Filming the perfect runner

The Perfect Runner, Official Trailer from Niobe Thompson on Vimeo.

(Edmonton) The idea for Niobe Thompson’s latest documentary film was born of a personal crisis of sorts.

The local award-winning filmmaker and research associate with the U of A’s Canadian Circumpolar Institute was starting to feel pain in his knees when he ran. Since running had always been his escape from the stresses of life, a way to achieve mental as well as physical balance, he worried he might have to give it up if he didn’t find a solution.

Thompson’s search for relief led him to Larry Bell at the U of A’s Canadian Athletic Coaching Centre who works with top-level athletes across Canada and has assisted Olympic teams for the last two decades. A practicing chiropractor who had himself suffered from arch problems, Bell couldn’t help but notice that African runners, many of whom grew up running barefoot, didn’t have the common running injuries we see in the developed world. They also seemed to have a competitive edge over runners from elsewhere.

So the first thing Bell did was scrap his orthotics. He began rebuilding his foot strength from the ground up, as it were, with considerable success. Thompson followed suit, scaling back on shoe support and learning to land on his forefoot rather than his heel, drastically reducing his own knee pain.

That personal journey convinced him the time was right for a documentary film examining how human beings evolved to become the “perfect runner” and to what degree contemporary life may have compromised that evolution. The result is The Perfect Runner, screening March 14 at Edmonton’s Garneau Theatre before airing March 15 on CBC’s The Nature of Things.

“Human beings are nature’s perfect endurance running animal,” says Thompson. “In a hot, African environment, we can outrun any animal around us. We can run them to exhaustion.”

The question, however, is that “in this modern world, where we sit behind a computer and drive long distances every day, do we have anything in common with our ancestors, who lived on the Savannah, were hunter gatherers and used hunting as a way of getting food?”

The Perfect Runner includes stunning slow-motion footage of athletes captured with a camera that shoots as many as 4,000 frames per second. Thompson and his crew spent time with elite runners in Ethiopia and reindeer herders in the Arctic. As the film’s host, he also filmed himself taking on the grueling 24-hour Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, lasting about 15 hours with an ankle sprain before throwing in the towel.

For the company Thompson shares with distinguished U of A alumnus Tom Radford, Clearwater Media, The Perfect Runner is yet another example of a major film project spawned by U of A research. Their previous films include the Gemini-award winning The Code Breakers, Inuit Odyssey and Tipping Point: The End of Oil.

 “The U of A never fails to bring to us great stories that we can bring to life on film,” says Thompson, “and they’re right here on our doorstep.

“I was surprised to learn that the CACC is the centre in North America for training athletics coaches. It is the place where the research is concentrated and disseminated—I couldn’t believe it.”

Thompson was also delighted to find out that the centre’s director, Jim Denison, is the biographer of the most successful distance runner in history—Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.

But it’s Bell’s research, and especially that of human evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman at Harvard University, that has fuelled a revolution in the science of running, debunking decades of misguided assumptions.

“Most of us run in ways that could be damaging our bodies, and the running shoes we’re encouraged to buy play a big part in that,” says Thompson. That’s because cushioning only invites heel striking, the principal cause of running injuries rarely faced by Africans who run hard but can’t afford the latest Nike product.

“Almost without exception, elite distance athletes that reach the very top grew up on farms, poor and in bare feet or sandals,” says Thompson.  “And the life they had through the first 10 or 15 years was a perfect life for building a whole body.

“When Larry Bell starts to work with an elite athlete at the university, he’s trying to condition them, but at the same time he’s trying to compensate for all the artifacts of a sedentary life.”

Thompson says the main takeaway concept from his film is that we need to flip our notion of extreme behavior. “Because we sit at desks and live in comfortable urban environments, we think of extreme behavior as running down trails doing the kind of things you see me doing in this film.

“But in terms of our evolutionary past and what our bodies need to be healthy, it’s extreme to be sitting, not running over mountain peaks. It’s normal to have calluses on our feet and walk and run 10–15 kilometres a week.”

For more on The Perfect Runner, visit:  http://www.theperfectrunner.com/