Cool, and certainly not impossible

CoolImpossibleCaveat: I’ve talked before about books relevant to training plans I’ve reviewed, but I’m not big on book reviews. I’ll talk about my thoughts on reading this book, but this is not totally a review of the book. If interested, look up reviews of the book or browse a copy separately on your own. And of course, if you disagree with any of the following… cool.


A few weeks back at a local bookstore I stumbled upon and bought a book by Eric Orton called The Cool Impossible. Orton gained fame in Christopher MacDougal’s book Born To Run, about Christopher’s journey to run the Copper Canyon ultra with the uncanny endurance-running Tarahumara natives of northwest Mexico.

Eric Orton coached Chris through training for the ultra, and his personally developed methods (derived in no small part from what he learned with the Tarahumara) find their way into this book I found a few weeks ago.

I read this book and unlike other running books it doesn’t map out a training plan to prepare for a goal race. Instead, what training plan the book has intends to rebuild your running ability through balance and strength exercises using slant/wobble boards and a balance ball, and later through perfecting your running form and cadence through drills and then shorter bouts of running that grow gradually longer over 26 weeks (including the initial strength building phase) of general training.

Orton details how the Tarahumara run on custom-made minimalist shoes made from old tires on uneven, rocky trails that constantly require stepping on and pushing off from uneven terrain. Most runners in civlization run on cleaner, flatter surfaces, and don’t develop the nuanced lower body strength from running on rocky terrain that the Tarahumara do.

Reading through these anecdotes and Orton’s breakdown of the subsequent exercises, two ideas jumped out at me.

1) Virtually no one else who coaches or writes about running even talks about this, let alone works on or teaches how to do this.

In fact, most running coaches probably have no idea how to run on truly uneven terrain, even if they run trails or trail races. Such runners probably stick to paths and then just tiptoe through these sections that Orton and the Tarahumara have the nuanced strength to run straight through.

2) Hey wait, I already do this.

Growing up in dry hot Vegas, what grass we had in the schoolyard and parks was largely unmaintained. It was mowed and occasionally weedwacked, sure. But we played soccer and ran laps over lumpy, rugged grass whose random bumps and divots you perhaps got used to over time.

Add in running over dusty desert dirt, the random consistency of what pavement there was, and I got a lot of practice growing up in running over uneven terrain. I wasn’t even a distance runner.

Once I got seriously into distance running so many years later, I was among the few who had no problem taking my run onto the dirt fringes of the Lakefront Trail, or even onto the similarly rugged, inconsistent grass terrain.

Whenever I slip in icy terrain during winter, I have the proprioception to stay balanced and continue forward without falling or getting hurt. Even when I do trip or slip and begin to fall, I have the awareness, balance and strength to often stay on my feet, or at least land safely without injury.

Over my life I’ve been in a few messy homes, workplaces, classrooms, and got used to stepping through and over a variety of mess, stepping accidentally on all sorts of random things, and staying balanced when that happened.

That certainly helped when I got into theatre and dance, and that sort of dynamic balance came in handy. Add in the deep movement training of both disciplines, and having that now-natural perception helped a lot when I later got into distance running.

I realize I’m not a typical case, that most other people won’t have this ability or awareness if they don’t discover and work on it. Sure, they may have some, but a lot of them tiptoe through tough spots, or hurt something as soon as they step off-balance on something. A book like this might actually be really useful for a large number of such runners.

Meanwhile, while I might get some value out of some of the exercises or the renovative training plan (probably after the Chicago Marathon in October, though)… the idea of, say, balancing on one foot on a slanted surface isn’t new territory for me. In fact, I had to do stuff like that in George Lewis’ Meyerhold Biomechanics theatre class every week.

A few weeks ago, I had to run through large swaths of terrain during my last 17 miler. Weather, people and conditions forced me onto bumpy grass and dirt for a good portion of it. Not only have I not forgotten how, but I still need and utilize those abilities today.

I’m glad I got this book, and there’s useful material in here, even if it turns out I already have some of this knowledge. Sometimes it’s cool (and certainly not impossible) to learn that what you innately knew isn’t foreign to others.

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