Dec 28, 2019

Man Against Horse

This is a story about your butt. It’s a story about how you got your butt, why you have your butt, and how your butt might be one of the most important and essential things for you being you, for being human. 

Today, reporters Heather Radke and Matt Kielty talk to two researchers who followed the butt from our ancient beginnings, through millions of years of evolution, and all the way to today, out to a valley in Arizona, where our butts are put to the ultimate test.  

This episode was reported by Heather Radke and Matt Kielty and was produced by Matt Kielty, Rachael Cusick and Simon Adler. Sound design and mixing by Jeremy Bloom. Fact-checking by Dorie Chevlen.

Special thanks to Michelle Legro.

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JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. And today we've got a story from our producer Matt Kielty.




JAD: And reporter Heather Radke.




MATT: I have no idea where we should start. I was -- like, with the dawn of human civilization?


HEATHER: Uh, maybe?


MATT: Okay, so this story comes to us from Heather, who is a fantastic writer who brought us this story that, if I were to boil it down, is about a horse, a lone man running through the desert, and what it fundamentally means to be a human being. And weirdly, butts. I didn't see this coming, but it's about butts. Just butts. Your butt. It's about your butt.


HEATHER: You gotta say it a few times. Butts. Okay, so let's back up.


MATT: Mm-hmm.


HEATHER: I am writing a book about the cultural history of the female butt.


MATT: Oh, interesting!


HEATHER: I know. I thought I'd save that one for on tape. It started as an essay that I was just working on because I have a big butt, and I grew up in, you know, the suburbs of mid-Michigan. That was -- it was pretty white. And in high school in the '90s, it was very much like, not good to have a big butt. Like, I got made fun of, et cetera, et cetera. But then sometime in the mid-aughts, all of a sudden this body that had sort of been bringing me all this shame became attractive in sort of a mainstream way.


MATT: And as Heather started taking that apart and looking into these things about race, appropriation, beauty, this essay about the butt ended up becoming a book about the butt.


HEATHER: About, you know, what does the butt mean? Like, what does it symbolize and why does it symbolize that?


MATT: But before she could really dive into all those things, she realized she had, like, just a more fundamental question.


HEATHER: Why do we even have a butt at all?


MATT: Okay.


HEATHER: So I started to research, just like search around for people who have tried to answer it before, but because of what a butt is, just even, like, anatomically, it's not a simple question.


MATT: Because as Heather points out, you have, you know, the butt.


HEATHER: The aesthetic object.


MATT: Like, the whole entire butt.


HEATHER: And there's two parts to the butt. There's the butt that's the muscle, and then there's the butt that's the fat.


MATT: Mm-hmm.


HEATHER: So I talked to the fat butt people, and there's a lot of them. And although there's a lot of different theories about why we have fat butts, there's no real consensus.


MATT: No one knows why we have the fat.


HEATHER: Mm-hmm.


MATT: Well, do we have the fat because we sit a lot?


HEATHER: But then why do men have so much less than women is kind of the question.


MATT: So then Heather started looking at the butt muscle.


HEATHER: Butt muscle, yeah.


MATT: Which led her to this guy.


HEATHER: Sorry, sorry. I just missed you for a second. Say that again?


MATT: Daniel Lieberman.


HEATHER: This evolutionary biologist at Harvard.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: You want to talk about the gluteus maximus, if I recall.


HEATHER: I do. I do, I do.[/i]


MATT: So you called him up ...


HEATHER: You're sort of the pre-eminent ...


MATT: ... a while back for your book.


HEATHER: Mm-hmm.


HEATHER: Butt muscle scientist, as far as I can tell.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: That's an interesting distinction, but that's possibly true.


MATT: And we called him up not too long ago.


HEATHER: Hello, everybody.


MATT: Because what was the thing you'd learned from him?


HEATHER: The butt maybe made us human.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Well gosh, so I mean I've been interested in the evolution of the human body and the evolution of human physical activity for a very long time now.


MATT: Is it just because, like, you look at a human body and you're, like, why?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I'm interested in how and why our bodies are the way they are and the way in which we evolved.


HEATHER: Okay. So to get to the butt stuff with Lieberman, we have to go back.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: So, many years ago ...


HEATHER: Around 1992.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: I was -- I guess I must've been a post-doc or a grad student.


HEATHER: At Harvard.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Doing research on -- actually it was about pigs. The story -- the story starts with a pig on a treadmill.


MATT: Sorry, just out of curiosity, you were doing this just out of curiosity?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: I don't think anybody just puts a pig on a treadmill out of curiosity, but it was -- it was an experiment to look at how different parts of the skeleton respond to the effects of the loads caused by exercise.


MATT: So Daniel said every day he would come into the lab where he had these pigs.




MATT: Oh, mini-pigs on a treadmill?






MATT: He’d put one of them on a treadmill.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Mini pigs are just the right size, let me tell you.


MATT: And to keep the pig on the treadmill ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: You put a box -- and you put a box and turn the treadmill on and, you know, the pig doesn't like having its butt hit the back. And also the animals like it if you put a mirror in front of them, so ...


MATT: Weird.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: So if there's a mirror in front of them, it thinks there's another pig there, and they're kind of much more happy running.


MATT: Forever chasing towards their other pig.




HEATHER: That's sad.




MATT: So this was Daniel's life: mini pigs, treadmills.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Sounds like an exciting thing, but believe me it eventually gets kind of -- kind of dull.


MATT: But then one day it got exciting.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: A fellow named Dennis Bramble who's a professor at the University of Utah, now retired ...


DENNIS BRAMBLE: [clears throat]


HEATHER: That's Bramble.




DANIEL LIEBERMAN: ... he was on sabbatical at Harvard.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Yeah, I was there for the whole year.


HEATHER: To do his own research, coincidentally right next to door to Lieberman.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: And I heard this sound, and ...


MATT: Turned to his co-researcher.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: And I said, "What -- what the hell's that sound? Is somebody doing something there?" And they said, "Yeah, and this guy Dan Lieberman is running pigs over there." I said, "Oh, I gotta -- I've gotta see this!"


MATT: Eventually, he goes next door to Lieberman's lab. Lieberman's in there.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: With yet another pig on a treadmill.


HEATHER: Popped his head in, looked at the pig.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: And cocked his head to the side, and said to me, "You know Dan, that pig can't hold its head still when it's running." It's funny I'd, you know, spent hours watching pigs run on treadmills, but I never really thought about it. But ...


MATT: Oh! There it goes.


MATT: We looked up pigs running on YouTube.


MATT: Oh, wow!


HEATHER: So is his head still or not?


MATT: Their heads do kind of flop.


