HEALTHY AS A HORSE - Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Chapter Eight




I’m not Superman. I’m not even Tarzan, though I would like to believe we have a few things in common. Much of my initial approach to surviving in the wild was rooted in athleticism and my belief in my abilities. Being a runner and approaching survival from that place allowed me to see amazing locations. However, the better I was able to slow down and observe, the more I saw that I needed to become more patient and less reliant on my physical abilities to become a true survivalist.

The more I learned, the clearer it became that the books describing hunter-gatherers spending two hours a day gathering plants and cooking them up were fiction. It became apparent to me that surviving on any landscape takes all day. There is no way to run through an environment and understand it, no matter how fit you are.

Surviving in the wilderness takes an extraordinary amount of patience. But the body has to first adapt to extreme settings, to endure temperature swings, to cover great distances without proper hydration, and to summon deeply stored energy when near collapse in order to reach for that next stage.

The biggest obstacle for most people is the temperature swings. There are numerous tragic stories about raw mountain skiers being lost for days and freezing to death before being found, and there are equally as many stories of day hikers suffering from heatstroke or even heat-induced heart attacks.

From talking to medical professionals versed in survival in dire conditions, I have learned that the first part of surviving in extreme situations is oxygen delivery. The better the body can deliver and process oxygen, the greater the chances both for survival in life-threatening situations and for being able to operate when the body is pushed to its limits.

Dr. Sam Parnia, a noted critical-care physician and bestselling author, explains: “What has happened in Matt and others with his conditioning is that their lungs and heart have adapted to be able to maximize the use of the oxygen that they are taking in. Their breathing has become more efficient with time, and they are taking in more air for every breath than a normal person. Their heart is contracting so much more strongly that for every beat, they are pushing out more blood and more hemoglobin, which carries the oxygen to all parts of the body.”

The ability to process oxygen more rapidly helps the body in numerous ways, from increasing endurance to preventing disorientation and cramping from dehydration at high altitudes. Altitude sickness is caused by low oxygen pressure at high altitudes. Elevations at which the effects are felt vary from person to person. Generally, people will feel some change in their breathing around four thousand feet. Above eight thousand feet, most people experience a shortness of breath and the inability to draw enough oxygen to compensate. Activities that cause the body to demand more oxygen, such as skiing or running, compound the problem and often leave people feeling dizzy, sick to their stomachs, or headachy.

The more fit a person is, the better they will be able to deliver and process oxygen at high altitudes. I have met several ultra-distance runners who are as fit as me and can run for long distances in the mountains.

The most amazing runner is Matt Carpenter. Ultra-distance runners often call him superhuman. On top of being genetically gifted, he has built his life around extreme running. In the wintertime, he relocates his family from Colorado to South America so he can live on a high peak and train year-round. Matt has won every high-altitude race numerous times and holds virtually every course record, including the fastest times recorded in marathons run at the unthinkable altitudes of fourteen thousand and seventeen thousand feet.

Carpenter’s ability to process oxygen, known as VO2 max, is unparalleled. At the U.S. Olympic Training Center, it was registered at 90.2, the second highest on record behind a Norwegian cross-country skier. A reading of 60 is considered excellent for an athlete.

Though I have never had my VO2 max measured, I doubt it would match Carpenter’s. However, once in a routine physical, a doctor was measuring my oxygen saturation level, which is the amount of oxygen in the blood. Anywhere from 95 to 100 percent is normal, depending on a variety of circumstances, such as altitude. The doctor explained that because we were at 5,800 feet, the highest possible reading would be 97. She turned to the machine and said, “And yours is … oh my … ninety-eight.”

I once ran a high-altitude ten-mile race in Colorado against Matt Carpenter. The race had forty superstrong distance runners, including a world-renowned Kenyan runner, and was by invitation only. Entrants had to apply and send a résumé. Because the race was being held at fourteen thousand feet in snowy conditions, I had to trade out my sandals for running shoes. I knew that if I were sloshing through snow in my sandals it would slow me down. I found a pair of Nikes that were low cut and didn’t have too high a heel and trained in them for a week before the race.

The race started at eight thousand feet. The Kenyan runner bolted off the starting line at a five-minute-mile pace. All of us, including Carpenter, let him go. He was sprinting at an out-of-this-world pace for an altitude that high, particularly considering we had ten miles to run.

