The Running Muse

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'It's like a jungle sometimes....'

By The Running Muse, Dec 15 2014 09:12AM

Ever heard the one about the bipedal octopus? The running bipedal octopus? No, this is not a joke from a Christmas cracker - at least two types of octopus use just two of their eight legs for locomotion along the sea bed in shallow water, while the other six are used to create camouflage as a mat of algae or a floating coconut.

Across the animal kingdom, the evolution of bipedalism has conferred a range of enormous benefits, from freeing up other limbs for feeding, carrying, fighting, etc., to thermoregulation and flying. Not the least of these is the greater speed it can afford in the predator-prey arms race. So, four legs bad, eight legs good........two legs better?

Bipedal running may have obvious advantages for your PB, but for your great-great-(150,000 greats)-great-grandparents, it meant their survival and your existence. As the environment changed, our ancestors in the jungle couldn't rest on their evolutionary laurels - each had to ' wonder how I keep from going under', and, luckily for you, their response four million years ago was to emerge on to the savannah grassland where an advantageous erect stance evolved, otherwise you would now be clambering around your local 10k with Nike gloves to the ground.

In this extraordinary clip of an eight-hour persistence hunt by men of the Kalahari San, David Attenborough explains how upright, hands-free, sweat-cooled, large-brained endurance runners can track and cooperate in silent pursuit of an apparently faster animal. The hunt culminates in a final solo chase and a poignant ceremonial tribute to the hunted.

'Hunter and hunted are both at the end of their strength, and neither can go on much longer', says Attenborough, but it may be that the modern runner's feelgood factor, that pleasurable feeling of pushing the body in spite of, or maybe because of, the stress it engenders, is tuning in to a primitive hormonal heritage.

Below are two 3,000-year-old examples of San rock art depicting such a hunt. Ground ochre earth pigments or charcoal would have been mixed with blood, animal fat, urine or egg yolk and applied with the fingers or some kind of brush. The images are thought to be the products of shamanic ritual, a religious magic in which controlled representations of a hunt or a battle attempt to help ensure a successful outcome. This mindset perhaps has a modern echo in the visualisation techniques used by sports psychologists working with elite athletes today.

Primitive art has provided inspiration for many modern artists. Figurative elements in their work are often clipped down to their essential underlying forms, some of which may then be selected for emphasis. Compare those rock images, for example, with the two sculptures below - Gary Scott's elongated Paralympian Sprinters, and Alberto Giacometti's similarly stretched Running Man, which he presented as more of an About-to-be-Running Man (Giacometti maintained that he did not sculpt the human figure but 'the shadow that is cast').

Back in the real world of flesh and bone, evolution also shapes and selects elements for emphasis, but there have been costs to the development of an upright stance in humans - the extra weight bearing down through just two limbs causes problems for the joints of the lower back and knees - but they are outweighed by the benefits, as you can see in this hilarious clip of how y'all'd fare on a quadrupedal Sunday run, for instance. It shows the current men's world record for '100m on all fours' - the winner has twice as many limbs working the track as Usain Bolt does, but his time is over 60% slower.

Anyway, the next time a cheetah clamps its jaws around your prize rabbit and races off like a Ferrari, give chase like a Trabant - you should be able to run it to a standstill after about 5k. How you then ask for your Flopsy back is up to you, but both critters will be in awe of your 5k tempo run on just two legs.

Video clip from 'Food for Thought', episode 10 of The Life of Mammals (BBC, 2002) with David Attenborough

San rock painting at Malilangwe, Zimbabwe

San rock painting in the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

Paralympian Sprint sculpture by Gary Scott, plaxtin, 30cm x 40cm x 30cm, 2012

Running Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, painted bronze, 57cm x 27cm x 12.5cm, 1950

'Fastest 100m on all Fours' clip from Guinness World Records Day, 2014

Sep 7 2015 06:29PM by lilhy


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Any other runners out there who think there is much more to running than physical exertion?


Well, you're not alone - ever since the earliest cave paintings, the meaning and pleasure of the running experience has been explored by writers, painters and composers, by philosophers, film-makers and dramatists.


Comedians have laughed at it, scientists have analysed it, and historians have chronicled its cultural resonance. The Running Muse will be nourishing your runner's soul with stories from all of them.


Even the sweatiest of ancient Greek gyms were also places of intellectual endeavour, so welcome to a new blog for the thinking runner, a miscellany of musings on running in culture that will be navigating the existential wonders of putting one foot in front of the other.


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 'It's like a jungle sometimes....'


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