Running around the world: spiritual, physical, and cultural

By Katie Stone

I reach the first checkpoint at 8 km. The run so far has been fairly challenging: undulating trail, a stream crossing, some gravel road. But now, the route markers are directing us to turn right. Right is dense native bush. The bush goes uphill. And not just any uphill, but a thigh-burning, ankle-twisting battle against tree roots, soft earth, and gravity. This section continues for about 400 metres. The surroundings are very pretty, but I’m absorbed in the climb. I’m part-walking, part-running, hauling every muscle into action.

Reaching the peak is a false relief: the downhill is even tougher. One misplaced toe, and you’ll be tumbling through the undergrowth. And you’ll likely stay there for some time: a rescue team would take hours to get to this remote stretch of the Coromandel bush.

I find out afterwards that one runner met this very fate, busting her shoulder and ultimately being stretchered off the course. I, on the other hand, somehow direct my graceless feet

By Katie Stone

I reach the first checkpoint at 8 km. The run so far has been fairly challenging: undulating trail, a stream crossing, some gravel road. But now, the route markers are directing us to turn right. Right is dense native bush. The bush goes uphill. And not just any uphill, but a thigh-burning, ankle-twisting battle against tree roots, soft earth, and gravity. This section continues for about 400 metres. The surroundings are very pretty, but I’m absorbed in the climb. I’m part-walking, part-running, hauling every muscle into action.

Reaching the peak is a false relief: the downhill is even tougher. One misplaced toe, and you’ll be tumbling through the undergrowth. And you’ll likely stay there for some time: a rescue team would take hours to get to this remote stretch of the Coromandel bush.

I find out afterwards that one runner met this very fate, busting her shoulder and ultimately being stretchered off the course. I, on the other hand, somehow direct my graceless feet through the 20k course within two hours and 26 minutes, crossing the finish line with bruises, gorse scratches, and tortured quads.

This particular race – the Kauri Trail run – is just one of the dozens on New Zealand’s running calendar. We Kiwis love to run, both on the road and on the trails. And, with COVID still keeping us home, there are more of us lacing up our running shoes than ever before.

Kiwis aren’t the only ones. Humans as a species, it has been argued, are designed to run. We’re the only mammals that can take more than one breath for each step, and – if we have the will – we’re physically capable of running for long hours at a time.

For most of us, running is a means of keeping fit, managing stress, and burning a few extra calories. Anyone who’s ever done a marathon will know the bliss of a ‘runner’s high’ (and the bragging rights that come with it).

But in other cultures, running is so much more than that. It’s a tradition. It’s part of a physiology, a psyche. Park Runs and treadmills are unheard of: for these cultures, running is a way of life.

Running in Japan: The Marathon Monks

The term ‘endurance athlete’ is usually synonymous with lean-limbed, Nike-clad sports stars of major international events. But even the most famous endurance athletes don’t compare to the “marathon monks” of Mount Hiei, Japan.

High in the mountains of Kyoto, these monks endure what is known as sennichi kaiho gyo, which translates to “one thousand days go around the peaks training”. As part of their quest to attain enlightenment, the monks must complete the ultimate test of physical and mental strength: running 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days.

In their first year, they run 40 km per day for 100 consecutive days. In their fourth and fifth years, it’s 40 km per day for 200 days. Their sixth year ups the distance to 60 km a day for 100 consecutive days. If they ever reach their seventh year, their reward is 84 km each day for 100 consecutive days.

Clearly, this is no ordinary running programme. The monks start at night, wearing only straw sandals on their feet and picking their way over rocky mountain paths. They’re required to stop at various shrines at temples along the way.

Those who successfully complete the 1000 marathons – and many don’t – must then undergo doiri. This translates to “entrance to the hall”, which involves spending nine days in a darkened room without food, water, or sleep. The idea of doiri is to bring the body as close to death as possible so the monk can gain insight into life. Those who succeed become Buddhas, or living saints.

Just 46 men have completed the ‘marathon’ challenge since it was introduced in 1885. But that hasn’t stopped later generations from trying.

It’s not just Japan’s monks who run. This is a nation obsessed with running. The Hakone Ekiden, a televised two-day distance relay, is one of the country’s biggest sporting events. The Tokyo Marathon is the largest marathon race in all of Asia, and one of the six World Marathon Majors. Since its establishment in 2007, Japan has seen a running boom. Government officials estimate that the number of adult runners has increased by hundreds of thousands, along with a huge increase in the number of other running races throughout Japan.

