Tag Archives: born to run

Terrible Reviews: Born to Run

I know, I know. I just wrote about Natural Born Heroes, and here I go, writing about another Christopher McDougall, granola-crunching, you-are-your-own-gym dissertation.

Sorry about that. But Natural Born Heroes didn’t float my boat the way I hoped it would, and in reflecting on why, it made me wonder if I was just remembering Born to Run the way you remember the girl who broke up with you in high school, who you still stalk on Facebook every now and then to see if she’s still married or not. So I went and read it again. (Born to Run, not my ex’s Facebook.)

Born to Run starts with the writer’s own hangups about running, detours into the Copper Canyons of Mexico to meet a tribe of hermetic but seemingly superhuman distance runners, and crisscrosses running history while dipping its toes into evolutionary theory and an analysis of the modern running shoe.

If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. The book is lengthy, but I think its length and its hype are well-earned. Let’s dive in.

The Good:

McDougall covers a heck of a lot of ground, and the book would seem scattershot if not for the throughline of McDougall’s fascination and interaction with Caballo Blanco (White Horse), the near-mythical figure at the heart of the story. Caballo is alternately venerated and vilified in the book; on the one hand, he’s a gringo on a quest for self-discovery like so many runners, on the other, he’s a grouchy, flaky, off-putting sort. He’s weird, but he works, because he feels like fiction, even though he isn’t. Too strange to make up sums him up nicely.

What also works for the book is its grounding in a couple of places: specifically the Leadville 100 Race and the underground race that takes place in the Copper Canyons. Multiple chapters are given over to these two races, which gives the reader a sense of the sprawling nature of distance running and the time and introspection that such an endeavor invites.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the two chapters that keep me coming back to the book the most (and which have nothing to do with its narrative … more on that later): the chapters on the history — and indictment, really — of running shoes and on biomechanical evolution (chapters 25 and 28, respectively). These two chapters have done more to change the way I think about running as a whole and the way I run than a couple of years’ subscription to Runner’s World magazine and endless hours trawling running and exercise forums. In short: the human body evolved as a paragon of distance-running, and it didn’t evolve that way with $200 motion-controlled shoes on its feet.

The Bad:

McDougall describes talking with Caballo Blanco as a dizzying experience: he introduces a story, then detours into another, then goes back to recall details on the first while starting up a third, then has to stop and correct a mistake he made on the second … exhausting to listen to.

Well, the book is a little like that, sometimes. You’ll be cruising along, neck-deep in McDougall’s first-person narrative as he explores the Copper Canyons, then — whap! — you’re in the Leadville 100 race following rags-to-riches distance runner Ann Trason. Or, at the drop of a hat, you trade charting the bizarre course of Emil Zatopek for a rundown of the finer points of the Tarahumara diet (basically corn). I’ll go ahead and say that all of the book is well-written and fascinating to read, but following all the threads in the novel feels like McDougall took a big plate of spaghetti and flung it at the wall. The individual strands are great, but as a whole, it’s kind of a mess.

Then there are the characters. I get what McDougall is doing: trying to show the reader the breadth of distance running’s soul by showing us all sorts of runners from all walks of life and all parts of the world. But my goodness. If you simply compiled all the names he lists in the book, you’d have the beginnings of a phone book for a decent-sized suburb. There are coaches, biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, nutritionists, writers, mathematicians, gurus, weirdos, mariachis (really), and business executives. Then there are the runners: small-time recreationals, olympic hopefuls, collegiate athletes, nature-bound escapists, and then, of course, the tribe of unknowns in the depths of Mexico who can outperform the best the distance-running world has to offer. Trying to keep up with all the characters is like putting your head in a blender and trying to chomp that one grape that’s going around and around. The only characters that really matter outside of the chapter that focuses on them are Caballo and Arnulfo. The rest is all window dressing (but fascinating window dressing, at that).

The WTF:

This book, much like McDougall’s recent Natural Born Heroes, feels like it’s trying to be all things to all people: part human interest, part scientific treatise, part evolutionary textbook. Like I noted above, it works, but only just. I wonder if the story of Caballo Blanco couldn’t be its own autobiography, but then I wonder if McDougall could have gotten throngs of people to read his scientific spiel otherwise.


If I had a fiery pen, I’d emblazon it all over every copy of this book: PSEUDOSCIENCE.

