Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen / Christopher McDougall -- N.Y.: Vantage Books, 2011

Christopher McDougall has given us an amazing and charming book in Born to Run.  McDougall, a runner himself, has been a war correspondent, an editor for Men's Health, and a writer for numerous magazines. On assignment in Mexico, he came upon a magazine article about the Tarahumara Indians, who have made running the centerpiece of their culture.  Members of their tribe routinely run scores, even hundreds of miles at a time over the rough landscape of the Copper Canyons in Mexico.  As a writer for Runner's World, McDougall set out to meet the Tarahumara runners along with a mysterious American runner, Caballo Blanco, who was said to live among them.  After a difficult journey through territory controlled by drug lords, McDougall makes contact with the Tarahumara and Caballo.  From there he begins to explore the history of the Tarahumara's encounters with American ultra-runners, athletes who also run grueling 100 mile races over forbidding cross-country trails.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.

Born to Run is his account of the people and races that he encountered in his research.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.  It is easy to simply dismiss these athletes as lunatics.  Who in their right mind, after all, would run 100 miles non-stop?  But as we read about them, one gains a sincere respect for people who have developed the discipline to accomplish such a task without major injury and in a manner that they clearly find rewarding and even spiritually uplifting.  Along the way McDougall tells us not only of the remarkable spirit of these long distance runners, but of how we humans have lost touch with an ability that, according to McDougall, gave us the evolutionary edge to survive in an otherwise deadly environment:  the ability to run great distances.  While slower and weaker than other animals, our ability to patiently track prey, allowed our ancestors to chase them for great distances until they collapsed from exhaustion.  McDougall also presents the case that our feet have been well-adapted to run these great distances without causing injury.  Ironically, the sports running shoes that are designed to protect feet are causing more injuries than would occur to barefoot runners.  His book is part anthropology and part evolutionary biology.

The most interesting aspect of the book is, however, his account of the race that is organized by Caballo, bringing several American ultra-runners to the Copper Canyons to race against the Tarahumara.  In this final portion of the narrative, we get engaging accounts of the various and free-spirited personalities of the ultra-runners as they make their way to the Copper Canyons and interact with the Tarahumara and it is the Tarahumara who are the real stars of the story, even while we learn less of them than we learn of the American runners.  This is due undoubtedly to the access McDougall had to the characters and to the cultural reticence of the Tarahumara.

The tale is eminently exciting and entertaining.  Whether or not you are a runner, you are bound to find the protagonists in McDougall's story admirable and inspiring.

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