‘Born To Run,’ Christopher McDougall
Summer, 2011: I have been hired as a Unit Supervisor at the awesome summer camp, Surprise Lake Camp, an hour and a half north of Manhattan. The camp is set in an idyllic location, on a giant lake in a forest near the Hudson River and, as I do every time I move to a new location, I decide to get healthy, mainly through jogging. Whilst in Manhattan, preparing to start work, I have lunch with a friend who is wearing those ridiculous glove-shoes, and spend an hour hearing how comfortable they are and, more importantly, how good for jogging.
I hunt down a store (ie shop) which sells them.
I buy a pair for around $100.
I wear them, and love how they feel.
I get to camp, and go jogging in them.
My toes hurt for the next three days.
I stop jogging in them, switch to my original running shoes, and only wear the Vibrams for walking around the camp and scaring/confusing the campers.
‘Born To Run‘ is, kind of, the story behind the reason my feet hurt for a couple of days.
The book follows a number of colourful characters across the American continent, from the US to Mexico and back again, (and back again…), exploring the history of long-distance running and the people (and peoples) who practice it. Why did Christopher McDougall feel that this book, largely about the running tribe of Mexico, the Tarahumara, was important? As he tells us, somewhat surprisingly perhaps:
“Distance running is the world’s No.1 participation sport, but almost nothing had been written about its No.1 practitioners…”
We learn that some of the best runners in history have been barefoot runners, (and vegetarians too, I was happy to hear! Who said we need meat for protein?), and much of the investigation done in the past few years has led to the ‘less is more’ philosophy of running shoes, with major manufacturers now trying to sell you shoes which are as close as possible to you running barefoot.
(Can you spell ‘irony‘?)
Sadly, whilst the content of this short tale were fascinating, the style was fairly awful: it read as a magazine article extended to book-length, (which I believe it was), full of overly dramatic expressions and end of chapter ‘cliff-hangers’. You want an example?
“Caballo, as it turned out, had decided that before Barefoot Ted got us all in trouble, he was going to teach him a lesson. Unfortunately, it was a lesson that would have us all running for our lives…”
But after the first 50 pages or so, you can just sit back, ignore the style and enjoy the often bizarre facts. We learn, for example, about the 1950’s Czech long-distance running legend (in more than one sense) Emil Zatopek:
“To build explosivenes, he and his wife, Dana, used to play catch with a javelin, hurling it back and forth to each other across a soccer field like a long, lethal frisbee…”
Various research was shocking: from the early college athletics departments who were recipients of Nike running shoes and who ended up running barefoot because the shoes felt so bad, to a University of Hawaii experiment which:
“…found that runners who stretched were 33 percent more likely to get hurt.”
“…in a 2008 research paper for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr.Craig Richards, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia, revealed that there are no evidence-based studies – not one – that demonstrate that running shoes make you less prone to injury…”
The book really did reveal the bizarrest corners of human endeavour, not least of which was the annual 50-mile Man Against Horse race in Prescott, Arizona, USA.
“…as bizarre as it may seem, the average human has a longer stride than a horse. The horse looks like it’s taking giant lunges forward, but its hooves swing back before touching the ground. The result: even though biomechanically smooth human runners have short strides, they still cover more distance per step than a horse, making them more efficient. With equal amounts of gas in the tank, in other words, a human can theoretically run faster than a horse…”
Theoretically? That theoretically became practically in the annual Arizona contest, when humans outran their equine opponents every year from 1999 to 2006. This tale was worth the price of the book alone.
In case you’re wondering, since I moved to Guatemala I have begun using my Vibrams again, learning in the book that it takes the foot some time to ‘unlearn’ all of the bad habits we learn from running with shoes. My toes still hurt from time to time, but there is nothing like feeling the earth beneath your feet, and I am a born-again Vibrams fan: maybe eventually I’ll shed them, and become a true bare-foot runner, like the Tarahumara.