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‘Why This Compulsion To Run Long Distances?’ A Runner’s Beautiful Confession

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
August 21, 2013

Biologist Bernd Heinrich was in Zimbabwe, in the field, eyes down, looking for beetles, when for no particular reason he looked up and saw … well, at first he wasn’t sure what it was, so he stepped closer, leaned in, and there, painted on the underside of large protruding rock, were five human figures “running in one direction, from left to right across the rock face.” They weren’t very detailed, just “small, sticklike human figures in clear running stride” painted by a Bushman, two, maybe three thousand years ago.

Ancient paintings aren’t that unusual in Matobo National Park. You can see lots of them, but then Heinrich noticed “something more, and it set my mind reeling.”

“It was the figure farthest to the right, the one leading the progression. It had its hands thrown up in the air in the universal runners’ gesture of triumph at the end of a race.”

He knew that posture. “This involuntary gesture is reflexive foremost runners who have felt the exhilaration of … triumph over adversity.”

Runners often ask themselves, “Why am I doing this? Why do I want to make myself hurt so? What’s this compulsion to run?”

The Bushman is telegraphing the most obvious answer: You beat your demons. You overcome yourself; that feels good.

Here’s another answer, to my mind just as beautiful, and less than obvious. It comes from artist/cartoonist/essayist Matt Inman who writes a strip called The Oatmeal. This is the final chapter of his newest essay, one that he calls “The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances.”

You should scroll through the previous five sections if you like, but as this part begins, Matt (a former fatty who’s convinced his fat’s coming back) has been running for hours on a horribly hot day inJapan. Close to exhaustion, trailed by ferocious hornets, he happens upon a vending machine, sucks down a purple sugary drink, is magically revivified, and now is about to finish his run …

Bernd Heinrich’s meditations on long distance running became Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life, published in 2001. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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