For more than forty years, I’ve been running for exercise. Three or four miles, three or four times a week. And hating every step.
So when I learned about the Tarahumara Indians, who live in Mexico’s remote Copper Canyons and are renowned for running long distances wearing little more than homemade sandals and a smile, I was intrigued. Fascinated. Amazed.
Not just that they run hundreds of miles with only worn tire rubber tied to their feet, but that they smile while doing it. Why? Because the Tarahumara know something most other runners don’t: Running is supposed to be fun. Not torture. Not penance for eating an extra-large piece of apple pie with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. Not something you do to keep your skinny jeans from getting too tight or because you might get a medal at the end of a race.
For thousands of years, the Tarahumara have excelled at combining breath and mind and muscle into seemingly effortless movement over some of the most rugged terrain on earth. Simply because they understand what it means to love running.
Could a slightly overweight middle-aged woman (me, for instance) learn to love it, too?
I didn’t trade my hundred-dollar running shoes with the cushioned heels and high-tech pronation control orthotics for flip-flops. But I did buy a pair of flexible shoes with a low heel-to-toe differential, hoping they would encourage me to run with a more natural gait. I replaced the junk food in my diet with real food. Carrots instead of Cheetos. Oranges instead of Oreos. Peas instead of pizza. And I added a couple of spoonfuls of chia seeds, which the Tarahumara swear provide an unbeatable energy boost, to my daily regimen.
Last but not least, I vowed to smile every time I ran.
Smiling felt a little silly at first. But after a while, I noticed that many of the drivers I encountered on my running route smiled back at me. Some waved. A few tooted their horns. I began to pay attention to scenery I’d come to take for granted. A newborn calf hiding behind her mother. A great blue heron admiring his reflection in a pond. A fencerow alive with black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace.
It wasn’t long before I quit dreading my runs. Soon, I actually began to enjoy them. Now when I lace up my new low-tech running shoes and head out the door, I rarely have to remind myself that running is supposed to be fun. I won’t pretend that I smile for the entire three or four miles. I tend to grimace on the curves and groan on the uphills. But whenever I hit a shady spot or encounter an unexpected cool breeze or kick it into high gear on the downhill home stretch, I don’t just smile. I grin.
Just like the Tarahumara who inspired me.