The man was out in front and running hard. He had to win. Losing was unthinkable.

As he rounded the final turn toward home, he ignored tiring legs and a gasping, heaving chest as best he could. But his pursuers were gaining, closing the gap rapidly. Hearing them closing on him, his arms and legs thrashed ever harder ... then he was home. Quickly he raced up an improvised ladder to a small, cliff-side cave, pulling the ladder up after him.

Ladder? Cliff and cave? Yes, this was a race long, long ago. In primitive times, winners lived; losers perished. With two legs and a thinking brain, we have always run -- either chasing game or fleeing from predators. We were born to run.

In his book by that name, Christopher McDougall, explains how early men overcame their disparity in speed by learning to run long. Even before they developed spears, bows and arrows, men in primitive times could capture the swiftest animals, even deer, by chasing the creatures until they dropped of exhaustion. Then they strangled them for food.

McDougall developed the concept by studying the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon. They can cover unbelievably long distances by running steadily for hour after hour.

No animal can outrun them. Running these extended distances plus engaging in what appears to be days-long games of soccer have become basic in their culture. And there is little need to chase down deer, since corn forms the basis of most of their food supply.

While coaching track and field at Encinal High with fellow coach Don Grant, we used to hold a special 12-lap (3-mile) relay race in midseason. Two teams of three-man sprinters ran against two teams of distance runners. Everybody ran half a lap (220 yards) each time his turn came up. By the finish, they all had run repeat 220s eight times -- an interval workout. At first, the sprinters would build a huge lead, but, as the race went on, the distance people gradually wore them down and won every time.

I don't know if you or any of your friends and relatives have taken up the sport, but your friendly columnist here has been running for more than six decades. Why? I learned early that, if we made the distance long enough, I could run the speed out of most other competitors. Or it might have been because running was one of the cheapest sports around -- light, comfortable shoes, a pair of cutoffs, a sweatshirt and you're in business.

Shoes are the only real expense. And runners shouldn't stint here. Good running shoes are a must if one hopes to remain injury-free. (Although the Tarahumara seem to avoid injuries running barefoot.)

This was going to be a column on how to train as a distance runner, but McDougall's story of that Tarahumara gang from Mexico was too intriguing.

We'll get our folks in running shape next time.

Contact Joe King at alamedanews@bayareanewsgroup.com.