Born To Run – Christopher McDougall

23 October 2011
Chapters 1-2
I’m not going to stop every two chapters – it wouldn’t be appropriate, somehow, in a book about a tribe of people who never stop at all once they start one of their long-distance fun-runs – but I just wanted to get a few things about McDougall’s style out of the way. After that I might be able to concentrate on the other stuff.

First we get the three beginnings. Our man has been on a quest – no other word would come remotely close – to find the man who can provide him with answers. In Chapter 1 he finds him. In Chapter 2 he tells us a bit about himself. Correction: he tells us a whole bunch of stuff about himself. He’s not just a sport writer, he’s a top sports writer who writes for big non-sports magazines we’ve definitely heard of. And he hasn’t just had a sports injury, he has a pain in his foot that is as bad as being gut shot in a drive-by. And he hasn’t just consulted a sports-injury specialist about it, but the ‘godfather of sport medicine’ who has (literally) written the book all the others refer to. The problem is, everybody has let him down because, he has been persuaded, our Western approach to running is all wrong. Reader, nobody in our world can help our man.

McDougall needs to find help from another world, so it’s time for the third beginning, which is wall-to-wall mythologising. There is a Mexican tribe living somewhere so remote that it sends experienced explorers mad if they find themselves lost there. Etc. And, boy, do these guys know how to run. Not only guys: they’re so off the wall even 80-year-old grandmothers run everywhere. They have invented their own everything, and after a day of being the most sorted-out culture in the world they drink hard, play hard – then go for an all-night run like you or I would go for a stroll. Jeez. Only these people will do for our man because, well, who doesn’t want to find the Holy Grail and Shangri-La at the same time? But how on earth is he going to find them? And when he does, how is he going to find hyperboles to match them?

I’m sure he’ll manage.

24 October
Chapters 3-16
It doesn’t settle down, but it does get better. I’m about a third of the way through, and McDougall has just finished a set-piece riff across nine chapters. It starts after he catches up with the moment in Chapter 1 when he finds the Caballo Blanco, the gringo with the answers. He doesn’t run away – in fact he tells our man a story. But to understand it ‘you have to go back to the early 90s….’ So that’s where our man takes us, narrating the story of the Mexican Indians’ brief foray into ultra-running in the USA. It’s the most enjoyable bit of non-fiction I can remember reading in years.

But I need to rewind, because first McDougall has to find this tall, skinny white guy who haunts the Copper Canyons. He enlists the help of a guide who gets him to where the members of the tribe live. We know our man must have found out a lot about them either before or after, because he keeps telling us stuff. They are the Tarahumara people (a corruption of their own name for themselves) and McDougall does his best to persuade us they are as elusive and attractive as he suggests in the first couple of chapters. Of course, he’s Mr Hyperbole – I kept wanting to underline particular atrocities he commits, but resisted – so the quest that takes 30 or 40 pages only covers a few days in fact. And the tribe aren’t nearly so difficult to find as he likes to pretend….

But I said when I started that I wanted to concentrate on the other stuff. Basically, in our man’s presentation of them the Tarahumaras are what human beings must have been like before the Fall. They are forgiving, mutually supportive, non-sexist, non-competitive and enjoy everything that is life-affirming. And, as we know, in a long-distance run they can beat anybody else in the world. We see a school set up for them by a Spanish-speaking teacher, who sends the children off on one of their running games. Somehow, this shows us the culture in microcosm, suggesting that there is something innocent and childlike about the whole tribe. In a good way.

Back to the early 90s, and the Leadville ultra-marathon. As in another recent best-selling American non-fiction book, The Big Short by Michael Lewis, McDougall likes to focus on larger-than-life characters. Enter Rick Fisher, who established in his teens that he could explore the wildest places you can think of with an unerring instinct for finding a way through, and became ‘the greatest’ in his field of pushing-the-envelope travel writing. He’s always had a thing about the Copper Canyons and the Tarahumaras, wants to show them to the world. If he can get shitloads of credit into the bargain, to say nothing of publicity rights and sponsorship, well, so much the better.

