Sunday, June 6, 2010

Book Review: Born to Run

A few weeks ago I came across an article that writer and runner Christopher McDougall had written for the Daily Mail on the questionable value of modern running shoes. That article, titled "The painful truth about trainers: Are running shoes a waste of money?" piqued my interest, and I began to look into the literature on barefoot and minimalist running. As it turned out, McDougall had just written a new book, titled "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen," which talks about running shoes as part of a much larger story of ultra racing adventure, philosophy, and running science. It is a phenomenal book, and a must read for anyone who runs.

At it's heart, Born to Run is much more than a book about running shoes. In fact, the bulk of McDougall's diatribe against the shoe industry occurs in just one chapter (Chapter 25 to be exact). Born to Run is more a book about the love of running - it is a book about regaining the joy that running can bring to your life, and about why running is more than just a way to keep your weight down and your muscles toned. It is a book about why we all should run, and why those of us who enjoy running what many consider to be insane distances love doing so. It is a book about why running is a part of our history as a species, and why running is truly a gift that was bestowed upon us as human beings.

The book begins with the author's quest to find a shadowy tribe of Mexican Indians known as the Raramuri (translated as the "Running People," the Raramuri are more commonly known to outsiders as the Tarahumara). The Tarahumara inhabit a remote region of the Chihuahuan Desert known as the Copper Canyons, and they tend to be very shy around outsiders. What is special about the Tarahumara from the standpoint of this book is that they are renowned as a culture that revolves around distance running, and among their numbers are some of the greatest distance runners on this planet. While on this journey, McDougall meets up with a mysterious American who lives in the canyons among the Tarahumara and goes by the name of Caballo Blanco - the "white horse." Caballo lets McDougall in on an audacious plan that he's concocting - he's organizing a race whereby he hopes to bring some of the top ultra runners on the planet down to the Copper Canyons to face off with the best the Tarahumara have to offer on a grueling 50-mile ultra marathon course.

The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon forms the backdrop for most of the remainder of the book, and in addition to Caballo Blanco, McDougall introduces a number of other colorful characters along the way. There's Barefoot Ted, a guy who lives his name by running without shoes. There's Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett, two hard-partying young ultrarunners who like to live life on the edge. There's Scott Jurek, arguably the best ultrarunner on the planet and the top non-Tarahumara challenger for the Copper Canyon race title. There's Luis Escobar, who is another accomplished ultrarunner and the main race photographer. There are the Tarahumara, the quiet, peaceful people for whom running is part of the daily fabric of life. Finally there's Christopher McDougall himself and his trainer Eric Orton, and a good chunk of the book details how McDougall transforms himself in 9 months from an oft injured runner into someone who manages to make it to the starting line of a 50-mile race with full expectations of finishing (I won't give away if he does).

What makes this book such a thoroughly enjoyable read is that McDougall is a fantastic storyteller and a great researcher. He shifts with ease from recounting his harrowing adventures in the Copper Canyons, to the antics and life stories of his running companions, to discussing the perils of running shoes and the evolution of running in humans (which, as an evolutionary biologist, is one of my favorite parts of the book). He also throws in some interesting stories about some of the more well known ultra-races (e.g., Leadville, Western States, Badwater), as well as some no-holds-barred descriptions of some of the higher profile ultra-runners.

Ultimately, where McDougall succeeds most in this book for me as a runner is that he really made me think about why it is that I love running. I listened to the last bit of the book while on my final 20-mile training run for the Vermont City Marathon, and it helped me through what turned out to be a really tough run. He makes you realize that getting caught up in pace, distance, etc. can sidetrack you from the real joy of running, and he reinforced my belief that when we run, we are really running for ourselves - we run because we're supposed to. McDougall's comment about the Copper Canyon race that he was "running against the course" really rang true for me. I know that I have no chance at winning a marathon, so why do I compete? I do so because I can challenge myself against the course, and I do so because I love running. This book also made me think about my running shoes, and I've already purchased a pair of Nike Free 3.0's in the hopes of transitioning into a more minimalist style of running, and I may give the Vibram Fivefingers a try at some point down the road. Finally, I liked this book because it makes me want to run a 50-mile ultramarathon, and if a book can accomplish that feat, you know that it has to be good.

So if you're a runner now or hope to become one, this book is absolutely a must read. I would rank it as the most enjoyable running book that I have read, and probably one of the best books of any kind that I've read in a long time. I urge you to check it out - you won't be disappointed.

The author of this article, Peter Larson, is a biology professor and runner from New Hampshire. His blog, Runblogger, chronicles his daily adventures as a father, teacher, scientist, and runner. You can view a version of this review with multimedia and additional links by clicking here.

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