For contemporary runners, “training” has a narrow meaning. Query a runner, and you’ll hear about weekly mileage, long runs, track work. The media is full of training tips, like exercises to strengthen your hips or advice on how to swing your arms. Researchers study how training effects aerobic capacity and running economy. It’s all about speed and distance.
Could there be more to training than this?
That’s what I was wondering when one day I started reading about the Yurok Indians, for whom training (“hohkep”) involves not only running, but also battling the elements, overcoming fear, sweating, fasting, thirsting, going without sleep, and ultimately venturing into the wilderness in search of spiritual powers. For the Yuroks, training is meant not only to strengthen the body, but also to clarify thinking and focus the will. It’s a path to self-discipline, self-reliance, and the realization of life’s purpose. Now I wanted to know, what could we learn from them?
I first encountered the Yuroks in anthropologist Peter Nabokov’s excellent book, Indian Running, which describes how Native Americans ran to communicate, fight, hunt, enact myths, and interact with the unseen forces of the universe. For the Yuroks, Nabokov explained, running was both physical training and vision-questing. He quoted extensively from the work of another anthropologist, Thomas Buckley, who had spent much of his professional career studying Yurok customs. And so I ordered Buckley’s book, Standing Ground: Yurok Indian Spirituality 1850-1990, as well as the memoirs of a Yurok spiritual doctor named Lucy Thompson and a book of Yurok myths.
For some background, the Yuroks are an Algonquin-language speaking Native American people living in the lower Klamath River Basin of northern California, where historically they subsisted on deer, elk, salmon, eel, acorns, and hazelnuts, built homes and canoes out of redwood, wove baskets, and hosted community dances. The California gold rush of 1850 and the influx of white settlers marked the end of their traditional lifestyle. This was the “time when the stars fell,” as the Yuroks suffered a devastating loss of life and land. But against the odds they persevered; today the tribe numbers some 5,000 members, and much of the traditional language and culture has been preserved.
From my research, I learned that the ultimate goal of training, in the Yurok’s eyes, is to achieve the freedom to pursue a person’s unique purpose in life. According to Benchley, the Yuroks believe that after a child is six weeks in the womb, its “fire” or “spark” enters the heart, where it forms the individual’s “foundation.” “Freedom is the ability to live out the purpose you came here for,” a young Yurok once told Buckley.
The physical component of Yurok training includes many things: running, hoisting logs, carrying rocks from the riverbed up into the hills, or fetching firewood for the sweat lodges. But the fundamental purpose of training is to pull together your energies and concentration, “gather” or “accumulate” your powers, and in so doing “build yourself” as a person. As one Yurok told Buckley, “It’s all about making your mind strong and having it pull you along; it pulls you toward your goal”:
The mind is so strong. It’s all in the mind. When your mind is strong, it makes your heart act, and when the heart acts, it moves the Creator. There’s great power in the mind. First you make your mind strong, then the rest follows.
Young boys often began training under the supervision of their fathers. One Indian told Buckley that his training began as a boy of nine or ten when his father had him break the ice in the river for an early morning swim. Next came running up the bank with a mouthful of water, breathing through his nose, careful not to spill a drop.
Another Indian told Buckley as a child of eleven he was required to spend the night on a downed tree that hung out over a creek, to contend with his fear of the dark and of water. Overcoming fears was called “first man medicine,” and it was how men trained to become “big hearts.”
The Yurok stick game is a traditional full-contact sport in which opposing teams attempt to maneuver a pair of sticks into the opponents’ goal, with no-holds-barred wrestling a part of the game (here’s a video of young boys playing). Training for stick game was designed to develop discipline, strength, endurance, and skill, according to a Yurok elder, who remembers running twice a day plus wrestling and lifting weights to prepare for competition.
The Yuroks are known for their colorful dances, including the Brush, Jump, and White Deerskin Dances, which bring together Indians from surrounding communities and which last up to ten days. These dances are in themselves exercises in endurance, and participants prepare themselves through training both physical and spiritual.
At a Jump Dance in 1990, a Yurok elder explained to Buckley that in the good spiritual life, one must try to “think only good thoughts.” Training helps you learn to keep your thoughts disciplined and controlled.
Don’t say ‘it’s hot’! Say, ‘It’s a wonderful day!’
— Yurok elder
Training may include spending time in traditional sweat houses, as sweating is thought to clean the body, purify the spirit, and strengthen the mind. During this kind of training, which might last for days, people would abstain from food or drink, limiting themselves to an occasional sip of very thin cold acorn soup. In addition to fasting and thirsting, people in heavy training would sleep as little as possible.
People evolve when they train. They change, they get different when they start. You can tell. They stop drinking and they evolve-you can just tell, even if nobody says anything.
— Yurok source quoted in “Standing Ground”
Once purified through sweating, those in training would venture out into the wilderness in search of visions or interactions with the spirit world. Women training to become doctors would ascend to sacred sites high in the mountains, like Doctor Rock or Chimney Rock. Warriors would head out in search of lightning and the ten thunder brothers, hoping to impress these spirits and earn powers of strength, bravery, and endurance. The dark, stormy winters in northern California were thought to be the best times for training and vision-questing, and those in training would head out on the trails at night or during storms, seeking out special rock formations near the ocean, riverine whirlpools, lakes, or other sacred sites where spirits and ghosts were thought to be found.
In one Yurok myth, a brave seeking to defend his village from oppressors heads out to a lake in search of the ten thunder brothers. The spirits approve of his mission, invite him into their abode, and provide him with special powers and gifts. Upon his return from the spirit world, the brave spots an oak tree, jumps up into a fork in the trunk, and splits the tree in two with his elbows. “This is the kind of man I wanted to become,” he states.
Few of us will undergo ten-day fasts or other traditional elements of “hohkep,” let alone encounter the thunder spirits. But I think contemporary runners could learn a lesson from the Yuroks: the purpose of training isn’t just physical conditioning, it’s also meant to strengthen the mind and spirit to achieve difficult but important life goals.
One could take a fresh look at typical training regimes and incorporate a broader range of stresses and challenges, all designed to make a person stronger. Speaking for myself, in recent years I’ve expanded my training to include:
- high-intensity speed work, which not only stresses aerobic capacity, but also forces me to develop new mental strategies
- managing my diet and running without food or water
- running during rough weather (like a windy day on Chicago’s lakeshore)
- enduring heat and cold
- running and hiking barefoot
- less time on the roads, more time in the mountains
- leaving the trails and bushwhacking through the woods
So, what does “training” mean to you?
What other kinds of training might you want to do?
(Please share your thoughts in the comments section)