Tag Archives: running

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.


What’s Your Weird? (Or: Coffee Snobs, I Hate You)

We all want our stuff a certain way.

Well, let me back up.

We all want certain things a certain way.

For example, somehow, some way, I’ve come up against this thing several times in the past few months:

This is a Chemex, and if you haven’t heard about it, BOY OH BOY it’s time to buckle up. A Chemex is a coffee pot. But it’s not your ordinary coffee pot. Well, yeah, it’s an ordinary coffee pot, but it also has MAGICAL POWERS. The power to transform an otherwise ordinary human being into an absolutely insufferable coffee snob. The power to infuse said human’s vocabulary with nonsensical coffee jargon like “brewology.” The ability to cause friends and acquaintances of that person to, in tiny, almost unnoticeable ways, hate that person.

There are videos dedicated to the Chemex and how to best use it. There are detailed, multi-step guides with entire nested webpages devoted to it. In particular, one of my favorite authors of late and one of my favorite youtube channels have both written and explained in great and grating detail how much they love their Chemex.

The secret behind it (apparently, if you buy into all that neo-hippie coffee-infatuada nonsense) is: you like coffee, sure, but you’re not getting the most out of your coffee.

With that, you fall down the rabbit hole. You buy the thing. You have to get the right filters to go with the thing, filters made from recycled thousand-year-old rainforest wood. You have to get the right coffee beans for your particular demographic and unique taste. You have to hand grind the beans using stones purified in the bowels of goats. You have to boil your water in a kettle, preferably one consecrated by an aged, castrated bishop. The boiling must be done using a hand-torch crafted by the elders of unnamed tribes in the heart of Africa. The steam must not be allowed to escape; you must inhale every molecule to open up your nose for the taste explosion that’s about to happen.

And I hear about this, and I ponder on my life and the choices I’ve made, and I find myself starting to think, well, hot holy hell, maybe I should get one — I AM missing out on this vital part of the coffee experience. Except I don’t drink coffee. And I really find all this gobbledygook about filters and glass and grinding and inhaling to be utter nonsense. Not only nonsense, but wasteful and snobbish nonsense, the worst kind. If you want a cup of coffee, just make a cup of coffee and get on with your life — why do you need to devote twenty minutes of your morning to it?

So I prepare to make a scathing diatribe about exactly how foolish it is. An all-out attack, not just on users of this product, but on anybody who gets at all uptight about their coffee. IT’S JUST BEANS.

But when I pull back to let this stone fly, I pause, because I catch my own reflection in the walls of this glass house I live in.

Sure, I couldn’t give two randy Sharknados about coffee, but you’d better believe I’ve got my own series of oddities.

I could go on and on and on about the “right” running shoes and the “right” way to run. How your shoe needs to provide protection from the ground but not insulate your foot from feeling the bumps in the road. How you need to adjust your footstrike (and there I go using nonsensical jargon) to properly engage the musculature of the leg and the back. How the average runner should aim to run on trails from time to time rather than pounding pavement all the time because of the instability the body has to deal with.

I could ramble for ages about my writing process. The right music to help empty and focus my mind, the right programs to capture the draft and insulate myself from distractions. When writing longhand, I much, much, much prefer pencil to pen; the faint skritch of graphite on paper is soothing beyond words. Preferably, it’s a .7 gauge mechanical pencil: smaller and the lead breaks too easily, larger and I feel like I’m writing with a freaking crayon. But if it must be pen, then it’s got to be a Pilot g2. The ink slides out like a seal slathered in syrup, and there’s a crease in the grip that settles right into the grooves in my index finger, and let’s just leave it there before it starts getting uncomfortable in here.

Or shaving. I’ve become one of these guys about shaving recently (though not as bad as some); I use soap or cream from a tub, lather with a brush, shave with an old-school double-edged blade (1000 blades for $10, how could this not be for me?!?!).

For that matter, here’s a not-at-all-exhaustive, by-no-means-in-order-of-importance list of things I feel unnecessarily strongly about, that I have to have just so:

  • The angle at which papers should be stapled (Diagonal, about thirty degrees from horizontal)
  • The consistency of scrambled eggs (still moist but not runny)
  • The position of my hands on a steering wheel (either one resting on top while the other holds at about eight o’clock, or at 10:30 and 1:30)
  • The delay between when a traffic light changes and when I have a right to honk at you for not noticing the light has changed (three seconds; less is draconian, more and … well, we have places to be, don’t we?)
  • Shoes in general (the flatter the better, and I could very well give up on dress shoes altogether tomorrow and feel not a bit upset about it; in fact, I could almost give up on shoes as a whole altogether)

The amount of thought and mental distress I’ve experienced over these things is probably much more than I feel comfortable discussing, but suffice it to say, I have realized that humans, as a rule, are a weird bunch.