Running in Mexico – Tarahumara

If it weren’t for Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, the Western world might never have heard of the Tarahumara. The book, published in 2009 sparked a fascination for this otherwise hidden tribe of so-called ‘super athletes’.

The Tarahumara (pronounced taramara) are a group of indigenous American people who live in the Copper Canyons of northwestern Mexico. They call themselves Rarámuri – “the lightning-footed people”. And they run like no one else in the world.

Traditionally, the Tarahumara have employed long-distance running during persistence hunting. This involves chasing animals on foot over long distances until the prey is driven into traps, off cliffs, or simply collapse from exhaustion. According to some reports, these hunters would run up to 200 miles (320-odd kms) in one session, over two days, through rough canyon country. They wear not shoes but huaraches: sandals made from plant fibres, animal hides, or rubber tyres.

To maintain their fitness for these hunting expeditions, the Tarahumara also engage in regular footraces: rarajípare for men, and ariwete for women. Distances range from around 25, up to 150 km.

The races are held two to eight times a year in terrain ranging from relatively flat courses to steep and hilly routes through mountainous valleys. Sports scientists have since theorised that these surroundings probably contribute to their endurance capabilities. Along the way, teams of runners must kick a small wooden ball called a komakali between them.

While most races are run by men in their 20s to 50s – sometimes older – some Tarahumara might begin racing at the age of 10 or 12.

Besides hunting and sport, running is an important part of the Tarahumara community and spirituality. It’s also a traditional route to gain social status, with many champion runners becoming leaders in their community.

Running in Africa: The Kalenjins

Many of the world’s best runners are from Kenya

For the last 25 years or so, the world’s greatest marathoners have all come from Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenyan men have earned the largest share of major honours in international athletics, running distances from 800 meters to the 42 km marathon. Incredibly, most of these Olympic medal-winners hail from a single tribe: the Kalenjin.

Since 1980, it’s estimated that 40% of Olympic medals, World Championships medals, and World Cross Country Championships have been won by Kalenjin people. Unsurprisingly, they’re known as “the running tribe”.

Kenya’s population of Kalenjin is only about 6 million, making them the third-largest ethnic group in Kenya after the Kikuyu and the Luhya. And yet they are known for consistently breaking running records around the world.

The Kalenjin people are indigenous to East Africa, with most residing in what was formerly known as the Rift Valley Province in Kenya. Traditionally, they are pastoralists, farming grains such as maize and wheat. Meat and milk make up much of their daily fare, providing high levels of carbohydrates, protein, and calcium: a diet that may explain their superior running ability. The Kalenjin also spend many hours on foot climbing mountains in search of grass for their animals, supporting the theory that they have extraordinary lung capacity and fitness.

But it’s not just lifestyle factors that make the Kalenjin run the way they do. Recent research from the Danish Sports Science Institute revealed that Kalenjins may possess physical characteristics with exceptional genetic traits that support running ability. The scientists found that young Kalenjin males had a higher number of red blood cells, suggesting that living at high altitude had made their bodies more efficient in using oxygen. They also noted that the men had “bird-like legs” that made running less energy-intensive and their stride even more powerful.

Running in Saudi Arabia: the Jeddah Running Community

Physical gifts and spiritual quests aside, the determination to run is perhaps most inspiring when discouraged – or even forbidden.

Until recently, Saudi Arabia has been one of the most gender-segregated countries in the world. Women were banned from participating in sport or exercise in public and subjected to strict customs for dress and behaviour. Physical education was unavailable to girls at school, and women couldn’t join sports teams or events.

But over the past decade, a gradual loosening of the restrictions has seen the rise of a running revolution. In 2012, Saudi Arabia included two women in its Olympic team for the first time. Despite finishing the 800 m event more than half a minute behind her nearest competitor, Saudi athlete Sarah Attar received a standing ovation from hundreds of spectators.

The following year, the Jeddah Running Community established the kingdom’s first mixed-gender running group. The group now regularly run in the streets of Jeddah and have expanded to at least three other cities. As per Saudi law, the women run in long black dresses or abayas. Runs are usually held in the evenings when the temperatures are cooler.

March 2018 brought another victory: Saudi Arabia hosted its first-ever female road race. Over 1500 women took part in the 3.2 km race, marking a new era of women’s running.

Further policy changes have seen attitudes towards women’s running continue to change. Saudi multi-sports club Al-Hilal recently announced the creation of a new women’s sporting academy, and sports classes are now mandatory for girls in public schools. Women’s running clubs continue to flourish, inspiring younger generations to fight back against gender segregation – and in doing so, perhaps, are one step closer to running their own lives.

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