Sprinting for the Finish Line

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Original Air Date: 
July 31, 2021

What does it take to win Olympic gold? To become "the world's fastest human"? This hour, Olympic fame, the politics of sports, and the science of running.


The 1968 Olympic games changed everything for John Carlos. He and fellow runner Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute on the podium in a moment that became known as the most defiant and controversial in Olympics history.

woman running

New York Times Phys Ed columnist Gretchen Reynolds explains why movement is so important to our daily health, why running might be overrated, and how a little bit of pain can really maximize the benefit you see from your daily workout routine.


Science journalist Mark McClusky tells Anne that the secret to ever-increasing athletic performance is cutting-edge science and technology.

basketball hoop

On Native American reservations, high school basketball is huge. They have developed a fast-paced style of play called “rez ball.” New York Times reporter Michael Powell spent a season covering the team from Chinle High School in the Navajo Nation.

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Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Announcer (00:26):

This is the hottest 200 meter field ever assembled at the Olympic Games.

Anne Strainchamps (00:31):

This week we're thinking about running about what it takes to win the coveted title, fastest person in the world.

Announcer (00:39):

Second attempt now to get them away.

Sha'Carri Richardson (00:42):

Unbelievable, the fact that I'm an Olympian already. What do you say? Or anything, I am an Olympian.

Anne Strainchamps (01:00):

That's Sha'Carri Richardson, one of the top sprinters in the world. She aced the Olympic trials but was suspended after testing positive for marijuana, a widely legal substance that, if anything, would retard performance.

Sha'Carri Richardson (01:15):

I just say don't judge me. I am human. I'm new. I just happen to run a little faster. I greatly apologize if I let you guys down, and I did.

Anne Strainchamps (01:28):

There's no question, marijuana is against the Olympic rules. But critics wonder, is that the only reason Richardson was banned? Or did her neon orange hair, massive tattoos, eyelash extensions, long acrylic nails, and black skin, also have something to do with it? There's a long history of racial bias in sports, and the sprint, one of the marquee Olympic events is no exception. 1936, the Berlin Games.

Adolf Hitler (02:02):

[German 00:02:02].

Anne Strainchamps (02:02):

American Track and Field star Jesse Owens wins four gold medals.

Announcer (02:06):

[inaudible 00:02:06] superb runner, makes the other look as if they're walking.

Anne Strainchamps (02:10):

Adolf Hitler won't meet or shake hands with him. Worse, in Owens view, Franklin Roosevelt, his own President, doesn't send a telegram. None of the 18 African American athletes who competed in the Berlin Olympics was invited to the White House. Only the white Olympians. 1968, Mexico City, at the award ceremony, American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the air after winning their medals. Maybe the most famous Black Power salute ever given.

Announcer (02:49):

The victory ceremony, unfortunately overpowered by politics.

Anne Strainchamps (02:49):

And the most controversial. Half a century later, John Carlos remembers the decision, the moment and the fallout. He Told Steve Paulson he was inspired by a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr.

John Carlos (03:04):

I went into the room, and many of the people in the room looked familiar based on what my parents used to see on TV relative to Southern Christian leadership. But yet still while I'm sitting there nervously looking to see what's going to take place, I still didn't put the dots together in my mind in terms of where I was and what was about to happen to me in my life. And about 20 minutes later, so Dr. King walked out of the room. My lip just fell all over the floor in terms of me being in a room with somebody that my mom always revered as God's First Lieutenant, that he's sent here to Earth to try and deal with issues. And here I'm sitting in a room, I'm thinking my mom need to be a rock in my pocket or a bug on my lapel, she needs to be here.

John Carlos (03:43):

And he noticed right away that I was a little nervous about being in a room. And what I noticed about him is that he was very perceptive and at the same time very comedic, he was a jokester, to the point where he cracks many jokes to relax you, he relaxed me and other in there I'm sure. Then we went into the meeting, certain things he said stuck out in my mind. Like for instance he made a statement that they sent a letter to him and told me they had a bullet with his name on it he wouldn't have to wait long for it. That state of my mind in front of my mind.

John Carlos (04:18):

The second thing is, probably which was the most important thing relative to the meeting was the fact that he was going to come out in support of the Olympic boycott. He felt that he didn't want to be in command, he wanted Professor Edwards to be in command, but he definitely wanted to support factor right up under Professor Edwards.

Steve Paulson (04:36):

And did you support that? Would you have supported a boycott in the Olympics? Which would mean that you wouldn't be able to compete there.

John Carlos (04:42):

That was my game plan to support, but I thought that we would have a unified effort in terms of a staging of boycott. In this meeting, things became crystal clear because Dr. King asked, "Was there any questions?" I had two questions quite naturally, the first question would be, "Dr. King if they threaten your life. Why would you go back to Memphis when they threaten your life?" And I recall, I used to wear shades all the time and they didn't dilate like they do now. And I remember putting my shades down on my nose so I can look into his eyes. I wanted to see whether this man had any fear for the fact that someone told him that he was getting ready to leave this planet. I saw no fear whatsoever, he was a solid as a rock. And then beyond that, I saw that he had love for humanity, the love that I saw in his eyes was like he said, "I didn't make a partial commitment, I made a total commitment. If I have to sacrifice my life for what would I believe to be right then so be it."

