Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)
THE ANCIENT FOOT MESSENGERS
From the age of six, running was my pathway to feeling free and the vehicle for my exploration of the land. My father would take me out jogging with him. I loved when he would vary our route so I could see different things. Even at that age, I realized that running was a way to put a smile on my face and to explore my surroundings.
Throughout high school, I was an avid runner. I could run a fifty-two-second quarter mile at a time when adults were winning gold in the Olympics with a forty-nine. But I wanted to run across the plains and up mountains to see life, not around a track. I didn’t want to run for fitness; I wanted to run for awareness, as my forebearers had.
When I moved to the Sierras at age seventeen, I ran every day. I started out going on short runs of six miles or so. I then worked my way to running up Half Dome, which was twenty miles round-trip. But during that time, running remained a social pursuit. It was somehow ingrained in me that twenty-six miles—the distance of a marathon—was the farthest you were supposed to run. But as I began to study running and what it meant to the lifestyle I was choosing, that would all change.
At the time I became interested in running, America was in the middle of a jogging craze. People were running in greater numbers than at any time in the past. This led to the creation of specialty shoes for running. Recreational runners bought the shoes in droves, and eventually created a multibillion-dollar market.
Nike, then a nascent company, led the charge in creating different styles of running shoes. In my teens, I ran in a Nike shoe called the Air Tierra. The shoe was like a rubber moccasin, with no cushioning in the forefront and just a half inch of padding in the heel. I loved it. You could corner the edges of the rocks and maintain full control.
After I ran the heck out of my Air Tierras, I bought a second pair at a thrift shop and beat those up as well. But when I went to buy another pair, I couldn’t find the shoe anywhere. I called Nike and asked why they stopped producing it. The customer service representative told me that too many people were getting stone bruises, so the company discontinued the shoe. The shoe that replaced it was beefed up in the heel and heavily padded in the front.
Soon the market was flooded with similar shoes. I didn’t like training in the newer shoes that had come on the market. I remember looking at a pair of gel-filled shoes and thinking, If I put these big cushions on my feet, I’m just going to destroy my body because my feet will not be able to hit the ground naturally. That was when I started to experiment with different footwear.
I began running in my kung fu shoes. The thin sole allowed me to feel the impact of the ground. I actually came up with the idea from my martial arts training, which was based on the concept of impact training.
As a martial artist, I did impact training with my hands. I would punch wood constantly to build up cartilage and tissues. I knew from that type of training that the impact actually built strong, healthy joints. I decided to translate that to my feet.
Studies of impact training in martial arts have shown that martial artists who train on boards build cartilage, whereas martial artists who train on cushy, foam bags break down their bodies. The way to keep the body the healthiest is to connect it to the impact. The same principle applies to the feet and legs. You can’t have a lot of cushioning and not expect that you are going to deteriorate something—which is the running-shoe myth.
The running-shoe myth, sold to consumers by manufacturers, is that cushioned shoes give a runner bounce and prevent injuries. But we now know from numerous long-term studies that running shoes have likely created more injuries than they have prevented.
Dr. Irene Davis, a sports scientist at the University of Delaware, tested runners in shoes and in bare feet. Her studies showed that when you are wearing a running shoe, your heel hits first, which is called a heel strike. This creates a hard ground-reaction force, or upward vibration, that has an impact on the legs. However, in bare feet, there is less ground-reaction force. The runner lands more on the midfoot and less on the heel, causing a reduced impact on the legs.
Dr. Davis and others have shown that rather than protecting our feet, running shoes actually harm them by causing the foot to overpronate. In normal pronation, the outside part of the heel hits the ground first. The foot then rolls inward at fifteen degrees, causing the weight of the body to be distributed evenly over the foot. When a foot overpronates, the foot rolls farther inward, which throws off the weight distribution. In this situation, the ankle does not properly stabilize the body. Normal pronation occurs best in bare feet.
