Ok, I had a super busy week, and didn’t have time to get anything together for a post. So here is a review of the book “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall that I wrote for a mythology course while in grad school. I will have something fresh and new next week, but it is Thursday and I want to stick to my self-imposed deadline. Enjoy.
Born to Run
A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
By Christopher McDougall
Born to Run by Chris McDougall, is a bestselling book that has been read by almost every runner in the country. It is a story of McDougall’s journey to Northwest Mexico’s Copper Canyons in search of the fabled Tarahumara Indian tribe. After contact is made with Carballo Blanco, an American living among the tribe, an assortment of ultra-marathon (50 miles and over)runners assembled by the author visit the tribe. Their mission, half fueled by curiosity, half with competitiveness, to see if the myths about the tribal member’s ability to run extremely long distances quickly are true.
The cast of visitors is as diverse as “ultra” runners come, all with very different, spiritual reasons for making the journey. Scott Jurek, one of the elite ultra runners in the world, is looking to see how he measures up with the best in the tribe, and possibly learn some lifestyle differences which make the Tarahumara more apt to run farther more consistently. Jenn Shelton is a college dropout, former surfer/lifeguard, and owner of the fastest time ever recorded in a 100 mile race ever run by a woman. She and her boyfriend, Billy Barton, are on a quest to find a deeper spiritual meaning to their running, and an amazing travel experience. Eric Orton is a world class running coach and is in charge of keeping the runner’s pace, distance, and emotions in check. Because of the energy of all the eccentric members of the group, Eric was brought to keep everyone level headed and safe. The final member of the group is the center of one of the two areas of mythology covered during the story. Barefoot Ted was one of the founding fathers of “barefoot running.” A movement whose members believe modern running shoes have caused many common athletic injuries today, such as plantar fasciitis, knee strains, and Achilles’ Tendon tears, and a return to barefoot running will cure many people from recurring running injuries. Ted is on a mission to commune with his barefoot soul mates; the Tarahumara run barefoot throughout the Copper Canyon despite the extremely rugged landscape they inhabit. The group travels to Mexico knowing there is a good chance they will not meet the Tarahumara, they may not be welcomed if they do, and the temperature, terrain, or wildlife may end their life on any run.
The Tarahumara run. The book describes games children play while at school recess where 7, 8, 10 year olds will chase a ball up and down the hills for 45 minutes without stopping, then be disappointed when it’s time to go in. Running is a means of traveling through the Canyon, and, until recently, used for hunting (chasing animals until they wear out and collapse). The Tarahumara also use running to foster celebration, togetherness and community. The book culminates with an inter-village race that includes the American visitors. The town of Urique closed for the day and the singing, dancing, and celebrating continues long after the last runner finished. Great personal connections were made amongst runners, and a few Tarahumara runners competed in the Leadville (Colorado) 100, shortly after the race in Urique. While the personal stories and travelogue presented in this book are fascinating, it is the deeper subjects in the book that make it an essential read for anyone interested in different cultures.
The Tarahumara culture is a world away from what the visitors are accustomed to. Their settlements are mostly in the only shady places around; between rocks or in caves. McDougall describes how it is common for the residents of these settlements to hide from outsiders who know nothing of their culture. Visitors can walk through an area normally filled with life and see nothing but rock and heat, occasionally feeling as though someone is watching. Because of this, Tarahumara culture is one of the few in the area that were untouched by the Conquistadors and other foreign “visitors,” following “the principle that the best trick for throwing off pursuers was to travel places only a lunatic would follow, the Tarahumara snake their trails over suicidally steep terrain.” (pgs. 19-20) The rugged conditions, elusiveness of tribesmen, and the heat have given this area an aura of other-worldliness touched by spirits of past wisemen and bandits/travelers/warriors who have entered and never left. The lack of contact with the outside world has allowed the mystique of the Tarahumara grow; occasionally fed by a journalist who tries to penetrate the area and thinks better of it or a missing persons report. This book is groundbreaking because of the intimacy the author is allowed with a culture rarely written about. He reveals the Tarahumara to be quiet, peaceful people, who simply do not enjoy contact with outsiders.
The lifestyle lived by the residents of the Copper Canyon has attracted increasing interest as authors such as McDougall ask why residents of the area are suspected to be devoid of cancer, heart problems, foot / knee injuries, and most common illness known to the outside world. Their diet is fueled by pinole (cornmeal, sugar, and chia seeds) and chia fresca (water, chia seeds, and lemon or lime), their shoes are described as nothing more than canvas with some well-worn rope, and running as a means of travel can last anywhere from 50 to 200 miles regardless of weather or terrain. It seems the ability to keep the outside world out may also mean keeping illnesses out as well.
The second myth McDougall addresses is modern running shoes. Three chapters in the book travel away from the Copper Canyons, and into the laboratories of sports scientists in the United States and Europe where the human stride is studied at length. Researchers from Palo Alto, California, to Bern, Switzerland, have complied evidence that the barefoot striking of a foot is a much healthier, more natural way to run. McDougall quotes Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University:
A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when modern athletic shoes were invented by Nike, people ran on very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries. (p. 168)
There is a very effective combination of anecdotal and scientific evidence throughout the book to support the barefoot runners’ beliefs. This book has started a major discussion among the running and sports science communities, and has led to an increase in sales, marketing, and development of “minimalist” shoes. The Vibram Five Fingers are discussed in the book, worn by the author and our widely accepted as the first shoe of this kind (it is like a heavy gardening/ work glove for a foot). While these shoes gained in popularity, it allowed other shoe companies to strengthen the foothold (no pun intended) these shoes have created in the running shoe market. The Nike Free, Brooks Green Slice, and Saucony Kinvara have become staples at running events throughout the country. A quick internet search of “barefoot running” will show the pros and cons of this issue. This discussion has been started, and caused many runners to at least rethink (though not always change) the way they process information presented by industry.
“Born to Run” has sold millions of copies, started a polarizing debate, and shone light on an area of mystery for hundreds of years. As a result, Chris McDougall is a “running” celebrity and running tourism has blossomed in the Copper Canyons, bringing many changes to a culture removed from others for so many years. This book also contrasts different cultural extremes: on the one hand, a scientific lab where running is studied. On the other, a culture that doesn’t use shoes at all while quickly covering vast distances. I pose that McDougall is exploring two types of myths here: science as the foremost authority vs. the wisdom of pre industrial cultures.
After writing this paper, I researched its affects on the Copper Canyon and how the popularity has changed the Tarahumara culture. It’s a very interesting debate, and when I have a few minutes I will gather some info and write another post about the changes that the fame of this book has brought to the culture.
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