John Carlos (05:34):

So I was really struck by that. So I asked him, I said, "Why would you go back?" And he said to me, he said "John, that's a very good question. But I have to go back and stand for those that can't stand for themselves, and John have to go back and stand for those that won't stand for themselves." And then as time goes by, you begin to realize those individuals that he was going back to stand up for were the sanitation workers. They wasn't all black sanitation workers, they wasn't all white sanitation workers, there was a multicultural environment in the sanitation department at that particular time.

John Carlos (06:05):

And then it leads me, Father believed that Dr. King didn't die as a result of his Civil Rights activities, he died because he got involved in economics in this country. So as the people all here in Wall Street, the people here in Wisconsin or Chicago or Boston, wherever, they're concerned about the economics in this country because it's affecting everyone just the same as Dr. King felt it was affecting the sanitation workers at that time.

Steve Paulson (06:29):

Now of course the boycott didn't happen, I suppose, partly because Dr. King had been killed. No one really took leadership of this boycott.

John Carlos (06:36):

Well, that was the second question I had to Dr. King, "Did you ever play any sports?" You played basketball, did you box? Did you do anything?" He said, he couldn't shoot pool. My question was, "Why would you get involved in the Olympic boycott? And he said, "John," he said, "That's a better question." He said, "Just imagine you've been out in the middle of a lake and the lake is still and serene and you reach down and you pull out a rock and you drop in the lake?" He actually said, "What happens?" I said, "It vibrates. He said, "Yes, it's waves." He said, "The waves go out to the far ends of that lake. The Olympic boycott is that rock." He said, "If you guys chose to backup opposed to going to the Olympic Games," he said, "We'd make a statement that would ripple throughout the world as to what would make these individuals step back and give up something they train for their lives. Something must be wrong. Let's have some sort of dialogue and try and understand it."

John Carlos (07:27):

But many individuals felt that they worked so hard to win a gold medal or to win a medal at the Olympic Games, this is something that's inbreded into young individuals, the Olympics, go for the Gold, it's a glorifying situation. So therefore, it was very difficult for many of them to say, "I'm willing to sacrifice my 15 minutes in the sun," and we felt that we didn't have the right to tell them, "You must not go to the Olympic games." But what we did feel, what we we had the right to sit them down and let them know both sides of the table in terms of what you get in your 15 minutes in the sun and what you could possibly do for humanity, for your kids and your grandkids in terms of making it a better world for all people.

John Carlos (08:09):

But the overwhelming factor is that those individuals felt compelled to go to the Olympic Games. Now, when they decided to go, the question for me was whether I was going to stay home because I could have quite naturally stay home. But I felt to myself, after thinking about it, that had I stayed home, the United States at that time was the greatest country in the world as far as track and field is concerned. Someone from the United States would go and win a medal in my place to get on a victory stand. I really don't believe that they would have gotten up there and represented John Carlos the way he felt he needed to be represented that time. So I was compelled to go to the games.

Steve Paulson (08:44):

So take me to the games you and Tommie Smith were the fastest 200 meter runners in the world at that time. There's a good chance you were going to win medals get up onto the podium...

John Carlos (08:57):

Well, any great athlete, when I say great, I mean super great. If you're going to have a bad day, God will let you know when you get out of bed that morning that you're going to have a bad day, we had no qualms and no hesitation about us making the team, we knew that we would make the team. I told Tommie after the quarter, semi we had discussion and I told him "I was disenchanted by the fact that the boycott was called off. I feel like I want to make a statement, what's your take on that?" He said, "I'm with you." From that point on we started talking about what artifacts we had we could bring to the table, which was the black gloves, which was a black scarf, which I had a black shirt, I had beads. We decided we would, we have black socks out there with our pants rolling up, we had no shoes out there. Each and every one of these symbols had a specific meaning and if you avail me the time I'll explain them to you.

John Carlos (09:45):

The black glove was based on the fact that we felt with open fist is five people of color, and each one of them were very sharp, have a very strong paradigm as to how things can be better, but either one of them stepped out on his own to move a pebble, he couldn't move it. But then when you say, "All right, next time we come together and say we have a unified vision as to how we can make things better, such as a possibly a boycott, what have you, and all these people come together in a very powerful force, but you couldn't move a pebble by yourself. Now unified, you can move a mountain. That was a concept of the fist and the glove. The scarf on Tommy's neck was a shield black pride. I had a black shirt over my USA jersey to indicate that there was sorrow about the fact that we had to go to this extent to get America wake up and realize its misdeeds in society.