When running barefoot, the feet receive continuous information from the ground. This allows the runner to respond to changes in what’s underfoot much faster. You can use every part to your foot, which prevents overusing any one part and creating adverse shock in the ankle and leg. You can use your toes to cradle a rock for better balance and traction. When you hit the corner of a rock, your foot takes the impact and molds around the rock, whereas in a running shoe, the stiff edge of the shoe can catch the rock and roll your ankle.
Barefoot running was a concept I began to grasp in my teens. After I moved to Yosemite, I often ran barefoot, even in the winter. I found that running barefoot in the snow was good for conditioning. I also found that running barefoot in the snow increased the circulation in my capillaries. My feet never got cold, because I was constantly stimulating my capillaries and increasing the circulation in my feet.
Barefoot running led to my exploration of sandals as a far superior alternative to funkified Nikes. I began experimenting with sandals made of many different materials, including yucca, rawhide, leather, worn-out flip-flops, and old tires. My goal was to find footwear as close to a moccasin as possible so I could maintain a natural running position and be in touch with the ground.
Rawhide sandals are ideal for running. They are made from the hides of large animals such as elk. They work well in colder weather, as I can leave the fur on for a tiny bit of added comfort. I can also use the coarse hair grain to provide added traction in certain types of soil, such as damp clay. Rawhide sandals are stiff at first. It feels like you are running on plastic, but as you break them in, they conform to your feet.
How long a pair of rawhide sandals last depends on the quality of the hide. Provided that the hide is cut from the upper part of the neck, elk can last a maximum of three hundred miles. Buffalo hide, which is thicker, can take you six hundred to seven hundred miles. Tanning the leather slightly can increase the durability. This makes the hide last longer because it forms around the ground as you move and therefore wears more evenly.
Yucca sandals have several advantages. They can be woven anywhere yucca grows, eliminating the need for killing an animal to make the sandals. I found that the Yucca sandals allow my feet to grip the ground closely. If they are woven tightly, the Yucca grabs the soil and rock well, even when the rock is wet. This helps when I’m hunting. With my feet holding firm, I’m able to throw more accurately. They also breathe nicely in both cold and heat. The downside is that they take longer to make and they wear out fast. I can get only about forty-five miles per pair.
Another advantage to sandals is that they are easy to make and that other fibers work just as well as yucca. No matter where I am, if I lose a sandal in a flash flood, I can make another pair in an hour. On some islands, there are different types of bark or cottonwood that will work. Agave plants can also be used—so, as one of my friends joked, if you really know what you are doing, you can have a tequila while making your sandals.
Fiber sandals also work well for tracking. They don’t make any sound from step to step, so they are very effective for stalking animals. On the flip side, they are also good if you don’t want to be tracked. The fibers break up the pattern left by the sole. These work even better than placing felt on the bottoms of your shoes, which is a standard practice for military avoiding the enemy.
For extreme survival situations, tire sandals are the best because they are the most durable. Three-quarter-inch tire sandals can last up to ten years. They can be made with old belted tires, which are readily available. The sidewalls work best because they are not as stiff. Generally, sidewalls are not lined with steel, and they also have a natural curve and arch support built in. Though the grip on the foot is not as tight and pure as sandals made from yucca or rawhide, the tire material imitates the cartilage in the body. This will make a first-time wearer sore until their cartilage toughens up.
Sandals provide a more natural way of running than $250 midstrike shoes with custom orthotics. After I switched to sandals and established a more natural stride, I didn’t suffer from any hip, ankle, or knee injuries.
I also found that running in sandals puts my feet in better touch with the ground. I love the feeling of being closer to the earth rather than plodding along in a pair of funkified Nikes. Scott Jurek, a professional distance runner, once looked at my sandals and commented, “You must feel really connected to the earth running in sandals like that.”
Indeed I do.
Even as I explored barefoot running and running in sandals, I still did not have a profound connection to running. My entire relationship with running changed in my late teens. I was in a public library rummaging through the free box of magazines when I stumbled upon an article about the Tarahumara Indians in the May 1976 issue of National Geographic. The story focused on their ability to effortlessly run long distances. In a two-day period, the best runners could cover 435 miles, which is equal to sixteen marathons. Even an average Tarahumara could run more than 100 miles without stopping or suffering sore joints.
