Friday, January 14, 2011

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

In Born To Run, journalist Christopher McDougall weaves a tale that's equal parts sports, science, anthropology, and adventure. It begins with a mystery and ends with a footrace.

And I can't recommend it strongly enough.

I read the book three times through before sitting down to blog about it, mainly because it contains revelations that took a while to digest -- but also because it was a lot of fun to read. It's the kind of book that proves the truism that truth is stranger than fiction, and Born To Run is all the more fascinating for it.

At the heart of the story is a secretive tribe called the Tarahumara, who live in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. They are legendary both for their endurance and their shyness, but McDougall tracks down a gringo who has lived among the Tarahumara and who has adopted their ways. This gringo is known as Caballo Blanco, and the search for him is the mystery that opens the book.

The chapters of Born To Run alternate between storylines. There's the real-time narration of McDougall's experiences with Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara. Then there's McDougall's contextualization, which ranges from his own personal history as a runner to other considerations, such as the current state of endurance running as a professional sport and the role of persistence hunting in the course of human evolution. These storylines enrich each other, fueling the narrative with discoveries.

These discoveries cover a wide variety of topics, all linked to running, such as the function of the nuchal ligament (which is found in dogs, horses, and humans, but not in chimps or pigs) or the reason that the coach of Stanford's NCAA championship cross-country team prefers that his athletes train in their bare feet (hint: it's the same reason that cheap running shoes are better for you than expensive ones). There's even a section devoted to the paradox of why evolution may have inadvertantly made it difficult for so many of us to lose weight and stay in shape (it has to do with the feast-or-famine lifestyle of our forebears).

The most basic discovery of the book is that our bodies are designed to run, and Born To Run is filled with anecdotes of phenomenal feats of endurance that make running a mere marathon seem like literal child's play, such as the nonagenarian ultra-runner who tells the author, "You don't stop running because you get old; you get old because you stop running."

Our bodies are not, however, designed to sprint. This crucial distinction is a lesson that the author applies to himself with eye-opening results. These results serve him well when he finally meets members of the Tarahumara, who seem to think nothing of running ultra-marathon distances in thonged feet.

Born To Run also features a fascinating cast of characters, from the aforementioned Caballo Blanco to Barefoot Ted and Jenny "La Brujita Bonita," many of whom become contestants in the climactic 50-mile footrace set on the rocky trails of the Tarahumara homeland that pits seasoned ultra-marathoners against members of the Tarahumara tribe.

The way this race plays out is dramatic enough, but its front-runners also embody perhaps the greatest lesson of the book: that it is fellowship -- and not rivalry -- that brings out the best in us. Sure, it's a trite thing to say; it's the stuff of greeting cards and bumper stickers. But it's a lesson the author himself learns in the most generous way as he, with some help, also finishes the footrace, trailing far behind the prizewinners and finding a surprising running mate as he crosses the finish line.

Born To Run made me want to go running, which is perhaps the highest praise I can give it, given the fact that I'm an inveterate daily walker, whose paltry 4 miles a day pales in comparison to the feats of the Tarahumara. I urge you to read the book, and I bet, once you do, you'll feel the same way.

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