The Perfect Runner

April 17, 2012 3:38 am

From a tree-climbing ape, human beings evolved to dominate their world. But long before we possessed the brainpower to “out-think” the species around us, we changed in an even more fundamental way: we started to run on two feet over long distances. In his film, Thompson – who calls humans “nature’s best distance runners” – explores the theory that endurance running was, in fact, what made everything else about us possible.

From Running Ape …
Most people today take running for granted, never stopping to consider that what we do is without parallel in nature. But when our small, vulnerable primate ancestors descended from the trees millions of years ago into a harsh African environment teeming with stronger, faster, more viscous predators, they became vulnerable – and needed a way to survive.
According to Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology Daniel Lieberman, it all began when we became hunters and gatherers. “Hunting and gathering … enabled Homo erectus … to have access to more energy, and more energy means you can have a bigger brain,” he explains. Our large brains, however, come at a cost, consuming a great portion of the energy our bodies produce.
“When we became bipeds 5 million years ago … we became slow,” Lieberman says. “We became very economical … very efficient, but we were slow. … So what natural selection did was … to turn us not into sprinters, which is what most mammals selected for running are, but … into endurance runners. And that’s what makes human running special: we’re not good at speed, we’re good at endurance.”
This is precisely what helped us survive. Long before the first weapon was fashioned from a pointy stone and a stick 300,000 years ago, we were hunting and killing larger, stronger, faster animals by running them down.
“In persistence hunting you take advantage of two really important features that humans have, that … quadrupeds don’t have,” Lieberman says. “When you and I run we can easily run at speeds that make quadrupeds gallop. … When we run at those speeds, we’re cooling down by sweating. But the animals we’re chasing are cooling down by panting.”
Once an animal reaches a full gallop it can’t pant due to the way it body tilts from side to side. As such, it will run for a short distance and then stop to cool down. “If I can track it and chase it before it recovers its body temperature, its temperature is going to rise and rise [until eventually it can’t go on]. And so persistence running will enable anybody … to run an animal into heatstroke.”
… To Running Man
Most of us no longer need to run for our supper, yet we remain loaded with features that make us “really good at running.” From our short toes to our arched feet, our loose, low shoulders and, yes, even our big butts, there’s no doubt the human body was made to run.
And how we run! Thompson visits Ethiopia, which produces more champion distance runners than any other country in the world – even when they do it in bare feet (a practice that may actually heighten their athletic ability). In Arctic Siberia, he joins nomadic hunters in their constant race to keep up with a fast-moving herd of reindeer (their survival depends on it). And he participates in the “Death Race” – an annual ultra marathon held high in the Canadian Rockies – where he learns that, deep inside, we are all perfect runners.
Watch The Perfect Runner online at, and visit the film’s website for behind-the-scenes clips, credits and more.

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