Stephen Day

A unique running tradition

At various points in history runners have turned to older cultures to remind us of the values that make running simple.

Several years ago, we read Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book, Born to Run and embraced the barefoot running form of the Tarahumara Indians.

New Zealand’s Robertson twins are just the most prominent of many Westerners who have made a pilgrimage to Kenya to reconnect with running on soft dirt roads.

One such runner, Adharanand Finn, also connected with a Japanese Monk who ran marathons for 1000 days as he searched for enlightenment.

And there are many more examples in running lore.

Unusually though, no one that I am aware of has looked to the unique running tradition of the Jiă (假) people of the Yunnan province of southwest China. The Jiă have no culture of racing and, as far as I know, no Jiă has ever competed internationally. Yet they routinely cover huge distances at paces we would consider astounding. Groups containing old men and young teenagers will run as a pack travelling 30 kilometres between villages in well under two hours – often while carrying produce to sell at local markets. It is not unheard of for Jiă communities to run the same route back the same day.

I came across stories of the Jiă early last year when I was looking into how different cultures deal with getting slower as they got older.

The Jiă have been running for thousands of years. Their ancient culture has embraced running, not just as their form of transport across terrain that is not well suited for horses or wagons, but also as a spiritual connection to their ancestors.

Importantly, their running culture has two things that make it different from other running communities around the world.

The first is that the Jiă very rarely run alone. They habitually run in large and diverse packs. They start out slowly, chatting and joking, but enter a fluid rhythm that gets hypnotically faster as the distance progresses. It is not unusual for every single mile to be faster than the previous mile.

The second unique aspect is that the Jiă have honed the simplicity of their running action to remove all unnecessary energy expenditure. They do this through an unusual exercise that involves wiggling the kneecap to align all the muscles and tendons in their legs.  Initially, they can only do this by manipulating their kneecap with their hands. But over months and years, they train the muscles near the kneecap so it can exercise and align itself without their needing to use their hands. Once they have done this the next step is to generate this alignment while running.

Young children learn these exercises at home and at school. By the time they are old enough to join the running packs they already have perfectly fluid and economical running form.

I tried to integrate this technique into my running early last year, but I had to make a lot of guesses and mistakes without a Jiă present to show me exactly what the exercise looked like or what the correct alignment was once it worked.

Over time, however, I slowly learnt how to wiggle my kneecaps independently. My right was always better than my left at this task. And I never learnt to do this while running. But occasionally I could feel my form transform while running – tiredness would evaporate and I would suddenly find myself gliding along faster than I had previously.

I finally felt this newfound fluidity while racing the Wellington Marathon last year. Suddenly, at 18 kilometres, the fatigue melted away and my speed picked up, with no impact on my energy. The Jiă apparently call this running insight Fèihuà (废话). I went on to run a five-minute personal best that day.

Once I had my first insight into Fèihuà I was understandably hooked. Unlike the Jiă, I could not yet manage to achieve it every time I ran. But occasionally I would feel the heaviness in my legs melt away, my spine and glutes extend and my legs start to run as though completely fresh.

My one concern was that the Jiă never used this ability to race and I wondered if I somehow was cheating their process – taking something they found both communal and spiritual then using it for individual ego and competition.

I did not get much time to consider this however, because early this year I injured myself while racing the Jumbo-Holdsworth trail race.  I fell down the side of a bank and, among other injuries, bumped my knee. I took three weeks off running. I also took three weeks of the running-associated exercise I normally do: pilates, planks, heel raises and the Jiă kneecap exercise.

Since I started running again I have been unable to exercise my kneecaps correctly – even by hand. I cannot find the correct alignment to set my running style free again. Hopefully this is a short-term problem and I just have to learn the Jiă way of running again – as a child learns to walk for the first time. But I do wonder if it is now gone for good and my brief insight into a uniquely different running culture has disappeared.