Are We Born to Run? by Christopher McDougall (Transcript)

Christopher McDougall – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

Running: it’s basically just right, left, right, left, yeah? I mean, we’ve been doing it for two million years, so it’s kind of arrogant to assume that I’ve got something to say that hasn’t been said and performed better a long time ago. But the cool thing about running, as I’ve discovered, is that something bizarre happens in this activity all the time.

Case in point: A couple months ago, if you saw the New York City Marathon, I guarantee you, you saw something that no one has ever seen before. An Ethiopian woman named Derartu Tulu turns up at the starting line. She’s 37 years old. She hasn’t won a marathon of any kind in eight years, and a few months previously, she had almost died in childbirth. Derartu Tulu was ready to hang it up and retire from the sport, but she decided she’d go for broke and try for one last big payday in the marquee event, the New York City Marathon.

Except — bad news for Derartu Tulu — some other people had the same idea, including the Olympic gold medalist, and Paula Radcliffe, who is a monster, the fastest woman marathoner in history by far. Only 10 minutes off the men’s world record, Paula Radcliffe is essentially unbeatable. That’s her competition. The gun goes off, and — I mean, she’s not even an underdog; she’s, like, under the underdogs. But the under-underdog hangs tough, and 22 miles into a 26-mile race, there is Derartu Tulu, up there with the lead pack.

Now, this is when something really bizarre happens. Paula Radcliffe, the one person who is sure to snatch the big paycheck from Derartu Tulu’s under-underdog hands, suddenly grabs her leg and starts to fall back. So we all know what to do in this situation, right? You give her a quick crack in the teeth with your elbow and blaze for the finish line. Derartu Tulu ruins the script. Instead of taking off, she falls back and she grabs Paula Radcliffe, and says, “Come on. Come with us. You can do it.”

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So Paula Radcliffe, unfortunately, does it. She catches up with the lead pack and is pushing toward the finish line. But then she falls back again.

The second time, Derartu Tulu grabs her and tries to pull her. And Paula Radcliffe, at that point, says, “I’m done. Go.” So that’s a fantastic story, and we all know how it ends. She loses the check, but she goes home with something bigger and more important.

Except Derartu Tulu ruins the script again. Instead of losing, she blazes past the lead pack and wins. Wins the New York City Marathon, goes home with a big fat check. It’s a heartwarming story, but if you drill a little bit deeper, you’ve got to sort of wonder about what exactly was going on there. When you have two outliers in one organism, it’s not a coincidence.

When you have someone who is more competitive and more compassionate than anybody else in the race, again, it’s not a coincidence. You show me a creature with webbed feet and gills; somehow water’s involved. Someone with that kind of heart, there’s some kind of connection there. And the answer to it, I think, can be found down in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, where there’s a reclusive tribe, called the Tarahumara Indians.

Now, the Tarahumara are remarkable for three things.

Number one is: they have been living essentially unchanged for the past 400 years. When the conquistadors arrived in North America you had two choices: you either fight back and engage or you could take off. The Mayans and Aztecs engaged, which is why there are very few Mayans and Aztecs. The Tarahumara had a different strategy. They took off and hid in this labyrinthine, networking, spider-webbing system of canyons called the Copper Canyons.

And there they’ve remained since the 1600s, essentially the same way they’ve always been. The second thing remarkable about the Tarahumara is: deep into old age — 70 to 80 years old — these guys aren’t running marathons; they’re running mega-marathons. They’re not doing 26 miles, they’re doing 100, 150 miles at a time, and apparently without injury, without problems.

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The last thing that’s remarkable about the Tarahumara is: all the things we’re going to be talking about today, all the things we’re trying to use all of our technology and brain power to solve — things like heart disease and cholesterol and cancer; crime, warfare and violence; clinical depression — all this stuff — the Tarahumara don’t know what you’re talking about. They are free from all of these modern ailments.

So what’s the connection? Again, we’re talking about outliers; there’s got to be some kind of cause and effect. Well, there are teams of scientists at Harvard and the University of Utah that are bending their brains and trying to figure out what the Tarahumara have known forever. They’re trying to solve those same kinds of mysteries.

And once again, a mystery wrapped inside of a mystery — perhaps the key to Derartu Tulu and the Tarahumara is wrapped in three other mysteries, which go like this: Three things — if you have the answer, come up and take the microphone, because nobody else knows the answer. If you know it, you’re smarter than anybody on planet Earth.

Mystery number one is this: Two million years ago, the human brain exploded in size. Australopithecus had a tiny little pea brain. Suddenly humans show up, Homo erectus, big old melon head. To have a brain of that size, you need to have a source of condensed caloric energy. In other words, early humans are eating dead animals — no argument, that’s a fact.

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