HEATHER: So it's a floppy head.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Right. Pigs on treadmills, their heads flop in this kind of ungainly manner in, like, every which way.


MATT: So anyways, two of them are staring at this mini-pig on a treadmill.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Its head bobbing up and down.


MATT: And Bramble said, "You know Dan, I bet that pig's head is flopping all around because it doesn't have this thing ..."


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Called the nuchal ligament.


MATT: Nuka ligament?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Yeah the nuchal ligament. N-U-C-H-A-L.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: And I explained to him that, you know, it provides support for the head and neck.


HEATHER: Okay, so the nuchal ligament, it's like a rubber band that attaches to the back of the animal's skull and then runs down its spine and keeps the head straight as it runs.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Right. And then I went on to point out that all mammals that are specialized and have evolved as runners ...


HEATHER: Everything from cheetahs to leopards to antelopes ...


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Big grazing animals like horses.


HEATHER: Down to the teeniest, tiniest runners.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Jackrabbits among other things. Dogs too.


HEATHER: They've all got a nuchal ligament.


MATT: All these animals that evolved to run got this ligament to keep their head from flopping around. And the animals that suck at running, they don't have one.




MATT: Pigs don't.




HEATHER: Chimps.


MATT: Gorillas.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: They have no nuchal ligament.


HEATHER: Nothing.


MATT: They don't really need one, because running's not a big part of who they are. But then the weird thing is that humans, well ...


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Humans have one.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Humans have one of these too.


MATT: We have this ligament.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: So then I explained to him just very briefly that ...


MATT: At this point, Dennis said to Dan, "A while back I had this grad student."


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Yeah, so ...


MATT: Who wrote this paper about humans and running.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Trying to figure out how breathing fits into locomotion. Running and breathing.


MATT: The paper basically argued that, because of how we breathe and a bunch of other things that -- that running was actually a key part of human evolution. That it was like a really essential part to us becoming human.




DANIEL LIEBERMAN: And that was exciting.


MATT: Because it turns out Dan had read that paper, thought it was really interesting.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: But I remember having a discussion about it with a professor of mine who basically told me to -- to ignore the paper. It was, you know, a silly idea. That humans we really suck at running. That we’re terrible at it. We’re slow, we’re inefficient, we’re awkward.


MATT: And the things that really made us us ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Was all about walking and tools and brains.


MATT: Not running. There's no real evidence for it.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: But anyway, going back to the pig story ...


MATT: To them in the lab with the pig talking about nuchal ligaments. And Dan was the one who was like, "Oh, wait."


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: One of the very cool things about this ligament is that it leaves a trace on the skull. A sharp ridge in the back of the skull.


MATT: And so Dan thought, "Okay, well maybe we could go to the fossil record, see when this ligament shows up, see if other things show up with it." Almost in the same way that, like, when -- when we started walking, our bones started changing dramatically. Like, maybe -- like, maybe he could sort of see the same thing with running, or maybe this ligament's actually just like the equivalent of, I don't know, wisdom teeth. Like, it doesn't -- it doesn't really matter.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Fortunately, we're surrounded by a wonderful museum.


MATT: Right there at Harvard.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Full of fossil casts of -- of our ancestors.


HEATHER: And -- and also lots of butts.


MATT: There are butts. We're not gonna talk about the butts yet.


HEATHER: But we'll come back to them.


MATT: We're coming back to the butts. For now, nuchal ligaments, go searching, looking at ...


HEATHER: ... skulls of ...


MATT: ... our ancient ancestors.


HEATHER: And they first look at a skull from a seven-million-year-old human ancestor. No nuchal ligament. Nothing. And then they keep looking at fossils that are ...


MATT: Like, six million.


HEATHER: Five million.


MATT: Nothing, nothing.


HEATHER: But then ...

DENNIS BRAMBLE: Sure enough, there it is.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: A little sharp ridge.


MATT: They find a ridge in a skull.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: From around two million years ago.


HEATHER: There's a nuchal ligament.


MATT: The skull of our ancestor, homo erectus.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: It doesn't have a snout, it has smaller teeth. It's -- it's the first species that's really very much like you and me from the neck down.


MATT: And this is sort of like a -- like a, Dan says, a eureka moment, because from the neck up essentially what we're talking about is -- is the brain. The thing that really sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: And when homo erectus first appears, you know, their brains are about half the size of the brains that we have today.


MATT: What Dan and Dennis realize, like looking through the fossil record, doing all sorts of laboratory research is that from the neck down, two million years ago we got all these -- these adaptations that we still have, adaptations that seem to be explicitly designed for running.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: So for example ...


MATT: Take the foot.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Almost all animals that run have short toes.


HEATHER: If you have long toes and you're running, you -- your toes break.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: And sometime around two million years ago, our toes got shorter.


MATT: Or also, like four million years ago, our feet were flat.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: You can have a flat foot and walk very well, but once you have a flat foot it's very hard to run.


MATT: Two million years ago, our feet start to arch.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: That arch is a spring. And in fact, there are plenty of other springs.


HEATHER: Like the Achilles tendon.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Which is like a centimeter long in a chimpanzee or a gorilla.


HEATHER: With homo erectus, it becomes ...


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Really long.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: A huge spring in your leg.


MATT: Also, our hips become ...




HEATHER: Narrow.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: That help us stay stable.


MATT: Arms ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: That are really useful for climbing.


HEATHER: Shorter legs.


MATT: Longer ...


HEATHER: The inner ear ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: The semicircular canals ...


MATT: Larger.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: More sensitive to pitching forces.


HEATHER: So you can balance better.


MATT: Our joints in our knees and our hips get bigger, which are supposed to be able to bear the load of running.


HEATHER: And maybe the most important adaptation: the butt.


MATT: Butts!


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: So butts are not only, you know, beautiful, and they're helping me sit on this chair right now, but -- but the butt is, of course, the largest -- the gluteus maximus, its technical term, is the largest muscle in the human body. And when we've done electromyographic studies, so yes, I have been paid to put EMGs on the rear ends of -- of people, and we do it very discreetly and very carefully and modestly, but nonetheless when we do that, what we find is that the gluteus maximus fires twice in every stride. Once and most importantly, and most -- to prevent the trunk from pitching forward. So every time you hit the ground when you're running, your upper body wants to fall forward.


