by Christopher McDougall
The ancients called Greece's Crete "the Sliver", and when your plane is coming in for a landing with no hint of land below, you'll know why. Right when you think you're about to plunge into the sea, the pilot banks and the island bursts into view, frothy around the edges as if it just popped up from the deep. Looming in the harbour behind the airport is a gloomy stone fortress, a sixteenth-century Venetian relic that only adds to the sensation that you're punching through a portal in time and about to enter a world summoned back from the past.
Crete has another nickname – "the Island of heroes" – which I'd only discovered by accident. I was researching Pheidippides, the ancient Greek messenger who inspired the modern marathon, when I came across an odd reference to a modern-day Pheidippides named George Psychoundakis, better known as "the Clown". The Clown was awe-inspiring. When Hitler's forces invaded Crete, he transformed himself overnight from a sheep farmer into a mountain-running messenger for the Resistance. Somehow, George was able to master challenges that would stagger an Olympic athlete; he could scramble snowy cliffs with a sixty-pound pack on his back, run 50-plus miles (80 kilometres) through the night on a starvation diet of boiled hay, and outfox a Gestapo death squad that had him cornered. George wasn't even a trained soldier; he was a shepherd living a sleepy, peaceful life until the day German parachutes popped open over his home.
Until then, I'd thought the secrets of ancient heroes like Pheidippides were either half myth or lost to antiquity, but here was a normal man pulling off the same feats 2500 years later. And he wasn't alone: George himself told the story of a fellow shepherd who single handedly saved a village of women and children from a German massacre. The Germans had come to search for weapons and became suspicious when they realised all the men were missing and none of the women were talking. The German commander had the women lined up for execution. Just as he was about to say "fire!" his skull exploded. A shepherd named Costi Paterakis had raced to the rescue through the woods, arriving just in time to take aim from a quarter-mile away. The rest of the Germans scattered for cover and fell right into the crosshairs of Resistance fighters who arrived on Costi's heels.
Greek soldier Eucles arrives in Athens with news of the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon, only to die on the spot in 490 BC. His epic run offers hints to the nature of heroism, and the real world ways of using body fat as fuel.
"It still seems to me one of the most spectacular moments of the war," said a British Resistance operative, whose own life was saved by the silence of those brave women. The story is so stirring, it's easy to forget what it really required. Costi had to ignore self-preservation and propel his body toward danger; he had to cover miles of cross-country terrain at top speed without a stumble; he had to quickly master rage, panic, and exhaustion as he slowed his pounding heart to steady his gun. It wasn't just an act of courage – it was a triumph of natural heroism and physical self-mastery.
The more I looked into Crete during the Resistance, the more stories like that I found. Was there really an American high school student fighting alongside the rebels behind German lines? Who was the starving prisoner who escaped a prisoner-of-war camp and turned himself into a master of retaliation known as the Lion? And most of all: What really happened when a band of misfits tried to sneak the German commander off the island? Even the Nazis realised that when they landed on Crete, they'd entered an entirely different kind of fight. On the day he was sentenced to death for war crimes, Hitler's chief of staff didn't blame the Nuremberg judges for his fate. He didn't blame his troops for losing, or even the Führer for letting him down. He blamed the "island of heroes".
"The unbelievably strong resistance of the Greeks delayed by two or more vital months the German attack against Russia," General Wilhelm Keitel lamented shortly before he was led out to be hanged. "If we did not have this long delay, the outcome of the war would have been different … and others would be sitting here today."
And, nowhere in Greece was the Resistance more ingenious, immediate and enduring than on Crete. So what exactly were they tapping into?
There was a time when that question wouldn't be a mystery. For much of human history, the art of the hero wasn't left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavour devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero's skills were studied, practised, and perfected, then passed along from parent to child and teacher to student.
The art of the hero wasn't about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn't an issue. You weren't supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all. Achilles and Odysseus and the rest of the classical heroes hated the thought of dying and scratched for every second of life. A hero's one crack at immortality was to be remembered as a champion, and champions don't die dumb. It all hinged on the ability to unleash the tremendous resources of strength, endurance, and agility that many people don't realise they already have.