To this day, the Tarahumara are considered the greatest runners in the world. Running has been part of the Tarahumara culture since the 1500s. It was a means of both athletic expression and survival. They delivered mail and intervillage communications and hunted for food on foot. While the article was inspirational for someone interested in long-distance running, what was most interesting to me was that the Tarahumara ran in handmade sandals rather than shoes.
At the time, I was spending half the money I earned on running shoes. I was also suffering from a variety of running-related injuries such as shin splints, persistent pain in my right knee, and hamstring injuries. I had already begun searching for an alternative.
To become the most efficient runner possible, I needed to see the Tarahumara Indians and study them in action. I was eager to examine the Tarahumara’s sandals, as well as to study their running technique and to gain knowledge, inspiration, and wisdom.
When I set out on the trip, I didn’t have much information to go on. I knew the Tarahumara lived in Copper Canyon, located in the southwestern part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, about two hours south of the Arizona border. Copper Canyon is a vast system of six canyons, so I needed to find a starting point. The consensus from what I read was that I should go to a small town called Creel, which I did. When I reached Creel, I hopped off the bus and starting running.
I searched for the Tarahumara on their own terms—on foot. The land was very dry, and the canyon walls were green, like oxidized copper (hence the name). I found small village settlements and met several Indians, but I didn’t feel comfortable invading their sacred space. Instead, I spent most of my time watching the men run and observing how they interacted. One thing was true: they were always running. The trails were constantly in use, and I seldom saw the men walking.
I spent ten days running, seeing the land, getting in shape, and orienting myself mentally to the running techniques of the Tarahumara. Watching them was a beautiful sight. It looked like the way a human should run. Their backs were ramrod straight, and they pointed their toes down. This caused them to land midfoot rather than striking with their heel first, which is a result of having the toes up. What was most noticeable was that the looks on their faces showed that they loved to run. There was no grimacing or grunting. They were actually smiling as they traversed the land.
The main thing I learned from them was how to strike the foot on the ground. They recognize that the nerves in the feet are as sensitive as the nerves in the genitals. Treating those nerves kindly proves to be the key to running distances. They also understand that running involves a “mass spring” that transfers potential energy into kinetic energy through the tendons and ligaments.
The tribe showed me how running could be a spiritual part of life. Running to them is like water flowing downhill, feeding the crops as it goes. The images of them running are beautiful. They sew their own clothes out of bright fabrics, and when you see them in the distance, they look like moving flowers dotting the trail.
I also observed their sandals closely. I was somewhat surprised when I realized the sandals were simply hard, heavy chunks of rubber. It was astounding to see how well they could run on something so hard. People think of rubber as soft and bouncy. But these are not wealthy people with resources, so they use very heavy semitruck tires for the soles. Used semi tires are inexpensive, and when made into sandal soles, they last fifteen years, even with the amount of miles the Tarahumara run.
When I finally held one of their sandals, I was even more shocked. The sandals weighed three pounds each. I wondered how they ran in them at all. Not only did they feel like leg weights but they were very stiff. Healthwise, the thing the sandals had going for them was that they were hard. They weren’t cushions breaking the runners’ bodies down like superlight running shoes stuffed with foam and gel.
I had brought my leather huaraches on the trip, which were the type of sandals the Tarahumara made before they used tires. My footwear intrigued the Indians I met. Many of them made comments about how fast I could run in light shoes made of leather. On a future visit when I showed up in thin tire sandals, I was amused to find the Indians were slightly jealous. They requested that I bring them some thin tires when I next visited.
It wasn’t surprising to hear the positive health effects that so much running had on the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara were practically immortal compared to Americans. In addition to the miles covered, the Tarahumara’s diet also contributed to their overall health. Diabetes and heart disease were virtually nonexistent.