MATT: Huh. When I'm running, I'm in a perpetual state of, like, near falling?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: That's correct. Running is a controlled fall. Very different from walking. And so your gluteus maximus fires just before your body's about to -- your trunk is about to pitch forward and make you hit your nose on the ground, and it helps pull your trunk backward. And the other time the gluteus maximus fires is when your leg is swinging forward when you're in the air, and it helps decelerate the leg so that you bring your leg down onto the ground. So the gluteus maximus plays a very important role when you're -- when you're running, and turns out to barely be active when you're walking. And, you know, you don't need the fancy equipment in my lab to figure this out. You can just do this yourself at home. Just walk around the room and hold your butt and, you know, clench your kind of butt. And -- and when you're walking your butt will just stay kind of normal, right? It'll stay kind of, you know ...


MATT: Saggy.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: It won't really clench up very much. But when you run, you'll feel it clench up with every step. And it turns out that very nicely we can see when the gluteus maximus got big in human evolution because its upper portion, the portion that's really important for this function, leaves a trace on the pelvis, on the bone. And we can see that, you know, chimpanzees and early hominins had a small chimp-like gluteus maximus.


HEATHER: Tiny buns.


MATT: Teeny buns.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Yeah. Wimpy buns.


MATT: Took them out of the oven too soon. Keep them in the oven.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: There you go!


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: But as soon as homo erectus comes along you can see that it really got big. So they must have had big butts like us.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Yeah, big buns.


MATT: Hmm.


MATT: But then so, like, why ...


HEATHER: Why did this happen?


MATT: Yeah. Like, of now butts, nuchal ligament, everything ...


HEATHER: Inner ear, Achilles tendon. It's just like the whole human body changes all of a sudden. Why? Like, why did we start running?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Well, there was climate change. So the Ice Age began, starting -- you know, starting around 2.8 million years ago the Earth's climate started changing substantially and Africa started to dry out.


MATT: And Dan says what happened is forests and jungles turned into ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Grassland habitats and more open habitats.


HEATHER: Which quickly filled up with large grass-eating mammals.




HEATHER: Like kudu and antelope.


MATT: And other large mammals.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Saber-tooth tiger or something like that.


MATT: That ate those mammals.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: But unlike other carnivores ...


HEATHER: Your lions, tigers, cheetahs ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: We don't have any natural weapons. We don't have claws and fangs. And the kinds of technologies that we think about for hunting were not invented until very recently.


MATT: So ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: The bow and arrow was actually invented less than a hundred thousand years ago.


MATT: Huh.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: And in fact, just putting a sharpened stone point on a stick, right? So a -- a spear head.


MATT: Yeah.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: That was actually invented less than 500,000 years ago.


MATT: Really? We had nothing?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: We had -- well, we had pointed wooden sticks, which probably weren't that sharp. We had maybe clubs. You know, we could throw rocks.


MATT: Great.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: And we don't have lots of fur to protect ourselves.


MATT: We sound like the worst-equipped animal to deal with this climate change.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Right. But natural selection often comes up with really interesting solutions.


MATT: Dan says, imagine you're back two million years ago.


MATT: Where are we?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Well, we might be in a woodland. Or we might be a savanna. You know, there's a variety of habitats.


MATT: We'll stick with the savanna.


HEATHER: You're out there with your family, friends, clan.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: We don't really know the group sizes, but probably, you know, 15 to 20 maybe is not an unreasonable guess. But who knows?


HEATHER: You and your group are walking through the tall grasses of the savanna.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: You're hungry.


MATT: And off in the distance ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: You see some wildebeest. And you run after them. But the wildebeests run away faster than you can possibly run. And the wildebeest will run far away, right? And go hide. But that's okay.


MATT: You're just gonna keep chasing them.




MATT: Looking for any signs of their trail.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: And you're not chasing them at a sprint. You're kind of running along at a nice, relaxed endurance pace. Like, 10-minute miles.


MATT: And you do this for mile after mile after mile.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: But the trick is you find that animal before it's cooled down, because of course the animal would have run away, and when it runs away it gets hot. Like, when you -- running generates a lot of heat. And these animals aren't very good at dumping heat.


MATT: And why can't it dump heat?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Because they can't sweat.


MATT: Unlike us ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Most animals are unable to sweat.


MATT: So ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: The way they lose heat is by panting.


MATT: The thing about four-legged animals, though, is every stride they take when they're running ...


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: ... the guts slam into the diaphragm like a piston. And so when an animal starts galloping, it has to train each breath with each stride. And that prevents it from doing the short little shallow breaths, you know, that animals do when they pant.


MATT: Huh.


MATT: And so Dan says what you do is you try to keep this wildebeest sprinting. So you stay slow and steady, keep moving. Just slowly chasing this thing. And slowly over time, you're making it hotter and hotter and hotter, until at a certain point after tons of miles, it could be 20, could be 30, you push this animal to the point of exhaustion.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: At that point the animal is basically collapsing, right? Its -- its defenses are gone, and they just find a rock and dispatch the animal with a rock.


MATT: And when you say 'dispatch,' you mean, like, it -- we beat its brains in?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: That might be what they might do, yeah.


MATT: Huh. This is so horrifying.


HEATHER: I know. It's a terrible way to die, right?


MATT: Yeah.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: But once we are able to do this, we become -- we were able to become hunters. And of course hunting gives us access to incredible number of calories. And energy is -- well, life is all about energy, you know? Basically, you know, the -- the equation of life is, you know, energies in and babies out, right? So more and ...


MATT: That's life.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Yeah, that's -- that's basically life, right? A kudu is a lot of calories, which is a lot of babies. So if you could run down an animal like a kudu, you have access to an astonishing energy supply. You also have access to important nutrients. It's not just meat, it's also liver and brain and marrow. These are very rich, important and rare resources that enabled our ancestors to overcome the constraints of -- that so many animals face. And I think it's one of the reasons that -- it's after the evolution of hunting begins, that we really see big increases in brain size in human evolution. So brains basically doubled after we started hunting. And -- and of course to hunt, you can't really hunt without running. And so -- so running helped us become hunters, and hunting and gathering helped us become the smart, intelligent cooperative creatures that we are today.


MATT: Yeah, but I got to say, the idea of humans running down animals over these, like, huge distances, like it just -- it just seems ...


HEATHER: Well, and it kind of boggles the mind, right? Like, it seems impossible. Like, I think I had heard this theory before, I think you had probably heard this theory before, at least in some part of my life, like some runner friend probably at some point had been like, "You know, we're like --" I actually remember, do you remember when those toe things came out?


MATT: Oh, God!


HEATHER: And I remember there was this -- there was this time when people would always be talking about how we were made to run and we were evolved to run, and there are groups of people who have historically hunted this way. But even so, there's something about thinking about modern humans. Like, people like me who, like, sit on the couch and watch Netflix and eat ice cream, I just was like, "Uh, not me."


MATT: Yeah.