Heroes learned how to use their own body fat for fuel instead of relying on bursts of sugar, the way nearly all of us do today. Roughly one-fifth of your body is stored fat; that's all premium caloric energy, ready for ignition and plentiful enough to power you up and down a mountain without a bite of food – if you know how to tap into it. Fat as fuel is an all-but-forgotten secret of endurance athletes, but when it's revived, the results are astonishing. Mark Allen, the greatest triathlete in history, made his breakthrough when he discovered a way to burn body fat in place of carbohydrates. It revolutionised his approach to the sport and led to six Ironman titles, a top-three finish in nearly every race of his career, and recognition in 1997 as the World's Fittest Man.
Heroes didn't bulk up on muscle; instead they relied on the lean, efficient force of their fascia, the powerful connective tissue that is like your body's rubber band. Bruce Lee was a so-so martial artist until he became fascinated by Wing Chun, the only fighting art created by a woman. Wing Chun relies on fascial snap instead of muscular force. Lee became so adept at harnessing the power of his fascia that he perfected a one-inch punch, a blow from a barely moving fist that can send a man twice his size sailing across the room. Fascia power is an egalitarian and almost undepletable resource. It's the reason Masai warriors, in their jumping rituals, can bounce along as high as a man's head, and it's the essence of both Greek pankration and Brazilian jiu jitsu, two of the most lethal self-defense styles ever created.
Heroes had to be masters of the unpredictable. They trained their amygdalae by practicing "natural movement", which used to be the only kind of movement we knew. Just to survive, humans had to be able to flow across the landscape, bending their bodies over and around any obstacle in their path, leaping without fear and landing with precision. Back in the early 1900s, a French naval officer named Georges Hébert dedicated himself to the study of natural movement; he watched the way children play – running and climbing and tussling around – and began to appreciate the importance of spontaneity and improvisation. When Hébert's natural movement disciples were later tested for strength, speed, agility, and endurance, they scored on par with world-class decathletes.
Likewise, the Greeks didn't wait for heroes to appear; they built their own instead. They perfected a hero's diet, which curbs hunger, boosts power, and converts body fat into performance fuel. They developed techniques for controlling fear and adrenaline surges, and they learned to tap into the remarkable hidden strength of the body's elastic tissue, which is far more powerful and effective than muscle. More than two thousand years ago, they got serious about the business of releasing the hero inside us all. And then they were gone.
Or maybe not. When a middle school teacher in San Antonio, Texas, named Rick Riordan began thinking about the troublesome kids in his class, he was struck by a topsy-turvy idea. Maybe the wild ones weren't hyperactive; maybe they were misplaced heroes. After all, in another era, the same behaviour that is now throttled with Ritalin and disciplinary rap sheets would have been the mark of greatness, the early blooming of a true champion. Riordan played with the idea, imagining the what ifs? What if strong, assertive children were redirected rather than discouraged? What if there were a place for them, an outdoor training camp that felt like a playground, where they could cut loose with all those natural instincts to run, wrestle, climb, swim, and explore? You'd call it Camp Half-Blood, Riordan decided, because that's what we really are – half-animal and half higher-being, halfway between each and unsure how to keep them in balance. Riordan began writing, creating a troubled kid from a broken home named Percy Jackson who arrives at a camp in the woods and is transformed when the Olympian he has inside is revealed, honed, and guided.
It turns out hero school really does exist – in bits and pieces, scattered across the globe. The skills have been fragmented, but with a little hunting, you can find them all. In a public park in Brooklyn, a former ballerina darts into the bushes and returns with a shopping bag full of the same superfoods the ancient Greeks once relied on. In Brazil, a one-time beach huckster is reviving the lost art of natural movement. And in a lonely Arizona dust bowl called Oracle, a quiet genius disappeared into the desert after teaching a few great athletes and, oddly, Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers – the ancient secret of using body fat as fuel.
Natural Born Heroes
By Chris McDougall
Published by Random House