Wednesday, November 11, 2009

christopher mcdougall, "born to run: a hidden tribe, super athletes, and the greatest race the world has never seen" book review

I just finished Christopher McDougall’s "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen" and I am of two minds about it. Aside from the insufferably long and ridiculous subtitle, "Born to Run" (with apologies to Springsteen) is a fast (maybe a pun there?), easy and enjoyable read - especially for runners (shod or barefoot). On the other hand (foot) - if you prefer running shoes during training and races, the tone of this paean to barefoot running may leave you less than enthusiastic.

Let me say this: any author who can invoke a scene from "The World According to Garp" (no, not that one) in the first few pages, include quotes from Kerouac’s "The Dharma Bums" and Ginsberg’s "Howl," toss in references to Carlos Castaneda’s "Don Juan" (who knew that the Yaqui’s were actually the Tarahumara?) and Gary Kasparov’s chess strategies and, finally, quote the classic lines from Charles Bukowski’s "Factotum" - without actually mentioning the book by name:

"If you’re going to try, go all the way. There’s no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the Gods, and the nights will have flame and fire... You will ride life straight to perfect laughter, it’s the only good fight there is."

makes McDougall’s book a must read! As a bonus, it's about running!

McDougall found himself searching for the Tarahumara accidentally, with the simple question, "why does my foot hurt?" From one doctor to another, one running shoe to the next, one treatment or another - the search for painless running led him to the mysterious Tarahumara and their incredible running skills (which seemed to grow more powerful with each rendering). Between the trek to find them in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, and his description of them running the Leadville 100 Mile Trail Race in Colorado, I was hooked.

As an aside, a year ago I read a National Geographic profile on the Tarahumara (who call themselves "Raramuri"), "A People Apart," in the November 2008 issue. It was a fascinating piece - and focused on the quickly vanishing traditions of their culture (including endurance running) in the face of modernization. Almost hidden in the text of "Born to Run" was a confirmation of this sad development. "Caballo Blanco" disqualified a group of Tarahumara from the 50 miler because they cheated and cut the course!

"The Urique Tarahumara had lost their old way of running, he realized, and their confidence along with it. They weren’t the running people anymore, they were just guys desperately trying to keep up with the living shadows of themselves."

The sad consequence of a few too many pick-ups to cover the vast distances between towns and households?

McDougall did a good job of painting his characters, Ann Transon, Scott Jurek , Barefoot Ted, Jenn, Billy, and most importantly, Caballo Blanco. I won’t spend time here fleshing out those individual stories. The only major downer was the chapter full of junk science extolling the virtues of barefoot running. For me, it was a complete turnoff. We had gotten plenty on the virtues of this new religion from Barefoot Ted (naturally) and McDougall’s own conversion to the wonders of bare feet. The proselytizing crossed the line.

If an entire chapter of barefoot browbeating wasn’t enough, then the ad hominem attack on Bill Bowerman quickly helped reach the low point of the book. "For a guy who told so many people how to run, Bowerman didn’t do much of it himself." But McDougall saved his coup de grace for Nike: "Blaming the running injury epidemic on big, bad Nike seems too easy - but that’s okay, because it’s largely their fault[!]" (emphasis mine). Luckily, he redeemed himself with the follow-up material on the evolution of running and the 50 mile race itself.

All in all, if you overlook the cheap shots at Nike and Bowerman, and you're one of the lucky few who has no problem with running shoes, "Born to Run" is a great read!

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