We gravitate toward others who are weird like us.

We are repelled, or at least puzzled, by others whose weird we don’t understand.

Point is, you can take your gross weird coffee snobbery and your gross weird birdwatching and your gross weird homemade macaroni replicas of famous renaissance monarchs and stay the hell away from me. Go over there. In the corner. Where it’s dark. And weird.

Of course, you can have all you like of my awesome, cool, somewhat-nerdy-but-ultimately-enviable weird.

But I’ll ask, just because I’m curious.

What’s your weird?

Accidentally Runspired

I’m in such a strange place with this novel. What started off as a lighthearted sort of funny time travel jaunt has transmogrified itself, not so much like a chameleon altering the color of its skin but more like a hermit crab abandoning one shell and then another and spending not an ounce of care or compassion on its previous self. A new idea strikes, and of course it requires seismic changes to the story as it’s already written, but the glances of the story that could be are so much more appealing than the story that is. So, naturally, I’m trying to find a way to attract more lightning strikes, but seeing as I’m not particularly keen to wander out into a summer thunderstorm wrapped in a roll of tinfoil and holding aloft a handful of golf clubs, I’ve been going for runs instead.

And a funny thing has happened.

The more I embrace the changes that occur to me while the blacktop creeps past under my feet, the more the lightning strikes, and the more intensely when it does. The “notes” section of my current draft is just about long enough to form its own chapter, I’ve redesigned one of the central characters from the ground up (twice), and the inconsistencies in the world of the story from first chapters to most recent are as numerous as ants on a piece of pumpkin pie at an abandoned picnic. I get an idea for a small change to make, so I make it going forward and leave the earlier pages to fix in post, and then the situation repeats; I’m on about my fiftieth iteration of that process. Not that anybody’s counting; might as well try to count locusts in the midst of a plague.

Maybe it’s an argument for planning a novel more thoroughly before I begin, or maybe it’s a lesson in not getting too attached to what I think a story is before I get my hands into its entrails. The process remains exhausting, though writing the novel has been a lot more fun of late (we’re getting into the final third of the book, so the action is beginning to run high again).

It almost makes me nervous to keep going out for runs with the novel on my mind, because I know that the only thing that will come of that is more changes to the story, more shifts in character, more dubious inspiration that makes me want to burn the thing to the ground just so that I can rebuild it stronger from the ashes.

Which is actually becoming something of a theme in the story. Not by design, but because… well… with a time travel story, what other theme can you drift toward? If you had the power, how could you not try to constantly reinvent the world you live in? If you could go back at the flip of a switch, how could you not attempt to recreate your own reality every time something didn’t break your way?

Writing gives you that power: the power to create worlds and destroy them, then recreate them even better based off what you learned when you built it the first time around.

…Anyway. It’s not like I’m going to quit running. Or writing. Struggles or no, the fact that I’m brimming with thoughts about the novel, the fact that I had to steal twenty minutes on a Sunday to write down some notes for the book, tells me that I’m still doing the right thing. Still writing the right story, still doing a good thing.

Back to building worlds tomorrow, and smashing them to pieces.

We’re Never Ready. Do It Anyway.

When you’re starting something new, there’s a lot of hullabaloo about picking the “right time” to do it.

“I’d love to write a novel, but I just want to have the perfect idea first.”

“I’d love to start exercising and dieting, but I’ve got a vacation coming up (or the holidays, or whatever). I’ll start afterward.”

“I’d like to have a kid someday, but things are just too busy for me at work.”

The excuses all sound decent and reasonable, and they’re never specifically wrong. If you’re going to start writing a book, you should have the best idea you can muster in mind before putting pen to paper. If you’re going to start getting fit, you should eliminate as many barriers to success as you can. If you’re going to have a kid, you want to do so at a time when you can give the child as much of your attention as possible. And so on, and so on. The problem is, you can use that excuse (and here I mean whatever excuse you may have concocted to justify the thing you’re not doing) ad nauseam, and there is always another “perfect” excuse. Sure, I have a good idea for a novel, but what if I have a better one in a month or so? Okay, I cleaned the junk food out of my kitchen, but who wants to take up running in the middle of the summer? Yeah, my job is secure, but money’s tight right now, so maybe we can think about having a kid next year.

You can always find a reason why you’re not “ready”.

President Kennedy said of going to the moon that “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing regardless of the time frame in which you do it. There is never a “perfect” time. You’re never really “ready”. And chasing after perfection is the surest way to never get anything done. If you’re waiting for the perfect opportunity, you can prepare to spend your whole life waiting.

If you have the inkling that you want to write, pick up your pen (okay, crack open your laptop), open a word document (or notepad if you must) and write something. Now. Today. Brainstorm ideas for the novel. Do a little outline or a character sketch. Write an opening scene. It won’t be perfect — hell, it may not even be good — but at least you’ll have started, and taking that first step is the only way you’re going to change your momentum.