Now enter Ken Chlouber, whose idea it is to put the dying mining city of Leadville – highest city in the USA which, I suppose, in this book it would have to be – back on the map. He’s – wait for it – ‘an out-of-work, bronco-busting, Harley-riding, hard-rock miner’ in ‘size 13 steel-toed stompers’…. This stuff can become tiresome fairly quickly, but it’s worth sticking with it, because it gets interesting. The annual 100-mile race that Chlouber invents does get Leadville on to the map. It’s only a pity that it’s a map that hardly anybody looks at: nobody outside a tiny group of dedicated athletes is interested. But Rick Fisher thinks it might be a good place to show off his magic runners to the world.

The chapter when he gets them to the race is an object lesson in how McDougall writes. They are complete failures, drop out before the half-way point. Cue doom-laden remarks about how Tarahumaras running in Olympic marathons in 1928 and 1968 finished outside the medals. Maybe their mythical speed and endurance is just that, a myth…. Wind forward a year, when Fisher doesn’t just pick runners at random, but lets them choose their own. Oh dear: the combined age of their two main hopefuls is 100 years, and things aren’t looking good as they start near the back of the pack and stay there, at least to begin with.

Can you guess what happens next? Of course you can. As the race progresses they move up through the pack and finish first and second, six miles ahead of the first non-Tarahumara runner. Vindication for them and, far more important in his eyes, for Fisher the self-publicist. Their victory is real, but it’s still a tiny item on the sports pages. What to do? How can he really get this race on the map?

Enter… Ann Trason, the fastest long-distance female runner in the world. As it happens, she’s in that tiny group of dedicated athletes I mentioned, has run the Leadville race several times before and always beats the other women easily. She wonders whether she might be able to beat the men as well. The stage is set, as they say, for a showdown. Last year’s winners can’t make it this year – McDougall is keen to let us know how indifferent they are to all this nonsense – so they’ve sent replacements who know nothing of the course. It’s a stinker, and Ann Trason has been training herself all year to give it her best shot.

It takes McDougall four chapters to describe the race, deliberately hyped up beyond all reason by the strident Fisher. It’s men versus women, Native Americans wanting to kick some white ass. Of course, whenever the Tarahuramas get a whiff of this they don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. But they have been thinking about strategy, don’t start at the back where they’ll have to squeeze past everybody else when the trail gets narrow and tricky….

Just as the race is getting properly under way, we get more object lessons in McDougall’s style. First, well, we’ve only had three larger-than-lifes connected with the race, and what he obviously needs now is a couple more. One is ‘old Joe Vigil’, another greatest, the granddaddy of all athletics coaches. He’s the only real coach bothering to watch the Tarahumaras, because he’s the only one in the world who guesses that the Western style has, as it were, run its course and what is needed is something new. Then there’s the guy who looks like a hippie, known from now on as Shaggy, who’s the only runner crazy enough to offer to be the second-half pacemaker for the Tarahumaras. Nobody expects him to be in place at the agreed point – but he is. Yay.

Back at the race – McDougall keeps cutting back and forth – Ann has already decided she isn’t going to run this one by the book. McDougall compares what she is doing with a move in the Fisher/Kasparov chess game in which one of them sacrifices his queen early to confuse his opponent: she’s decided to go for broke to build up an unassailable lead. By the half-way point she’s many minutes ahead. This is getting interesting….

Stop right there – because that’s what McDougall does. He spends a whole chapter telling us about another greatest, the only athlete that Coach Vigil can think of who is anything like the Tarahumaras. This is the legendary Czech, Emil Zatopek. In McDougall’s presentation of him he’s a Tarahumara in a European body: runs for the love of it, has no recognisable training schedule, helps fellow competitors rather than trying to bust them… and so on. Maybe, Vigil is thinking, it’s as much to do with an attitude of mind as anything else, because how else can you explain… etc. This is all getting metaphysical and weird.

Back to the race, again. Annie is literally miles ahead. And then she isn’t. Her time is good enough to beat all previous records, but in the last ten miles of the race the Tarahumaras do that thing they do. ‘It happened so fast, Ann couldn’t even react….’ First one, then another, pass her as if they’ve only just started the race. In italics, we get what must be her words as she tells the story later: He didn’t even look tired! It’s like he was just… having fun! Yep, that’s our boys.

