With Trans Am I originally thought to keep the stages under 50 miles a day only to help the average ultra runner or walker establish a rhythm and finish the race. Instead most of this group got MUCH faster and healthier by the end. They adapted so well, in so many ways, that my latest thinking is that the instinct to cover long distances is already present. If so, what are the signs of this? Here are a few I've collected over time:
1) Geographic Range. Darwin originally theorized that humans emerged from East Africa based on our similarity to chimpanzees. Later evidence confirms this and shows multiple migrations over at least 8 million years.
2) Bipedalism. Bipedalism must have preceded other critical human traits, such as manual dexterity for making better tools and weapons and the consequent availability of more meat to nourish brain development.
3) Aerobic Endurance. Bipedalism separates the "engine" from the "wheels," allowing unlimited gearing for our heart and lungs. We keep our legs straighter and use less muscle power. Quadrupeds are more like sprinters in a crouch, with their leg motion closely matched to their nearby chest cavity. Disadvantaged in a sprint, humans can nonetheless track down any animal in a long chase, if we can force them ahead in one direction. This also helps us avoid conflicts with each other, since we are (unfortunately) our only natural enemies.
4) Mobility and Health. Public health studies have shown that simply organizing more walking and running events is the cheapest and most effective way of improving health society wide. There are lots of theories why this is so. Results from Trans Am lead me to believe there is simply a DIRECT feedback loop between running and health. We have a survival advantage here, and our bodies have completely adapted. Our mental health improves with mobility as well. Depression is common now, but in nature it's usually a temporary state linked to waiting out unfavorable conditions.
5) Mobility and Elders. In 6-day or 1000-mile events, one finds a few 60-year-olds who retain, or nearly retain, WORLD-CLASS ability. Equally one finds elderly people, even with multiple grave medical conditions or even unused to much exercise when they were younger, who want and need to walk until their last day or two of life. Perhaps mobility IS life, in many cases.
6) Altitude. Humans, even those born and raised at sea level, often thrive long-term at altitudes up to 17,000 feet. Covering long distances has made us that strong aerobically, that we go to the mountains for fun, fitness, work, rest, or even to treat sickness.
7) Heatstroke. Running in high heat may be difficult for us, but for our prey it's almost impossible. Many animals, no matter how fleet, collapse after running for 20-30 minutes in hot conditions. For humans the time frame is closer to two hours (we sweat and keep cooler longer). This may explain the effectiveness of the modern aerobic workout: we would track animals at a hard pace for a few miles, then attack them in a weakened state.
8) Widespread Talent. It's common for modern runners, even world-class ones, to have no known family members who ran. Many don't even begin to practice until late in life.
9) Trans Am. Enough theory; WATCHING Trans Am as a race official was seeing a real-life, slow-motion metamorphosis. In New York the finishers looked like a newly discovered tribe whose name means, "The Running People." Three aspects of this transformation were especially noteworthy:
a) The Thousand-Mile Rule. Dozens of people had previously crossed the U.S. on foot and it was said that the first 1000 miles is the hardest, then one settles in. Actually the Trans Am runners tended to get slower over the first two weeks (ca. 600 miles). By about 3 weeks (ca. 900 miles) they returned to their original speed they had when they were fresh in Los Angeles. They then continued to improve in speed and overall health until the end.
b) No 10,000-Hour Rule. Most skills demand this much "serious" practice time to achieve expert ability. Trans Am took an average of 600 hours. Theoretically a rank novice might need 1000-2000 hours to achieve the same extreme proficiency. So mobility is not something you "learn"; you merely "remember" what your ancestors have already mastered over millions of years.
c) Accelerated Recovery. Injuries (especially shin splints) and blisters often forced the athletes to walk or jog slowly to make the daily time cutoffs. Medical care was unavailable or counterproductive (prescription: "Stop Running"). A week and 300 painful miles later, however, these conditions usually disappeared, a striking result. It would appear that we have developed powerful internal systems that allow us to counteract fatigue, injuries, pain, and stress so we can KEEP MOVING. Inactivity, on the other hand, seems to disarm these systems.