I love this book. I really do. And I want to believe every word of it. But McDougall goes way beyond what’s hard and fast and ventures into the wispy realm of the whimsical. Running can cure obesity, diabetes, cancer? All anybody has to do to become an excellent runner is take off their shoes? Adopt a diet of 90% corn, live in the mountains, run from dusk til dawn, and solve all of life’s mysteries?

Mmmyeah… maybe. These are certainly things that a lot of runners and practitioners believe, but it’s a hard thing to call them truths. Humans are biomechanically optimized to run long distances? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that any and everybody can train up for a marathon in the space of a year. Shoes get in the way of our naturally-evolved gait? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should chuck out our Chucks and never run a shod step in our lives, either. It’s thinking like that that gets us to the Vibram Fivefingers lawsuit of a couple of years ago, or that causes ridiculous and avoidable stress-related running injuries.

On the other hand, qualified statements don’t sell a lot of books, either. I can’t imagine the book would have had the impact it has had with a title like Born to Run — most of us, anyway, but be sure to consult with your doctor before beginning any new diet or exercise program.

Make no mistake; there’s good science being documented in this book. But McDougall presents running as this magic bullet solution for all the world’s ills, and, well. It might be true, but it moves from the scientific into the philosophical realm.

The Verdict:

By and large, “running” books are crap. I mean, what can you really say about a sport the heart of which is putting one foot in front of the other until you can’t anymore? You either detour into a long and sprawling narrative that only occasionally features running (a la Once a Runner), or you fall into tedious blow-by-blow accounts of training and races and eating and the myriad ways that your coworkers treat you like an insane person (a la Ultramarathon Man). The competition, therefore, is not particularly stout when it comes to running books.

Warts notwithstanding, Born to Run, I think, takes the flying leap from being a good book about running to being a good book. If you’re going to read a book about running, this is the one to read.

4/5 sharp rocks in your bare feet.

Terrible Reviews: Natural Born Heroes

I’ll admit it, I’m a fan of Christopher McDougall.

I can’t say he’s the most artful of writers, but he spins a good yarn, and he has a way of taking subjects that could easily get very preachy, and packages them in a straightforward, simplistic, trust-your-gut kind of way that makes it all very believable.

McDougall is better known as the author of the incredibly popular Born to Run, which would most certainly crack my top five non-fiction books (not that I’ve actually made that list in my head or anything) and might crack my top five books period. When I saw he had a new book out that attempted to give mountain climbing, street fighting, parkour and other natural feats of strength the same treatment that he gave to distance running in Born to Run, I was sold immediately.

Natural Born Heroes is kind of two books in one. It’s the tale of a daring feat of espionage during World War II on the island of Crete, but it’s also a treatise on diet, exercise, and the virtually immeasurable limits of human strength and endurance. The author himself acknowledges in his notes that these two ideas have sort of been smashed together and run through the blender. While exploring the two ideas separately, he realized that there was quite a bit of overlap, and so: one book.

I liked it, but I think I might have liked it better if I hadn’t read Born to Run first. And maybe that’s my fault; it’s not entirely fair to judge a book based on other books, but in this case, it’s hard not to.

Let’s get down to some word salad (see, because in this book and in Born to Run, McDougall makes a big deal out of all the salad he eats):

The Good:

So, this book is two concepts, right? Those two concepts are excellent, and treated excellently.

I’m not much of a history guy, but the story of the kidnapping of a German general during World War II is fascinating. The tale is audacious from its inception, harrowing in its execution, and compelling from start to finish. Some of the characters bleed together a little bit (there are so bloody many of them, I felt overwhelmed at times), but on the whole the narrative portion of the book is cogent and satisfying.

Then the health and fitness part: this stuff is outstanding. I’m a little biased in this regard. In my recent stabs at fitness (in fact, let’s call them less stabs and more fumbling for light switches in a dark hotel room) I’ve come independently to many of the same conclusions that McDougall makes in this book. To wit: gyms are a waste of time, and natural, functional exercises and movements are not only more efficient but actually make you stronger and more useful in the world. (Think zombie apocalypse. Who do you want in your crew: the musclebound dudebro who can squat 500 lbs and squish your skull with his biceps, or the wiry guy who can scale walls, run for an hour at a decent clip, and deliver a knockout punch with little or no warning? On second thought, maybe you don’t want that guy; if things go sideways, he’d sucker-punch you and leave you as bait.) Further: Most diets are a load of hot garbage. Calorie counting and low-fat foods and all that are for the birds. Eat more vegetables. Eat protein. Stay away from processed sugars and carbs. Profit.

