Runners Corner: All about tribal running

Tom Licciardello

I suppose it had to happen. We live in a society that loves the complex. Simple is out. Remember the days when you turned on your TV by hitting the on switch? No more. So, too, it applies to running.

There was a time not so long ago that a road race was a local affair where a 100 or so folks would gather at a starting line that was chalked across a quiet road. The race director would yell “Go,” and we’d all take off for five miles, 10K, 10 miles or some oddball distance that suited the course. 

Water stations were rare, and mile markers were sparse and measured by the race director’s car. At the finish line, you were handed a Popsicle stick with where you finished on it, not to mention get a free beer or two, before heading home. 

It was all about friendly competition. Could you beat your training partner? Sometimes he won, and sometimes I won.

But then came the running revolution, which opened up the joys of running to more than just those quirky characters of the '60s and '70s. A handful of local race options grew so now there isn’t a weekend that isn’t packed with them.

Participation rates continue to grow to the point that many races close out available spots in just a few hours. It seems like the quirky characters are now those folks who don’t run.

With the huge increase in participants and events, race directors are now business people who must deal with fussy runners who expect lots of services — cool race shirts, lots of food, entertainment, a precisely measured course, accurate timing and a medal to commemorate the race. It’s not as simple or as inexpensive as it used to be.

But I’m seeing an interesting phenomenon. Some runners are beginning to look for something different, something unique, a different kind of challenge. And event directors are taking notice.

The most obvious shift has been toward triathlons. I have friends who swore they would never, ever, ever be caught trying a tri.

“I can’t drown running a race” was the often-heard refrain. Funny how many have bought themselves shiny two-wheelers and have found the pool at the local YMCA. What they have found is that running is still the heart of the event, but the additional challenges make it exciting. 

At the start of every triathlon, competitors sympathize with each other, because we all know that there is at least one of the three events to dread. It’s more of a feeling that we are all in this adventure together.

But beyond triathlons, there’s a new breed of challenge that is catching the attention of lots of runners — the adventure event.

Take for example, the Muddy Buddy. Now, I know that there are some participants who take the task of winning the event seriously, but the real name of the game is having fun with your teammate.

The first task is to create a team name. When my wife and I entered, we were known as “Mud About You.” Our daughters were the “Muddy Mommies.” Then, we had to create our own uniform. 

The event was a relay involving a mountain bike, running, obstacles and mud — lots of mud. It was tough. We were exhausted at the end, but had more fun than any race we had ever run. Our family tribe truly enjoyed the fun. The bonus was that the picture of us totally encased in mud made a great Christmas card.

In just a few weeks, our family will once again go tribal. We will compete in the Warrior Dash, a running event punctuated with a variety of obstacles to test strength and willpower, a leap through flames and, of course, lots of mud to crawl through. 

What’s the best part? Participants are encouraged to create an appropriate uniform, and we all get Viking helmets. These are just a few examples.

Recently held was the Tough Mudder — 10 miles of excruciating running, obstacles and, you guessed it, mud. There are even inner city races called Urban Challenges. No mud there, however.

Are we getting more complex in our appetite to go for a simple run? Maybe we are simply getting back to who we were — tribal runners.

Daniel Lieberman, Harvard professor and sidekick to “Born to Run” author Chris MacDougal, has studied early man and his need to run. A half million years ago, it was indeed tribal. The hunt was for dinner on the run, and it took the village to succeed. Running was a more social activity with a serious outcome — the ability to secure food. Well, we’ve pretty much got the food supply thing figured out, so maybe we just need to get back to tribal running.

Keep on running, but maybe finding an event that encourages wearing a Viking helmet might just spice up your fitness plan.

Tom Licciardello is a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders in Massachusetts. Licciardello has participated in 88 marathons including the last 35 Boston Marathons. He has also completed the Hawaii Ironman triathlon. Professionally, he is a certified financial planner and resides in North Andover, Mass., with his wife, Lyn. He may be reached at