Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

‘Born to Run’ is about “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”, according to the cover.

I’ve never been into sports – I don’t like watching them on TV, I don’t read the Sports columns in the newspaper, and I don’t play any.
But I do run. I ran my first 5km race in 2001, at age 23. Since then, I’ve run over 20 chip-timed races, including four half-marathons. I’m no legend, I’m not even vaguely fast, but I relish the feeling of my body moving and breathing and speeding along.

This book interested me for several reasons: I had just finished Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, which was a personal memoir of a man who got addicted to running when he started writing. I was curious to see a view of running as sport and science, and had heard rumours that this book dealt with the big controversy of shoes vs. barefoot, so I took it out of my local library.

The first half of the book was a bit of a slog, given my motivations. A series of rich character sketches and blow-by-blow rundowns of ultramarathons, it seemed to forsake science for legend, and it reeked of the locker room. It read like an old fashioned “ripping yarn” by H. Rider Haggard, with ancient tribes and hidden knowledge, and cliffhangers scattered about as though in homage to Dan Brown or the Celestine Prophecy. Chia is the answer! Drink corn beer, it’s magic!

“When it comes to running shoes, all that glitters isn’t gold.”

As soon as I reached what many people would likely pass over as the “dry, boring stuff” in chapters 23 to 25, I got excited. This is where Chris McDougall gets down to the business of talking about barefoot running and the associations between injury and running shoes.

“Covering your feet with cushioned shoes is like turning off your smoke alarms.” – Barefoot Ted

McDougall pulls out studies and statistics, but divests himself of the responsibility of owning the theory by making it something that crazy “Barefoot Ted” has been pursuing. I suspected this might be a ploy to avoid divorcing himself permanently from the athletic gear companies that provide the financial support for the magazines he sometimes writes for, but he does come down on Nike pretty hard, so maybe not.

“The barefoot walker receives a continuous stream of information about the ground and about his own relationship to it, while a shod foot sleeps inside an unchanging environment.” – Dr. Paul Brand, US Public Health Service

McDougall lays out his findings as three “painful truths”: 1) the best shoes are the worst, 2) feet like a good beating, 3) human beings are designed to run without shoes. This posits the clear conclusion that we should all ditch our new Asics, and either keep on running in those ratty 10-year-old Nikes, or buy a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.

“If there’s any magic bullet to make human beings healthy, it’s to run.” – Dr. Daniel Lieberman, Harvard

In discussing the various training methods of world-famous runners and their coaches, he also stirs the pot of omnivorous diet vs. veganism. The final conclusion is never firmly drawn, but a lot of positive things are said about a diet consisting mostly of seeds, nuts and grains.

Chapter 27 is where Chris finally starts telling the bulk of his own story. We hear occasional snippets about his chronic injuries at the start of the book, and there’s a moment of hope when he meets Caballo Blanco and does some successful runs in Creel, but it takes the wisdom of coach Eric Orton and his “going tribal” methodology to correct McDougall’s stride to the point where he can enjoy the sport he’s just written 200+ pages about without suffering intense pain. This is covered somewhat vaguely with a short training montage, but hill running, weight loss and flat shoes seem to play a big part in his recovery.

And then we hit the really nerdy bits at the end of the book, where chapter 28 talks about the mystery of human evolution and whether or not homo sapiens are walking or running creatures. This piece on persistence hunting, which is literally running after an animal like a deer or gazelle until it collapses from heat exhaustion and then you eat it, was made more interesting because I watched the author’s TED talk and an amazing David Attenborough video about hunters in the Kalahari that shows what McDougall describes.

Finally, there’s the big race at the end where the author gets to go for a jog with the Tarahumara, the secretive run masters he’s made famous with his fanboy gushings in magazines and now a novel. I won’t give away the ending – you’ll have to read the book to find out if he collapses and dies a hot, copper canyon death or makes it to the finish line.

To conclude, an interesting read, and very motivating for those of us who choose to continue our species’ long-term love affair with running. Alas, I fear I may never expunge from my brain the vision of a cheetah on a treadmill with a rectal thermometer up its ass. Boo! But at least I learned that flapjacks need boiled rice, bananas, cornmeal and goat milk to achieve authentic Mexican greatness. Win!

3 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, 287 pages, Publisher: Knopf (2009)
Read from October 30 to November 14, 2011 .

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