As Babies, were we Born To Run?

Christopher McDougall’s exhilarating best-seller, Born To Run, is sub-titled, “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” but it could as easily have been, “Everything You Know About Running is Wrong.” Across just 300 pages, McDougall, a former war correspondent and ongoing outdoorsman, weaves together a fascinating series of narratives: his quest to gain access to the world of Mexico’s reclusive Tarahumara Indians, considered the greatest ultra runners in the world; his attempts to jog more than a few yards without collapsing in agony from persistent foot injuries; and the anthropological history of long-distance running along with its recent rise as a participant sport. As he strings these parallel stories together, he hones in not only on the “Greatest Race” of his sub-title but on a couple of convincing conclusions: that our expensive running shoes are killing us, and yet, conversely, that we humans were born to run.

One of the best books I’ve read in years: Born To Run

The first argument is proven with ease. The Tarahumara, as peaceful and gentle a people as they come, routinely embark on 100-mile “fun runs” up and down their native rock-strewn Copper Canyons, in sandals that consist of little more than a rubber sole and some string to hold the foot in place. And yet they never get injured. McDougall uses this as a jumping off point to examine other famous feet. Kenyan runners, for example, rarely put on shoes until they are seventeen. Roger Bannister wore what amounted to “leather slippers” when he broke the four-minute mile. Arthur Newton, who broke the record for the 100-mile Bath-to-London race at age 51 in the mid-twentieth Century, “saw no reason to replace his thin rubber sneakers until he’d put at last four thousand miles on them.” (Sports shoe manufacturers advocate new footwear every 300 miles.) And what, the author asks, did Norwegian sailor Mensen Ernst have on his feet in 1832 when he ran from Paris to Moscow in 14 days, at the rate of 130 miles a day? Certainly not Nikes: the company wasn’t launched until 150 years later…

…Which was, not so coincidentally (argues McDougall), exactly the point that American distance runners got slower.

“By the early ‘80s”

he writes,

“the Greater Boston Track Club had half a dozen guys who could run a 2:12 marathon. Six guys, in one amateur club, in one city. Twenty years later, you couldn’t find a single 2:12 marathoner anywhere in the country… The fact is, American distance running went into a death spiral precisely when cash entered the equation. The Olympics were opened to professionals after the 1984 Games, which meant running-shoe companies could bring the distance-running savages out of the wilderness and onto the payroll reservation.”

Through a series of interviews with scientists and physicians, McDougall breaks this argument down into digestible sentences. “The more cushioned the shoe, the less protection it provides.” “Pronation has become this very bad word, but it’s just the natural movement of the foot. The foot is supposed to pronate.” “You have to land on your heel to overpronate, and you can only land on your heel if it’s cushioned.” And back round we go… until we get to Barefoot Ted, an ambitious but failed young American dreamer who tried to solve his foot injuries by purchasing ever-more expensive shoes until, in fury, he threw them away, and began doing without… anything. If it was good enough for Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Olympic Gold running barefoot on Rome’s cobblestones, he figured, it might be good enough for him. Within a few months, Ted had run the Los Angeles Marathon barefoot and “accomplish(ed) something 99.9% of all runners never will: he qualified for the Boston Marathon.”

Barefoot Ted’s replica of the Tarahumara sandals, as available mail-order direct. This image, he says, nearly became the cover of Born To Run.

Barefoot Ted ends up accompanying McDougall and a select handful of inherently eccentric American ultra runners down to Mexico to meet with and run against the Tarahumara, as coordinated by the Indians’ token resident white man, Caballo Blanco, and their 50-mile race through the Canyons concludes the book in appropriately adrenalin fashion: this is an adventure story as much as anything else. Still, the subject of footwear (or the lack of it) has got me looking seriously at my Asics Gels, which I routinely replace once a year. (As does the company: I’m currently on the 2140s.) They’re not the most expensive of running shoes, and since I got good at my sport and passed through a certain barrier of physical fitness, I’m pleased to say I’ve stayed injury free. I ran two Escarpment Races in a battered old pair of Asics Trabucos with only one fall each time, so I have some instinctive loyalty to the company.

But still, now I know why my more committed running friends urge me to go with much less cushioning all round and, certainly, much lower heels. My feet were trained by millions of years of evolution to feel the ground underneath them and react accordingly, they say; what they were not trained for was to be cushioned beyond the ability to interact with the running surface. And it’s true: simply by making a conscious effort not to lean back on my Asics cushioned heels I can already feel myself running more smoothly, more comfortably… more naturally. Whether I progress to a pair of the Vibram Five Fingers, or to Barefoot Ted’s commercially available replica of the Tarahumara sandals, I’m not yet sure. But in the meantime, I’ve taken to walking the house and garden barefoot: after all, four-year old Noel runs relentlessly across the gravel driveway in bare feet and it does him no harm.

