January 6, 2014 by Mike Wolfe · 129 Comments
[Editor's Note: This story includes images of an elk carcass as well as incidental blood from a hunt. The images are a great deal less gory than, say, most modern horror films, but we're letting you know in case you might be uncomfortable with such images. -Bryon]
Another year ends. It’s supposed to be that time of year when we self reflect. Reflect on the year past, and on what we want the new year to hold. Blah, blah.
I’ve been thinking about a certain question for a long while. I’m sure all iRunFar readers have been, too. This is the big question that you continually ponder, no matter what time of year it is. I was able to put some of my thoughts and beliefs into coherent sentences now, at the end of my two favorite seasons, race season and hunting season. This is because I finally figured out that hunting is racing, and racing is hunting. I love to hunt because I’m human, and I’m human because I hunt.
The question: Why do I (you) run?
To some, it may feel like a tired and old endeavor to even attempt to answer this question. Others can instantly rattle off any number of personal reasons they know firmly in their heart for why they run. Every ultrarunner gets the question: why (or how) do you run 100 miles? Or 50 miles? How do you answer it? Is your answer always the same?
Sometimes I think I know why. Sometimes my reasons shift and change. Sometimes after a long season I hate running, but I’m still strangely compelled to go out the damn door every morning. What is wrong with me? I was asked this question, on camera, a few weeks ago at The North Face Endurance Challenge. Why do I run? I felt awkward answering it. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to say it on camera, and I felt annoyed that I was even asked such a grand and all-life-encompassing question. So, I’ll answer the question now.
I figured it out. Well, at least in part. Or, maybe I should say this is intuitively what I believe, based upon personal experience, and reasoned self-reflection.
Why I’m driven to run. Human evolution. Instinct. Its in my (our) DNA, that’s why. Predator. Prey. Survival. The drive to hunt. To provide meat to our families, our tribes. Hunt. Gather. Eat. Survive.
* * * * *
Crawl out of the bivy sack. Shake off the shivers. Try not to get the thick, flake-y frost into the long johns as I pull them on. Find headlamp. Stumble to the frozen creek nearby. Break ice. Fill Jetboil with water. Make coffee. Though, I don’t even need coffee on this morning, excitement and adrenaline are already coursing through my veins. Almost like pre-race jitters. Only thing is, I’m not racing today.
It’s 5 a.m. in mid-September. It’s going to be best the best day ever. Why? Because it’s bow-hunting season in Montana, and the elk are full throttle in the rut, all around us.
I am not gearing up to race a long running race in the mountains. But mentally, and physically, I’m gearing up for an equally long day— running, thrashing, climbing, descending, crawling, packing—in serious, rugged, mountain terrain. If all goes well, I’ll be just as exhausted after this day of elk hunting as I would be after a good, hard, 50-mile race.
When most non-hunters think of hunting, running is probably the last thing that comes to mind. Even for avid hunters, I would guess hardly anyone thinks running could have any possible use in hunting, other than getting into shape pre-season. When most people think of hunting, they think of guys sitting in tree stands or duck blinds drinking beer and whiskey. Or, packing deep into the mountains, where horses (or ATV’s) do all the work.
I will certainly admit, for those of us who hunt on our own two feet, it is not at all similar to going for a run. There’s no short short-wearing, no gels, no single-minded focus on the trail immediately in front of you. Hunting is slow most of the time. Deliberate. Quiet. Trying to consciously move slow, be 100% aware of your surroundings. Every sound, sight, smell. Completely in tune with the world around you.
But, you have to have this laser focus throughout an entire hunting day because at the moment you least expect it, you have to be ready to pounce. To pull the trigger. To pull the bow back. Animals, especially elk, are like ghosts. They are never there. Then suddenly, they are there for a split second, and you must act. Racing a running race is the same. It requires long, arduous periods of laser focus to endure. Then, you have to be ready to make a move on your fellow competitor at just the right time. Kill or be killed.
The more I run, the longer I run for, the more I question why I do it. The more I hunt, the more intimate experiences I have stalking animals in the mountains (or have animals stalking me in the mountains), the more I understand why I run. Why our ancestors ran. Why it’s in our DNA to be runners. The thrill of uncertainty. The unknown. The risk. Risk of failure. It’s the same hunting as it is in a race. The competitive drive. This is nothing new to the field of evolutionary biology. If you believe in that sort of thing, as I do.
Many have written on this firmly established theory that humans evolved to be long distance runners, in order to hunt and procure food. Legendary ultrarunner Bernd Heinrich writes about this in Why We Run. David Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, outlines the details in The Story of the Human Body. Christopher McDougall touches upon the idea in Born to Run.
