March 1, 2009

Alley Oop!

Archeologists have recently found footprints that suggest homo erectus got up for running early. One and a half million years ago, our ancestors, small-headed and short legged, were apparently already tottering on feet adapted for a long-distance walking and running gait.

They actually found two sets of footprints, one silted above the other, separated by 5 meters and about 10,000 years. One erectus walked over the self-same trail as his or her long-gone forebear. I like to imagine this early person dimly aware the trail of time s/he was treading, the tenuous connection between the various messes left by humanoids upon the earth's rough surface. But erectus had a small brain, so s/he was probably could only "just do it", without the balm of philosophical reflection.

The NYT article predictably calls on Daniel Lieberman of Harvard for some color commentary. Lieberman's name comes up any time someone wants to adduce support for primal running, and I think his research may be attached to the design and marketing of the Nike Free, or the Vibram Five-Fingers, or something. In any case he seems to have become the dean of hominid track and field - a science whose motivation probably could only have evolved in our time, to fill our hunger for genetic sanction of everything we do.

Running is a religion to its adherents, just ask anyone, and science is working hard to support our articles of faith. Popular books on the anthropology of running - and there are ever more of them, from Bernd Heinrich to Benjamin Cheever - detail how we evolved good running economy before even expanding our braincases. In this telling, it is not our opposable thumb and forefinger that sets us apart from the beasts, but our unopposable big toe. We learned to run before we learned to think hard, or make tools. They say our brains were just trying to keep up with our feet. Or at least it pleases me to think so, as my mind becomes wholly absorbed by bipedal toddling during a run.

I'm starting this as a running diary, more or less. No blog knows its purpose from the first post. So I'm just looking to set down some facts and thoughts from my new hobby, which I took up only a couple of months ago. I like to run, and every day I wonder what its secret purpose might be. Every run has a training purpose, building up to a race. The races space themselves out to cover the year. The common wisdom is, you can improve your running fairly consistently for 8 years, no matter what age you start. So one of my goals is to get better and better throughout that 8-year run to my 50th birthday.

But there are much better ways to stay in shape, and there's no obvious reason why someone my age has to be exercising every freaking day, so why all this? Well, I think there's something fundamentally human, as they say, about running. And I like the long, slow trajectory of training for a race eight years away. There's mystery to running, and spirit, and that's why I'm writing things down.

Freshman scribblings of a recent convert - bring your own salt.

Today's run: I'm early in my training cycle aimed at the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in May, so today was a fairly short long run: 8 miles, spooled out between Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery. In the park, the barest tendrils of bulbs have already broken the soil, like zombie fingertips reaching to feast on living brains. Or like the exuberant resurrection of Spring, if that's more your style. Snowdrops are already apparent here and there, just visible against the background of actual new-fallen snow. After a mile or so I turn right out of the park, through the South Slope, and towards Green-Wood Cemetery.

It's a lot closer to the park than I thought. Green-Wood is one of our nation's lovelier resting places, though it sits in a fairly bleak, industrial neighborhood. Leonard Bernstein is buried there, with Boss Tweed, and legions of other permanent Brooklynites. Its peaceful rolling hills face the bleak grandeur of the railyards, power plants, and metal shops that ring it around. Fascinated by both, I always had too many amazing things to look at as I wound my way by. The dreaming departed ("Our MOTHER, Elizabeth G-----, WENT TO SLEEP October 1, 1904") are turned eternally to face the faded economy ("Precast Masters Metal Finishing") of NYC's largest borough. It was a trip through Hades, and you don't slow your pace on such visits, even to beckoning shades.

Rejoining the loop in Prospect Park, I fell in behind a couple of guys I have often seen up ahead of me during my three races. One of them works at a sporting goods store and last November sold me the shoes I was wearing. They were running a little faster than me but I drafted behind, since I figured I was near the end, and just converted my long slow run to a progression run. Got home in time to kiss the baby and and the wife and cook up some beautiful pancake batter she had just mixed up. After yesterday's brutal yoga experience, the morning was a resurrection.

8 miles, 1:04:18, avg pace 8:02.

(Image by Matthew Bennett/Bournemouth University)

1 comment:

  1. And the wife happily kissed you back. Spring! Tendrils! Yay!Looking forward to seeing them when the snow melts.