John Carlos (10:33):

Then we decided that the beads that I had on my neck would be for all the lynchings that have taken place that I've read about and heard about as a young kid coming up in this great country of ours. And then we wore no shoes with long black socks to indicate those individuals that was in the south at that particular time, and I'm sure they're still there today, walking to and from 10, 20 miles to school without shoes. We wore the Puma shoe or we put the Puma shoe out there mainly because the Puma shoe was a shoe was concerned about people of color, that didn't have the means to go out and buy the proper shoes but it was very kind of hard to give individual shoes before they even got a reputation.

Steve Paulson (11:13):

It's sort of extraordinary what you're describing, the symbolism there is overpowering. You got the bronze, Tommie got the gold. Peter Norman from Australia and got the silver, all up on the podium there. And then when they started playing Star Spangled Banner, you and Tommy raises your fist.

John Carlos (11:31):

As we walked out, I mentioned to Tommie that, "Hey man, you remember when we go out there," I said, "People going be applauding and then there's gonna be a void and that void would be total silence because they would be in a state of shock once we start to perform our deeds." And at the same time I told Tommie. "Remember, we've been threatened, our lives have been threatened. So remember this man..."

Steve Paulson (11:51):

Why have you been threatened?

John Carlos (11:53):

Well, basically the fact that we were proposing a boycott, they felt it was anti-America. And many of the haters out there didn't particularly like the fact that you would step back. They feel like, "Oh, we given you this honor." No you didn't give me a honor, you set a standard, I took the honor to step up to qualified to make the Olympic team. I want America to represent young individuals regardless of what their ethnic background is as much as these young individuals honor America. That's what our stand was then that's what my stand is today. So when we went out there, I told Tommie, "Be careful man, we've been trained to listen to the gun. If you hit the gun, hit the deck." We went out there, we put the shoe down on the victory stand.

John Carlos (12:34):

As they acknowledged us, Tommie, I believe raised his glove and the shoe on his putting up to the spectators. And then when we received our medals and we turn it to the right to the flag and they started to sing national anthem, and then we come out with gloves and raise our fist to the sky, just like I said, "This void came over to point where it was solid for a matter of seconds, and then it went from solid to total screaming of the national anthem, it was almost like they were seeing the national anthem in a sense that, "We're going to shove this American national anthem down your throats whether you want it or not."

Steve Paulson (13:10):

And then you got booed, right?

John Carlos (13:12):

Oh, it was a tremendous amount of boos.

Steve Paulson (13:15):

What was the fall out for you personally? I mean, for starters, just as an athlete, weren't you kind of ostracized by the track and field establishment?

John Carlos (13:22):

Well, I was ostracized to a sense, but I wasn't weak enough that they could run me away. I decided that I was going to run for two years and I always thought about how they tried to slam down our throats that national anthem and I wanted slam down their throats that I was going to be the best in the world, anybody you bring, I was gonna wear them out for you, to let them know, "I'm here to run and I'm here for anybody you want to bring against me." But yet and still I had aches and pains relative to the demonstration. I would say to probably the most important thing that was most hurting or disturbing to me was my first wife took her life as a result of the Olympics, the pressures that were put upon us, lack of money into our household, the contempt that came into our household.

Steve Paulson (14:02):

And you should elaborate on that because I mean reading your book, The FBI followed your, they would plant rumors about you, you got death threats.

John Carlos (14:10):

But it's no different than what they do today to anyone, they did the same thing to Dr. King. And then at the same time my kids had to endure ridicule in school mainly because when the teachers found that they were my kids. So I had to endure all of these days. I remember they gave you $100 here, $200 there and get somebody to drive me to Vegas this is like a roll of dice to pay my mortgage. 29 days out of the month if it was 30 days I'm working 29 days to get my mortgage payment so my kids wouldn't live in the street. I remember chopping up my furniture, taking my kids and telling them, "Take your clothes out of the bureau drawer put it on the floor there, and I'll go take a hammer chop that furniture up, go put it the fireplace, because I could not pay my electric bill.

John Carlos (14:52):

I didn't have groceries, I had some dear friends that came and said, "John, I don't have much, but I see you have nothing in your cabinets," and came and put food in my house. Many individuals walked away from me at that particular time that I thought my friends took me a minute to find out that they walked away not because disrespected this love, but the majority of them walked away for fear of reprisal. If you associated with John Carlos, what's happening to him can come and happen to you as well.

Steve Paulson (15:16):

Do you ever have any regrets for what you back in Mexico City?

John Carlos (15:18):

No regrets whatsoever and if it was necessary for me to step up tomorrow, I would never hesitate to step up for what I feel is right. People say, "You sound like you're still running, you sound like you still got the fire," well, the fire was with me when I came, the fire will be with me when I left until justice is brought here for all men, women and children on this planet. Someone has to step up in order to make it better. What good is my life being here, if I'm here I got kids and grandkids coming into this world and I'm in a position where I could bring attention to something to try and make us solve this problem what make it a better situation. And now I'm getting ready to leave and I haven't done anything to try and make a better life for my kids or their kids. That's what it's about.

