Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall (Knopf, New York, 2009)

A book about running?  Not my thing.  On my daily walks (where by "daily" I mean five days a week and only when I'm not on the road) I've managed to work my way up to doing a quarter of my four miles at what could charitably be called a slow jog, but there my interest ended.  However, my nephew received Born to Run for Christmas, and I was curious enough to flip quickly through it.

Born to Run is a fascinating and groundbreaking book.  Actually, it's at least three books, interwoven, and it's no coincidence that when I perused it I couldn't decide if it was meant to be nonfiction or a novel.

The first thread—the tale of an ultramarathon race in the nearly-inaccessible Copper Canyon region of Mexico, featuring a bizarre cast of characters from a topnotch American ultramarathoner to primitive Tarahumara Indians to a couple of drunken 20-somethings who just happen to run really, really well—is a moderately interesting adventure story, though the bad language and "adult" content detracts from the tale and prevents me from recommending the book without serious reservations.  Perhaps worse is the "docu-drama," fast-and-loose-with-the-truth approach, in which the author reports as verbatim thought processes and conversations which he could not have known.  This technique works as fiction, but in this context damages the book's credibility.

Of less interest to me was the second, spiritual, thread, which extols traditional Tarahumara society as an unfallen Eden, and postulates that not running is—I kid you not—Original Sin, responsible for all mankind's problems.  You might find this thesis more intriguing if your idea of Paradise includes mad, adulterous, drunken orgies.

The final thread was by far the most interesting, and deserves better than to be commingled with the others.

  • People were designed ("evolved," if you prefer), for long-distance running, from the intricate construction of the foot to our breathing processes and sweat glands.  We're not the fastest animals on earth, but our heat-dissipation mechanism is not dependent on respiration.  Between this advantage and our ability to work cooperatively, we can run down dinner, which is what our ancestors once did.  Now we have takeout, and an aversion to sweat.
  • Mexico's Tarahumara Indians (the "Running People"), along with a few other dwindling tribes around the world, preserve this ability in their cultures, running ultra long distances with joy rather than pain and exhaustion.
  • These primitive tribes are not freaks or savants; running ability is a learned skill, not a genetic mutation.  This joy is our birthright as human beings.
  • High-tech running shoes have ruined both our feet and our running ability.  When it comes to running, less is clearly more.  Barefoot is best for the foot, although inexperience and difficult terrain can necessitate some form of protection, in which case a minimalist shoe like the Vibram Five Fingers or other thin-soled shoe is called for.  The Tarahumara run in sandals.  Even 50s-style Keds are better than the latest springy, gel-filled, microchip-embedded specialty shoes, which weaken the foot and encourage injurious running habits.
  • If this inspires you to take up barefoot running, go slowly.  Your feet have been imprisoned since you were a toddler, and that weakness can't be overcome all at once.
  • Contrary to what most of us believe—and what we are usually told—running is not something we must give up as we age, nor are we locked out of it if we're already old, overweight, and out of shape.  Long-distance running is a sport nonagenarians can enjoy, and one in which men have no competitive advantage over women.  One woman placed in the top ten of an ultramarathon even though she stopped at the aid stations to nurse her baby as needed!
  • Good running is less about speed than enjoyment.  The joy is more in the journey than the goal, more in running than in winning.

From my first flip through the book until I reluctantly closed the covers, Born to Run reminded me of Ina May Gaskin's Ina May's Guide to Childbirth.  Both are stories of a natural, rewarding function (running/childbirth) lost to modern society through ignorance, laziness, and greed (people, podiatrists, and shoe manufacturers/parents, obstetricians, and lawyers).  (That's an oversimplification, but how much can you do in one sentence?)  Both postulate that the same medical and technological advancement that has worked miracles has also demonized and dehumanized physiological processes that generally work best with minimal interference.  And both bring us into contact with people who we will be tempted to shrug off as irrelvant to our own lives.

Thread 1 of Born to Run will lead you to believe that long-distance runners are folks with a masochistic obsession and a touch of madness, the sort who would bike a million miles, or climb Mt. Everest twice in Pittsburgh.  From Thread 2 you would get the idea that they are throw-back hippies, the vegan followers of some never-existed-before blend of paganism and imagined Eastern religion.  In other words, runners are Them.  Not Us.  Definitely Not Me.

But the joy of running is the birthright of nearly every human being on the planet.  Whether we have sold our birthright for a couch potato lifestyle, or it was stolen from us by greedy, deceiving, corporate shoe manufacturers, does not in the end matter.  The power to change is all ours.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 11:52 am | Edit
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I read an article in my alumni magazine (Reflex, juin 2012) that mentions barefoot running and McDougall's book. The article states the following:
1. Nicholas Hansen of the University of Nebraska showed in 2011 that running barefoot reduces the oxygen consumption by 2-5%.
2. Rodger Kram of the University of Colorado showed the exact opposite in 2012.
3. There are also no clear proofs for the hypothesis that running down dinner played a significant evolutionary role, as postulated by David Carrier in 1984.
4. Despite all the advances in footwear design, running is one of the most dangerous activities: 20-80% of regular runners injure themselves once a year (that's a meta-analysis, which I suppose is why the range is that large). One reason advanced for that is the false security new shoes with all their bells and whistles give the runner.

Posted by Stephan on Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Wow, a non-spam comment to an old post.

Don't you love studies that completely contradict each other? It gives you the freedom to just make your own decision. :)

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 4:36 pm
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