And that’s the race. The Tarahumaras are so disgusted by the hullaballoo they never go back to Leadville after this, but their appearance is life-changing for at least two people. Coach Vigil is past retirement age, so he wants to give up everything in the States and go and study them. Shaggy doesn’t seem to have so much baggage: he just ups and leaves for the Copper Canyons as soon as he can. Have you guessed yet? Ten years later he’s the man telling all this to McDougall. He’s the Caballo Blanco.

28 October
Chapters 17-25
I’ve been taking my time with this book. This morning, as I was going for a very pleasant run, I was composing clever things to write about the things I don’t like about it. Fine. McDougall has got a little story going, about how Caballo – as he now calls him – has got some ultra-marathon runners together to run on Tarahumara territory…. But forget all that, for now anyway, because he interrupts it for the long Chapter 25. And my God. I’ve been running for, well, let’s not worry about how long, let’s just say it’s for most of my adult life… and Chapter 25 has left me feeling very disturbed indeed.

Which is exactly how McDougall wants me to feel. Right from the start of the book, he’s been on a mission to publicise what some of the most influential people involved in running have known since the 1970s: so-called advances in the design of running shoes have been at best a waste of time and at worst a serious danger to health. The sooner we re-learn how to run like barefoot runners or like athletes of the past who ran in thin-soled shoes, the better it will be for all of us. As I was reading, I thought about finding my allegedly worn-out running shoes from last year and using them instead of my newer ones. And I’m doing some shopping tomorrow, so how about looking for some old-fashioned canvas plimsolls?

In McDougall’s presentation of it, the story of what happened to running shoes in the last 40 years is an epic on the grandest of scales. It needs heroes – we’ve already met some of them – but, on the way to victory (moral if not actual), the good guys have to encounter some villains. The forces of evil are powerful in this universe, and they have Big Business behind them. Enter Phil Knight and coach turned evil scientist Bill Bowerman who, between them, created the monster that is Nike. More specifically, having created a running shoe, they went about creating a running style that could only work if you had the shoes: they correct the evil of the running-shoe world, pronation, by letting the cushioned heel take the force of each stride’s impact. They straighten you out.

Soon other scientists were under Bowerman’s spell, sowing the seeds of darkness amongst the growing running community in the 1970s. Gradually, it became the received wisdom that the human foot is a useless, under-evolved lump that needs decades of footwear development to put it right. In the most successful of all the books published at the time, The Runner’s Repair Manual, Dr Murray Weisenfeld (spit) sums it up: ‘Man’s foot was not designed for walking, much less running long distances.’ And the shoes that went with this incantation were monstrous. ‘Putting your feet in shoes is like putting them in a plaster cast,’ says one of a small but intrepid band of dissenters, and he points to the 40 to 60% muscular atrophy that plaster casts bring about. Hiss.

As you’d expect, the battle against such evil demands some big guns, and our man drags them out. The dissenting voice we’ve already heard is that of Gerard Hartmann, the physical therapist described as ‘the Great and Powerful Oz for the world’s finest distance runners,’ many of whom McDougall names. Reader, even couch potatoes like us have heard of them, so we’re mightily impressed – and McDougall lets him explain what we’ve been getting wrong. ‘Pronation has become a bad word… but the foot is supposed to pronate.’ He has his athletes running barefoot training sessions – and, like the runners trained by other coaches turning away from the dark side, they suffer fewer injuries.

The good guys don’t join themselves into a happy band of freedom fighters, but in McDougall’s presentation of them it feels as if they do. Arthur Lydiard, who has known Bowerman since the days when they were both coaches – and has ‘coached many more Olympic champions and world record holders’ – tells his friend that his $200 shoes, far from offering a guarantee of avoiding foot injuries, ‘guarantee that you will suffer from them….’ And the man that McDougall uses as a framing device for the chapter is Vin Lananna, He is coach of the Stanford athletics team, sponsored by Nike, and at the start of the chapter he lets the bad guys know that he prefers to let his runners train barefoot. At first the Nike reps he speaks to only feel uncomfortable. This is 2001. By the time the message has sunk in – and by the time McDougall has taken us through the whole sorry business – Nike are intent on ‘finding a way to make a buck off the naked foot.’ They develop a thin-soled shoe, with an ad campaign based on runners wearing nothing on their feet. The slogan they use ends this chapter in which, yes, good really has triumphed: ‘Run Barefoot.’