Steve Paulson (16:02):

Thank you.

John Carlos (16:04):

Right on.

Anne Strainchamps (16:12):

John Carlos held his fist high after winning the bronze in the 200 meters at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. He talked with Steve Paulson.

John Carlos (16:27):

I'm proud to be an American, but yet still either far greater than that, I'm proud to be a human being. I would even prouder if I can be treated in such.

Anne Strainchamps (16:43):

Coming up. What does it take to reach your own top speed? The science behind running very, very fast. Next. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. The world's top runners today are unbelievably fast. I mean just think about the 100 meter dash, one of the marquee Olympic events. These days, it's over almost before it begins, Usain Bolt, who holds the world record, ran it in 9.58 seconds. And on the women's side, Lawrence Griffith Joyner finished in 10.49 seconds. You watch these races, and you think ,today's athletes are just better, faster, stronger than anyone who ever came before. But then again, maybe that's not quite fair.

Mark McClusky (17:42):

Jesse Owens ran on track made of cinders. He didn't have starting blocks, they would dig holes to put their feet in at the start. It's not hard to imagine that Jesse Owens would have run much faster than he did in 1936 today, that maybe he would have been as fast as Usain Bolt is today if you'd had the advantages that Bolt had. Where billions of people around the world will see him run live in real time on a track surface engineered for speed, using cleats that have been designed for his unique biomechanics as he runs, with the training regimen that's been planned down to the day on how to get the absolute peak performance in that one moment.

Anne Strainchamps (18:22):

This is Wired magazine's Mark McCluskey, he's the author of Faster, Higher, Stronger, The New Science of Creating Super Athletes, and he argues that the kind of peak performances we see today are not necessarily because athletes are better, but because science and technology are.

Mark McClusky (18:42):

I'm saying that a huge factor in how athletes are able to perform at these different levels is through science and technology. Things like interval training, which is a concept that even most recreational athletes are familiar with, right? That instead of you just go out and sort of do a run or a bike ride, how about you go out and go slowly and then have like really hard efforts from time to time, that you overload those physiological systems and they sort of adapt to that workload and become stronger. That was a concept that had barely been explored in the 1930s. It really originated in Finland and that's how sort of Finnish runners in the '20s and '30s into the '40s were world dominant middle distance runners, they were the only people training this way which turns out to be incredibly effective way to train. But that was unknown, that was a new concept in the world.

Anne Strainchamps (19:36):

What goes into achieving world class performance today if you look at the Olympic sprinters and runners that we'll be watching next week?

Mark McClusky (19:45):

It's an unbelievable sort of support system and structure of exercise physiologist and bio mechanist and nutritionists and sports psychologists, and people to manage sponsorships and the financial support to do it. We have this romantic notion of sort of like an athlete and a coach going to isolate themselves and are able to reach the pinnacle. And while it's still possible, it's really unlikely that these sort of structure that you need to bring all of these specialties to bear onto an athlete's performance is pretty vast, it's a lot. And when you're dealing with a performance environment where the difference between winning an Olympic gold medal and being one of the most famous people on the planet and finishing fourth and nobody ever hears of you again is measured in hundredths of a second, sometimes thousandths of a second in some event. And so, those little tiny gains, that's sort of what every athlete is looking for and they're looking for it through any vector that they can possibly find.

Anne Strainchamps (20:59):

The thing I never understand that always puzzles me is, there was a long period of time when people wondered if it was even possible for a human being to run a four minute mile. And then Roger Bannister did, and then after that, now high school athletes do it. So performance has to be more than just better tracks, better running shoes, great science, there's something else.

Mark McClusky (21:22):

Oh, the mind is, that's the frontier here is really understanding what happens. You talk about Roger Bannister, he was not the only person trying to break the four minute mile and people came close and came close and started talking about a barrier, right? And that he does it and suddenly three people do it in the next six months.

Anne Strainchamps (21:42):

Do you think that'll happen with the two hour marathon?

Mark McClusky (21:48):

Perhaps. I think the two hour marathon is right at the very outer limits of our understanding of human physiology today.

Anne Strainchamps (21:58):

So there are limits, there are limits to human physiology?

Mark McClusky (22:01):

So I did phrase that carefully. It's right at the boundaries of our understanding of human physiology today. So the things I wanted to point there are our understanding and today. So when we talk about the mind, there's a lot of really interesting research about what is fatigue? Is fatigue a physical thing that happens in our muscles, that's been the sort of dominant understanding of fatigue for most of the history of exercise physiology. But this idea like I'm lifting a weight, I'm lifting weight, I'm doing curls, and then my muscle just says, "Nope, no more." The muscle is out of something or has some sort of waste product in it or it has been limited at the muscular level from doing any more work.

Mark McClusky (22:49):

When you start to look at that person in a lab, you find out that at that moment of, "I cannot budge this weight," only 40% of the fibers in that muscle are contracting.