If you want to start exercising or watching your diet, do something. Now. Today. Go for a twenty minute walk around the neighborhood. Bang out a few push-ups during the commercial break. Have an extra helping of veggies before you hork down a bunch of bread, or stay in and cook your own dinner instead of driving to McFatty’s.Your exercise may not be graceful or impressive, and your dietary choices may not be the best, but at least you’re doing something. At least you’re making the effort instead of hiding from the opportunity.

If you want to have kids, well, the clock never stops on life, right? I had my kids at the age of 31 and 34, which means I’ll be about 50 when they graduate high school and head off to college. When my wife first started talking about having kids a year or two earlier, I told myself “I wasn’t ready” to be a father. But I did the math and realized I didn’t want to be a geriatric school parent. I have a colleague who just had his first baby at the age of 46. He’s going to be over 60 by the time his kid graduates high school. He told me he and his wife were just waiting for the right time, until they suddenly realized in their 40’s that there was no right time and they were on the verge of missing their chance completely.

The point of all this is, change is hard. Momentum matters. It’s easy to sit on the couch and get fat, easy to watch movies and TV endlessly instead of chasing after a dream, easy to stay a kid forever. The human animal seeks the path of least resistance by its very nature. We have to fight against evolution, against society, against ourselves to achieve the things we want to achieve.

We’re never really “ready.”

Which is why, whatever the change is that you’re chasing, there’s only really one thing you have to be ready for. And that’s being ready to say goodbye to the old you, the old way you did things. If you’re ready to move on, you’re ready for the next thing, whether you think the time is right or not.

Just start. Do something. It won’t be perfect, it may not even be good. But you’ll never get good if you don’t start sometime. And as somebody famous once said, there is no time like the present.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

The Floodgates of New Ideas

It always happens like this, dunnit?

I’m plugging away at my current project, having what I wish I could say was a trying time with it but which, if I’m honest, is giving me serious existential doubt not just about this particular project but about my entire experiment as a writer. (Seriously, I’m in the murky expanses of the mushy middle, wherein all the conflicts are established and now I have to go about finding ways to begin resolving them without bogging down the book in the taffy-like quicksand of extended exposition.)

Then I’m out for a run this morning.

Nothing special about this run except that I don’t have the sprouts in the stroller with me, so I’m running a little lighter than usual. I also don’t have to respond to the constant stream of three-year-old-out-in-the-world babble (what’s that? where’s that bird going? where’s mommy? can we go to the playground? how does that car move? i need to go potty. daddy, are you running? WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?), so for the first time in a while, I got to run with a podcast. I get to think. (For the record, it’s The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.)

So I’m listening and I’m running, which is a great way to pass the miles, when all of a sudden, they mention something off the cuff, and it plows through my ear canal and smashes into my cerebellum like a six-mile meteor. It claws its way across my grey matter, sinks its glistening fangs in, and burrows in like a microscopic tick.

This is how ideas strike me.

I don’t think of a character and invent whole backstories and weird relationships and quirky mannerisms. I don’t fixate on places and ambience. I get a little snippet of something strange, something unexpected and quirky and strange, and I train the Max-Gro Overinflating Laser on it. What would the world be like if… and before I know it I’ve created, not individual characters, not even a central conflict, but a whole city, a whole society, a whole world wherein everything is colored, changed, tainted by the exponential possible implications of this tiny little seedling that just glanced off my consciousness.

And now it’s all I can think about.

I’m considering the characters that a world like this should be primarily focused on. I’m exploring a conflict that is possible in the real world but intensified by this new thing. In short, the idea is growing across my brain like kudzu across the side of my house, sinking its leafy tendrils into all the cracks and crevices, splitting open the siding, choking out the flowers I’m trying to cultivate for the project I’m, you know, trying to work on.

So I spent the fifteen minutes after my run, sweat still pouring from my everywhere (gotta love that humid Georgia weather), jotting down ideas and impressions, possible characters and conflicts, and every implication that I can think of for a world that includes this one little difference.

But I can’t abandon the current idea in favor of this one.

Because if I do that, then it’ll happen again; I’ll get halfway into writing the new novel and another new idea will strike, tempting and consuming, and I’ll abandon the new idea for the next big thing.

So this one goes on the pile for now. (The pile of potential projects I want to write is now… what… about four or five deep? And that’s ideas I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about, considering whether they’d actually make for a good story, and determining that they would. This says nothing for the landfill of seedlings that strike and get immediately discarded, which are innumerable as lost rings in the ocean.)

It’ll be there waiting, when this one is done.

But the neat thing about this is, it has primed my creativity for the day, and I can’t wait to work on my current project now.

Creativity is weird like that.

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