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Running Man Theory- revisiting the past

Posted by on Apr 3, 2011 | 14 Comments

Shelly and I are on our spring break right now.  Since we have the extra time, we decided to visit my family in northern Michigan.  I was good to catch up with everyone, and staying in a hotel is serving as “practice” for the RV trip we’ll start in a few months.  So far, so good.

Anyway, I had some free time this morning and decided to read a few of my old posts from 2009.  I came across a post about the “running man” theory that hypothesizes humans evolved as long-distance runners.  My opinions haven’t changed since writing the original post.  I am curious about the opinions of my audience, though.  Read through the following post and let me know what you think of the theory by posting a comment.

If you’ve run long enough, you will inevitably get this question. Personally, I find this question very difficult to answer. Yes, there are standard, canned answers… I run to stay healthy, to lose weight, as a means of relieving stress, I enjoy the outdoors, I enjoy the company of others, yadda, yadda, yadda. I’ve never liked these answers, though. They seem woefully incomplete. Sure, I like feeling healthy, and I really do love the connectedness with nature when running trails. With three small children, running definitely relieves stress! Still, there’s a deeper, more primitive reason I run. It is exceedingly difficult to capture in words, but it feels like a drive of sorts. It feels like this is what I was meant to do.

There’s an anthropological theory that suggests humans evolved as long-distance runners (the “running man” theory). This idea is explored in Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run“. The idea- we evolved originally to use a method called “persistence hunting”. The basic theory works like this- we would hunt animals by running them to death. Most animals are faster than us, but do not have the physiology to maintain long, slow distance running. Eventually they collapse from exhaustion or hyperthermia. I find the theory to be endlessly fascinating in part because of my social science geekiness, but also because it helps explain why I feel the way I do when I run. It helps explain this unknown drive to run ever-greater distances; to continue to push myself to find the point of failure.

In my last race (the Fallsburg Marathon), I was feeling somewhat fatigued around mile 20. At that point, I had run about 45 miles over two days. As I was going through the laundry list of mental tricks distance runners use to survive the cycle of mental and physical peaks and valleys, I stumbled on perhaps my best trick. I saw a runner in front of me. I imagined they were prey and I was hunting them. Suddenly, the pain subsided. I felt a burst of energy, immediate, intense focus, and a surreal sense of happiness… surely it was the result of a massive release of endorphins and epinephrine. It was as if I were suddenly floating over the trails. Within 30 seconds, I caught that runner. I continued this “game” for the next six miles, ultimately passing about twelve runners. Never before have I finished a race so strongly, even though I had just passed the fifty mile mark over two days of running. Next time you find yourself in the clutches of that low the marathoners like to refer to as “the wall”, try thinking of yourself as a hunter stalking and capturing the prey in front of you. Channel your ancestral root! You are doing what we were designed to do.


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  1. Brad (beedubya)
    April 4, 2011

    I felt almost the same thing chasing my headlamp spot tonight. Just kinda zoned out into bliss. Really cool.

  2. Allan
    April 4, 2011

    Aren’t dogs persistence hunters? I got hooked on running because my dogs needed the exercise or they drove me crazy. Funny thing happened. My german shepherd dog would go crazy f’ing bonkers when I came down the stairs in my running togs. Loony. He loved to run. Wasn’t going anywhere. Wasn’t chasing anything. Was just in the moment and moving. After two 10 mile loops around town lake he’d look up at me like, “Are we going to do another one?” My dogs just love to run and run and run. And so do I. They helped me find it in myself but it seems like it is just hard wired to enjoy that loping pace that makes you feel like you can just keep going forever.

  3. Mark Young
    April 4, 2011

    The great Kenyan runner Mike Boit has said that at home with his tribe the Nandi he has greater prestige for his ability to catch an impala than for his racing career. The Nandi test themselves by running an impala to exhaustion, the same hunt technique described above. Their running skills have been honed over many generations by hunting and even more so by long distance cattle raiding. Read more here

  4. Brandon
    April 4, 2011

    Whether you believe the idea or not, it is definitely a great technique for racing. I usually start a bit farther back than my pace would dictate in most races just so I can continuously pick out people to pass. It allows me to focus on short term goals and distracts me from the repetitiveness of running in general.

  5. Nathan Matthews
    April 4, 2011

    @Josh. It is funny how that phrase “were were designed” creeps in isn’t it? Designed by whom?

    • Barefoot Josh
      April 4, 2011

      Alright, fine. I’ll fess up. It was me – I’m the Intelligent Designer. And let me just say you all look FABULOUS!

  6. Dave Robbo
    April 3, 2011

    I’m a big fan of tapping into our primitive hunting instincts when we run. I put in into practice during a 10K race yesterday and managed to round a few ‘prey’ up using this mindset.
    Running to survive is a very powerful force that exists in all humans. We just have to find ways to re-disciver and harness it in the modern world.

  7. Jim B
    April 3, 2011

    I had originally read this post about 6 months ago when I first started reading your blog. I tried this as well during my first 1/2 marathon, although not feeling all that fatigued, around mile 8 I tried the “hunt” strategy and I found that my pace started to increase and I finished the race with negative splits. It is amazing what the human body and mind together can accomplish. I think this strategy will be put to the test during trail marathons and ultras, when you can not see your “prey” in front of you, yet you know they are there…

  8. kelly
    April 3, 2011

    Josh, are you weeping 99.9%?

  9. Janice Nicholls
    April 3, 2011

    I agree that the reason for running is primitive. I usually give the standard responses when asked why, but the truth is that running is about joy. The joy I feel when my body is able to move, my mind is free and I’m in the outdoors. It’s not always easy, but it feel natural to me. Like it’s a part of who I am.

    The only issue I have with the human evolving as a runner to chase down prey idea is that it appears to focus on men. What about the women? Were they chasing prey too? If not, the theory does not extend to women being born to run. Perhaps being born to run has nothing to do with prey. Perhaps our early ancestors felt the same joy we do when they were able to move their bodies. Surely there was more to life back then than just chasing prey….:)

    • Barefoot Josh
      April 3, 2011

      Women run, men have nipples, whales have hips:
      “Their (nipples) advantage in females, in terms of reproductive success, is clear. But because the genetic “default” is for males and females to share characters, the presence of nipples in males is probably best explained as a genetic correlation that persists through lack of selection against them, rather than selection for them.”

      Read the rest at:

  10. James
    April 3, 2011

    I’m sure the implied designer in the last sentence is the wondrous FSM.

  11. Barefoot Josh
    April 3, 2011

    First, sorry I didn’t participate in your book giveaway – I got behind on my email. but then, most of the (few) people who read my blog probably already own your book anyway, so no biggee. Glad the giveaway was such a success!

    As to this post, I agree but hesitantly. I hesitate because anything that rings so truly in my ears makes me afraid of following blindly. I feel 99.9% positive that we run because of a long history of evolutionary pressures to do so, but my desire for that to be true is strong enough that I might be dismissive of counter-arguments.

    That said, racing with a hunter’s mentality is uberfun.

    And I realize I’m picking nits with a language issue here, but the phrase “we were designed” in the last sentence makes me weep for humanity.