After a couple miles, the group started spreading out. Matt eased past the Kenyan runner and took the lead. I was in fifth place. As we got higher up the mountain, my strength started to kick in. I passed the Kenyan runner, who was by now huffing and puffing in the altitude, and settled into third place.

I felt strong. When we did the turnaround to go down the first mountain, I was tearing it up. I actually had my sights on Carpenter. I thought I might not beat Matt that day, but I was certain I could pull off a second-place finish—which would have given me a big paycheck and a free flight to Italy.

As I charged down the hill, I saw a mountain biker who was preparing to ride up the hill toward the second peak. He was clicking pictures of me. For a split second, I lost my concentration. My running shoes had that small heel, making me less stable, and I rolled my ankle.

It wasn’t bad, so I kept running. But after another mile, I was wincing. I thought, I might be able to finish this race, but I will likely hurt myself. So I stopped.

Carpenter ended up winning by ten minutes. I didn’t have the fitness to catch him, but I felt like I could’ve beaten the other runners and finished second. Second place to Matt Carpenter is the best you could ever hope for.


While enhanced oxygen delivery can make you feel superhuman, there are other health factors that come into play in extreme situations. Toxins in the body often prevent it from working at peak level. The primary sources of toxins in our body are food, stress, lactic acid in muscles, and poor air, as well as electromagnetic toxins from computers and cell phones. Living in the wilderness strips away the toxins faster and more completely than a massage at a day spa. The natural climate reboots the body over time and leaves it free of toxins that handicap the body’s functions and ability to quickly recuperate.

The lack of bacteria and germs in nature also means that I never get sick when I am out in the wild. In city atmospheres, people are exposed to germs and bacteria that cause viruses such as colds and flu. People are constantly washing their hands and using antibacterial products to kill germs. Those types of bacteria don’t exist in the wild.

Diet plays an important role in the ability to endure extremes. The Paleo Diet is now in vogue. The basic philosophy of the diet is to eat the way hunter-gatherers ate hundreds and thousands of years ago in pre-agriculture days. The prescribed foods are things that are found in the wilderness such as meats, fish, leafy greens, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and seeds, rather than processed foods and grains or anything with refined sugar. This translates into high protein, low carbohydrate, high fiber, and a much higher intake of vitamins and antioxidants.

Balancing your diet is just as critical. Over the years, I found that eating only plants and grains did not provide me with enough energy to get through the day. I added fish to my diet, but I was still drained and tired. Eventually, I began hunting wild game and eating meat, and my sustained energy level was far higher.

I later consulted the nutritionist Ryan Koch about how I felt. “In a realistic primitive-living situation (the same situation that our ancient human ancestors found themselves in for more than two million years until the Neolithic era around ten thousand years ago), it has been my assertion that a person must procure animal foods to remain in good health,” Ryan said. “Not only that, but anybody in a primitive setting will crave the essential nutrients found only in meat and especially fat if they are out there long enough (animal forms of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K). In other words, plants will not sustain any lengthy wilderness survival sojourn.”

Perhaps the biggest asset to having more strength and endurance has been slowing down my metabolism. This means that I don’t have to eat as often. Most Americans eat constantly, or at least three times a day. If they don’t eat every five hours, their blood sugar drops and they start to feel woozy.

The fact that my metabolism is slower also helps me store energy in the event I can’t find food for a day or more. A slower, more efficient metabolism means that even if I don’t eat for a couple days, my blood sugar will remain stable and my energy level won’t flatline. Like the Tarahumara, it also allows me to run great distances without needing to consume thousands of calories.

My lifestyle and my fitness constitution have merged. Though I didn’t seek publicity, people in the running community took notice of how I lived and trained. Trail Runner magazine wrote an article about me.

“Matt Graham is what you might call a traditional runner, but not in the sense of old school legends of the sport like Bill Rodgers or Steve Prefontaine,” the article said. “Graham trains like the ancient foot messengers of southwestern Native American tribes, running in homemade sandals and living off the land. He makes jerky out of coyote and raccoon, flint knaps spear points and arrowheads, rubs two sticks together and makes fire. He runs in sandals made of discarded tires or rawhide and yucca fibers. On long runs, he shuns manufactured energy bars for the natural energy from Pinole and chia seeds.”

All of this helps explain why I would enter a twenty-five-mile horse race—without a horse.


