles, banishing the Spanish, temporarily, from the region.  In 1903, 60 runners approached the Zuni Pueblo carrying bundles of sacred reads and holding live tortoises; they had reportedly been involved in this ritual run for four days and for some 120 miles. Surviving into the twentieth century were running competitions such as the kick-stick races of the Southwest, the “world around” races of Plains Indians, and the astonishing log-carrying races in the Brazilian jungle.  

Nabokov is interested not so much in times and distances, the outward manifestations of running, as he is in the inner experience it represents, the “record of human consciousness.”  He quotes the advice of a blind elder: “Keep your gaze fixed on that mountain, and you will feel the miles melt beneath your feet.  Do this, and in time you will feel as if you can leap over bushes, trees, and even the river.”  He describes the work of anthropologist Thomas Buckley with the Yurok of northern California.   Among the Yurok, select groups of runners would live in a sort of monk-like retreat, where they learned esoteric techniques for gaining power over themselves and nature.  Yurok runners followed a specialized diet, and underwent grueling training, for example carrying the equivalent of “small boulders” up 3000 foot ascents.  

Mental training for Yurok runners was, if anything, even more challenging.  A runner would learn to “cultivate an extra sensory relationship with the trail, through singing to it, addressing it.  He was taught to make room for it, to receive the trail as a being, letting it dictate the run.  It was as though the trail was running out behind him and under him by itself.” To reach this state, he would practice running with closed eyes, letting the trail guide him.  (I tried this morning to emulate the exercise during my run on a flat straight asphalt trail--and panicked after about 5 seconds of running with closed eyes.  To do this on a rocky or woodland trail is unimaginable.)

A fascinating yet melancholy coda to Nabokov’s book is provided by a final chapter about Indian participation in the world of white athletics.   There is the account of Tom Longboat, an Onondaga Indian who on an unseasonably cold day won--and smashed the record--at the 1907 Boston Marathon.   There is the story of Louis Tewanima, a Hopi, who won a “half-marathon” in 1911 in New York City, as well as the 1925 Bunion Derby.  Longboat and Tewanina did not flourish in their lives after running, and this sad decline seemed to be a pattern for many of the athletes described in this chapter.  

A persistent theme throughout the final chapter and the book as a whole is the mismatch between Indian reasons for running and the narrower imperatives of Western-style competition. “Observers are surprised when the Tarahumara who wins a two-day race for his team walks away virtually ignored” (83).  A race is a sort of banquet.  All participate, and no special award goes to the person who happens to eat the most.  Explanations are “almost beside the point.”  It makes one deeply skeptical about the supposedly “universal” values of the International Olympiad.

For all the fascination of its contents, this is not a compulsively page-turning book.  There are times when Nabokov’s almost willful refusal to offer analysis or explanation, or to construct a narrative, can be utterly maddening.  He provides a very loose narrative scaffolding around an account of the 375 mile Tricentennial Run held by the Pueblos of New Mexico in August, 1980, to celebrate Po’pay’s 1680 uprising.  But this story is told inconsistently and in fragments.  A welter of details--sometimes introduced utterly without any sort of transition--overwhelms any sense of narrative progression.  Nor is this book, Nabokov asserts, meant to be scholarly treatise.  Sensitive to a history of Western impositions of meaning on Indian culture, he shies away from pursuing any thesis about why and how North and South America became continents of runners.   

Readers hoping for anything like McDougall’s entertaining hyperbole and chummy brand of gonzo journalism will probably be disappointed by Nabokov’s account (confession: I’ve read Born to Run twice).   But Indian Running in the end provides something far more substantial, lasting and deeply satisfying.  Among my favorite passages is an explanation of why people run offered by a young Pueblo girl.  We run, she says, because we are inspired by the wind, grass, and trees.  “We like to run toward the hills, and sit down near the grass and the bushes; the wind excites them; they sing, and so do we.”

You might also like

Lung-gom-pa runners of old Tibet

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Running the MoCo Watershed

This mid-section of the mid-Atlantic state in which I live serves as a vast drainage area, sloping from the Blue Ridge and Appalacian areas in the west to the flat coastal plains in the east.  A map of the MoCo (Montgomery County) watershed looks like the capillarized cross-section of some vital organ.  As I suppose it is.