Many articles have been written about tesguino, the corn beer that the Tarahumara consume at festivals. It was also detailed in the book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, which talked about the bacchanalian-style feasts they had the night before long runs. The truth is, they don’t have those festivals very often. Americans like to think about drunken Indians, but they don’t drink beer and rarely drink fermented corn.
I found that they drink more tea than anything. Whenever I stopped in a village, they always had a pot of pinole, which is hot tea made with pine needles. They keep it over a fire in big clay pots. They are such a corn-based culture that sometimes on top of the pinole tea they serve corn tortillas. They live and breathe corn, especially the poorer people, because they can’t afford to grow or buy most other foods.
The traditional, Western view is that the corn eaten by the Tarahumara is stored as glycogen and then converted to energy. This serves as the explanation why the Tarahumara have such endurance on long runs.
Nutritionists teach us to do calculations where you burn x amount of energy and then replace that with y amount of calories. Under this scenario, in a 26.2-mile marathon, an average runner will burn about 2,600 calories. Following this logic, if a Tarahumara were to run 435 miles in two days, he would burn 43,500 calories.
But that’s an American concept that really doesn’t hold validity in ancient and Native American cultures. It also doesn’t make sense that someone can store up or consume 43,500 calories in a few days. In fact, what happens in traditional cultures is that the runners burn so many calories and replace them with so few that over time their metabolisms become increasingly more efficient.
Take a Native American tribe such as the Navajo, whom I have seen up close. If they ate the same amount of calories as we do in our normal lives, they would gain fifteen pounds in a month. It wouldn’t be entirely their fault they got fat. Genetically, they would still have the same superefficient metabolism. In our Western and European culture, we have entered a phase where our metabolisms are much more rapid because we haven’t been in starvation mode the way traditional people have been.
The same is true in Kenya. There is an abundance of great distance runners from Kenya, all of whom are rail thin and do not consume an abundance of calories. This is because they have lowered their metabolism to the point where they don’t require the same number of calories as an average American for energy.
Seeing how effective this was in Native American cultures, I went on a lifelong pursuit to make my body more efficient as a runner and use fewer calories. After a few weeks of going into starvation mode, I found that I needed half the calories to function at the same level. Of course, as soon as you return to three hearty meals a day, you’ve blown all that. You have to maintain yourself at close to the same level.
Obviously, we don’t have the genetic predisposition to go as far as a Native American, but we do have the ability to readjust our metabolisms for short periods of time in training. I sought to find a balance that would allow me to live for long periods of time in the wild.
I knew that running had been central to the lifestyle of early hunter-gatherers. They ran to hunt food. They ran to avoid being attacked by animals. They ran to move from place to place quickly. And likely, the men ran to impress the ladies. I knew that to live in the wilderness and be able to hunt effectively I would need to understand running and be able to explain it to others.
The transition to natural running requires special training that should be undertaken in stages. You can’t just take off your running shoes, hit the trail in bare feet or sandals, and expect to feel anything but pain. You don’t want to race—pun intended—into anything full-on, or you will get injured.
To run in bare feet or sandals requires an understanding of the larger picture of running and a concept of what keeps the body strong. If a runner has worn cushioned shoes for most his life, he will have a weak body. Cushioned shoes compromise the body. His cartilage and his joints through his knees and hips will be weak. For somebody who has used that kind of compromising support, if they put on hard rubber sandals and think their body will feel better, they are in for a world of hurt.
Any transition to sandals must be undertaken gradually. You must first strengthen the feet before moving to sandals. The first step in the transition is to go barefoot as much as you can without hurting yourself. The best way is to start out walking in bare feet and then slowly build up to running. After walking around barefoot as much as possible for a week, try running a half mile.
Depending on where you live, you can try running barefoot on different surfaces. The best surfaces are grass, dirt, or sand. However, someone who lives in a big city should run on pavement once in a while. The idea is to have that feeling where your toes are grabbing the ground. Reaching that feeling will strengthen the underside of your feet and cause you to land more softly.