This image was cropped for the cover instead. It shows Billy Barnett with Caballo Blanco seated next to him in the Copper Canyons. Photograph by Luis Escobar.

McDougall’s bigger argument, that we humans were born to run, takes longer to explain. He ponders the ultimate victory of us Homo Erectus over our bigger, stronger, and, for multiple millennia, dominant rivals the Neanderthal. During the Ice Age, Neanderthals thrived by ambushing animals, surrounding them and fighting them, tooth and nail, typically to the death. But as the planet warmed up and the forests gave way to great plains and tundra, says McDougall, Homo Erectus went after his dinner on foot. Over the course of just a two hour hunt, this leaner, more nimble primate could leave his Neanderthal competitor ten miles behind.

“As the human body changed over time,”

writes McDougall, arguing that we differ from chimpanzees in this one crucial area,

“it adopted key features of a running animal.”

And though Homo erectus couldn’t run as fast as his prey over a short distance, he was soon running longer. By keeping a herd of kudu in his sight – or by following their tracks if he lost eye contact – he could ultimately chase them down. Drawing on the experience of the last surviving “persistence hunters” in Africa, McDougall posits a picture of an entire tribe on the run:

“The women are up front, leading the way toward fresh tracks they spotted while foraging, and hard behind are the old men, their eyes on the ground and their miles inside a kudu skull a half mile ahead. Crowding their heels are teens eager to soak up tips. The real muscle hangs back; the guys in their twenties, the strongest runners and hunters, watching the lead trackers and saving their strength for the kill.”

Anyone who watched Team Columbia-HTC set up British sprinter Mark Cavendish to his six stage victories during this year’s Tour de France might well be able to draw a parallel.

Of course, this sounds like Homo Sapien was also born to eat meat. Not necessarily so. McDougall admits that “running man,” as he often calls him, regularly feasted on bugs and fauna when not pursuing other mammals – and that Neanderthal’s post-Ice Age refusal to swap his “Grade A” meat for a similarly lean one was another reason he became extinct. More importantly, although he seems reticent to make a big deal of it, McDougall tells us all about Scott Jurek, arguably the greatest ultra-runner the west has ever seen. Jurek’s list of victories and achievements are almost super-human: he won the famed Western States 100-miler seven years in a row, and shattered the record for the Badwater Ultramarathon – running 135 miles across Death Valley, in temperatures above 130 degrees Fahrenheit – at his first attempt. (He did it in 24 hrs, 30-something minutes.) This makes it all the more credible for Born To Run that Jurek joined McDougall, Barefoot Ted, a select few others, including the “party kids,” Billy Barnett and Jenn Shelton (who were once arrested for getting it on during a trail race), on the trip to Mexico to race the Tarahumara. Jurek seems less eccentric and more focused than the others (he earns his income not by winning races – ultra running is an essentially amateur sport – but by offering one-on-one clinics at the reasonable rate of $190 per hour), and as such doesn’t appear to have opened up to McDougall the way the other runners did. But this much he is keen to explain: along his journey to unparalleled running success, Jurek became a vegan. As the runner put it,

“Everyone told me I’d get weaker. I wouldn’t recover between workouts, I’d get stress fractures and anemia. But I found that I actually feel better, because I’m eating foods with more high-quality nutrients.”

And why not? He’d read about the Marathon Monks of Japan who ran an ultra marathon every day for seven years on miso soup, tofu and vegetables. And also Cliff Young who, in 1983, at age 63, won the 507-mile from Sydney to Melbourne on beans, beer and oatmeal (a diet similar to the Tarahumara, though the Mexicans do eat some meat as well). McDougall writes also of Dr. Ruth Heidrich, who, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, figured that exercise would be the disease’s biggest foil and took up training for a triathlon. As she researched the diets of noncancerous cultures, she recognized a common thread: their relative or total lack of meat. With “a medical gun at my head,” she turned vegan overnight, and within one year, was competing in her first Ironman. Twenty-five years after her cancer diagnosis, she’s still here, still running, swimming and biking. Along the way, she turned McDougall onto the joys of salad for breakfast, while an adventure-sports coach, Eric Orton, got McDougall to start running the way his body was designed, not the way the shoe companies had in mind, so that, by the end of the book the author is able to join Jurek, Billy and Jenn, Barefoot Ted, photographer Luis Escobar, Caballo and the others in their race against the Tarahumara. McDougall comes last, but his personal journey from injury-prone jogger to successful ultra-runner is testament to the theories he lays out along the way.