Anne Strainchamps (23:00):


Mark McClusky (23:01):

So why is that? Why are we only using 40% of that muscle? What's controlling that?

Anne Strainchamps (23:06):

And what would give you access to the other 60%?

Mark McClusky (23:08):

Exactly. So broadly, the theory has come to be known as the Central Governor Theory and it's this idea that fatigue is an emotion, does not exist at the muscular level, but exists at the central level, at this sort of, let's call it the mind, but it can be more complicated than that. The argument for the main Central Governor Theory is that our mind is constantly calculating how much further we have to go, how much effort it's going to take to get there, how we're feeling the feedback the body is giving the brain and it's constantly balancing all of this.

Anne Strainchamps (23:44):

The other thing that I took away from your book is the idea of approaching your own performance, whether it's in sports or in life, I guess, as an experiment.

Mark McClusky (23:55):

I'm glad you took that away that's sort of my other thing is, record data, even if it's like, "Did I wake up happy today?" Right? If you start to know things that feed into your happiness, you can start to affect it. If you start to see, "Oh, I'm running a little bit faster when I do this," then you can double down on it. But if you aren't capturing that information you're just sort of groping for things without being able to measure any effects. Like Peter Drucker has the famous sort of business line, "What gets measured gets managed." And that's true. So whatever it is you're trying to do, change is hard, improvement is hard, changing things in our life is difficult. But if you aren't keeping track of it, if you aren't viewing it as an experiment, it's very difficult to know where you've started from and where you've gotten to.

Anne Strainchamps (24:50):

Become a scientist of your own life.

Mark McClusky (24:53):


Anne Strainchamps (24:54):

Thanks so much Mark, it was fun talking.

Mark McClusky (24:57):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (25:07):

Mark McCluskey is the author of Faster, Higher, Stronger, The New Science of Creating Super Athletes, and How You Can Train Like Them. Science and technology are improving athletic performance by leaps and bounds. But what about for those of us who just want to stay fit? Well, for us thankfully, there's Gretchen Reynolds. The New York Times columnist and author of The First 20 minutes. Written nearly a decade ago, it's still one of the most widely read science face guides to training. Well Gretchen, there's been a lot of attention paid lately to humans as a running animal. Some people even say we were born to run, designed to run. Do you think that's true?

Gretchen Reynolds (25:55):

The science actually doesn't really support that idea that we're born to run. It appears, both from the fossil record, and from sort of anecdotal evidence, that we actually are born to walk. We're much more efficient, the human structure, the skeleton is much more efficient at walking than it running. When they bring people and other animals into the lab and put all of us, the people and the other mammals on treadmills and test how well we move, humans are exceptionally good at walking, we are better than almost any other mammal in terms of how well we use energy. And we're really poor in terms of running, we're not nearly as fast or as efficient or as speedy as most other mammals, we just like doing it.

Anne Strainchamps (26:50):

And at the same time I think of running is just walking that speed it up.

Gretchen Reynolds (26:55):

Well, yes and no. It actually is a different stride. When you walk, one of your feet is always on the ground and when you run there is a period when you're not, and for whatever reason, we are actually not as efficient as four legged mammals at running. We can out walk them by a long ways.

Anne Strainchamps (27:16):

It seems to me that in some ways, there has never been a better time to run. Practically every week there's a new study or some new research out that sheds new light on the physiology or the biochemistry of running and for exactly the same reason there's never been a worst time to run because we are just presented with a barrage of new information all the time. Is there a consensus emerging about best practices?

Gretchen Reynolds (27:41):

I will say what seems to be emerging is what common sense would probably have told us, which is the human body definitely needs to be moving and running is a really good way, in a concentrated period of time, to move. But the best science suggests that moderation, unsurprisingly, is the ideal approach to running. There was a really interesting study that was presented at the meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine that looked at how much running is best for your lifespan? Meaning, what amount of running will give you potentially the longest lifespan? And it wasn't a lot of running, it was running about three miles, four maybe five times a week at a pretty slow or at least moderate pace of about 10 to 11 miles per hour, which is for a really serious runner would be considered slow. For me, it sounds rather fast. But that's a really manageable amount of running. There's some evidence that doing a lot more running may not necessarily be healthy and doing a whole lot less, you won't get quite as many health and fitness benefits. But that moderate amount of running appears to be the absolute sweet spot.

Anne Strainchamps (29:11):

You've titled your book, The First 20 Minutes, sort of suggested for those of us like me who have to force ourselves to exercise that perhaps 20 minutes would be enough. Is that true?

Gretchen Reynolds (29:23):

Yes, although it depends on what your goal is for exercise, and that's a really important message that if your goal is to be healthy, to have less risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, obesity, if that is your goal, then it appears that the first 20 minutes of moving will provide most of those health benefits. And that's any type of moving, it doesn't have to be running. Walking, cycling, going upstairs, gardening, any type of human movement is really important for health, and most of the benefits of exercise or activity in general, are gathered in the first 20 minutes compared to sitting on the couch.