Today's planned 6-hour run begins in a dense early morning fog at the small parking area in front the ruins of Black Rock Mill.  I am here, not the trailhead at Riley's Lock, where Seneca Creek flows into the Potomac, because with the soggy past week we've had and warm, almost spring-like January day, parts of the lower lying portion of the Seneca Greenway Trail will likely have turned to bog.  

For the first half hour, I move slowly, warming up the legs and picking my way carefully along the muddy track.  River and forest are wreathed in fog.  The air is damp, cool but not cold--not a typical day for January.  Along the riverbank there is new, almost springlike green growth in places.  Fog and high winter quiet give the riverscape an oneiric quality.    

The path, even the river itself, appear to have been rerouted, shifted by storm and flood.  With the leaves gone, I can see the ravine walls and outcroppings of rocks that are invisible in the summer.  Fallen trees litter the hillside.  I feel curiously exposed.  I think of Sir Gawain, travelling the winter-paths in reverse pilgrimage to his mid-winter appointment with the Green Knight.  

For the first two hours of my run, I see no one.  As the fog burns off and as I near Clopper Lake, I spot a bow hunter trudging noisily across a field into the woods.  His brown camouflage hunting clothes stand out in stark relief against the pale dead winter grass.  

I am always astonished how, in the heart of a county with a million residents, I can be moving through a landscape for hours without seeing anyone.   Vital as it may be, the river feels detached from the lived world of shops, roads, and houses.  Our congested roads no longer need to follow the logic of the old water-paths.  Drivers are scarcely aware of the existence of these streams and creeks--except when they flood, or someone drowns.  To run the trails of MoCo is to retrace the old paths and relearn the logic of rivers and streams.

I do a few loops around the root-studded, muddy lakeshore trail, dodging gnawed-off ends of trees and branches that beavers have rather wastefully (it seems to me) left scattered about.   I am no longer alone on this trail, sharing it with a handful of other runners and a few lone walkers.   Stopping briefly at a picnic table, I eat one of the guacamole wraps that are my sole source of calories for this run.  The lake is gray in its midwinter ordinariness, but even at its drabbest, the combination of water and forest trail and motion inspire a strange excitement and anticipation in me.  It is a sort of continuous low-level aesthetic buzz, providing nourishment for ultra-distance running as vital as food.  

Four hours into the run, I have looped back to the car, where I switch off my minimalist Vivo Barefoot Breatho trail shoes for the somewhat less minimalist Inov-8 XT Talons.  Both are ideal for the day's sloppy exigencies, but the cushionless Vivos have left my feet feeling just a tad raw.   I may be recovering still from last week's Phunt 50k.  By comparison, the hardly supportive Inov-8's feel cushy.  

I head up the steeply graded road, then turn onto the beehive of Schaeffer Farm trails.   I am quickly onto a path following the contours of a field.  The path is red-orange--the utisol or red clay soil found from Alabama to Maryland, up and down the Piedmont, although less common in our area than in the South.  Again I have the sensation of running not forwards but backwards into the past, into a vanished elsewhere.
Winter opens a landscape that for most of the year is hidden. The topography of Schaeffer Farms, half a mile from the Seneca Creek riverbed, comprises a complexly folded, corrugated area of 2000 acres.  Designed for mountain bikers, the trails here can rollercoaster in a matter of minutes from muddy stream bottom to pine forest ridge line.   Steep hills rise where hard igneous stone has weathered more slowly than the softer layers of sedimentary rocks below. One moment I am peering down a wooded declivity, minutes later I am wetting my feet in the creek at ravine's bottom.   