It was a temporary job in Utah that resulted in a study of a biped versus a quadruped. A friend had asked me to help him and his wife do a traditional Dutch oven cookout for a group of trail riders in the mountains. When we got to the camp to set up, I realized that the group of riders was preparing for a horse race on Boulder Mountain. I cooked and talked with the riders.

The race was a three-day, fifty-five-mile event, with the middle day of twenty-five miles being the toughest. The trail headed southeast and then cut through the mountainous Utah terrain and picked up the old mail route. The trail crossed the Escalante River and headed upstream about five miles to an area called Big Flat, and then wound its way back into the town of Escalante. I was familiar with the route, as I had run it many times.

I started to think that it would be cool to run the race against the horses. I hadn’t been on a long run in a few weeks, and the challenge was irresistible. The race had three legs over three days through canyons and over mountains, and the riders could switch horses.

I sought out the race director, a man named Krocadoomis, and asked him if I could enter the middle day—on foot.

Krocadoomis was a classic Southern Utah cowboy with a floppy mustache and ragged hat. He looked at me like I was crazy. He asked how in heaven’s name I proposed to keep up against a group of horses.

“With my feet, in my sandals,” I replied.

“You won’t be able to keep up,” he said.

I smiled. “I think I’ll be all right.”

I convinced him that I knew the land well. Even if the horses blew me away, I wouldn’t get lost.

As he thought about it, a smile broke out across his face. He tugged at his mustache. No doubt he was thinking that the local papers might write about the sandaled runner against the thoroughbreds, which could help publicize his business. He agreed that I could run, but set down one condition. At the start, I had to run ahead, open the gate, and either stand aside or take off to avoid the charging horses, which would have a lot of built-up adrenaline in the beginning.

The next morning, I put on a pair of thin sandals with rubber soles made from old VW bus tires and lined up with thirty-seven horses and riders. A few of the riders had gotten to know me from the cookout. I had told them about running the Pacific Crest Trail, though I think only a few of them actually believed me. In any event, they were an eclectic bunch of cowboys and wealthy adventure seekers who weren’t about to let a guy in sandals outrun their horses.

Krocadoomis signaled me. I ran about a quarter mile to the gate and opened it. Instead of waiting, I took off down the trail. I could hear the horses pounding. I reasoned the best way to avoid the stampede was to sprint the first couple miles and build a lead while the horses spread out. I kept running through the pine trees. After another mile, the pounding was becoming fainter and fainter. I was actually pulling away from the horses.

On the first leg, we ran down from the mountains into Boulder, about eighteen miles. The terrain favored the horses. There were sandy uphill climbs and some rocky patches that were relatively easy for horses to find their footing. Even the flats were mostly sandy. I assumed the horses could do twenty miles per hour in the flats. Nevertheless, I hadn’t seen or heard a horse since the starting line.

When I got into town, I stopped at the rodeo grounds, the designated end point of the first leg. I waited and waited for the horses. I couldn’t believe I was that far ahead. The race monitors weren’t even there yet. I sat for about twenty minutes until people started showing up with trailers to move the horses to the starting point of the second leg. They were dumbfounded that I was already there. One asked how long I had been there. I told him. He marked my time for five minutes earlier than when he had asked.

Several minutes later, the first horses arrived. It took another fifteen minutes for all the horses to come in. The horses were loaded onto the trailers and driven to the other side of town.

At the second starting point, the race officials let me go first, but they released the horses almost immediately, stripping me of my lead. Once again, I heard the horses pounding behind. I picked up the pace and soon lost them.

I took off running, built a lead, and didn’t see a horse until about mile fourteen. I was crossing a canyon and the horse was on the other side, where I had come down minutes earlier. At mile sixteen, I stopped at the vet check station.

The race officials told me that Krocadoomis, who was riding with the race contestants, had radioed in and told them to stop me. “We’re not going to vet check you, but we have to hold you for the time it takes to vet check the horses,” the guy told me. “To make it fair …”

Krocadoomis and several other riders arrived about fifteen minutes later. We talked for a while, and then they let me go. Again, twenty minutes or more had gone by, and they released the horses right after me. I was beginning to think Krocadoomis didn’t want me to win.

It was just nine miles to the finish line. The challenge for me was that the final leg of trail was a flat, sandy road. The sand gave the horses a decided advantage. After a mile or so, Krocadoomis and one of the horses passed me.

