I’ve had an idea for the ultimate running race. An event like no other that you’ve even seen or taken part in. A race that more closely takes us back to the persistence hunting roots of our ancestors than any Olympic marathon.
I first heard about persistence hunting in Chris McDougall’s amazing book, Born to Run. Before we developed spears or bows and arrows, the only way humans could hunt down game was to run after it, for hour upon hour, across the baking savannah, until the prey dropped dead of heat exhaustion. Humans are such exquisitely tuned runners, with incredible powers of heat dissipation and breath control, that no other animal stands a chance in a long distance race.
It is still practised today by hunters in the Kalahari:
One of the most awe-inspiring things about persistence hunting is the idea that, when you set off in the morning, you have no idea how far you’re going to run that day.
There’s a level of uncertainty present that no 10k runner, no marathoner, not even an ultra-runner faces. The common feature of all competitive running is that it is over a fixed distance.
But what if it wasn’t?
What if we developed a race where we brought back this level of uncertainty? Where tactics, strategy and anticipation played out against a backdrop of the unknown? Where speedsters could compete against distance experts?
I believe I’ve come up with a format to do just that. I call it persistence running.
The idea is very simple. Take a looped circuit. It could be a 400m track, it could be longer. Give every runner a timing chip that records the number of laps they have run. Start them off.
Whenever a runner’s total achieved laps is two less than the front-runner, he is eliminated. Keep going until there is only one runner left.
The format can be explained in a couple of sentences. Runners compete on a loop, and those who are lapped are eliminated. But I have no idea how it would play out in practice. What would be the ideal strategy? Would it favour speed or endurance? Would some competitors attempt to sprint right at the beginning? Would others hang back in the pack and wait to grind out victory? What would change if the course was on a longer circuit? How long would the event even last? Would different strategies emerge as the people became more familiar with the format?
The biggest attraction for me is the emotional challenge. How would you feel, lined up at the start line, having no idea what sort of a race you were facing or how long it would go on for?
Of course, to truly capture the spirit of a persistence hunt, we’d have to add a rule that said only the winner got to eat afterwards, but that might be taking things a little to far!