Born To Run

By Christopher McDougall
304 pp. Vintage. $16.00.

The Google search: “Born To Run fiction or nonfiction” populated before I could finish typing it (i.e., it’s a popular question). Of course, I know it’s non-fiction, but it can read alternatively. Highly descriptive in a storytelling sense, the book paints scenes in a manner I more closely associate with fiction. There are two related tales in these pages, woven together. The Mexican Tarahumara Indians, also known as the Rarámuri (the Running People), are investigated for their running prowess. Their highly successful ability have little, if any, footwear assistance, and the virtues of their technique are extolled. Meanwhile, under debate are the utilities that man has become reliant on (shoe inserts, excessive soles, convoluted nutrition remedies, wonky coaching methods, etc.), taking us away from our ancestral means, and the resulting harm we’re doling out to ourselves.

“Born To Run” didn’t particularly engage me in the first several chapters. In these early pages a number of introductions occur for people that are further associated with different nomenclatures. This can be frustrating. In Mexico, author Christopher McDougall is in search of Caballo Blanco (a.k.a. the White Horse, or rather Mike Hickman, alternatively Micah True, “Shaggy” as well, etc.). McDougall considers Caballo, whose homeland straddles the US-Mexico border, as a bridge to the Tarahumara Indians. McDougall tells the story of these people and their wondrous running ways. They live a secluded life in an isolated locale known as the Copper Canyons. It’s an incredibly dangerous place and McDougall goes to great lengths to impress upon the reader that the hostile journey required to reach it (e.g., drug cartels, gangs, and treacherous environment) is just as perilous as the seemingly haunted destination itself.

McDougall moves to the infamous Leadville Trail 100, telling terrific tales from it’s enthralling background. For instance, Leadville running legend Marshall Ulrich improved his finishing times by having his toenails surgically removed. “They kept falling off anyway,” Ulrich said. Leadville helps explain the association between Caballo and the Tarahumara. During the 1990’s, the Tarahumara were coaxed into racing Leadville several times. At 50 miles, racers are allowed pacers and through a chance encounter, Caballo would come to pace a Tarahumara runner and a relationship was established. The Tarahumara found success in Leadville; however, the ensuing tense reactions, between organizers and the representative of the Tarahumara, stressed and alarmed the foreigners. Their response was to retreat to their secretive world and not return.

Caballo’s running skill is cultivated by the Tarahumara, and he extends these teachings to McDougall. Caballo also divulges to McDougall a grand plan. If the Tarahumara would not return to America, the Americans would come to the Tarahumara for a grand race. Caballo actually convinces ultra star Scott Jurek to join. Together, McDougall and Caballo further assemble a team of misfit, albeit successful, ultra runners to make the trek to the Copper Canyons. However, questions persist. Will the Americans survive the journey to the race? And will the Tarahumara agree to compete?

“Born To Run” segues to a minimalist running discussion. Barefoot running is heralded. Blame for poor stride and lower back pain are connected to cushioned soles. A convincing argument is made for associating knee injuries and weak feet with soft shoes. Our natural movements are being bastardized by those hefty Hokas. The topic takes a significant deep dive, and is none too kind to the shoe industry in the process, but to surmise: Humans are designed to run without shoes. The topic of HOW you should be running then becomes an extension of the discourse. What the Tarahumara do is described as “body art”. “No one else on the planet has made such a virtue out of self-propulsion,” McDougall’s coach said. The reader is then taken back in time, running with cavemen, and chasing wild antelopes over great plains.

The finale is laid bare. The Americans arrive in the Copper Canyons and the Tarahumara are game to run. The great race is a pleasurable passage, particularly Jurek versus the elite Tarahumara. “Born To Run” needs, and deserves, patience. While it does pick up speed as it progresses, it’s not a quick read. Most importantly, it delivers a quality contemplation, and might have you pondering which run gear items are truly essential, or just plain snake oil.


#DidYouKnow courtesy “Born To Run”: No United States runner qualified with the 2:14 standard for the 2000 Olympics (Rod DeHaven did participate in the games, making the 2:15 “B” standard).

#Follow Christopher McDougall Here

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