At some point, I must have zoned out because I ended up taking a wrong turn. When I realized I was not on the race trail, I reversed course. By the time I had rejoined the trail, two more horses had passed me. They were about a hundred yards in front of me. Down the homestretch, it was three stallions, followed by me, and then the other thirty-four horses.

Most humans would have been fine with that performance, but I was determined to retake the lead. The trail came to a cliff with a steep drop-off—the one chance for me to make up some ground on the horses. I raced down the hill, foot over foot, bouncing off rocks like they were rubber, and I managed to pass one of the horses. At the bottom of the hill, there was a half-mile horse-racing track that led to the finish line. I sprinted my absolute hardest, but I wasn’t able to catch the first two horses.

I ended up finishing third with a cumulative time of six hours, fifty-seven minutes.

My achievement was respectable, but certainly not unparalleled. Each year, there is a Man Against Horse Race in Prescott, Arizona. The fifty-mile race covers various terrains, including steep mountain climbs and flat plains. Some years a horse wins, but most years a man wins. In another, the Man versus Horse Marathon in Wales, UK, a man has won twice in thirty-five years.


So how can a man outrun a horse?

Stride and breathing are the two main factors. In experiments where a man runs alongside a horse at the same pace, it has been determined that the man’s stride is actually longer than the horse’s stride. This means that the man’s legs are moving slower to cover the same amount of ground, therefore allowing him to cover more distance per stride and conserve energy.

Horses are quadrupeds. Once all four legs are working in unison in a gallop, the horse can’t pant. Because panting is the only way for the horse to cool down, a horse in a gallop is constantly heating up. Eventually, the horse will have to slow down to a trot to cool off.

Humans, of course, are bipeds. Even when we reach our “galloping” speed, we can pant. Therefore, even if we are sprinting for a long period of time, we are able to continually cool down enough to keep running.

In the race I ran against the horses, I basically sprinted the entire way. This allowed me to take advantage of stride and breathing. The temperature was in the seventies, so I didn’t overheat. To stay light, I didn’t carry water. I stopped and drank whenever I found water and at the mandatory stops. I also plucked pine needles off the trees to provide me with a constant stream of energy. The horses ate only when they were at the vet check stops.

Terrain is also a critical factor in a man-versus-horse race. The horse will excel on flat, sandy road; whereas a runner will have an easier time on a narrow trail with several switchbacks mixed with long, flat terrain where the horse will need to rest. That accounts for the difference in the results between the hilly Prescott race and the flat-road Wales race.

The evening after my race, there was a dinner for all the riders. When Krocadoomis spoke, he singled me out. He presented me with a silver medallion.

“When I saw you charging down the canyon and coming up the other side, I finally understood how Geronimo could do it,” he said.



I am finding that learning survival is a complex process that is as much mental as it is physical. I realize that knowing myself is just as critical to surviving in dangerous situations as being able to endure nature’s tests.

Though I know quite a bit about living in the wilderness, I am also just now discovering that survival is a full-time pursuit. The hunter-gatherers we read about in books or see on television look like they are working at it a few hours a day. They throw up a shelter, grab plants on the go, and cook up an occasional meal. But that’s not realistic. It takes all day to survive in the wilderness. I no longer believe it is possible to scoop ice cream eight hours a day and be a hunter-gatherer after work and on the weekends.

My approach to the wild has been from an intensely athletic point of view, but I am altering that approach. When I was younger, being a runner allowed me to see many amazing places and work on my hunter-gatherer skills at the same time. That was my identity. But I am trying to find a balance where running great distances does not define me.

I am learning that the ability to slow down is equally as important as running sixty-five miles across a desert in one day. I am beginning to observe more. I don’t think I have been missing the grandeur of nature or even the smallest flower petal, but I know that observation is going to be critical to shaping my life as a hunter-gatherer.

Now that I am fully engaged in the process, I realize that it takes an extreme amount of patience. I need to be able to call upon my patience so that I do not make a fatal move, such as trying to seek a shelter I cannot reach when a biblical storm is approaching.

The things I am discovering cannot be picked up from reading a book, and they are critical for me to learn. In everyday life, it is easy to get caught up in yourself. The land does not allow that. It demands that you look around and observe.

As I transition into the land and begin to more fully understand it, I am also learning about myself. I want to reach the point where I know myself so well that I can use that in my relationships. I want to be able to pause and ask myself, “Okay, what does my friend need today? What do I need to do to be better for this person?” For me, being able to do that will mean that I know myself.