Born to Run? A ‘This American Life’ Experience

The temptation when giving it up for the routinely superb This American Life is to lavish too much praise on Ira Glass. I mean, could he really have purposely, out of sheer genius, slotted the show on Sunday nights when my family (and presumably lots of other families) were driving home from a weekend at their parents’ house, obliging anyone with any sense (and more than an hour to kill) to make some lemonade of the journey by flipping on a show that more or less required one to give himself over to something and really listen? Not hardly. But pretty much everything else about This American Life was, when you had the time to pay attention, consistently quirky and captivating.

I recalled the moment this became clear to me a few days ago upon reading Christopher McDougall’s thought-provoking piece, “The Once and Future Way to Run”, in the New York Times. The subject here is the contention that early man ran more efficiently than we do today, barefoot, and that modern running technique and athletic footwear have conspired to rob humans of the ability to run long distances, and to do so without injury.

I was sorta surprised the story didn’t cite a 1997 This American Life story, “Running After Antelope,” (skip to 5:50 for the salient segment), an amazing tale from Scott Carrier about his efforts to personally prove what was then a younger, less accepted anthropological theory: that bipedalism is an adaption for long-distance running, that early man hunted deer and other game, not by throwing spears, but by tracking animals over long distances, essentially running them down, tired and silly — then sticking them with a spear or even a blunt object.

It’s a fascinating topic and this was the episode of TAL that first hooked me. My wife and I sat spellbound, listening ever more absorbedly as we drove north on a darkened Interstate 95, the kids asleep in the backseat. I’ve always been a radio guy, but I’d never heard anything like this— a discursive, dreamy narrative told by a guy, Carrier himself, whose nasal, warbling, deadpan was not the sort voice one ever heard on the radio, and whose gripping story was equal parts personal quest and anthropological daring.

This is the stuff we’ve come to expect from Ira Glass and TAL, of course. I never manage to make time for the show on Sunday evenings; maybe he wasn’t such a canny scheduler after all. But whenever I do, I am rewarded. Whatever you do, whatever you think of my observations or me, listen to “Running After Antelope.” It’s a mindbender.

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