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The findings are already raising ethical, social and even economic questions. Yet even as the research explains many of our athletic differences, it may reveal more important biological truths about us as a single humanity.
WE ARE BECAUSE WE RUN
IN OUR GENES we are all distance runners. Let's start at the cusp, just before humans became the earth's marathoners. Two-and-a-half-million years ago, our ancestors lived in the trees of the East African woodland, foraging for fruit and digging up tubers. They were wide-hipped, hunched and hairy, and the giants among them were all of five feet tall. But their world was changing dramatically. Their forest home had begun to give way to hot, dry savanna, with few trees and with grass short enough to give sight lines that stretched until the earth curved away. Our forebears saw for the first time the hordes of wildebeest and antelope that filled the plain.
Gradually these ancient, mostly vegetarian primates dropped from the trees and went looking for steak. Initially they might have used vultures as their guides, racing hyenas to scavenge the leftover brains and bone marrow of dead antelopes. For the first time in history a two-legged mammal had reason to run long. Those who could jog in the punishing equatorial heat could beat the hyenas to a carcass. They could survive another day, perhaps long enough to have children.
The major changes that took hold in the body over the next half-million years were examined in 2004 by biologists Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah and Daniel Lieberman of Harvard. Their conclusion contradicted the common assumption that human running was simply a by-product of walking. Nearly every one of the major anatomical changes en route to modern man, the professors argued, conspired to make him the hot-weather endurance running champion of the savanna.
There is, for instance, the rubbery neck ligament that acts like a shock absorber for the head during running; the glut of sweat glands to help keep the body cool while running; the lack of body fur for the same reason; shoulders that move, unlike in apes, independently from the neck so that the arms can swing while the head remains still; long legs and narrow waists; larger surface areas in hip, knee and ankle joints, again for improved shock absorption; short toes, which are better for pushing off than for grasping tree branches; an arched foot, which acts as a spring; and big butt muscles to keep us upright. "Have you ever looked at an ape? They have no buns," Bramble says. "We think running is one of the most transforming events in human history."
No longer content merely to scavenge, our ancestors, despite having no greater weapons than sticks and stones, became deadly hunters. They overwhelmed their perspirationally challenged quarry with a methodical chase that lasted until the beasts, unable to pant sufficiently while fleeing, simply gave up from heat exhaustion.
Descartes said we are because we think, but consider that we thought only after we ran. Even our large brains developed because we ran, growing only once our endurance enabled us to gorge on animal fat and protein. We are who we are—the only sweating, largely hairless bipedal mammals—because we ran. As Lieberman puts it, "Endurance running is hardwired into our anatomy and physiology."
For decades running was considered an unimportant part of human evolution because we humans are such pathetic wimps at sprinting. In his world-record 200-meter dash, Usain Bolt averaged a little more than 23 mph for nearly 20 seconds. That would make him an abject failure as a savanna hunter because an antelope can double that clip for minutes at a time. But with the help of our upright stance (which exposes less of our bodies to the sun) and our profuse sweating, we can outrun just about any other animal on the planet if the race extends over hours in searing midday heat.
Sound far-fetched? Consider that humans have beaten horses in the 22-mile Man Versus Horse Marathon in Wales, and humans routinely win the 50-mile Man Against Horse Race in Prescott, Ariz. And note that in Southern Africa a small number of San Bushmen, the world's oldest community of modern humans, still hunt by separating an antelope from its pack and chasing it for hours in 105° heat, until the animal simply stops running and waits to be killed. Or note that any Tom, Dick or Oprah can complete a marathon with proper training and sensible pacing.