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Soup of This Day #163: Workin’ On Mysteries Without Any Clues

April 9, 2012

Copper Canyon
Copper Canyon, northern Mexico. It’s actually 6 distinct canyons, with a total area greater than the Grand Canyon. It’s deep country – Photo: Jens Uhlenbrock, 2006. Jens Uhlenbrock is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

When I lived in Carnarvon I had a favourite running route. It was amongst the mangroves and dunes that were between the main part of town and the Indian Ocean. It had soft sand, hard-packed red dirt and sucking mud. There were mud crabs, rabbits, legless lizards, lizardless snakes and 1 time a fox. That circuit stretched for 20 minutes and it taught me that running was at once both simple and complex – It was about putting 1 foot in front of the other, preferably without falling over, and it was about extracting the maximum speed for the minimum effort.

You also had to dodge the lizardless snakes.

Keen herpetologists will have spotted that I made the term ‘lizardless snakes’ up. Legless lizards are a real thing and are lizards that look like snakes but aren’t snakes. Interestingly, some of them do eat snakes. This, as I will now explain, is a good thing.

Lizardless snakes are how I refer to snakes that look like snakes and are actual bloody snakes. And this being Australia there’s an even money chance that the little buggers are carrying enough venom to knock out a whole relay team, let alone a lone runner tramping the back country wearing shorts and ankle socks.

Still, I loved that run and figured those lizardless snakes would try to avoid me lumbering along. Or they’d get eaten by a posse of legless lizards that I imagined were covering my trail. Either or.

Keen herpetologists will now be holding their heads in their hands.

The other day I got to reading an article that brought back the memory of following that Carnarvon track. It was about ultramarathon legend Micah True via the BBC Magazine online. Born Michael Randall Hickman some time around 1954 True was once a professional boxer who allegedly tried to cure a broken heart by running long miles in Colorado.

Somehow from there it became his thing.

In the 90s he acted as a guide runner for Native American runners in Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100. Fittingly known as The Race Across The Sky this 100 mile foot race has elevation changes of nearly 5km, with a peak height at Hope Pass of 3,850m. True wasn’t there to win it, he was there to help the Tarahumara, Native Americans from northern Mexico. In their own language they are called Rarámuri which can be taken to mean ‘those who run fast’. They knew how to run then – Micah True was there to show them which way to go.

This worked well. In 1993 52 yr old Victoriano Churro led home a Tarahumara 1-2. In 1994 Juan Herrera set a course record in adding a 2nd win for the Copper Canyon people – The record would stand for 11 years. It wasn’t the only thing they captured.

Michael Randall Hickman followed them home to the Copper Canyon region of the Sierra Madre Occidental, northern Mexico. There, reborn as Micah True, he set out to learn what it really means to run.

He built a profound respect for the Tarahumara and a burning desire to help them. There’s a story that he was once asked to help write a book. Publishers offered him money to no avail. In the end he held out for beans and rice to be delivered to his friends. Corn was a common theme for him too – He devised and organised the annual Copper Canyon ultramarathon, featuring a mix of professional runners and Tarahumara participants. The prizes involved corn and food vouchers.

Tarahumara children nicknamed him Caballo Blanco, White Horse, due to a snorting and stomping routine that he used to amuse them.

And he learned what it is to run. According to True, the Tarahumara remember that humans are a creature of constant motion. In True’s eyes not running was like caging an animal. If you stop running, then you open yourself up to a whole range of modern problems, 1 of which is depression.

There’s some science to back that up too – 1 of the tools they give you to combat depression is exercise. There’s some thought that simply by keeping fit you can not only help yourself to battle the Black Dog, you can also proof yourself against further attacks.

It certainly worked for me – 1 of the assists for surviving my black days, and strangely my chronic aches as well, was a run through those mangroves. And in my own small way I started to learn some of True’s lessons on how to run too:

‘Don’t fight the trail. Take what it gives you,’ was lesson 1.

For me, my short route traversed several types of ground. Early on I learned that you never attacked that land, never ran angry or with aggression. If you did you’d find yourself burning precious strength trying to steamroll through soft sand. It was like punching water and was a sure-fire way to burn out before you ever got started. You had to stay light and that for me meant being good-humoured, amiable even, with the terrain.

There was this particular type of punishment I’d come across that I think of as a kind of sandy crème brûlée – It’d be river sand, deep and like dry molasses to step in. On the surface though it was a hard skin, a crust just strong enough that you’d get lulled with each step into believing that maybe this time it would take your weight. Except it never did and after the briefest pause your foot would bite through and sink, dragging you and your momentum with it.

Crème brûlée made up part of my run most days. The best way to deal with it was to get into your head that you could float on top, working with the material. You couldn’t float on top – That was simple physics but by making it your ethos you sort of floated anyway, more in an attitudinal kind of way. Plus, you’d know that it wasn’t forever and that your time to flow would come with the hard ground – Then you could take that energy saved working with the crème brûlée and take full toll. You’d eat up scenery, each stride stretching on forever and seemingly faster than the last.

Which probably sounds a little too poetic for a sporting blog.

I actually started writing this as an Easter Sunday thing – I started at the end and couldn’t even get that done, mostly because I don’t know the etiquette – Wishing everyone a happy Easter feels strange. This time has a great spiritual significance for Christians and a flippant wish for a good-humoured day seems out of place for an agnostic sports dude.

So I thought about my experience and came up with running – It’s as close to a creator as I’ve felt in a sporting context. A strange tribute to Easter it is but it’s the best I’ve got and I hope you’ll get my good wishes for all of you out of it.

It’s given me an ending too – A final thought on running from White Horse. And it is a final thought for Micah True passed away just a week and a half ago. He’d gone for a run near Gila, New Mexico, a short simple 1 that he failed to return from. Friends and colleagues joined numerous search parties and he was found by 1 of those – legs dangling in a stream, apparently like he’d just gone to sleep.

‘Lesson two – think easy, light, smooth and fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t [care] how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practised that so long that you forget you’re practising, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three, and you’ll be fast.’

Amen – Think I might go for a run tomorrow – I hope your Easter was a good 1 folks.

Workin’ On Mysteries Without Any Clues

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