Work Hard, Play Harder…Run Hardest?
Why rarajipari just might push ultrarunning to the next level.
I sincerely enjoy running. Not ultra-running mind you, but I regularly log 8 miles before heading to work in the mornings and those miles are often the most serene part of my day. Corvallis, Oregon is a beautiful little city by any standards, and I truly believe that the best pace at which to appreciate it is a steady run. Get around by car, or even bike, and you’ll miss the little details that make Corvallis special: the tiny “fairy doors” at the bases of 200-year old oak trees, the incredible tile mosaic patterns that adorn the front gate and mailbox of that house on the corner and that fearless squirrel that follows you for blocks by jogging the overhanging power lines… then dismounts to land inches from your head. Yes, there’s plenty to look at in Corvallis, and I’ve enjoyed delightful surprises during every exploratory run I’ve ever taken, anywhere in the world.
Even with all this beauty and adventure to take in, however, I find it extremely difficult to go running without my crutch: my headphones. Whether plugged-in to an old-school iPod Nano that hasn't been updated for years or a smartphone full of podcasts I update daily, for me, having an auditory distraction available makes my runs possible. On the rare occasions when I have neglected to properly charge-up beforehand and my device has died mid-run, I have been forced to grapple with the boredom-driven fatigue which inevitably sets-in. All of a sudden, my centering, liberating “me time” is transformed into a chore, a drudgery to be dispensed with quickly so that I can move on to more interesting pursuits…like a hot shower.
Corvallis "Fairy Door" decked out for the holidays!
Impressive, right? Pretty much everyone's yard looks this nice!
I know I’m far from the only runner who enjoys some tunes to keep them moving. On the other hand, I am also aware that the best distance runners in the history of the world, such as the Raramuri (featured in Born to Run), easily cover ten times my average distance with no accompaniment but the rhythm of their footfalls—and even those are barely audible. Known to the outside world as the Tarahumara, this ancient, self-isolating tribal people is composed of natural ultra-marathoners who obviously don’t need iPods to keep them motivated on 100+ mile runs. So how do they do it?
They make a game out of it. Tarahumara men and women regularly engage in ultra-marathon-length races called rarajiparis and ariwetas, respectively. Generally, in both events, participants are broken up into two teams. In the women’s race, the ariweta, all the racers carry 3-foot sticks with curved tips, which are used to pass each team’s wooden ring forward among teammates. This propels the participants along the chosen course until one team completes the run and wins the race. The more well-known men’s rarajipari is similar to the women’s race in most respects. The one essential difference is that participants run along the course while passing a baseball-sized wooden ball with their feet rather than using a hoop/stick combination. Running games put a playful spin on a training regimen with serious consequences; for centuries, the Tarahumara have relied on their incredible running skills to survive, calling upon them for seasonal migrations, hunting, and evading predators (from jaguars to conquistadors). Apparently, the focus, teamwork, and sense of playfulness brought about by this kind of racing is engrossing enough to help the miles fly by—and at top speed, at that.
So, games make long, challenging tasks more fun. No huge surprise there; the concepts of gamification have been applied to everything from customer loyalty programs to study aids to chronic illness recovery. In fact, the field of physical fitness is dominated by games. We call them sports, and most of them involve some degree or variation of running. But a logic breakdown seems to occur when we take the running out of the stadium and onto the track or trail. In mainstream Western culture, we seem to have decided that running with balls and sticks is fine in short spurts, but that we must remove all of these “distractions” when we’re out to cover “real” distance.
Seems rather ironic, doesn’t it? If games make long, difficult tasks more manageable, wouldn’t that make them more important for successful long-distance running? Why have we decided to use a wheelbarrow for our yardwork, but opt only a bucket and shovel when we try to move mountains? Why are we self-sabotaging by making running boring?
Happily, it appears that recently, the distance-running community has come to recognize this disconnect and is taking action to correct it. Case in point: Bole. A Virginia-based company created in the wake of Born to Run’s release, Bole handcrafts professional-quality balls specifically designed for the game of rarajipari. According to their website:
We wanted to play rarajipari. After first learning about the ancient running sport played by the Tarahumara, we were determined to get our hands on a running ball. There was only one problem. We couldn't find a single running ball for sale... anywhere… We wanted to play with a ball that had the same kick trajectory and roll pattern as a Tarahumara running ball… We eventually decided that if we wanted an authentic feel, we would have to research the Tarahumara running ball and create our own.
Image courtesy of boleball.com
Others have caught the rarajipari bug as well. Twitter’s #rarajipari hashtag helped me uncover fans of the obscure sport in Scandinavian, and a YouTube search currently yields 156 related videos from across the world. In addition, Run Free – The True Story of Caballo Blanco, which chronicles the life of one of the few non-natives to run with the Tarahumara, was just named Best Documentary at the 24th Annual Arizona International Film Festival. It’s difficult to tell whether rarajipari or ariweta will ever break in to mainstream running culture. But with the popularity of ultra-running holding strong, athletes are sure to keep experimenting with new ways to run farther, faster, and with fewer injuries. It would be ridiculous to ignore a case study like the Tarahumara, and just as illogical to discount their centuries-old training games. Baring this in mind, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to anticipate a surge in cooperative, play-driven running.
Of course, there’s something to be said for the calming quiet of a simple, solo run; as previously stated, I enjoy it myself. While solitude might be quite lovely for an hour, however, I doubt it would be sufficient companionship for twenty. If I ever decide to shoot for fifty miles in a stretch then you can bet that I won’t be doing it alone. Maybe I’ll even bring a ball or ring along.
How do you motivate yourself on long runs? Do you have your own running games to keep you going? Please share!