How to train yourself to be a hero

Written By kom nampuldu on Minggu, 05 April 2015 | 18.18

On April 26, 1944, just before midnight, three British special operatives stationed on the island of Crete rallied a small group of locals to help them kidnap notorious Nazi Gen. Heinrich Kreipe.

The plan was not to kill the general, but to make him disappear. It was designed to be defiantly anti-Nazi — there would be no blood and no civilian casualties. The ripple effect would be poetic.

But there was just one problem: The scheme was impossible.

"Natural Born Heroes:
How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance"
by  Christopher McDougall (Knopf)

Hitler had Crete firmly under his control. The island's central location in the Mediterranean Sea served as a strategic linchpin in the German fight to overtake Russia. The Nazi invasion had purged the island, leaving behind only a small rag-tag team of English spies dressed as Cretan Greeks, pretending to spend their days drinking the local moonshine.

But the team was doing a lot more than "going native." They were learning not only how to live on Crete, known as The Island of Heroes, they were learning how to be heroes.

The Englishmen kidnapped Kreipe, smuggling him all over Crete's countryside, in and out of caves and around some of the trickiest terrain in Europe for days without being detected. These kidnappers never rested and hardly ate — instead, they had taught their bodies endurance and strength.

They had learned heroism.

Author Christopher McDougall has held a long fascination with heroism, beginning with his best-selling book "Born to Run," which focused on a tribe of natural long-distance runners in Mexico, focusing on their remarkable skill of human endurance, possibly latent in all of us.

In his fascinating follow-up "Natural Born Heroes," McDougall shares stories like that of the Englishmen in Crete to show that heroism not only can be taught — it can be mastered.

McDougall, for example, recounts the unbelievable story of a 41-year-old, 5-foot-3 elementary-school principal named Norina Bentzel who, on Feb. 2, 2001, disarmed a 6-foot former-soldier wielding a razor-sharp machete. Catching the assailant outside her kindergarten classroom in rural Pennsylvania, Bentzel crossed her arms in front of her face, and backed up slowly as her arms and hands were repeatedly slashed.

When the unsuspecting children emerged from their classroom, the attack pivoted in their direction, injuring six kindergartners. However, Bentzel, keeping her wits, did something that McDougall points to as extraordinary; she took her arms and sprung upward, then, as tightly as she could, she wrapped her arms around the man with the machete. Until he dropped it.

"Hugging," which is essentially how Bentzel thwarted the attack, is a movement that came naturally to the longtime educator. Choosing the hug as she did, allowed Bentzel to maintain the familiar position for as long as she had to.

This, McDougall says, not only shows how courage comes in all shapes and sizes — but is actually something you can develop by utilizing skills already committed to muscle memory and marshaling ones you never knew you had.

"That's the ugly truth about heroism," McDougall writes. "The tests don't start when you're ready or stop when you're tired."

McDougall recounts another act of seemingly superhuman bravery with George Hébert, who in 1902 witnessed a violent volcanic eruption on the island of Martinique, killing 29,000 of the 30,000 people in the town of Saint-Pierre. While most ran from the blast, Hébert ran toward it and rescued as many people as he could find swimming in the nearby waters.

The experience left Hébert wondering: Was heroism something born or something learned?

He believed the latter and began to develop a style of exercise that aligned health with heroic ability. His credo was, "Be fit to be useful," an idea straight out of the tales of the ancient Greeks.

He trained 350 French naval recruits in a method he called the "Natural Method." Prioritizing introspection over combat, he eschewed competitive game play for problem solving. By 1913, his soldiers were performing at the same level as world-class decathletes. When all of these men were lost to frontline combat in World War I — it almost seemed as if the Natural Method would be lost to history.

Hébert's book was discovered almost 100 years later by Frenchman Erwan Le Corre, who began a training program. McDougall trained with Le Corre, whose idea is simple: When animals play, they do so with purpose. Le Corre believes exercise should be fun. Dogs chase balls and dig for bones. Running in a circle or lifting weights aren't meaningful activities. And Le Corre doesn't think they are the key to health and wellness.

Le Corre leads groups for runs on the beach, but these aren't ordinary runs. Using 6-foot poles made of driftwood, or sometimes large rocks, the runners toss them between each other, leaping over the rough terrain, eventually mastering stunning agility through repetition and skill-mastery.

Just like the British special operatives learned in Crete, Le Corre trains men and women to use their legs like springs and their arms as sling shots. Strength isn't the key. These are the movements our muscles are born to perform. Heroes know all about them, and any of us can learn their secrets.


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