Q&A with Niobe Thompson, Producer, The Perfect Runner

Niobe Thompson’s film, The Perfect Runner, debuts on CBC’s The Nature of Things on March 15. The story deals with the barefoot running experience as well as examining the reasons behind the success of runners from East Africa. A full review of the documentary is available in the March 2012 issue of Canadian Running. Thompson also did a Q&A with us, which we couldn’t fit into the magazine. So here it is:

You explore many of the themes from Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, but your film is about more than just barefoot running. To what extent does the barefoot experience fit into your objective with this project?

The Perfect Runner is a film about human evolution and how running is one our earliest and most fundamental adaptations. What I loved about Chris McDougal’s book is the way he circles back to the fact that every one of us is built to run, because as an anthropologist, I can see the genetic basis for our running adaptation very clearly in modern humans. Chris is quite right to say that a barefoot runner gets closest to biomechanical perfection, and his real-world illustration is the Tarahumara in Mexico, who run in traditional sandals. It’s a great story, but this is also where I feel let down by Born to Run: the book has whipped up a kind of evangelical mania for barefoot running without giving readers the knowledge they need to use barefoot running safely and for true performance.

In The Perfect Runner, we go on a journey that begins in Africa’s Great Rift Valley with the story of human evolution. You can’t miss the implication that for millions of years, humans have been running for their supper in bare feet. Humans left Africa in waves beginning about 70,000 years ago, and there are cultures formed by thousands of years of natural selection in completely different environments. This is the entirely rational basis for the argument that African runners are genetically different that Europeans and Asians, but it’s actually an argument that doesn’t hold water. Thousands of years of evolution didn’t erase our fundamental build as African endurance runners, and the film goes to the most remote part of the Russian Arctic to prove it. It turns out that Chukchi reindeer herders are some of the best endurance runners alive.

We explore barefoot running later in the film, when we look at the remarkable success of Ethiopian endurance runners. There is a village isolated in the Ethiopian highlands called Bekoji that has produced five Olympic gold medalist runners in the last decade. It turns out their the recipe for success is quite simple: a physically demanding rural childhood in bare feet, intense training in the highlands air, and a desperate drive to escape poverty. Coaches in the West have been learning from the Africans for decades, but unlike the runners from Bekoji, western athletes typically reach the elite level with a host of problems created by more sedentary childhoods and a lifetime of wearing shoes. So at the Canadian Athletic Coaching Center, we found that coaches were trying to rebuild foot mobility and strength, and to compensate for the lack of that active, simple childhood in bare feet you find in places like Ethiopia.

Part of the film includes a section about the 125K Canadian Death Race. What did you learn from that experience?

I ran the Death Race because I wanted to make my own body into a laboratory for the film. The race comes at the end of the film, and by this time we’ve visited incredible runners around the world and we’ve learned that humans survived by evolving into runners. By this point, the audience is naturally asking, “My ancestors could run down an antelope, but can I?” The Death Race really brings the lessons of the film home to a western audience in a personal way, and you can’t fake the emotions you experience taking on a 125K mountain run. Running the race was my way of saying, look, everything you’ve seen so far is true – we’re all runners at heart.

The Death Race taught me some lessons I’ll cherish long after this film has come and gone. It was astonishing to witness the change in my body that a year of training brought; I literally rebuilt myself and grew a new set of capillaries. I had never run for 12 hours at a stretch before race day, and so I now know my body can do a lot more than I thought it could. The most interesting lesson, and the least expected, was that when you shift over to the long distances – marathons and up – the struggle is all in the mind. The body sends a constant pain signal to the mind, and the will and the judgment to continue are basically an intellectual decision.

You were wearing shoes for the 125K Death Race, did you consider going barefoot?

I did. In fact, I was in conversation with Vibram, the makers of FiveFingers, about using their slippers to run the race. But that was before my really heavy training began, and I soon learned that running a race as rugged and long as the Death Race demands a lot of shoe. Any successful ultramarathoner will tell you that.

At the same time, you need exceptional balance, along with foot and ankle mobility, to deal with the path-picking you get in single-track trail running. I spent a lot of time running in Vibram FiveFingers and minimal shoes like the Innovate line and Nike Free to build up, and I only put on the rigid trail shoes for long training runs. That would be the most important lesson this film can give distance runners: if you don’t integrate barefoot running, core work, and balance training into your training, your performance ceiling is going to be pretty low.

What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?

It’s a misconception that science documentaries are lectures with pictures. Great films about science inspire viewers with the beauty of the world around us and show us that nature is full of fascinating stories. Think about David Attenborough’s Planet Earth or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos — they’re full of story, but no one watching them emerges as a biologist or a physicist. I’m a scientist myself, but I approached The Perfect Runner as a work of art, and the score, the narrative, and the images are all carefully stitched together to make an emotional impact. Of course, the beauty of the film also delivers the ideas at its core: that humans are nature’s finest endurance runners, that we haven’t lost the running adaptation in our modern lives, and that if we ignore our essence as runners, we put ourselves at risk.

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