A Must Read for Runners: Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run”
As a life-long distance runner, I understand the ins and outs of running and everything that comes along with it. Trainers’ rooms have become my second home, as strained Achilles tendons, pulled hamstrings, SI misalignments, popped-out hips, broken toes, shin splints, collapsed arches, and most severely, bilateral compartment syndrome, have required constant attention and even, in the latter case, surgery. I am not alone, either – there comes a point in every of my cross country or track seasons that the “injured reserve” grows to encompass about half the team. Throughout high school, my coach’s favorite phrase for any injured student-athlete was to “look down,” which typically meant she believed that the cure was new running shoes, with more cushioning and orthotics. A lack of stretching, warming up, cooling down, heating or icing are additional common explanations for aches, pains and injuries. I have always accepted these prescriptions as sound; that is, until reading Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, on “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.”
A journalist and runner who was really built more like a basketball player and had encountered many injuries himself, McDougall writes about his journey to Mexico’s Copper Canyons, where he journeyed to meet the Tarahumara Indians. These runners can run for two full days without stopping or getting injured. What’s more, they don’t stretch, and they run either barefoot or in homemade leather sandals. Even more shocking, McDougall explains, is how “the only thing that rivaled their superhuman serenity, it seemed, was their superhuman tolerance for pain and lechugilla, a horrible homemade tequila… Cancún at spring break had nothing on the Barrancas under a harvest moon.” Following these nights of partying, the Tarahumara run hundreds of miles on end – on steep canyon trails, no less. The habits of the Tarahumara challenge absolutely everything that most sports doctors and cooperations such as Nike tell us about running healthily and preventing injury today.
McDougall spends a large portion of his book challenging the modern running shoe created by Nike three decades ago. The point he makes is that before the invention of the modern running shoe, modern running injuries did not exist. The amount of support in shoes that runners wear today actually weakens the foot. He advocates running barefoot or running in shoes that make the foot feel as though it is barefoot. McDougall also seeks to dismantle the idea that you stop running because you get old. In reality, the more you use your feet, the stronger they get. Distance runners do not reach their peak until they are in their twenties, and they can hold this pace for decades, quite contrary to popular belief. He leaves us with the sentiment that in fact, we get old only because we stop running.
The book explores America’s fastest ultramarathoners and extensive races, comparing and contrasting different top runners and their unique practices. It is quite clear that from barefoot tendencies to drinking Coca Cola as a substitute for Gatorade, unorthodox methods can yield by far the healthiest and most competitive runners. Now, beyond running without injury for miles on end, the Tarahumara runners are fast. On McDougall’s first trip to Mexico, he meets a man, Micah True, who goes by the name of Caballo Blanco, who interestingly enough, was reported missing on Wednesday after going on a run in the Gila region of New Mexico on the morning of March 28. Jane Brummer, the owner of the lodge where Blanco was staying, said of her friend to the Denver Post on Friday, “We don’t know if he got turned around or if he’s injured or what. He’s a very experienced runner. It’s kind of hard to believe that he’s lost. We just need to get out there and track him down.”
Blanco is such an experienced runner that he had long since established a relationship with the Tarahumara by the time McDougall got there. Blanco always had a dream to bring together the fastest Western runners with the Tarahumara and host an ultra marathon there, in the Copper Canyons. The book comes to a climax as McDougall – who at that point has been training to run ultramarathon distances himself in minimalist running shoes, and for the first time in his life is not encountering injuries – gathers America’s top ultra marathon runners to return to Mexico and run with the Tarahumara.
McDougall writes in an informative, direct, and quirky manner that quite effectively communicates and explores the intricacies of the modern running world. Perhaps most significantly, though, his voice is sincere. With every turn of a page, I felt the urge to go on a run myself, despite the toll that injuries have taken on my body. I am not pretending that I now have all of the answers that McDougall himself was able to figure out, in terms of correcting his running style and becoming an ultra marathon runner himself. I am not sure if minimalist running shoes or Vibram Five Fingers are just a fad either, as so many different forms of flashy running shoes have been in the past.
However, I do believe that McDougall has given us the tools we need to challenge the instructions on “how to run” that we have accepted as true for the past few decades. No longer will I go straight to my local Fleet Feet to buy $100 running shoes every three months, just because the people that market those shoes declared that it is in the best interest of runner’s feet. I do not think that multiple surgeries can solve nearly all modern running injuries. I think that there is a lot of merit in taking different precautions such as stretching, icing and heating, but that they must be determined by the individual, as no sports doctor knows your own legs as well as you do. Born to Run has taught us to think for ourselves as runners and challenge the norms that have been embedded in this incredible sport contemporarily.
Perhaps most significantly, should running ever begin to feel like a chore or more pain than it is worth, I will think of the ultra marathon runners who are happiest just to be in the company of other runners, even at the end of a high profile race with many records and publicity at the finish line. So, I call upon Connecticut College’s runners, other athletes and joggers alike to pick up this national bestseller in order to find out who won the first ultra marathon in the Copper Canyons of Mexico (the 2012 version of which was just held on March 4!), to discover new approaches to training and running injuries, and if nothing else, to remember why it is that you love to run.