HEATHER: It just -- so I think there's a part of this that it's like so elegant but it's also really counter-intuitive. It just does not seem possible. So I'd been, you know, preparing for this conversation with Lieberman and I had heard this theory, and I had said to a few different people, you know ...


HEATHER: Oh yeah, this guy thinks that you can outrun a horse or something. And everyone's like, "No, it's not possible."


HEATHER: And he was like, "Well ..."


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: I have. People do it all the time. Even I've done it.


HEATHER: I've actually done it.


HEATHER: You've outrun a horse?


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: Absolutely. There's a course -- there's a race called Man Against Horse, it's every year in Prescott, Arizona. And two years ago, I ran the race. And I ran -- outran almost all the horses, and I'm just a middle-aged professor. I'm not particularly fast.


MATT: It's kind of like he was saying, "You can see this whole theory play out in the desert of Arizona.




MATT: And you and I talked about this. And we were like, okay.


HEATHER: We're going.


MATT: We're going.


JAD: When we come back, it is off to the races. Radiolab will continue in a moment.


[LAUREN: This is Lauren Furey from Western Springs, Illinois. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at]




JAD: Jad. Radiolab. Back to reporters Matt Kielty and Heather Radke, and a race which this is one of my favorite parts of this whole story.


HEATHER: So in 1983, a city councilman in Prescott comes into this bar in Whiskey Row, like super-old west America.


MATT: And he gets there, he sits down, and he has a beer. And down at the end of the bar ...


HEATHER: There's a couple of cowboys. The city councilman's just run a marathon.


MATT: And at some point ...


HEATHER: The city council guy says, "I just ran this crazy race."


MATT: And one of the cowboys says ...


HEATHER: "My horse could run that far easily."


MATT: "You're not that fast."


HEATHER: "My horse could do that in an afternoon. Wouldn't even break a sweat." And then the city councilman's like, "You know, I'm not sure he can."


MATT: "Actually, in fact, I bet I can outrun your horse."


HEATHER: And for 30-plus years, they have been sort of seeing who's right.


MATT: I put in new batteries last night. Yeah, what the ...? I am so confused.


HEATHER: So a while back, you and I flew to Phoenix, we rented a car and drove up to ...


MATT: Prescott.


HEATHER: Prescott.


MATT: We went to Prescott.


HEATHER: Don't say Prescott.


MATT: No. It's kind of like just high desert country.


HEATHER: Cactuses and scrub and red rocks.


MATT: Big blue sky.


HEATHER: It's, like, super cinematic. It's like, this is the west.


MATT: Ah, man-horse sign. Arrow to the right.


MATT: And we were there to see this race.


HEATHER: Nicely homemade, too.


MATT: Yeah, it's just a piece of wood. It says "man-horse" in red paint.


MATT: Borne out of this bet. And the race, it's a 50-mile race through the desert.


HEATHER: Up this mountain, man against horse. Winner take all.


MATT: All right. Okay. So I mean, we're essentially what, just standing in, like, an open desert plain.


HEATHER: Everything's super flat.


MATT: A little bit of a valley.


HEATHER: Kind of right out ahead of you is this big mountain that is the mountain that they're gonna climb during the race.


MATT: Shin-high dry ...




MATT: ... scrub grass.


MATT: We got there for day one.


HEATHER: And we go to the check-in table.


RON BARRETT: Hi, Heather. How are you? Let me just ...


HEATHER: And we met up with Ron Barrett.


MATT: By the way, I'm Matt. I don't think ...


RON BARRETT: Hi Matt. Ron Barrett.


MATT: Ron Barrett. Nice to meet you.


MATT: He basically orchestrates this whole thing.


HEATHER: Tall guy, bald, got a white goatee. You meet him and you're like, now that's a good guy.


RON BARRETT: Here we got some nostalgia.


HEATHER: Oh, look at this!


MATT: Oh, a bunch of clippings.


MATT: He was propping up this big poster board.


RON BARRETT: It's just a board that we, you know, over the years, we've taken pictures of back in '83, '85, the early years.


MATT: There's a lot of old newspaper photos of horses.


RON BARRETT: So that's the Mojo Man, Scott Mojoleski.


MATT: Runners.


HEATHER: A shirtless runner.


RON BARRETT: He was Mojo M.O. And he was the first guy to be with no shirt on Runner's World Magazine.


HEATHER: Allegedly.


MATT: But when we were talking to Ron ...


RON BARRETT: He won it back in '94.


HEATHER: It turns out Daniel's theory is kind of not quite holding up out here.


MATT: He won the human portion.


RON BARRETT: He won -- yeah.


MATT: Because the headline reads "Horses Again Prove To Be Faster."


RON BARRETT: But he won the run at that time.


MATT: Some humans can beat some horses.


MATT: Did he ever -- did he ever end up beating a horse?


RON BARRETT: No, he never did.


MATT: But no human ever in this race has outrun the fastest horse.


RON BARRETT: This guy here, he's been the one to come the closest.


HEATHER: So in the 36 years that this race has been going, the horse has won every time.


MATT: And to be honest, it sort of makes sense.




MATT: Once you see ...


HEATHER: ... the horses.




MATT: What is that? Why do they do that? And we got horses just kind of hanging out in these tiny makeshift enclosures.


HEATHER: And it's not just like pony down at the fair or something. They're big, they're muscular.


MATT: I could never stand that close behind a horse.


HEATHER: It's like evolution has made this animal to be, like, the best running beast on the planet.


MATT: So we talked to some of the riders.


HEATHER: The horses don't run by themselves.


BRUCE: I'm Bruce.


HEATHER: I'm Heather.


BRUCE: Heather, how are you?


WOMAN: There you go. You're just ravenous, aren't you? Good boy!


HEATHER: And these people know what they're doing. They've been running endurance races with these horses for a really long time.


MATT: I'm Matt, by the way.


TROY: Hi Matt. Troy.


MATT: Troy?


TROY: Nice to meet you.


HEATHER: So one of the guys we ended up talking to for a while was this guy Troy.


MATT: Barrel-chested, cowboy hat on. And Troy looked determined.


TROY: I think of this ride -- I don't even worry about who else shows up here to race on the horse race, I just want to beat the runner.


HEATHER: Troy's actually been competing in this race, the Man Against Horse Race for the last 13 years. And he's beat a lot of humans.


TROY: And so when I see these guys running, I'm like going, "You guys are good!" You know? But I'm gonna beat you, don't worry. Yeah, I still -- it's like if I was playing basketball with a 12-year-old, I'd still wanna -- I'd still wanna dunk on him, right? You know?


MATT: We haven't met any of the runners yet. Are they -- do they, like, congregate in some other spot? Or ...


TROY: That's them over there.


MATT: Troy pointed a couple hundred yards over to the other side of this dried-out riverbed.