Luis Escobar took this photograph of Arnulfo Quimare and Scott Jurek in the Copper Canyons in February/March 2006, when the Americans joined the Tarahumara in their home environment for several days of fun running, concluding with their 50-mile Ultra Marathon de los Canyons. Arnulfo won, Jurek came second. Escobar calls them “arguably the two of the finest living ultra distance runners” and I would hope that their faces reveal the pleasure that comes before the pain barrier.

McDougall’s journalistic style is occasionally hyperbolic, full of reconstructed conversations peppered with copious exclamation marks. He has a habit of making the exceptions (Jurek, Ernst, Newton, Shelton and many more) sound like should be the rule when it’s always possible that they are just freaks of nature. He doesn’t widen his focus to discuss the Eskimos or other human tribes that thrived without running – on which subject, Barefoot Ted is welcome to try walking, let alone running, in the Catskills winter minus shoes and without accruing frostbite. Yet still, Born To Run has opened my eyes in a way that Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s recent memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running did not. Murikami’s book laid out a good argument that physical stamina is necessary for mental stamina. (He sees fiction writing as an endurance test worthy of a road marathon, and he has a point.) But Murakami was already well into his fifties at the point of composing his memoir, and he could feel his body slowing down; there’s a sadness to his memoir that I, still peaking in my mid-40s, didn’t want to share. (Interestingly, Born To Run posits that after peaking at age 27, our bodies don’t slow down to that of our 19-year old selves until the McCartney-esque old age of 64… assuming that we keep running in the meantime.) Murakami’s account of his one and only ultra – especially the post-race depression that followed – had just about convinced me to never run a step more than a marathon. McDougall’s book has had the opposite effect. It sent me soaring into the local mountains on my Escarpment Training; it embedded in me the mantra, “If it feels like work you’re working too hard” (that one from Orton), and it has me promising my local ultra runners that one day, possibly when the wife and kids are not looking, I’ll come join them for a 50k trail race and go from there – because now I know how much fun it can be.

Indeed, McDougall emphasizes the inherent joy inherent of natural running, which he distinguishes from the treadmills many urbanites run every day (in damaging footwear) as their physical punishment for a hard day at the office. He talks of it as a sport of compassion, and it’s true that I rarely meet a runner in the Catskills who puts competition above camaraderie. It is, he posits, and I agree, an exercise in love. The best comment on this subject, perhaps even the best quote of the book, comes from party animal Jenn Shelton, whose exploits are as hilarious as they are daunting. (But hey, we could all play hard and work hard when we were 21, right?)

“I started running ultras to become a better person,”

she tells McDougall candidly.

“I thought if you could run one hundred miles, you’d be in this Zen state. You’d be the fucking Buddha, bringing peace and a smile to the world. It didn’t work in my case – I’m the same old punk-ass as before, but there’s always that hope that it will turn you into the person you want to be, a better, more peaceful person.”

But then she adds this:

“When I’m out on a long run, the only thing in life that matters is finishing that run. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It’s just me and the movement and the motion.”

Sounds pretty Zen to me.

Running in a colorful bikini, Jenn Shelton won the Virginia Beach marathon in 2007, setting a new course record of 2:53, finishing 18 minutes ahead of the next woman – and stopping to chug a beer at mile 23. “I hate all this hype about the marathon,” she told author McDougall. “Where’s the mystery?” Photo cribbed from here.

In one of its many sub-theories, Born To Run argues that our human brains were wired by evolution to rest the body whenever the opportunity arose: after all, Homo Erectus never knew when he would either have to run down his prey or run to avoid becoming prey himself. But in this modern age of copious leisure time, the brain has gotten confused: it’s encouraging us to relax simply because we can. Some of us humans are living longer as a result, but most of us are not leading more healthily. We are certainly not winning the race against obesity, heart disease and cancer – and that’s because we’ve forgotten how we won the human race in the first place: by out-running the competition. (In bare feet.) Born To Run suggests that we could all benefit by taking a step outside, stepping back in time and rediscovering the joy of reconnecting with our natural selves.

Or, as Jack Kirk, who was still running California’s feared Dipsea Trail Race (which starts with a 571-step Cliffside climb) at age 96, put it:

“You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running.”

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