Anne Strainchamps (30:17):

And do those 20 minutes have to be consecutive? What about the suggestion that it's okay to break it up and do it in 10 minute chunks?

Gretchen Reynolds (30:25):

Yes, there's actually some very good science suggesting that, what scientists called fractionalized bouts of exercise, which means 10 minutes at a time, even five minutes, if that's all you can manage. If you get, say, three 10 minute bouts, two 10 minute bouts during a day, you will get most of the health benefits, probably all of the health benefits of 20 or 30 minutes consecutively.

Anne Strainchamps (30:54):

And then for those of us who would like to get really efficient about exercising, there's this high intensity interval training that turns out to be really effective. But the bad news part is that it's really got to hurt. Can you tell me about this?

Gretchen Reynolds (31:08):

High intensity interval training is great for both health and fitness. What it means is, essentially, you do short bouts of hard work, meaning you run or cycle or swim hard for one minute, then go easy for one minute, go hard for one minute, easy for one minute. If you can do that 10 times which would be 20 minutes, with a short, say, five minute warm up, five minute cooldown, then in 30 minutes, you can get both the health and the fitness benefits, scientific studies have shown of about 90 minutes of much slower endurance exercise.

Anne Strainchamps (31:55):

As we move ever further down the path of creating a culture that is almost entirely sedentary, in the sense that you know most of our jobs, increasingly don't necessitate movement. Most of them involve sitting in front of a computer screen. So is there a kind of basic bottom line with what do you need to do to keep all of those physical systems and mental systems in good shape?

Gretchen Reynolds (32:23):

That's actually a really interesting question because there's a difference between exercise and just being in motion. That's one of the things I found most interesting in the reporting that I've done is there's a whole new understanding that sitting a lot, even if you regularly exercise, is very unhealthy. There's a modern phenomenon that's called the active couch potato, and that is many of us actually, including me, and that's people who may exercise at lunchtime and then sit the entire rest of the day, that's really unhealthy. The exercise will not completely undo the health problems of sitting for eight, 10 hours a day, which is average for Americans.

Anne Strainchamps (33:17):

Gretchen, I'm paid to sit for eight hours a day. What are we supposed to do?

Gretchen Reynolds (33:22):

Well, and I'm paid to sit and write about exercise. What happens when you sit for really extended periods of time is a number of systems start malfunctioning in your body. You start producing less of an enzyme that breaks up fat in your bloodstream, that fat then goes to your muscles, your heart, your liver. The big muscles in your body are not contracting so you're not pulling as much blood sugar out of your blood, so you start having too much insulin, that's the beginning of type two diabetes, insulin resistance.

Anne Strainchamps (34:01):

Hence the rise in diabetes in the US.

Gretchen Reynolds (34:04):

Yes, including among people who exercise. The answer is actually surprisingly simple. Stand up. There's very good and growing evidence that standing up about every 20 minutes is really important for good health. And it doesn't mean that you have to do anything while you're standing up, you don't have to jog in place, you don't have to run, you don't have to do jumping jacks. You can if you choose to and if your co-workers will put up with it, but there have been a number of studies that have found that if you stand up about every 20 minutes for say two minutes, the big muscles in your legs in your back will contract, that increases the amount of enzymes that break up fat, it means you're pulling more blood sugar. They have found that just standing up more often reduces heart disease risk and diabetes risk. It also has been found to help with weight control. If you sit unendingly for hours for six, seven hours, there are implications for weight gain. So stand up. It's so easy.

Anne Strainchamps (35:30):

Gretchen Reynolds talking about her 2012 book, The First 20 Minutes. Her phys ed column is among the most widely read and shared in the New York Times. We're talking about the science and art of running in this hour, and there's a style of basketball that places a premium on the full court sprint. It's rezball on Native American reservations. There's something else a little different about it, extra magic, unusual defense.

Announcer (36:11):

This is our second game of this week.

Steve Paulson (36:15):

You tell us one story of when this Navajo team played the neighboring Apache team.

Announcer (36:19):

[Redcock 00:36:19] comes in 15 and 1, they're ranked number five in the state.

Steve Paulson (36:25):

It's comical.

Announcer (36:26):

Could be a great matchup tonight.

Steve Paulson (36:32):

The medicine men from both groups are trying to cast spells on the other team.

Michael Powell (36:37):

Oh yeah, and they came up before the game and normally, of course, everybody would shake hands. If you carry a bad spell traditionally, for both Navajo and Apache, would carry it in the palm of your hand. So none of them will shake hands with each other, they're literally like touching their elbows or their forearms to each other. I talked with Raul Mendoza the coach that I was with, but also with the Apache coach afterwards, they said, "Yeah, they're both convinced the other team has like the serious Mojo goes out.

Announcer (37:19):

The tip of the ball to [Jayson Morrisette 00:37:19] and over to [Bo Donovan 00:37:19]. Redcock has the ball.