TROY: The wash, that little wash right there? Those'll be all ultra-runners. But hey, they're little skinny people, all right?


MATT: So here's what we got for the re-enactment of the origins of running in humanity. On one side of this wash, standing in for the ancient antelope of the Serengeti [HORSE NEIGHS], masses of muscle.


HEATHER: Bred and trained to run. And then on the other side ...


MATT: Subarus.


HEATHER: Small group of maybe eight people wearing microfiber whatever. They just, like, have these, like, high-tech clothes on, and they're nibbling on, like, little vegan treats.


MATT: Quietly reading books.


MATT: Are you guys -- are you guys the runners?




MATT: We're -- we're with the public radio station, WNYC.


WOMAN: Oh, very cool!


MAN: Uh, we do not like public radio.


MATT: Yeah, I know. All these Subarus out here, I figured a bunch of public radio haters. I was a little scared coming over.


HEATHER: So some of them, this is their first time racing a horse.


HEATHER: How are you feeling about that?


WOMAN: Excited.


HEATHER: For a couple of others, they've actually tried before.


WOMAN #2: Of course, I think I'm in -- I'm about ten years older so I'll do a -- probably take a lot longer. Usually ...


HEATHER: But when we asked them ...


HEATHER: Why -- why are you doing this?


HEATHER: Why would you run 50 miles through the desert competing against a horse?


MATT: Their answers ...


WOMAN: I feel like we're kind of comrades out there. Just us against the course.


MATT: Were not exactly encouraging for the human side.


MAN: All you're worried about is doing it and then it's time to find another race.


MATT: It's us against the course, it's us against ourselves. We're all friends here.


HEATHER: I mean, at this point it pretty much seems like the horses have got it.


MATT: Yeah. Like a blowout.


HEATHER: Yeah. They don't have a shot. But then we heard about this one guy.


WOMAN: Nick.


WOMAN #2: Nick.


MATT: Nick.


RON BARRETT: Now this kid says he's coming, Nick Coury.


MATT: We'd actually also heard about him from Ron.


RON BARRETT: He says he wants to come tomorrow and beat the course record.


TROY: I gotta -- you know, so that's why I'm kind of interested to know how fast this runner thinks he's gonna run, right?


MATT: Turns out Troy had caught wind of him.


TROY: But I don't really know.


MATT: Maybe even sounded a little nervous. But there was no sign of him yet.


HEATHER: At this point, it's almost -- it's like sunset.


WOMAN: We need to eat lasagna. It's getting cold.


HEATHER: And so we head out to our hotel ...


MATT: ... thinking like, we're doomed.


HEATHER: It just doesn't seem like there's any chance.


MATT: Only other than maybe this guy Nick?


MATT: Day two. Wake up super early.


MATT: Oh, the sun's coming up. Whoops, sorry.


HEATHER: The race starts at 6:30 in the morning.


MATT: It's just after six. Race day, race day, race day!


MATT: The horse people are all ...


WOMAN: Good boy.


MATT: Getting the horses ready.


HEATHER: They're saddling up their horses, putting on these fancy horseshoes. They're feeding the horses.


MATT: And back across the divide ...


HEATHER: .. the runners ...


HEATHER: Sun's finally up.


MATT: Are sort of like ...


HEATHER: You're ready to go. So did ...


WOMAN: Yeah.


MATT: Anxiously moving about. Stretching.




HEATHER: But we are immediately looking for Nick. I'm like, "Where is he?" One of the runners was like ...


MAN: Right there. That guy.


HEATHER: In that red?


MAN: Exactly.


HEATHER: Nick's over there.


WOMAN: Yeah, he's the one to talk to.


HEATHER: And pointed at this little hatchback. And so I went over there with my microphone and my little headphones and he ...


HEATHER: All right.


HEATHER: Sort of like, popped open the hatchback.




NICK COURY: Good morning.


HEATHER: What -- what's your name?


NICK COURY: Nick Coury.


HEATHER: Nick. We've been hearing about you.


NICK COURY: So I hear.


MATT: He's a young guy, early 30s.


HEATHER: A little bit bleary-eyed.


MATT: Did you just get up?


NICK COURY: Kind of. I slept out here last night. So this is -- this is my place to get ready.


MATT: He slept in the back of his Honda Fit in a sleeping bag.


NICK COURY: It's easier to just wake up and be here and not have to worry about driving.


MATT: And right away we were like ...


MATT: So are you -- are you going for a course record?


NICK COURY: I'd say it's a possibility. Like, I don't like to get ahead of myself. I know ...


HEATHER: So he sort of hedged a little bit. But we didn’t actually have that much time to talk to him because the race was about to start.


HEATHER: We're gonna let you go. But ...


MATT: Yeah.


HEATHER: Thanks for talking to us.


MATT: Yeah, thanks Nick.


MATT: And so about 10 minutes later ...


RON BARRETT: 50-milers, runners check in over here!


MATT: Ron starts calling people together.


RON BARRETT: 50 mile horse race!


MATT: Horses start arriving.


RON BARRETT: Listen up! Hey, everybody respect everybody. Everybody take their time going through this wash. I don't want no accidents on the other side of that hill.


MATT: I'd asked Ron if I could run with everybody at the beginning and he was like, "Sure."


RON BARRETT: You guys all have a good day, huh?


MATT: There's probably about 20 runners standing there. About a dozen horses behind us. And then right about 6:30, Ron shouts ...


RON BARRETT: All right, Man Against Horse Race! Start right now! Here we go!


MATT: Go. So all the runners get down into this wash first, come up into this barren desert. And pretty quick ...


WOMAN: On your right.


MATT: Come the horses.


NICK COURY: Yeah, it's kind of crazy.


MATT: Nick was up ahead of me.


NICK COURY: The horses take off in a cloud of dust and you kind of cough it up a bit but then settle in.


MATT: Meanwhile, Troy ...


TROY: As soon as Ron says, "Go," I'm thinking, "Haul ass."


MATT: Troy is, like, galloping out there. He's, like, a hundred yards ahead of anybody.


TROY: As quickly as we could.


MATT: You can see dust coming up behind his horse.


MATT: How was your horse feeling out of the gate?


TROY: Oh, he was good.


MATT: I, on the other hand ...


MAN: You gonna run the whole race with that thing?


MATT: Oh God, no! No. I'm going, like, a quarter mile, coming back. Good luck, y'all!


MATT: It was kinda crazy running out there with them and how, like, everything was going exactly like Dan's scenario on the Serengeti with the antelope. Or in this case, the horse, like, taking off, the human eating dust for the moment. But like, Nick when we talked to him about this, he said as he watches the horses speed off into the distance ...


