From the monthly archives:

February 2012

Back when I was living in Madrid and before I got my first journalism job, I was lucky to learn one of the best questions you can ever ask someone: “So what got you here?” Defining here is up to them, and that’s what makes the question so great: the first words out of their mouths tell you where they see themselves in the world. From there, you’re almost always off to a crackin’ story. The CEO of Continental Airlines once answered it by telling me not about the great job he’d done by pulling the company out of bankruptcy, or the magnificent house we were sitting in at that moment, but about how he’d begun as a cropduster and still was at heart and couldn’t wait to get done talking so he could fire up his motorcycle and blaze for the hills — which, since he had a spare, we ended up doing for the rest of the day.

For me, the best test case is still the first: crashing on our sofa in Madrid was some friend of a friend who slept all day and drank all night, meaning his mouth only opened to snore or swallow. I’d written him off as a mope, but when he woke up one afternoon and I asked him that question, he was suddenly off to the races. He and a buddy were planting tulip bulbs in Holland, got sick of it, stole bikes, pedaled till they collapsed in a park in France, which turned out to be a last stop for over-the-hill prostitutes, one of whom gave them a place to stay…

And it’s in that same spirit that Errol Morris puts a camera on the same guy that my friend, Jason Fagone, brilliantly profiled a few years ago in a book that’s as superb as its title: Horsemen of the Esophagus.
What I love about Morris’ film is the same thing Jason figured out when he dove into the unlikely world of competitive eating: people are at their best when they’re trying to figure themselves out.

And the rest of you ain’t looking so good, either

by Christopher on February 24, 2012

Now that he’s figured out what’s wrong with our feet, mega-mind Dr. Dan Lieberman has moved on to the rest of our bodies. He’s figured out not only why humans evolved to become world champs at packing on fat, but what we can do about it. As usual with Lieberman, it’s an explanation and a solution you won’t hear anywhere else. And too bad for that.

I know YOU know this, but…

by Christopher on February 10, 2012

… it’s hard to get other people, particularly journalists, to understand that the debate about running form is not a debate about bare feet. It’s encouraging that publications like the New York Times and Men’s Fitness have stories about Dr. Lieberman’s groundbreaking research on the relationship between running form and injuries (while running magazines — surprise! — do their best to ignore it), but they continue to repeat the same misconception that it’s ultimately some kind of death match between bare feet and footwear. The goal isn’t to run barefoot — the goal is to learn how to run lightly and safely. Taking off your shoes removes a big layer of interference and makes it easier to learn good form, but it’s just the path — it’s not the destination.

So when Men’s Fitness writes this…

Unfortunately, as the authors of the new study are quick to point out, none of the Harvard runners were barefoot, so the study cannot address the barefoot question

…and the NY Times writes this…

This finding, the first to associate heel striking with injury, is likely to fuel the continuing and not-always civil debate about whether barefoot running is better.

…they’re missing The One Big Point, which every good-form advocate keeps repeating and which has been on my website for a looong time. And it’s this:

But ultimately, the debate isn’t about Bare Soles vs. Shoes. It’s about learning to run gently. Master that, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please.


Patient: “Doc, it hurts whenever I go like this.

Doctor: “Don’t go like that.”

Over the past few years, Daniel Lieberman’s lab at Harvard University has made a series of groundbreaking discoveries by testing one simple premise: if your leg hurts when you move it one way, try moving it another. And what has he found? In 2004, he and Dr. Dennis Bramble at the University of Utah revealed that humans are born with the natural capacity to outrun any animal on the planet. In 2010, Lieberman showed you can avoid a tremendous amount of initial impact shock by landing on your mid-forefoot, instead of your heels [Care to test it yourself? Take off your shoes and jump off a chair.  Compare the sensation of landing on your heels — ouch — versus landing on your forefoot — aah].

