Born to Run by Christopher McDougal – review

BORN TO RUN by Christopher McDougall
Borzoi Books, 2009, 287 pages, 9780307266309, Hardcover, $15.95

Genre: Non-fiction/Athletic

Though not this blog’s typical genre, I believe former war correspondent Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run is a book that everyone, non-runners included, will be unable to put down. It is categorized as non-fiction, but the story McDougall tells is so intriguing that I constantly found myself forgetting that the events he writes about actually happened in the real world. Born to Run tells the story of McDougall’s journey into the world of “Ultratheletes,” an elite group of marathoners who regularly run hundred-mile, thirty-hour marathons. The book also presents evidence for the now growing theory that running barefoot is healthier, and that sneakers not only limit us as runners, but cause unnecessary injuries.

McDougall’s search to cure his hurting back and injured legs leads him deep into cartel controlled Mexico in an attempt to find an ancient Indian tribe known as the “Tarahumara.” The Tarahumara are also known as “the running people,” and McDougall believes they are just the group to transform him from an injured and despairing runner into an ultra-marathon running machine.

Since the Spanish conquistador Cortez first began his conquest of Central America, the Tarahumara retreated far into the Copper Canyons, one of Mexico’s most dangerous environs. There they have remained almost entirely isolated from the outside world. The reason McDougall seeks them out? They have been reported by many nineteenth-century adventurers to be a people who can run for days on end without stopping. Reports claim that even their elderly can easily run twenty-mile marathons. Furthermore, the Tarahumara traverse the mountainous terrain of the canyons wearing only thin, leather sandals. McDougall’s quest to find these people and learn their ways leads him to a mysterious man known only as “Caballo Blanco,” or “the White Horse.” Caballo, a pale and skinny expatriate American, lives among the Tarahumara but also occasionally journeys into the outside world, making him the perfect liaison for McDougall.

The author’s first meeting with the Tarahumara people leads him to an increased fascination in the world of ultra running. Back in the states, McDougall finds himself at many ultra running events observing the culture and the competitors, and learning the science behind the sport. The book’s interviews with ultra runners left me amazed at how normal these people were. One of the top ultra runners in the country, currently, is a female middle school science teacher. Another is just a regular Joe who works an eight-to-five job in Seattle. Born to Run, through interviews and scientific evidence, brings into focus just how much the human race excels at distance running. In evolutionary terms, humans evolved to fill this specific niche.

I found this book to be a perfect mix between detailed, scientific evidence from leading experts and fantastical storytelling entirely cemented in reality. Chapters on Harvard professors running experiments that involve Cheetahs on treadmills are nicely offset by a narrative recounting of trekking through the Mexican backwoods, eluding cartel foot soldiers, and spending time living with the Tarahumara. McDougall’s interesting characters, scientific evidence, and near insane adventures made this an educational, yet highly entertaining, read.

The book’s exploration of barefoot running theory opened my mind to a world I had previously never heard of. McDougall recounts historical records of barefoot runners through the ages, including a sailor who runs from Paris to Moscow to win a bet, and ancient African hunters who killed their prey by literally chasing it until it dropped. All the while, he slips in biomechanical data that supports running barefoot.

Reading this book peaked my curiosity and led me to personally try running barefoot. Within two weeks I found myself to be a much better runner. My usual two mile route, a run that previously left me breathless and exhausted, increased to a seven mile jog, which I commonly finished without any hint of an accelerated heart rate. This increase in running distance parallels that of McDougal in the book. He begins, in chapter one, as a middle-aged runner who desires to run but always ends up suffering some injury. By the end of the book the author has transformed himself into a man who conquers a fifty-mile run in Mexico’s desert-like Copper Canyons. The book serves not only as an interesting and enlightening read, but as an inspiration to get out and do what we humans were born to do: run.

~

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