NICK COURY: The first thing I think is, "I will see you later."


MATT: It's just like, don't worry about the horses hauling ass.


NICK COURY: Focus on the race.


MATT: Slow and steady.


NICK COURY: Am I running the right pace? Am I eating at the right time?


MATT: Slow down if you need to, let your body adjust, find your rhythm.


NICK COURY: Whatever I need to do to keep going steady.


MATT: Meanwhile, Troy is hauling ass through the desert.


TROY: Somewhere between 14 miles per hour and 18 miles per hour.


MATT: Now we should point out that there are a couple things about this race that are not like the ancient hunt. For one, over these 50 miles the horses have to stop three different times at these things called vet checks.


HEATHER: So it's a requirement of any kind of official endurance ride that when the horse gets to a certain point, the horses stop and a vet checks them.


MATT: They just want to make sure the horse is okay before they let it keep going with the race.


HEATHER: Which is good, because what that means is that the horses don't sprint themselves to death like they would on the savanna.


MATT: But it also eats up an hour and 15 minutes where the horse is stopped and the human is still running. Which would be like, okay great, the humans like Nick have this sort of unfair advantage to catch up.


HEATHER: But it actually puts the human at a disadvantage in this race, because in the end, when Ron calculates the final scores for the humans and the horses, he subtracts the horse hold times from the human racer scores. So the human has to beat the time the horse would have run if it hadn't stopped.


NICK COURY: But I felt sluggish probably the first 10 miles or so. And so, you know, I'm kind of second-guessing myself. Like, you know, is this gonna go away or is this gonna blow up and then I'm gonna have to drop from the race, you know, halfway through or something?


MATT: But he keeps chugging along.


NICK COURY: Dragging myself and using ...


MATT: And then Troy, still hauling ass, at Mile 16 trots into Vet Check 1.


TROY: And we actually got into the vet check exactly when I had planned to get in, which was right around 8:15-8:30 in the morning. So ...


MATT: He hopped off his horse.


TROY: Took his saddle off, taking the heat load off from the saddle pad.


MATT: Got his horse some water, the vet came over. When pretty much out of nowhere ...


TROY: Oh, shit.


MATT: Nick came running through.


NICK COURY: I could see horses that are being, you know, examined by the vets. I didn't see a whole lot more than that because I was in and out of it really quick.


TROY: He looked good too.


NICK COURY: I'm finally warming up, trying to more or less push it.


TROY: I hadn't seen a guy in that race anything close to as fast as he was.


MATT: So Nick takes off. And then after a 20-minute hold, Troy comes flying out of the vet check.


TROY: Marking the miles as they go by.


MATT: 17, 18.


TROY: Wondering when you're gonna see the front runner.


MATT: 21.


NICK COURY: I'm feeling more loose, but I'm starting to feel fatigue setting in. I don't feel fresh anymore.


MATT: But he says, he tells himself okay, don't need to push yourself faster, just ...


NICK COURY: Keep going steady. The horses are gonna come catch me at some point. I've just gotta keep steady and hold myself together so that I'm gonna have more left later on.


MATT: Meanwhile, Troy is hauling out of the vet check, stepping on the gas until he gets to ...


TROY: The backside of Mingus Mountain.


HEATHER: The big climb.


MATT: And Nick ...


NICK COURY: My legs are burning.


MATT: Nick's only a few miles ahead, hitting the steep part of the climb.


NICK COURY: My hands are on my knees, kind of using them almost like hiking poles to push off every footstep.


HEATHER: You know, climbing like it's a boulder.


NICK COURY: I was really -- like, I expected a horse to pass me at any moment.


MATT: And while all of this was going on ...


MATT: I can’t even see anything.


MATT: We were lost on the mountain.


HEATHER: I don't love that.


MATT: What is -- oh my God!


MATT: That's us almost driving off a cliff.


HEATHER: Holy shit!


HEATHER: Even now my -- my hands are sweating in remembering it.


MATT: Yeah, so we had gone to look for the first vet check. We had gotten totally turned around, and we were on this mountain that was just treacherous. Like, awful. And I just remember thinking, like, how do you run up this thing?


HEATHER: Or with a horse? I mean, both -- both of them.


MATT: Yeah. But then so we finally find our way off the mountain, circle all the way back around the mountain, go back up the top and we go to a different checkpoint. Ron told us, he's like, "You can get to this checkpoint and you'll be there in time. Nobody should be up there."


HEATHER: Oh, yeah. This is it.


HEATHER: And this is the checkpoint that's at the top of the climb.


HEATHER: We found it!




HEATHER: I didn't think it would ever happen.


MATT: All right.


MATT: It's at the peak of the mountain.


HEATHER: Mile 32.


MAN: Have no fear, NPR is here.


MATT: It's just a small gravel parking lot. It's like a lookout point.


HEATHER: There's about six volunteers there.


WOMAN: Yeah, we're with the Search and Rescue.


MATT: They all had walkie-talkies. They were getting updates from other checkpoints on the course.


HEATHER: And they told us that the first beast we were gonna see was a horse.


MAN: Yeah, they're just about to come roaring through here. So ...


HEATHER: Because that's what had always happened before.


MATT: Horses always come up the mountain first. And then you ...


HEATHER: [whispers] It's crazy.


MATT: Is it?


MATT: ... grabbed me and were like, "You should come look at this view."


HEATHER: I mean, you're gonna see.


WOMAN: Go look.


MATT: Oh! Oh my God!


HEATHER: Isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?


MATT: That's incredible!


MATT: It's just this huge, green valley that runs all the way to these, like, beautiful red cliffs.


HEATHER: This is crazy. Like, they come up there?


HEATHER: These horses and humans climb up this, essentially like a sheer face of a mountain.


HEATHER: I can't believe they come up this way.


MAN: I guess they're gonna be a little further. You’ll see 'em trucking their way up here, and you'll hear 'em coming.


HEATHER: It's, like, very steep.


MATT: I just have no idea where the trail is. I mean ...


MATT: So we kinda just were sitting around waiting for, like, a sign. When all of a sudden, one of the volunteers just shouted out ...


MAN: Runner coming!


MATT: Runner coming?


MAN: Yes. Runner!


MATT: Runner before a horse?


MAN: Runner in the lead. They do it.


MATT: Out of nowhere, coming from this tiny little trail into this parking lot.


WOMAN: You got it! Woo!


MATT: Nick just appears.


WOMAN: Good job, Nick!


MATT: And he looked like -- he looked good.


HEATHER: He just kinda seemed chill.


MATT: I’ll keep run -- I'll run with Nick for a sec.


MATT: And so I caught up alongside of him.