Michael Powell (37:20):

You will see medicine men standing up in the top of the bleachers and they're kind of just talking to themselves and what they're doing is they're saying prayers or whatever they're saying.

Announcer (37:35):

Going to take a deep three and nail it buzzer to win the ball game. Man oh man. With the dagger.

Anne Strainchamps (37:45):

Inside the world of rezball, next. It's To The Best Of My Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Sports can be so many things, competition, athletic prowess, exercise, and also cultural identity. New York Times reporter Michael Powell saw that firsthand when he spent a season covering high school basketball at Chinle High School in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The story he tells in his book, Canyon Dreams is about basketball and a whole lot more. As Steve Paulson discovered.

Steve Paulson (38:25):

So Rez Basketball, basketball on the Reservation, is a really big deal, right?

Michael Powell (38:29):

It's a really big deal. As one of the coaches said, he said the five biggest sports on the reservation, are basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball, rodeo, or the reverse.

Steve Paulson (38:43):

So this is a particular style of ball?

Michael Powell (38:46):

Yes, it's rezball which is this incredibly fast paced, run, run, run, pass, pass, pass, cut, cut, cut played well, It's beautiful.

Steve Paulson (38:57):

Where does that sound come from?

Michael Powell (38:59):

Yeah, it really comes out of I think their history and their culture, the Bureau of Indian Affairs for generations used to come and force families to give up their kids that would go to faraway boarding schools where the ideas they said was to basically burn the Indian out of them and they would wash out their mouths if they spoke Navajo and all this kind of thing. They started playing basketball at these places and what's sort of wonderful is that they made it their own and how so? Number one running, distance running, goes deep into the, all the tribes in the southwest, the Hopis, the Pueblo tribes, the Apache and the Navajo.

Michael Powell (39:39):

And the other is a very communal culture so basketball, this kind of the idea of five or 10 kids melding together very much kind of fits in with their culture. It's interesting when they really get going, they'll often bring in players in groups, it's almost like hockey, a whole separate slot guys coming in-

Steve Paulson (40:00):

You mean like five guys subbing out and then five guy new guys and they just run at full speed?

Michael Powell (40:06):

Yes. Run, run, run. Now, played badly, it can be chaotic, like all sports, done well it's a thing of beauty and then not so well it's not so much a thing of beauty.

Steve Paulson (40:17):

Well, and I would think, especially if they're playing teams off the Rez, the white kids who are sometimes quite big, maybe they can run circles around them.

Michael Powell (40:25):

That's a great point because it's very interesting to watch them play teams off the Rez, particularly Anglo teams, white point teams. Almost invariably in fact, I think with this team they played their best games against those sorts of teams, because there was a sort of a concentration, frankly, a matter of pride. So these big teams would come in very often frontline 6'6", 6'7", I mean the tallest kid on the Navajo team was 6'3", after that there was one kid who was six foot. Everybody else was under six foot.

Steve Paulson (41:00):

So why is basketball such a big deal on the Reservation?

Michael Powell (41:04):

Well at this point it's generational. Families will come in, great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, cousins, aunties and uncles, it's not unusual to see from any one of the players families 15,18 people come to the game, they'll sit there through the ninth grade games, ninth grade girls and boys, JV boys and girls, varsity boys and girls. So they'll be there for six hours a lot of these families.

Steve Paulson (41:31):

So this is the big social event.

Michael Powell (41:32):

This is the event, and they'll have 5,000 people. I mean Chinle is a town of 3,500, they'll have 5,000 in big games.

Steve Paulson (41:42):

Do they come in from the...

Michael Powell (41:44):

From all over the place. Guys will hitchhike it in really from the Outback. All of those generations have played hoop. And to dominate at the high school level, it's like the Everest for Navajo because, particularly with the boys, they don't go on, they're not big enough to play big D1 school so they just can't do that. So most of them, this is it. A few will play community college ball.

Steve Paulson (42:13):

You got to know the coach of this team, this 70 year old guy who spent decades coaching not so much at this school but all kinds of different schools, mostly on different parts of various Reservations. Tell me about him.

Michael Powell (42:26):

Yeah, Raul Mendoza was a terrific character and kind of in a sense my guide, because he was a Tohono O’odham Indian, I may have butchered the pronunciation but it's a quite poor tribe that spans the border, Mexico and Arizona and came North taught himself English, got an education. He's coached essentially on the Navajo or the Apache, the Apache are sort of their genetic cousins, same Athabaskan people. And he's coached on those reservations his entire life. He's married to a Navajo, but he's never of Navajo and people know that. At the same time, he is a Native American, and he understands all of their cultural yearnings, the fears, do you leave the reservation? If you leave, can you ever come back? Can you make your way in the Anglo world if you want to get an education? So he spends a lot of time on headwork essentially with these teenage boys.

Steve Paulson (43:34):

So I'm assuming this is a lot more than just plotting out the Xs and Os of basketball games. I mean he's a counselor, he's guiding these young men into figuring out what to do with our lives.