Lieberman sums up my belief perfectly:
“Today, humans run long distances to stay fit, commute, or just have fun, but the struggle to get meat underlies the origins of endurance running. To appreciate this inference, try to imagine what it was like for the first humans to hunt or scavenge 2 million years ago. Most carnivores kill using a combination of speed and strength… [i]t must have been extremely perilous and difficult for slow, puny, weaponless hominids to enter into the rough, tough, and hazardous business of eating other animals for dinner. An important solution to this problem was endurance running.”
Science may or may not convince you. My convincing has come from personal experience. I have run numerous times during exciting hunts. I have run with a loaded rifle in my hands. I have run with a bow in my hands, arrow nocked and ready. The most exciting hunts I’ve ever had were those running wild and reckless after animals. I chased after a group of antelope with my brother in 2009 where we all-out sprinted three or four times in attempts to get ahead of them for a shot. We were successful in the end.
Again hunting antelope, with my father and my wife, I chased down another buck in 2011 with a serious of crazy uphill sprints and belly crawls through cactus. The same fall, my season ended with a last-minute effort to shoot an elk. My brother and I spotted a small group on the run and I sprinted to the verge of blacking out to head them off and get a shot. Running allowed me to fill the freezer again that year.
It gets my blood pumping just thinking about all of it! Way more than any thought of racing. I start to feel like a carefree kid again, wild with enthusiasm, thinking about those hunting memories.
Although these stories may sound like a crazed, blood-lusting redneck out carelessly killing poor, helpless animals, my intentions, and ethic, is quite the opposite. Though certainly having a solid upper hand while wielding a rifle and a slight edge with a compound bow, my hunting ethic is absolutely fair chase: only hunting and harvesting animals via the fairest means. In the broad spectrum of hunting these days, hunting on public lands only on foot is as fair as it gets. Putting in a 12-hour day hiking around on steep, off-trail terrain, ending in a few uphill sprints with a rifle and pack on your back, evens the playing field. It is extremely difficult to by sly enough to get the jump on an elk. Ever tried it? If you happen to be lucky enough to harvest an animal, then the real work begins. Put your headlamp on, spend three hours butchering a 900-pound animal perched on a 45-degree snowed-covered slope, then put on a 100-plus pound pack and hike four to five hours back to the truck. Pretty fair in my book.
I believe all the crazy, thrill-seeking sports we see these days are very rooted in our evolutionary makeup. The drive to survive gone completely haywire. Or, maybe just evolving to the next level. But, I know where the drive comes from, what it was meant for. Survival, not an adrenaline rush after a base jump, or the endorphin rush after winning a race, or finishing a 100 miler. It comes from the satisfaction after a 10-hour day hunting when you finally killed that antelope, and the knowledge that your family will survive another few weeks.
The drive to get up the next day and do it again. In 2014, it’s burning in your subconscious because you know your competitors are out there training, that you have to push it to stay competitive, that will power to feel the endorphin rush and feel alive. But, that push out the door used to be that urge to stock up more meat for winter. Pure survival. You know that deep appreciation for the simple things in life after running a 100-mile race? The taste of beer. The taste of bacon. A shower. A pillow. Ever experience the satisfaction of eating a steak you harvested, quartered, packed, sweated for, butchered? All the hours you put in?
I swear that’s where the drive comes from. The OCD. At least in me. I will speak for myself. We have let our beautiful, perfect, evolution be warped into wildly different motivations than what nature intended.
Lieberman goes on in his book to describe how weak and feeble early humans evolved to hunt. Persistence hunting. The unique ability of humans to run for long distances, take advantage of no hair and millions of sweat glands, and push a wild, game animal to the point of exhaustion and overheating. Then, the hunter would kill the exhausted animal with a spear, bow/arrow, or other blunt, throwing object.
I freely admit that I did not kill any of the animals I ran after by running them to exhaustion, or using a spear. I have killed animals with bow/arrow, but certainly not what my ancestors were using. I used a compound bow that is more lethal than a rifle up to 60 or 80 yards. Or, I used a high-powered rifle that allows a hunter to take an animal from hundreds of yards away. But, I know what inspires me deep down inside to run. The age-old, simple instinct ingrained in my DNA to hunt.
Now, I know what you are thinking, and you are correct. Yes, I cannot call myself a man until I have successfully killed an animal like my ancestors did, with the persistence hunt. Some have tried it, almost all have failed. Hence, 2014 and the next adventure.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
We are aware that Mike’s essay will not align with all readers’ beliefs on hunting for food. We do ask you, however, to respect Mike’s ethic in reading and commenting upon this article. Thank you!
- While running, have you ever felt connected to something other than the actual process of running, in that moment? Connected to human evolutionary history? An outside force you can’t explain?
- For those of you who do run and hunt on foot, what connections between the two disciplines have you found?