MATT: I'll try to keep pace with you for a minute.


NICK COURY: All right.


MATT: Hey, you're out -- you're out ahead.


NICK COURY: Yeah, that's a good sign, I suppose. I'm feeling pretty good about that.


MATT: How do you feel so far in general?


NICK COURY: Not too bad. I mean, that was the toughest part. I had to hike quite a bit of that climb.


MATT: Oh, really? Just straight up hiking?


NICK COURY: Yeah. It's like 1,500 feet of climbing in, I don't know, like a mile, mile and a half. So it's a steep, steep climb.


MATT: Yeah.


NICK COURY: But yeah, now it's all pretty much downhill from here, so that should be good.


MATT: How are you doing for pace?


NICK COURY: Not -- I'm happy with where I'm at. I'm just running hard but comfortable.


MATT: Okay.


NICK COURY: I don't know where that compares to the record or anything. Not too worried about it yet.


MATT: Yeah.


MATT: We ran together for four minutes?


MATT: I'll leave you to it.


NICK COURY: Awesome.


MATT: Good luck.


NICK COURY: Later. Thanks.


MATT: Oh my God, he's been doing that for 32 miles. That’s insane.


HEATHER: What happened?


MATT: Yeah, I ran with him for a little bit. I'm so dead. Not a horse?


HEATHER: No horse yet.


MATT: Huh.


MATT: There still wasn't a horse. 20 minutes go by and then all of a sudden we hear ...


MAN: Another runner coming.


MATT: Another runner!


MAN: Another runner coming.


MATT: Another runner coming. Then a third runner.


RUNNER: Hey, what’s going on man?


MATT: Hey, nice to see ya. Not a single horse still.


RUNNER: They're coming.


HEATHER: So then finally, there's a horse. In fact, there's two horses. There's these two women riders who kind of emerge out of the trail.


MATT: But there's no Troy.


HEATHER: Yeah, there's no sign of Troy. And this is how I remember it. Like, we'd heard something had happened.


MAN ON WALKIE-TALKIE: Somewhere back down the trail his horse stumbled and fell.


HEATHER: That a rider had gone down.


MATT: Did I hear a name?


MATT: But no one knew who. And then we ended up finding out that in fact ...


TROY: We caught a rock and went down and ...


MATT: Troy, around Mile 26 or so, he and his horse caught a rock, toe-catcher as he called it.


HEATHER: He and the horse both fell, yeah.


TROY: Which sort of, you know, to a large extent ended my day.


HEATHER: And they were okay.


MATT: But the idea of winning was -- was completely gone. But there were these riders, Susie and MJ, who we'd also heard actually I think were, like, top riders.


HEATHER: Who have won lots of races. And so they had a pretty good shot of winning too.


MATT: And then we're like, okay, we'll follow -- we'll follow them.


HEATHER: So we drove a mile down the road to Vet Check 2. We're trying to figure out ...


HEATHER: ... the pace when the runners ...


HEATHER: We knew Nick was ahead, but the question was was he ahead enough in order to win the race?


MATT: Like, these horses could still finish after him but still beat him. So we walk into this vet check. It's in this little wooded area. And you go and you start talking to people, and then when we were coming in I asked ...


MAN: Hi there.


MATT: ... one of the volunteers ...


MAN: We're doing good. How are you doing?


MATT: Not bad. Did the front-runner come through?


MATT: If Nick had come through. And he was just like, "Oh, yeah."


MAN: Oh, he -- he is really moving.


MATT: Because we want to make sure we don't miss him at the finish line. Do you know what he -- do you know when he might get in, you think?


MATT: We look at a map and we realize that Nick is running a seven-minute mile.


MAN: So if you're trying to get there to catch him, you're not gonna have a lot of time.


HEATHER: We decided that I'd stay behind and talk to the horse people, and you'd go ahead and try to get to the finish line.




MATT: All right. I'll be in touch.


MATT: So I drove very fast down the mountain trying to catch Nick.


HEATHER: Who was just getting to the bottom of the mountain.


NICK COURY: I'm winding down the trail.


HEATHER: It's steep, it's rocky.


NICK COURY: Making sure I'm picking up my feet, not gonna catch a toe on a rock or anything like that. Do whatever it takes to keep my body upright.


HEATHER: For the whole first part of this race, Nick's mindset is like, only live in this moment, don't let yourself think about the end. Don't let yourself have a lot of feeling or emotion. But then here at the end, after 40 miles ...


NICK COURY: I -- I almost start to let a panic take over me.


HEATHER: For the first time in the whole race, all the emotions that he's been repressing and pushing down ...


NICK COURY: Then I let it all come in on me. You let that hit you, and you let that excitement hit you and you let that adrenaline and, you know, fear and, you know, everything else, kind of a huge mix of emotions all rush in. And you let yourself experience, like, the fullness of every single emotion all at once and you hit that height. I was -- I just started running basically as hard as I could. Faster and faster. And like, I almost build this momentum of, like, nothing can stop me from getting to that finish line. Like, I -- I hit that last half mile where I can see the finish banner, I can see the finish line. Like, tears started welling up as I'm running in and like, the -- the emotions just completely overcome me as I cross the finish line.


MATT: So I got back down to, like, the base camp. Got out of the car and started making my way over to the finish line. And then I just saw him.


MATT: Ha ha! You already beat me here.


MATT: Standing there.


MATT: How'd it go?




MATT: He was surrounded by a bunch of people.


MATT: Did you do it?




RON BARRETT: 6:14. I go, "He's not in yet. I don't have to go up there." 6:14. Shit. Way to go, man. I just can't believe. You're my favorite runner. I ever tell you that?


MATT: But really, what everybody wanted to know ...


WOMAN: Oh my God. So did Nick beat the horse?


MATT: Was -- did Nick win-win? Like, for the first time in the history of this race, did a human beat the horse? And so what they do is they -- they have this banquet later where they actually give out the awards and announce everybody's time.


RON BARRETT: They get a nice big fat winner's buckle ...


MATT: The winner gets a really cool belt buckle.


HEATHER: So the way it works is that Ron announces the winners by category.


RON BARRETT: So in third place, we got the one and only ...


HEATHER: Starting with the top three runners.


RON BARRETT: Pete Mortimer!


HEATHER: He announces third place and then second place, and then he gets to ...


RON BARRETT: All right. Here we go. Here's the big one. Really big. Really big.




RON BARRETT: Really big show here. Nick Coury. Nick Coury won this course, won the race in time of 6:14. He won -- he won the course outright by beating the horse by over an hour and 15 minutes.


MATT: Nick walks up, Ron hands him this sterling silver belt buckle.




