Alexis Appelquist, Huffines Producer
Leagues of people gather at the break of dawn, creating a sea of neon colored nylon and spandex, all with the fixed determination of a distance typically anywhere from 5k to 26.2 miles. Endurance running has become the favorite pastime of suburban moms and ex-military fitness enthusiasts alike, with roots anchored even before ancient Greek tales of the marathon and extending to modern day world-class athletes. In retrospect, humans are far from the most athletic creatures out there, lacking the speed and power of many animals. However, the one area we do excel in is distance running. Not only do we surpass horses and dogs, two other animals built to endure, we do so voluntarily as opposed to only when forced.
What is it about humans that give us the capacity to run for extended periods of time? Why were we graced with this unconventional gift? It is commonly thought that endurance running in the Homo genus goes hand in hand with their historic need to hunt and scavenge for food. Early humans were able to follow their prey over long distances, until the animal became tired out and easy to kill. We possess several physical adaptations that make this possible. Our hairlessness along with our ability to sweat and breathe through our mouths allows much more of the heat created through running to be dumped, whereas other animals are prone to hyperthermia. Though other animals run on four legs rather than two, they typically cool themselves through panting, and are unable to do so in a galloping state. The long, slender body of humans gives way to a greater surface area of skin, through which heat may be expelled permitting a more rapid cooling. Our upright gait allows the flexibility needed for our arms to counterbalance our weight with each stride, and our head is held steady by the presence of a ligament in the back of the neck. Additional elastic tendons and ligaments in our legs and feet along with the straight orientation of the big toe make our running energetically favorable and more efficient. Lastly, the human body’s biggest muscle, the gluteus maximus, is engaged during running also.
Though man rarely still practices persistence hunting, our endurance running capabilities have not gone extinct. Humans possess the determination to train themselves into better runners, a trait lacked in other animals. Despite the fact that running great distances is no longer a necessity, it appears to be wired into our systems, giving way to the concept of long runs as a form of leisure or competition.