Michael Powell (43:43):

That is precisely how he conceives of his thing and says he says he's about turning around in 20 years and hope we've seen most of these boys living productive, healthy lives, and that's not such an easy thing if you're coming from the Reservation in Northern Arizona.

Steve Paulson (44:05):

Life is hard for most of these kids right?

Michael Powell (44:09):

Yes, it's very hard. It's an enormous place. It's the size of West Virginia, there's not much there. I mean, let's assume that you're one of those kids five years later, you've gotten yourself a college education, you come back, you can work as a school teacher, there's jobs the hospital, and then there's a few other jobs. That's it. I mean the unemployment runs 40% approximately. They deal with all the problems that confront, not just Native Americans, I mean certainly we're hearing a lot about rural America and the terrible problems confronting whites in rural America but they confront those same problems. But alcohol is their great carnivore, they're great pursuer, and that's a big problem. And so if a kid comes back, let's say he's got a degree, and he comes back. And at first you're welcomed by all your hundreds of relatives and everybody's really happy to see you. And then you look up a couple of months later and it's like, "Now what do I do?"

Steve Paulson (45:19):

I would think, for you, as this Anglo reporter coming into the Navajo Nation writing the story it must have been hard. Was there any part of the story that was especially hard for you to understand? I don't know maybe traditional Navajo beliefs.

Michael Powell (45:34):

Yes. I mean certainly the traditional Navajo beliefs fascinated me and it's a completely different cosmology.

Steve Paulson (45:43):

You tell these stories that are just remarkable, I mean, stories of apparitions and shape shifting and animals turning into people. And these weren't just once in a lifetime kind of stories, I mean, it sounds like this stuff happens fairly often.

Michael Powell (45:58):

Oh no, there was a profound belief in the immaterial there. I heard it from virtually everyone there. I first started to notice it when before games big games, the boys would all roll up either bee pollen or different herbs into their socks. Every family would do a protection way prayer, usually before the season, sometimes there would be prayers before big games, but you could say, "Well okay. In the NBA, you see guys pointing to the heavens or crossing themselves." This is different. This is a real sense that tonight there could be medicine men in the stands putting a hex on me, doing things that are gonna make it difficult for me to play well.

Steve Paulson (46:47):

And does any of this seem to work?

Michael Powell (46:50):

They're convinced it does. There was one incident in particular, this was not while, it was there as a couple years earlier they played I think it was on Hopi, and all of them, including the coach Raul Mendoza said that they felt like they were playing underwater the whole game. Everything was moving in slow motion. This was a very big game, like in a haze. All describe the same thing. The next day, somebody that he knew that Raul Mendoza knew, said, "Well yeah, you've got to realize that the medicine men the Hopi had put kachinas, their magical dolls, at all four corners of the arena and had done ceremonies before that were designed to leave you befogged. Who am I to say? I mean you start to hear these stories. I mean, Mendoza who, interestingly enough, was a Assemblies of God evangelical is a serious Christian. But he had a tail coming back, it was when he was coaching on Apache and some of the families were angry that their kids weren't playing and one of the families that was angry, the mother was a very powerful witch.

Michael Powell (48:10):

He had been warned that she was going to put spells on him. And one night he's driving back through the White Mountains to his home and his daughter is following behind in the car, he's in his pickup truck, and a enormous alabaster white owl, just enormous, dives right at his window, in his telling. He kind of flinches and at the last second, it zooms up into the air doesn't hit the window goes up over his car. Now the daughter picks up the story, she's about 100 yards behind him, it's middle of winter, the snow in the ground, it comes down lands on the asphalt right behind his truck and turns into a white alabaster person and runs off into the woods. I mean, Raul and his daughter, they don't drink a lick, they are not tellers of tall tales, they said this happened, just it flat out happened.

Steve Paulson (49:18):

So what do you do with those stories? You were in this culture for months, living there, listening to all of this. How do you process them?

Michael Powell (49:28):

I think to the extent that I can figure these things out, I mean I do believe that there is a notion of a collective unconscious. I heard too many of these stories from people in a matter of fact way. Because it also wasn't like to make you scared, it's just like, this is life. So I guess I take them seriously, that's a different thing than saying I know what to make of them, because I don't. But I think the immaterial, the membrane between the material and the immaterial is so thin as at times almost not too exist, and who's to say that they aren't open for that reason the things that lie in our dim past of our peoples.

Steve Paulson (50:16):

Yeah. It's a great story, thank you.

Michael Powell (50:19):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (50:28):

Michael Powell is a New York Times reporter and the author of Canyon Dreams. He talked with Steve Paulson. To The Best of My Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin, by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angela Bautista, Charles Monroe-Kane, and Mark Riechers. Our technical director is Joe Hartke. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson and I'm Anne Strainchamps. And hey, are you a TTBOOK superfan? We sure hope so. If you want to hear more from us, make sure to subscribe to our weekly free newsletter at TTbook.org/newsletter.

Speaker 14 (51:07):


Last modified: 
August 02, 2021