For a three-times-a-week runner like me, this is hardly life-changing. But McDougall has described, in some detail, what the naked foot has to do to cope with the impact of the ground beneath it, and I’m wondering how I can begin to try it out. It’s almost winter now, and I really am thinking about those canvas shoes….

But I’ve got Chapters 17-24 to describe. McDougall has to move us forward a year from when he caught up with Caballo, and in the meantime they’ve both been doing a lot of work behind the scenes to organise the race. For Caballo it’s not easy: a 30-mile round trip to the nearest computer with dial-up Internet – often out of service because that’s the nature of things in the middle of nowhere – and for McDougall, well, we don’t know because he keeps his cards close to his chest. And it’s this story that had me looking for clever ways to mock the way McDougall writes. RSI (repetitive style injury) refers for instance to his way, at least three times, of having athletes reach complete rock-bottom only to pick themselves up, brush themselves down, and win the race. Scott Jurek does it, running a desert race in the wrong gear and collapsing less than half-way round – only to… etc. Jenn and Billy Whatstheirnames do it, but with beat poet knobs on: they drink into the night, go to bed, get up to drink some more – and are fresh as the dew an hour later and ready to rumble.

This is the tiresome new note McDougall has introduced: Jenn is a literature major, or whatever the American term for university student is, and she’s discovered the joy of boozing like the Beats. Her addictions set the tone for sub-Kerouac descriptions of drinking one another under the table… and so on. Enough of that.

Despite everything, including his own innate unreliability, Caballo manages to get the three I’ve mentioned, plus Barefoot Ted, plus McDougall himself, plus McDougall’s mentor Eric to agree to come to Mexico. We don’t know exactly how much McDougall has helped the process along with the contact he’s made with various people, but he’s decided to pretend it’s all Caballo’s doing. Ok. There’s the obligatory moment when it becomes clear that Jenn and Billy won’t be able to make it after all – until they arrive in their usual state just before take-off. Yawn. And the journey is as gonzo as you’d expect, with (not for the first time) numbers of near-death mishaps on the road. But, reader, they get there. It’s only a pity that Caballo isn’t there to meet them. And then – you guessed, didn’t you? – he is.

As they start to make their way, dangerously, to wherever they’re going, we realise that McDougall has assembled a group who seem to represent every type of ultra-runner there is: the man who has won absolutely everything, the man whose main selling-point is to run barefoot, the gung-ho couple who used to be surfers, but hey… and Caballo, for whom running has become his whole reason to go on living. But it’s time to read on, I think. And I’ll try to remember to get people’s names right.

[Pause]

8 April 2012
Chapters 26-28
I read these chapters shortly after my last entry. I was hugely impressed by Chapter 28, but gave back the copy of the book I’d borrowed before writing about it. In the intervening five months or so, I’ve become a convert. I’ve watched McDougall on Ted Talks, watched several of Eric Orton’s YouTube videos and… changed the way I run. Who’d have thought it?

Chapters 26 and 27 establish that the territory they’ll be running in the race is close to impossible, obviously, but then we get Chapter 28. It’s the second of the big explanatory chapters. In 30-odd pages we get the history of human evolution and how, without long-distance running, it wouldn’t have happened. (Is this hyperbolic enough for you?) McDougall brings in a new band of brothers, or band of hunter-gatherers or whatever, who are on another quest. First up is David Carrier, biologist in the early 1980s. By looking at jackrabbits, cheetahs and other fast-running creatures, he knows that certain anatomical structures are in place in order to facilitate the springiness needed for a sprint; other structures help to force air in and out of the lungs at each step. Just like us, yes? Nope. We aren’t quadrupeds, and we breathe when we need to, not on each stride. Carrier has a supervisor, Dennis Bramble, and between them they piece together that a vertical posture, Achilles tendons, gluteus maximus muscles and a ‘nuchal ligament’ at the base of the skull are all needed for one purpose only: to help us to run without tiring.

Bramble is also a palaeontologist, and what he pieces together from scraps is a story. The winners in evolutionary terms, for tens of thousands of years, are the Neanderthals. They are strong, clever, efficient hunters in cool or ice-age conditions. But conditions change. They are useless when things warm up and savannahs become the norm. Ok, leave that on hold for a while. By chance, Bramble meets Dr Dan Lieberman on a sabbatical at Harvard. He’s looking at the locomotion of slow animals like pigs, and hasn’t made the connection yet that humans might be slow, but they are efficient long-distance runners.

