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.
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.
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).
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.
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.