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October 22, 2019

The Perfect Runner

An Edmonton documentary maker seeks out the world’s fastest runners.

Niobe Thompson lived with Siberian reindeer herders, completed a half marathon in Ethiopia and ran almost the entire Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache on a sprained ankle – all while being filmed for his documentary, The Perfect Runner.

Thompson, an anthropologist, Avenue Top 40 alumnus and co-founder of  Edmonton-based Clearwater Documentary, travelled extensively to shoot the 45-minute film, which was nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards. Interviewing experts from the University of Alberta and Harvard University, among others, Thompson’s goal was to find out how humans used distance running in their evolutionary past as a means of survival, how our bodies evolved to become ideal distance runners and the potential negative effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

In Ethiopia, running is still a way of life and means of survival, but it’s also an extremely competitive sport with a few highly skilled runners making it to the Olympic Games every year. And it’s obviously a very popular sport throughout the country: Thirty-two of 34 Ethiopian athletes in the 2012 Olympics were runners – and produced all seven of the country’s medals.

The highlands of Ethiopia produce some of the world’s fastest runners and Thompson wanted to know why. He discovered that most of these runners run barefoot due to poverty and yet have fewer running-related injuries. “I learned that a lot of running injuries are caused by bad technique that is encouraged by over-engineered running shoes,” says Thompson.

Not all amazing athletes run barefoot; the reindeer herders of Siberia run in boots. Without access to horses, these nomadic herders run the equivalent of a marathon a day on rough tundra – proving that, despite extreme differences in climate, soil and culture, endurance runners exist wherever the lifestyle demands it.

Thompson’s documentary proves that humans are naturally built for running. “We all share a runner’s body,” says Thompson. “It’s in all of us and sometimes it’s more deeply hidden than others but we are, mechanically and metabolically, all runners.”

The Perfect Runner premiered on CBC in March 2012 and became the network’s most-streamed documentary of the year; it’s still available to view on the CBC’s website

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