A Journalist's Archive

Born To Run
Christopher McDougall
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Here’s a book the makers of expensive running shoes don’t want you to read. No sir, because the best runners in the world start and finish long-distance races in their bare feet. In fact, the only time they lost a race was when they succumbed to the pressure of a sponsorship from Adidas. For an offer of “free corn beer,” they stuffed their tootsies into the latest high-tech running shoes. Unfortunately, only those who ripped the shoes off a short distance from the starting line managed to finish the race. With images of beer dancing in their heads, they then crammed their feet back into the alien devices as they neared the finish line.
          While not a runner myself, I found “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall fascinating. He meshes a cultural anthropological account of the Tarahumara Indians, a secretive society who live in the High Sierras of Mexico, with a modern subculture of an odd group of extreme American runners. In the process, McDougall manages to debunk most of the current scientific advice about running. And he does it in a literary style that will have you racing to the end of the book.
          McDougall, a somewhat overweight journalist, followed the latest and greatest sports medicine advice before embarking on a running program. His goal of completing three miles a day hardly seems outlandish, but he might as well have been shooting for the moon. After outfitting himself with the best shoes, doing stretching routines, and ingesting energy drinks, he ended up in a doctor’s office complaining of aching feet and knees. His physician’s advice: “The human body is not designed for that kind of abuse. Buy a bike!” Yet as a reporter for “Men’s Health” and “Esquire Magazine,” McDougall had already mastered many other semi-extreme sports and wasn’t ready to admit defeat.
          While on another assignment, he came across a magazine article featuring the Tarahumara, who run everywhere merely for the joy of it. Even at age 50, most of them can outpace American teenage track stars. Diseases such as cancer, obesity and diabetes are also virtually unheard of in their society. Intrigued, McDougall set out to interview Arnulfo Quimare, the most famous of all Tarahumara runners, in order to discover their secrets. What inspires them to run 50 to 100 miles through harsh terrain in their bare feet? Why can they do this into a ripe old age without suffering the muscular and joint injuries that typically occur in runners?
           Little did McDougall know how difficult it would be to track down Quimare. Before he could reach the tribe, he had to navigate territory populated only by the Zetas, Mexico’s infamous drug cartel. His adventure took him across rugged mountains, into unbearably hot deep canyons filled with cactus, stinging insects, snakes, and gun-slinging cartel members. To add to his problems, little of the region is actually recorded on maps. When he finally reaches his destination, he discovers the Indians desire to be elusive. Since the time Cortez first entered their territory, running from strangers was the only thing that allowed the Tarahumara to survive.
          When McDougall finally meets Quimare, he immediately commits a cultural faux pas  by being too inquisitive. The Tarahumara believe “asking direct questions is a show of force, a demand for a possession inside their heads.” On the advice of a Mexican school teacher, McDougall seeks the aid of Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, before his next encounter with Quimare. No one really knows who Blanco is. Some say he is an ex-prizefighter, others claim he is a fugitive, the only fact McDougall uncovers is that Blanco is an ex-patriot who has adopted the Tarahumara lifestyle, including their passion for running.
          “Born to Run” bounces between Mexico and extreme races around the world. Colorado readers will appreciate McDougall’s inclusion of the Leadville Trail 100. This grueling 100 mile race takes place at elevations between 9,200 and 12,600 feet and is considered the ultimate test of a runner’s fitness. Women racers have just as good a chance of winning this race as their male counterparts, because the race is far more about endurance than speed. “You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless,” McDougall writes.
          Tracking down Blanco is as difficult as finding the Tarahumara, but McDougall’s persistence pays off. After much pleading, he convinces Blanco to organize a 50 mile race between the Tarahumara and some of the best known extreme runners from the United States. The race takes place in the Tarahumara’s backyard, which allows both McDougall and readers to experience some of their cultural practices first hand. It seems their economic system is based on traded favors, with “big tubs of corn beer” acting as their currency.
          McDougall is shocked to see the Indians drinking copious amounts of the beer the night before the big race. In the morning, they jokingly saunter up to the starting line. They’re off – but while the Americans blast forward full throttle, the competitive spirit usually observed between runners is absent in the Tarahumara. Does that mean they won’t be the winners? Oh ye of little faith!
          You don’t need to be a runner to enjoy “Born to Run.” But if you are one, I highly recommend reading this book before purchasing your next pair of expensive running shoes. It could prevent injury to both your legs and wallet. McDougall makes many good points. We all knew how to run as children; it wasn’t considered exercise, it was a pure fun. The Tarahumara never let adulthood alter that fact.
          And whether clad in shoes or barefooted, finishing or winning a race has always been a mind-over-matter affair. So until engineers design perseverance into running shoes, McDougall recommends flinging them off. Dreaming of an ice cold beer waiting at the finish line is sure to improve your performance too!

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2013 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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