Being cocooned in all things running – seamless tangents about running, the stories of how several different people found themselves as runners, history of endurance sports, science, a This American Life reference (and more) all woven into the tale of a race between a culture that values running for transportation and a culture that typically does not – certainly meets my criteria for a book worth reading. Not only did Born to Run by Christopher McDougall inspire me, but it also gave me a chance to think critically about how we run and what it means to be a human. But to be clear, my enjoyment of this book was not immediate.
I did everything I could not to read this book. This includes reading numerous other books (Chuck Klosterman, Jane Austin, Neil Gaiman and Paul Murray plus more), untangling necklaces, and lending this book to others with a recommendation as though perhaps I had read it. Born to Run took one heck of a long time to capture my attention – about a year and a half, to be exact. I received this book for Hannukah at the end of 2009 and sure, I started reading it immediately…and after about ten pages in put it down. Six months later I’d made it to page twenty and was not swept into McDougall’s tale. The book followed me to four separate apartments, meaning I packed and unpacked it on a regular basis, before I finally resolved I’d get through it on my daily commute.
Pages thirty, forty and fifty all rolled by slowly. I even held a conversation with the staff at Starbucks** about how I was struggling. And then there was page sixty-one, with the quote You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless, intrigued me. And there was page sixty-eight, where the first of McDougall’s tangents really gripped me – the tale of how Ann Trason, a community college science professor, wound up also being one of the best endurance runners in the country. Hooked, lined, sunk. I read this book while walking down the streets of Oakland and San Francisco because I couldn’t get enough.
McDougall begins with a trek into a rarely seen part of Mexico in search of the Tarahumara, a culture known for their running abilities; he hopes to get a glimpse into what makes these people (men and women alike) such amazing runners. From there, he meets Caballo Blanco, an elusive man from Colorado who went to live life deliberately near the Tarahumara. The history of Western culture’s interactions and attempts of exploitation at the behalf of the Tarahumara follows, as does how long distance horse races gave way to long distance foot races, and how as people began beating horses in these ultra marathons, the evolution of what we know to be endurance racing began.
As McDougall tells the story of Caballo’s plan to set up a race between top-dawg runners in the US and the Tarahumara, he also deviates to into the stories of those top runners on either side of the border, into his own training as he attempts to go from being an injury-stricken jogger to a looooong distance finisher, and the methodology behind the modern runner (shoes, form, desire, nutrition plan, etc) and that of people who have never seen a Nike swoosh.
A few really interesting points to note: this book is well known for being a proponent of barefoot/Vibram running, but I have to disagree with that assessment. While the book certainly addresses the barefoot running movement, and suggests foot strengthening as a means to being a better run, it never claims you can’t become a better, injury-free runner by simply changing your form and opting for less cushioned/stabilizing shoes. Back when Nike started developing running shoes, it was thought one should heel-strike and runners were trained to run as such and shoes were created for that purpose. As we’re now leaning back toward running on the balls of our feet, what’s more important (in my opinion) than what we put on our feet is how we run.
Point two: the best runners tend to love running. McDougall meets several people who don’t run to lose weight or to be the best. They run because there is no other way. They run because, as Ann Trason puts it, “Running is romantic.” You spend time focusing on yourself and your needs, attending to yourself and caring for yourself. If you live your life as someone who runs, if you focus your life around this, you’re not only doing what your body was built for, you’re also going to find one hell of a lot of self-love, self-respect, and self-awareness. And yes, running is something you can learn to love. But like most love worth having, it takes time.
Third point: Good runners tend to be good people. I like this note.
Almost final point I’ll reveal (everything else worth munching on you’ll have to read for yourself): According to the anthropological science and evidence, the reason Homo-sapiens (us) survived when the larger, brawnier Neanderthals (our evolutionary cousins) did not was because of our ability to run – to run down prey via long distances, and to cool ourselves with a unique sweating system. As we became better runners, we became smaller as a species, adapting us to our strengths. Eventually as the Ice Age melted away (pun intended), the Neanderthals couldn’t deal with the heat as they ran (due in part to their larger size) which carved the path for us to take over.
Which leaves me wondering – we’re seeing the human species getting larger. People are taller – striking over six feet for a male isn’t uncommon in my generation. But with that size comes a struggle to run. Every guy and gal I know over five-ten struggles with running to some degree, which make sense: more weight bearing down on your knees hurts, and simply moving that much more mass is way harder than for someone a foot shorter. Are we as a species slowly evolving/devolving because we’ve stopped running? Where does that take us/leave us if that’s the case. If what differentiates us was our running ability, what happens when we lose that? I envision a Wall-E style of human life and it scares me a little.
I have to note here that numerous people on public transit wanted to talk to me about this book. By people, I mean strangers. They must have read over my shoulder and would say “Hey, isn’t that the barefoot running book?” Born to Run is either so well-known (is it selling at Costco? It must be with the reaction I’ve seen) or so obviously engrossing (either by watching my enjoyment or from reading along) that it starts conversations. I feel like this fact alone sings to McDougall’s conclusion about running: that humans are born to run, and when we don’t do it, we are denying ourselves what separates us from the pack of animals. We evolved our bodies to not just move, but to run – from our stance to our musculature to our feet. To not run, is literally to become a Neanderthal (not in mind, but in physique).
Working/running/living under the paradigm that we were born for this – that it wasn’t just my imagination that running makes me feel alive, human, an full springiness (and being injured depresses the hell out of me) – inspires me, and gives me hope. I’m inspired to run farther, to run more, and to not deny myself this joy, and it gives me hope that others might feel inspired or feel the desire to give it a try – or give something outdoorsy a try.
*Title of this post is actually taken from the Paramore song, “Born for This” – one of my all time favorite songs to run to. (Singing, dancing and showering to this song also are nice.)
**The staff of the Starbucks closest to my work can’t make their coffee better, but they are really fun people to talk to and are way too involved in what I’m reading (mostly because I carry my books rather than backpack them) so we always end up discussing whatever it is I’m toting. I’d apologize but they claim to enjoy these chats.
*** Another of my favorite quotes from one of the runners in this book: You stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running.