Person, Silhouette, Jump, Male, Young, Sky, Sunset, Joy

In short (too late!) the creamy center of the book is exactly as advertised, and it makes for really compelling reading (I highlighted and dog-eared the heck out of the book so I can go back through it and look up a bunch of the fitness concepts). It sent me scurrying to youtube more than once to look up things either directly or indirectly referenced by the books (like this and this, for example), which made for a neat experience while reading.

The Not-so-Good:

As much as I liked the two foci of this book, I have to quibble. Rather unlike peanuts and nougat, the narrative and the fitness informational do not mesh well on the palate. It feels more like jalapenos and chocolate. (Yeah, I know people eat that crap, but they shouldn’t.)

Maybe it’s because there’s such a broad focus on the fitness concepts (first it’s boxing and pankration and Wing Chun, then it’s parkour and mountain climbing, then it’s fascia and elastic motion, then it’s foraging for herbs in Central Park), or maybe it’s because there are so many damned characters and threads in the WWII story (The story follows mainly Paddy and Xan, the guys at the heart of this abduction attempt, but is also awfully concerned with a veritable host of people who pop in for a chapter to dispense a bit of knowledge and then are never seen again), but the book left my head spinning. It became downright hard to read, sometimes, which is basically a death knell for a novel. It’s a shame, too, because individually the two halves of the book are so strong, but together, like overlapping radio waves, each one interferes with the other’s signal.

For my money, if these two concepts were two separate books, then each of those books would have been stronger in its own right than the swirled mishmash they’ve become in this book.

Yarn, Colors, Tangle, Thread

I have another quibble with the fitness portion of the book, which is that it’s a shotgun blast of information: it hits hard up close, but it dissipates quickly and becomes useless the farther you get from your target. (I have never fired a gun. Thanks, first-person-shooter video games!) I came into the book … expecting isn’t quite the word, because I try not to read with too many expectations … but hoping to learn a lot about natural movement and the merits, strengths, and methods of some of the techniques described within. And … those things are there, but it’s barely a skimming of the surface.

I know, I know; this isn’t an instructional text. But I feel like with so many of the things discussed in this book, all that I can really say I know about them is: they exist. McDougall spends a lot of time talking about the ancient Greek art of pankration, for example, but the only technique he describes in any detail is a heel-kick (the “THIS IS SPARTA” one from 300). Even there, he talks about the force it delivers, but says little about how it’s achieved and how much practice is required to master it.

And for all the book has to say about diet, there’s very little said about the things which would be reasonable to eat. It’s not unusual for books that talk about diet to have … I dunno, an appendix listing, at the very least, a few easy-to-make meals, or a sample shopping list or something? I guess I wanted that portion of the book to be a little more actionable, though again, I may have been wanting too much.

The WTF:

As if the two halves of the book weren’t enough, there’s a third story thrown in there, which is a framing device for the one and connective tissue for the other. That story joins McDougall in his quest to follow in the footsteps of the abductors, and it is in the following of that thread that he learns about these fighting arts, practices parkour, and tracks down a dietary swami.

Of course, none of this is linear — how could it be? — spanning, as it does, several years of research across no less than three continents. So the book jumps from a moment in the abduction to McDougall’s firsthand experience with a rabid historian to a treatise on how the jagged rocks of Crete forced the ancient warriors and goatherds to adapt the way they moved and then back to the abduction and … see, that right there? That dizzy feeling you’re getting? The book does this to you every fifteen pages or so, and it’s disorienting as hell.

Greek God, Zeus, Mythology, Sculpture, Statue, Myth

Then, amidst all of this historical fiction and apparently well-researched fitness credo, there’s a ton of allusion to Greek myth and legend, up to and including the recent bastardization of those myths vis-a-vis the Percy Jackson series of books (which are fine for what they are, but they’re hardly canon and don’t really deserve a place next to the proper myths of Theseus and Odysseus, for example). These moments seem misplaced and not helpful when they crop up. In fact, they seem like remnants from an earlier draft when they might have been a more central focus of the book, but like a vestigial tail, no longer serve any particularly useful function.