But does a softer landing mean fewer injuries? That’s what Dr. Lieberman and fellow researcher Adam Daoud set out to discover when they dug into four years of data from Harvard’s cross-country team. Their findings: “those who habitually rearfoot strike had approximately twice the rate of repetitive stress injuries than individuals who habitually forefoot strike.” And not only were forefoot strikers getting hurt less often, they were running more: on average, they were logging higher mileage than the heel-strikers.

Great news, right? A highly-regarded Harvard scientist who is a veteran marathoner and has tested his theories over the past decade in the lab, in the field, and on himself may have come up with a way to dramatically reduce running injuries, one of the most vexing problems in health and exercise. Best of all, it’s free. No pills, no fancy shoes, no podiatrists. All you have to do is change your form, maybe with a simple drill like the 100 Up, and running could become as safe and fun as it was when you were a kid. The implications are breathtaking: what if millions of people no longer suffered running injuries every year? What if millions of others who are afraid of getting hurt can now start running without fear of ruining their knees, feet, and backs?

Yet somehow, this is worrisome. Nearly very article about running form, including this story today by New York Times science writer Gretchen Reynolds, warns that changing your form is “controversial” and depicts it as bitter medicine. “Does this mean that those of us who habitually heel-strike, as I do, should change our form?” Reynolds wonders. And absorb this quote: “The study, for which researchers combed through four years’ worth of data about the Harvard runners, has produced the surprisingly controversial finding that how a person runs may affect whether he or she winds up hurt.” Really? What’s so shocking about the idea that the way you move your body may affect whether you hurt it?

Usually, a breakthrough that can radically improve national health and has strong biomechanical science behind it is welcomed as “promising” and “exciting.” So why is running form different? Because if you strip Lieberman’s work down to raw essentials, you come up with a single hard truth: cushioned running shoes are a fraud. They don’t help, they probably hurt, and the billions of dollars that are made every year by selling and promoting them are cashing in on your pain. With that mountain of money at stake, a tremendous amount of effort has been made to create the false impression that cushioned shoes are a safety item, like bike helmets and seat belts. It’s not easy to reverse a misconception like that, especially when it’s such a cash machine for everyone who makes, sells, and “reviews” running shoes.



Tarahumara Drought Update, III

by Christopher on February 6, 2012

I’ve never met Mickey Mahaffey, but Will Harlan vouches for him and that goes a very long way. Mickey and Will just helped coordinate a full-on Tarahumara rarajipari, or flick-ball race, down in the canyon-bottom town of Urique. The result: four tons of food were distributed not as charity, but as prizes for ultrarunning excellence. The message: there are people who appreciate what the Tarahumara know, and want to help keep that wisdom alive.

Check out Mickey’s story. And if you’d like to join me and help out, Will Harlan will deliver every cent you donate directly to the Tarahumara. Unlike some ribbon-y and bracelet-y operations, Will doesn’t use any of the money for “outreach” or “education.” He gives it all, 100%, to the people who need it most.

Dear Tarahumara friends and supporters,

On Sunday, January 29, over 300 Tarahumara gathered in the Copper Canyons for the second annual Urique Rarajipari and Ariweta. Thanks to your generous contributions, we sent them home with over four tons of food and provided them with transportation to their various homes around the canyons. Fifty men and women participated as runners. The teams from Batopilas took the win and were awarded bags of food and cash prizes. Many attended the event because of extreme hunger due to the prolonged drought in many parts of the canyons.

The woman who finished first for the second place women’s team walked about six hours from her home in the hopes of winning food for her family. She has eight kids and lives under a tree without any semblance of a home. Her husband was killed by drug traffickers. She was so timid she didn’t even come forward to accept her prizes of food and cash. We arranged extra food for her and provided a ride for her family back down river.

As successful and rewarding as our efforts were, the drought continues and hunger will remain a problem at least until the next harvest in October. As a result, we have decided to keep the contribution lines open so that we can continue to be helpful to our friends in their time of need—not only with continued supplies of food but also seeds, tools, water storage, and other long-term assistance. We are currently installing a water pump and water storage tanks for Arnulfo Quimare and the people in his village of Quisuchi.