Eventually, between them, they come up with the idea that what the weaker homo sapiens had in their favour was this long-distance running ability, combined with greater brain-power and the ability to work together. They developed the technique of chasing down an individual member of a herd of animals, taking turns to chase ahead or hold back to rest, until the creature was exhausted. Tools required: none at all. Therefore, hard evidence to support the theory: none at all. All that exist are anecdotes about tribes that used to do this, once upon a time. But not any more. Carrier decides to try it for himself, with his brother. It’s a total failure, because two people jut aren’t enough, and they haven’t the techniques for tracking any particular member of the herd. ‘The Last of the Long Distance Hunters was a cold case’, intones McDougall. Damn.

It’s a good job this is a Christopher McDougall book, because his storylines laugh in the face of such setbacks. ‘Naturally, that’s when the phone rang.’ It’s Bramble’s phone, and on the other end is one Louis Liebenberg in South Africa. He’s seen them on the front cover of Nature – they’d decided to publish their findings without absolute proof – and he has news. He has the last piece in the jigsaw, having become ‘electrified’ by the same evolutionary puzzle as Bramble and the others at around the same time. Eventually he’d found himself a tribe, six of whose members still used the old techniques. What does he do, in this book full of extraordinary people? He drops out of university and goes to live with them for four years. They let him hunt with them, and he learns how the human ability to think abstractly must have evolved at the same time as they learned how to hunt in this way. Early humans needed to be able to think ahead, using not only tracking techniques but also the ability to predict an animal’s next move and to co-operate in keeping that one creature in sight. Voila!

In McDougall’s telling of it, this is an evolutionary certainty. All our capacity for thought, and for mutual co-operation, comes down to what our ancestors had to do every day of their lives for thousands of years. All that is good about humanity – it ‘made them better people’, as old Coach Vigil says about his own athletes – is down to this.

One last thing. Dr Bramble sets McDougall a riddle. From the age of 19, a runner improves all the time before peaking at around 27. At what age does he – or she – slow down to the speed of a 19-year-old? Answer: 64. McDougall quotes the motto of the Dipsea Demon, who must be someone he once told us about: ‘You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running.’

You listening?

9 April
Chapters 29-32 – to the end
Good. Since the crucial Chapter 24, McDougall’s theme has been co-operation. In that chapter it was to do with sports coaches and physiotherapists pooling their expertise over years in order to pursue the common enemy. Then there’s the gathering of the (non-Tarahumara) runners to help one another to get to Mexico. Chapter 28…. You can see where I’m going with this: everything good that has happened in the long-distance running community has been down to people being helpful, thoughtful of the needs of others – to be more like Emil Zatopek, or Caballo Blanco, or any one of a dozen different Tarahumara runners we’ve been introduced to.

And that, in McDougall’s presentation of it, is the spirit in which this race is run. The world’s top ultra-runner finds time to encourage McDougall, the slowest; an old man hikes five miles to bring him a drink, because he knows the refreshment-stop has run out of water; at the finishing line, the crowds in the tiny local village keep running back to give encouragement to the slow ones…. It’s become a thesis for this writer: this is what this kind of running does for you. Who wins? It hardly seems to matter. It happened to be the Tarahumara’s champion, who beats the American in a dash to the finish. The American, Scott, has never lost a race – so what does he do? He bows to the winner, obviously. It’s corny, but it works.

That isn’t where McDougall ends it. He’s started this book with Caballo, so he ends with him too. He tells the assembled company of his troubled life-story, of how he earned money as – you’ll never guess – a prize-fighter. Until he realised his style of living wasn’t worth a hill of beans, that he was trying to find something in himself that winning – or deliberately losing – fights wasn’t going to supply. He finds a guru, discovers running, meets the Tarahumara… and so on. Now he has no pension and hardly any income: he does summer jobs in the States to pay for his nine or ten months a year in Mexico. Unexpectedly, after the race he’s offered a contract to promote sportswear. Not so unexpectedly, guess what he does instead. That’s our boy.

So, this book. Over-hyped? Sentimental? You bet. But it’s the best thing I’ve read about running, ever.

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