Five and one-half hours--almost done.  The sun is high and temperatures have risen into the fifties.  I have stripped down to shorts and a t-shirt now, for the first time in months.  Feeling rejuvenated, and glad to be near the end, I run out the clock with one more circuit of the white-blazed trail, then head back down the hill to Black Rock Mill.  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2013 PHUNT 50K, Fair Hill, MD

This low-key trail race takes place early every January in the northeast corner of Maryland, just miles from the border with Delaware and Pennsylvania.  It meant an early start and a 1 and 1/2 hour drive from Silver Spring.  Not so bad.  Since the race begins at a leisurely 9AM, I had time to eat and digest a good breakfast, get a quick shot up an unusually empty 95 North, and enjoy the sunrise while crossing the Susquehanna.   I was one of the first to arrive.  I dropped off my canned goods for the food drive, handed over my contribution for the aid tables, and did a little early exploring of the trails.

Elkton and Fair Hill NMRA sit at the head of the upper eastern shore of the Chesapeake, but the terrain in this area is not part of the flat sandy coastal plains area of Maryland.  The twisty, hilly, stream-crossed forests and fields of Fair Hill NMRA are part of the same Piedmont Plateau region that includes the trails in my own backyard--Seneca Creek, Rachel Carson, Little Bennet.  None of the climbs or descents are all that long; there's just a lot of them in a small space.  

Most challenging, perhaps, were the open field sections.  These looked pleasant enough on the map, but the poor footing and exposure to the wind made some of these climbs fairly wearying.  Again, none of these stretches are all that long.  This is not a particularly technical race (few rocks), but it's an honest trail race that will challenge you with a little bit of everything.  I'd recommend it as an introduction to trail ultramarathons.

It looks to me as if the organizers tinker with the course each year, but I'm not sure.  For 2013, at least, the 25 KM course consists of two connecteed loops, run counter-clockwise and together forming a sort of figure 8.   You do the figure 8 twice.  Aid stations come at the start/finish area, and the 5/10 mile mark (in the middle of the figure eight), meaning you have 5 aid stations over the course of the race.  These are well-stocked stations, managed by plenty of wonderful, helpful volunteers.  Not bad for a FatAss race with no entry fee.  This is one of those events with real spirit and heart.  
(Photo courtesy of Stacy Runs and Eats)

Yes, people do get lost--myself included, twice--but I have no one but myself to blame, since the trail is astonishingly well-marked.  Astonishing, that is, given the absence of an entry fee, and despite the understated demurral on the race website that they "might mark some of the course if they have time."  The challenge of finding your way on this twisty, serpentine, up-and-down, only-slightly-devious course is that Fair Hill NRMA has some 80 miles (so they say) of trails in not an extremely large area, which means trails cross and recross each other constantly.

The winter landscape of dead leaves strewn everywhere means some trails just plain disappear from sight.  There are some sharp turns that come upon you suddenly and are easy to blow by if, say, the sun is in your eyes.  A "bushwacking" section has you leave the trail for a brief mini-Barkleys adventure.  It isn't long, but is easy to miss. You have to stay alert.

We had fantastic conditions.  About 28 degrees at the start, relatively little wind, and sunny the whole day.  Yes, very good--it is January, after all, and could be a whole lot worse.  I fretted a bit in the final minutes before the start over whether to wear my grippy Inov-8 XT Talons or more supportive Saucony Peregrines, and ultimately went with the latter.  It was a trade-off.  Good for the first half of the course, when the ground was mostly frozen and hard as rocks, but not so good in the latter stages, when the mud became more of a problem.  The Saucony Peregrines do pick up mud and I sometimes felt as if I were running in boots.  Particularly challenging was the mud that hid unseen below a layer of dead leaves; I'd hit this and go into a skid.

I had a decent race, for the first effort since October's Grindstone 100, with steady energy levels the whole way.  Thanks to my penchant for taking the scenic route (getting lost on the second loop for about 10 or so minutes), I just missed my goal of coming in under 5 hours, so had to settle for 5 hours and 3 minutes.   

I came away from the experience with a firm decision, however, never to take in any sugar--fructose, glucose, maltodextrin, whatever--during a race.  This 47-year-old stomach just won't take it.  I'm going with "real food" only--I like Jurek's practice of pita with hummus--even if I have to pack it all with me.    

Other race reports on the PHUNT 50K

2010 Report from Matt Frazier, No Meat Athlete 

2010 Report from Maria Simone, Running, A Life

2012 Report from Stacy Runs and Eats