Christopher McDougall: Born to Run

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McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (New York: Knopf, 2009)

Like Usain Bolt breaking his own world records for the 100m and 200m in recent races, Christopher McDougall's Born to Run vaulted past the other volumes in my to-be-read stack as if they were standing still. A runner searching for an answer to his own running-related injuries, McDougall was led to investigate the Tarahumara people from Mexico's Copper Canyon, which is deeper--and several times larger--than the Grand Canyon:


The Tarahumara are distance runners, yet without the ailments that plague their contemporaries from modern consumer cultures: knee problems, plantar fasciitis, torn Achilles tendons...and without the expensive bells-and-whistles running shoes in which the rest of us are shod. When not barefoot, Tarahumara runners prefer minimalist sandals with soles made from strips of old tires. Running for sheer joy--regardless of footwear--is paramount, and McDougall identifies this as "the real secret of the Tarahumara:"

...they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. [...] Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. (p. 92)

Here's a great example of the joy of running, featuring American ultrarunner Scott Jurek side-by-side with Arnulfo Quimare of the Tarahumara:


McDougall provides ample and appropriate backstory on the main characters, some physiology and anthropology, and closes his book with the inaugural running of the 50-mile Copper Canyon Ultra-Marathon. The tale works so well because McDougall does such a great job setting up the cast of characters: the mysterious Micah True (AKA Caballo Blanco), Scott Jurek (website, Wikipedia), Barefoot Ted, and Jenn Shelton (see this Outside article).

Given the extreme physical demands involved, McDougall wonders whether ultrarunning is self-selective: "did it attract only runners with unbreakable bodies? Or had ultrarunners discovered the secret to megamileage?" (p. 79) He suggests that good biomechanical form is part of the answer, and footwear a common culprit: "running shoes may be may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot." (p. 168) Nike comes in for special opprobrium when McDougall writes that "Blaming the running injury epidemic on big, bad Nike seems too easy--but that's OK, because it's largely their fault." (p. 179)

Age, interestingly enough, is far less a problem for distance runners than one might expect. McDougall quotes Dr Dennis Bramble on the subject:

"We monitored the results of the 2004 New York City Marathon and compared finishing times by age. What we found is that starting at age nineteen, runners get faster every year until they hit their peak at twenty-seven. After twenty-seven, they start to decline. So here's the question--how old are you when you're back to running the same speed you did at nineteen?" (pp. 239-240)

McDougall estimated 40-45 years, but Bramble gave him an answer of 64 years old. This seemed rather high to me, so I investigated a little. The 2008 NY results showed that the fastest 19-year-old male finished in 398th place--and he was beaten by men as old as 58. I know what you're thinking: that's only one race. Table 1 on page 41 of Dan Tunstall Pedoe's Marathon Medicine (2000) was the most comprehensive list I could locate quickly, and it shows that the break-even age is about 39 or 40--more in line with McDougall's estimate. Masters runners should be encouraged--and inspired--no matter which figure turns out to be more accurate, as the drop-off in finishing times is a very gradual one.

Dan Zak at the Washington Post called Born to Run "an operatic ode to the joys of running," and I can't help but agree. There is much more I could write about McDougall's wonderful book and everything it has to say about running--but it's time to tie on my shoes and put in a few miles...or perhaps try going barefoot!

McDougall articles and Q&A sessions:

"The Painful Truth About Trainers" (Daily Mail)

"What Ruins Running" (Boston Globe)

"The Men Who Live Forever" (Men's Health)

"Kick Off Your Shoes and Run a While" (NYT)

"The Myth of the Lonely Long-Distance Runner" (Time)

Q&A with Amazon

other sources:

"How Running Made Us Human" (Science Daily)

"Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo" (Nature)

"The Running Man, Revisited" (Seed) discusses the ER (Endurance Running) hypothesis

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on August 29, 2009 2:27 PM.

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