Over time, barefoot running will build a quarter inch of cartilage on the bottom of the feet. At that point, when you run on pavement, you will not feel that pounding slap of the feet. Once you have that feeling, you can start experimenting with traditional, thinner-soled sandals designed for rougher terrains.
I can run barefoot on any landscape with the exception of extremely hot sand. But it is a matter of the pace and how much I want to be able to look around and observe without worrying about what’s on the ground. Sometimes going barefoot in rough terrain causes me to miss everything around me, because I’m looking down at my feet the entire time. When I run on new land, I wear sandals so I can observe.
In addition to strengthening the underside feet muscles, barefoot running adds more spring to the step and ultimately provides for a softer landing. Running on harder soles, such as rawhide or tire sandals, also builds up cartilage. A runner who wants to maintain a healthy body needs a balance of all those elements. The Tarahumara, for instance, know how important barefoot running is, so they occasionally take off their sandals and run barefoot just to keep their bodies healthy.
I do half my runs barefoot and half in thin-soled sandals. The exception is wintertime. When it is really cold, I will now wear a low-cut, barefoot-style running shoe with a tiny bit of padding. If I did that all the time, it would start to weaken my body. But because I do it sparingly, it doesn’t.
Ultimately, a transition to natural running will prevent joint pain. Consider the Tarahumara and natural distance runners from African countries. When they are old men, they are still running constantly. They don’t experience joint problems. This is not because they have über-genetics. It is simply because from the time they were young, they put their bodies on a different track from Western runners and did not attempt to overprotect their limbs with cushions on their feet.
Instead of running in natural shoes and surroundings, can you use a StairMaster, treadmill, or elliptical machine? Sure. It’s not the best solution, but sometimes it may be the only one if you want to exercise. Inherently, anytime we go against the grain of nature and use technology, it will compromise something in our health and well-being. However, sometimes you have to use technology because of the circumstances.
Of course, it would be far better for the body to hike up a trail. You are outside, breathing fresh air. You also receive the benefits of walking down the trail, which creates a different neuromuscular sensation.
Running teaches you to have spring. The body is taking in the force, rather than pushing out of it. Bikers who never run are terrible runners. Despite the fact that they have muscular legs, they don’t know how to take in impact; they only know how to push out. When they run it is awkward, because they have the strength to push, but they don’t have the strength to land.
The ability to be able to run fluidly is a constant thought process that eventually becomes a natural one. Running starts with a conscious awareness of how you walk and move throughout the day, not just when you put on your running shoes. Most people don’t even think about the way they walk. They just put one foot in front of another, and that is the same feeling they should try and achieve when they run.
I love to run for two reasons. The first is that it allows me to see new terrain. The other is that it feels good to be moving.
When I looked at the Tarahumara men running down a cliff side, they always had big smiles on their faces. Kids are the same way. When they have that spontaneous thought to run down a sand dune, it puts a smile on their face. You can take huge strides, and because it’s soft, you won’t hurt yourself if you face-plant. Happiness is a large part of running.
With the knowledge I had gathered from observing the Tarahumara and my experimentation with barefoot running and with sandals, I began to focus on running lightly, easily, and smoothly, all while searching for a harmony with the land. One Native American I met summed up the perfect feeling of running. He said: “When you run, you never run over the earth. What happens is that the earth just starts moving under you, and you move your legs with it.”
That is the ultimate feeling of running, as you no longer feel like you are running. It is the point you reach when you feel like running is something you are supposed to be doing, not any sort of physical struggle. If you want to run all day, that is a great place to set your mind. It prevents you from using excess energy and allows the earth to dictate your movements. You feel like the earth is pushing you along as it rotates under you, and rather than exerting energy, you must figure out how to dance as varying terrain and obstacles come at you.
Confirmation that I had achieved that feeling came later, on my second visit to the Tarahumara. In addition to what I had learned, one of the most satisfying aspects of my time with the tribe was that I made a lasting connection. They branded me “Rara Miri El Blonco,” which translates to “the White Tarahumara” or “white foot runner.” I wear that as a badge of honor.