Thank you immensely for all of your generous donations. Also, look for a short story about the rarajipari/ariweta and the drought in the next issue of Sports Illustrated, due out this Thursday.

Thanks again, from the bottom of my heart, at the bottom of the Urique Canyon.


Mickey Mahaffey
Director of the Urique Rarajipari and Ariweta
Copper Canyon Resident
Barefoot Farm Board Member

Good thing honest brokers like Caballo and Will Harlan are on the job, because when it comes to emergency drought relief for the Tarahumara, the Mexican government is apparently all talk, no pinole.
You have to be impressed by the long-range strategies of Harlan and the Horse. Will’s approach is to not only help out with immediate food rations, but also assist with water catchment and seed dispersal to head off future shortages. Caballo is not only distributing food to settlements, but raising an astonishing amount of cash and corn as prizes for his race (which the canyon-dwellers refer to as “The Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon”). How he puts together a race every year that has now grown to more than 300 runners is a mystery. When I asked recently, Caballo just shrugged: “i do not think I could begin to describe the challenges and do not want to remind myself of them–:] just move forward 1 more time.”

Will just sent this report from his assistance trip to the canyons, while on the same day, this killer poster for Caballo’s race went live:

Dear Friends of the Tarahumara,
Your donations provided the Tarahumara with several tons of emergency food. Hundreds of Tarahumara received corn, beans, potatoes, and other food from the Sierra Tarahumara Food Bank near Urique. They also are receiving natural, non-GMO seeds to plant this spring. In addition, we are installing a water reservoir at a Tarahumara spring near Huisichi to help capture and store water during the drought, the worst in Mexico’s recorded history. The food donations will help in the short-term; the seeds and water reservoir will enable the Tarahumara to sustain themselves long-term.

I witnessed firsthand the drought and famine facing the Tarahumara. I met and talked with many Tarahumara farmers whose corn crops failed because of the lack of rain. I saw their empty corn cribs and their dry, barren fields.

The Tarahumara were incredibly appreciative of the donations. No people are more worthy of help. They are a tough, self-sufficient people who have survived for centuries on their own in some of the world’s most rugged, remote terrain. They are not used to support from outside their community. Asking for help has not been easy for many of them. Yet they were deeply grateful for the food, seeds, and water. The distribution of food was an emotional and powerful experience. Families trekked from all over the canyons to receive the emergency food aid, and many carried it home on their backs. We delivered some food aid by truck to a couple of outlying communities as well.

At the heart of Tarahumara culture and tradition is “korima,” which loosely translates to “sharing.” Though the Tarahumara have few material possessions, they freely share them. They share food and clothes—as well as wisdom and insight—without expectation of a reciprocal gift. For them, giving is a natural and joyful part of being human.

Each of you participated in the circle of korima with the Tarahumara. Thank you immensely. Your generosity is as deep as the canyons.


Will Harlan
Barefoot Farm

The White Horse rides to the rescue

by Christopher on February 1, 2012

Caballo is going to head-butt me for that headline, so please note that i’m risking his wrath to capture your attention. The New York Times looked into famine conditions in the Copper Canyons, and their findings are almost identical to what Caballo told me two weeks ago: the mass suicide tales are bogus, but the hardship is all too real.
One bright moment in the coming weeks is the annual running of Caballo’s Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, the race that’s featured in Born to Run. How Caballo pulls it together every year is an absolute mystery. This year, the race is totally full: hundreds of Tarahumara and 80 runners from outside the canyons (including Barefoot Ted) will be gathering on Sunday, March 4, for 51 miles of bad-ass backcountry trailrunning.
Not only is Caballo giving away hundreds of pounds of corn as prizes, but he’s also digging deep to provide corn to Tarahumara villages in advance of the race. If you’d like to help an honest man who gives every cent directly to the people who need it, check out Caballo’s “Norawas” operation.