The Verdict:

The book was frustrating at times, and took me longer than a book of its length would usually take me for that reason, so it’s hard to give it good marks. For all the natural movement sections left me wanting more, however, those sections had me riveted and kept me coming back. In fact, the movement focus of the book was interesting enough to make me care about the historical portion of the book, which is saying something in my case (the last time I did any extracurricular reading about historical events, outside of awesome freak occurrences like Tunguska, was … let’s see … yeah, never). So that’s something.

If you read Born to Run and enjoyed it, you may well enjoy this, though it will probably not leave you quite as satisfied. Born to Run is a far superior offering in many respects. It is focused where this novel is scattered, it gives depth where this novel dips its toes in the water. Still, this ain’t bad.

I give it three out of five bare footprints in the sand.

Sand, Footprint, Water, Beach, Coast

Min/Maxing my Footwear

If you’re a regular at this blarg, or if you know me, then you know that I’ve been struggling with foot pain in one form or another for… ehh… erg… about a year and a half.

It started when I tore up my foot on a nail in our back porch, continued when I recovered from that injury and promptly blew up my left heel with plantar fasciitis, and continues further still when about a year ago I did something (doctor never did tell me exactly what was going on) to irritate the heel and Achilles in my right foot. The other injuries have all healed, but I’m still battling my right heel. The pain ebbs and flows like the tides. I’ll have good weeks and bad weeks, solid months and shaky months. One day I can go run a brisk eight miles and feel no ill effects, another day I can shuffle through a low-intensity three miles and be hobbling for days afterward. It’s maddening and frustrating.

And of course, it plays havoc with my running. It’s impossible to set any long-term goals because I don’t know if I’m going to have to slow down on my training to accommodate my injury throwing a tantrum. Over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to fit in some speed workouts again, and it’s been going fine… until Monday, when I tweaked the heel again and spent the rest of Monday and Tuesday limping.

My wife — ever incisive and ready to call me out when I’m being dumb (thanks honey) — pointed out that I started having all these issues about the time I went bananas over minimal shoes and started trying to do a lot of my runs in my Vibram FiveFingers. Shoes that I love. I’ve written about them before. For good measure, she points me to stories of marathon runners, like, just off the top, this one from the NY times; marathon runners, plagued by injuries, who have tried this new shoe and had their chronic injuries vanish like students in the bathroom when the principal walks by.

And I’m conflicted. I’m wary of the magic bullet, and I don’t want to believe that simply buying “the right pair of shoes” is going to solve my problems. By the same token, I don’t want to believe that wearing “the wrong pair of shoes” is responsible for the issues I’m having.

And that doesn’t even touch my bias. I got into running when the minimalist trend was flying high. I read Born to Run and bought into the hype. The thinking was “less cushioning, more natural mechanics”, and boy oh boy does that keep in touch with my philosophy in general. Or at least the philosophy I try to believe in. Less stuff gumming up the works. More focus on what you control. Letting the body do what it’s meant to do without gadgets or ridiculous footwear getting in the way. All that hippy-dippy treehugging kind of stuff.

Maximalist shoes, from my vantage point, seem to go against everything that I thought was neat about minimalist shoes. Minimal shoes strip out the cushioning so that you feel more of the ground beneath your foot. Maximal shoes cram more and more cushioning in there to further insulate you and make every step feel the same. Minimal shoes allow for fuller range of motion so that the leg and foot can follow the circuit nature designed for them more closely. Maximal shoes cut out the motion of the ankle instead, keeping you “locked in” to a “better form”. (I’m air-quoting those because those are my unstudied perceptions. Make no mistake, I’m not an expert, and I’m not nearly impartial.)

Also, and this cannot be stated heartily enough, maximal shoes look RIDICULOUS. Honestly, they look like elevator sneakers. Just look.

The thought of even putting those on my feet makes me feel like I’m going to topple over like a tower of tinker toys. (We won’t say anything about the goofy toe-gloves I prefer.)

Still, the demon of doubt is in there now, clanging off the inside of my skull and raising all sorts of argument. Much though I love my minimal shoes, I really don’t want to accept that this pain in my foot might just be something I have to live with for the rest of my life.

I love my minimal shoes, and I loved the thought of unburdening myself from conventional shoes. For a while, it was great. I want to believe they could be great for me again, but the possibility that my minimal shoes have done this to me is getting hard to ignore. Could there be something to this maximal movement? It’s all anecdotal evidence at this point, but could it work for me?

I have to find a way to make running work for me again. When I run well, I write well… when my running suffers, so too does my writing. Could these land-whales be the way to get it back?

I have to think about this.

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