MATT: With the Man Against Horse logo on it.


RON BARRETT: Unbelievable. It's never been done before where a runner has actually beat the horse with -- with the hold times. Yeah.


MATT: In the story of ancient man, you -- this would be the moment where you ...


HEATHER: Get to eat your ...


MATT: Yeah.


HEATHER: ... your bone marrow.


MATT: You catch up to the gazelle and you ...


HEATHER: Bash it over the head ...


MATT: Bash its brains in ...


HEATHER: ... and break open its bones.


MATT: ... while it's, like, just slowly breathing on the ground in front of you.


HEATHER: He's like, "That's not my bag. That's your guys' thing.”


NICK COURY: Yeah. I guess it's maybe like the -- the old adage comes to mind: It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. It's -- I want it to be something like that.


HEATHER: I guess I always found it fascinating how it seems so obvious that a race is about the end.


MATT: Right.


HEATHER: But everybody we talked to was like, it's not about the end. And maybe they were just sort of -- maybe that's, like, the good sportsman thing to say, maybe that's kind of like how you get yourself through it. But I guess that's sort of to the point is like, the only way you can run a race like this, the only way you can really run 50 miles is to think about it mile by mile instead of imagining that the end is the goal.


MATT: Right. You have to go just step by step. You have to keep steady.


HEATHER: It's like we're not just evolved to get to the end, we evolved to endure the whole process.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: If you run, this kind of makes sense.


MATT: Daniel Lieberman, the guy who in a way kind of set us off on this whole journey.


DANIEL LIEBERMAN: I mean, there's a point when -- running is not easy. Everybody when you start to run, all of us, even the world's best runners, the first mile or so are never easy. But there's a point in every run when -- when things get better and you kind of realize or feel your body's really good at this. And -- and I think we were -- we kind of helped people understand how and why that is, and also helped people understand why it is that so many of us enjoy running and why, you know, millions of people run marathons and why -- you know, when I walk out the door and go to the river here, I see thousands of people running along the Charles River. We wouldn't be who we are today if it weren't for running. It's -- it's part of who we are.


MATT: Right.




DANIEL LIEBERMAN: So did you guys go to Man Against Horse?


HEATHER: We did. We went.


MATT: Oh yeah, we did. Yeah. It was crazy!


HEATHER: It was crazy. Because the guy -- I mean, I don't know if you've heard this year, but the guy who won won by a lot.




MATT: Yeah, he beat -- he beat the horses.




MATT: [laughs] I just love these, like, "yeah." Because -- because to Lieberman ...


HEATHER: To Lieberman that's not a surprise.


MATT: Yeah. It's like, this is who we are and what we've been doing. This is what we've been doing since two million years ago out on the Serengeti. Like, Nick did what we were born to do.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Yeah, so -- so I don't buy into that scenario.




HEATHER: Oh, wow! Wow! Curveball.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: It's not that -- I'm sorry?


HEATHER: No, no, no. I'm just -- go ahead.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: I mean, this is no surprise to Dan. He knows about it. We've argued about it, right?


HEATHER: Again, this is Daniel Lieberman's collaborator, Dennis Bramble.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: So I don't think it's plausible really that the earliest stages of running, and the -- and the things that promoted running could be persistence hunting, which is what that strategy is, where you run something in the heat and it overheats ultimately, and -- and you walk up and hit it over the head with a rock.


MATT: We should say that this is a way that some people in the world still hunt.


HEATHER: It's a strategy that can work. But Bramble doesn't think it's this -- it's the first strategy we had for getting meat.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: It's a really demanding thing, and takes hours. And it takes tracking ability, usually. I think that's something that came later, after running was pretty well established.


MATT: Hmm.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: To me, it makes a lot more sense that it began in something which has been called aggressive scavenging, taking advantage of real predators and trying to rip off the meat before other things start moving in and haul it off.


MATT: Bramble's like, you get there and there's a chance to eat some of it, and the thing is you're -- you're competing against all sorts of different, like, scavengers, you're competing against the vultures, hyenas.


HEATHER: Hyenas, leopards.


MATT: Leopards. Even like the animal that killed the animal.


HEATHER: Yeah. So in Bramble's theory you need to run to be able to get there before basically all the other animals in the savanna pick it clean.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Right. They have to get there fast, because the faster you get there the more of the carcass is left.






MATT: I will say that your theory is far less noble and exciting ...


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Oh, yeah. No, no.


MATT: ... than Dan's theory of chasing down. Perseverance, strength, commitment. Yours is like, "Hey, we figured out vultures are over there. Let's just go see what we can pick off this dead animal that some -- something else, like, spent all the time killing."


DENNIS BRAMBLE: And we will -- and we will be as bad-ass as we can be when we get over there to scare off those other guys. No, it's -- it's totally non-glorious.


MATT: It makes us into vultures. It makes us -- it makes our entire species into just vultures.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: It makes us into opportunists.


MATT: Yeah. I feel like maybe I buy into your ...


HEATHER: I know. It is pretty compelling, I have to say.


MATT: It makes sense.


DENNIS BRAMBLE: Well, it's not sexy.


MATT: Yeah.


HEATHER: So then it's like, it's not sexy, right? It's like the question's are we lions or are we vultures?


MATT: That's essentially what it is. Are we lions or are we vultures? But I guess the beautiful thing about it is like, either way, no matter what?


HEATHER: We got there because of our butts.


MATT: [laughs]


HEATHER: Is that where you were going?


MATT: Yeah. No matter what, it's all about the butt.


JAD: Reporters Heather Radke and Matt Kielty. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening.


MATT: Hey, this is producer Matt Kielty, running near my mom's house in Arizona. And just very quickly, this episode was produced by me with Rachael Cusick and Simon Adler. We had original, awesome music, sound design and mixing from Jeremy Bloom. This episode was fact-checked by Dorie Chevlen. Special thanks to Tammy Gagnon, Abbie Swift and everybody at Man Against Horse. And also really quickly want to say both Dennis and Daniel made a point of the fact that a lot of their early theories about humans and endurance running were informed by one of Dennis's students, the guy who wrote that paper. His name is Dave Carrier. And coincidentally, Dave's brother is a man named Scott Carrier who, if you listen to public radio, you might recognize the name, has been -- has had great work on This American Life, also wonderful podcast called Home of the Brave. Anyways, back in 1998 Scott did this sort of like seminal story about his brother's work, trying to chase down an antelope and a whole lot of things. Anyways, it just felt important to acknowledge the both of them. And yeah, that's about it. This is terrible. Oh, there's the horse.


[GRACE: This is Grace Wright calling from Inglewood, Colorado. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich. And produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Marion Renault and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


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