Book Review: 'Born to Run' by Christopher McDougall

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By Dan Zak
Sunday, June 21, 2009


A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, And the Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen

By Christopher McDougall

Knopf. 287 pp. $24.95

In his first book, journalist and former war correspondent Christopher McDougall suggests -- or proves, depending on your degree of skepticism -- that running extremely long distances barefoot is the key to health, happiness and longevity. Brand-name footwear, with its gel-based cushioning and elaborate architecture of super-advanced support, is a common cause of athletic injury, he argues. And running steadily for hours at a time is not only therapeutic but also natural. Primitive humans did it constantly, catching and killing quarry simply by exhausting them in a marathon hunt.

Reading all this is enough to make a modern American feel fat, stupid and lazy, especially given the hyper-toned, swift-footed focus of "Born to Run," an operatic ode to the joys of running. McDougall's subject is the Tarahumara, a tribe living frugally in the remote, foreboding Copper Canyons in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The Tarahumara are legendary for their ability to run extreme distances in inhospitable conditions without breaking a sweat or getting injured. They are superathletes whose diet (pinole, chia seeds, grain alcohol) and racing method (upright posture, flicking heels, clear-headedness) would place them among elite runners of the developed world even though their society and technology are 500 years behind it.

It's a fascinating subject, and the pages of "Born to Run" are packed with examples of McDougall's fascination. Running is his religion (he's a contributing editor at Men's Health magazine and has written for Runner's World), and he approaches the sport with the reverence and awe of a disciple encountering the face of his god. In this case, the god is the Tarahumara.

The book flows not like a race but like a scramble through an obstacle course. McDougall wends his way through the history and physiology of running, occasionally digressing into mini-profiles of top-tier racers and doctors, spinning off into tangents about legendary races like the Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon, while always looping back to the main narrative. Back on course, he describes his pursuit of the bashful, elusive Tarahumara and their secret to success on foot; his befriending of an eccentric gringo who became part of the tribe and is the key to McDougall's communication with it; and the realization of the eccentric's dream to pit big-name, corporate-sponsored American marathoners against the near-primeval Indians in a super ultra-marathon in the Copper Canyons. A race to end all races, in other words. A sprint to the finish between old and new.

The scenario is a writer's dream. McDougall found a large cast of crazy characters, an exotic setting for drama and discovery, and a tailor-made showdown with which to cap the book. By and large it's a thrilling read, even for someone who couldn't care less about proper stride and split times and energy gels. McDougall's prose, while at times straining to be gonzo and overly clever, is engaging and buddy-buddy, as if he's an enthusiastic friend tripping over himself to tell a great story. He writes, for example, of a fellow-runner who "sluiced sweat off his dripping chest and flung it past me, the shower of droplets sparkling in the blazing Mexican sun."

A relentless and experienced reporter, McDougall dramatizes situations he did not directly witness, and he does so with an intimacy and an exactness that may irk discerning readers and journalistic purists. "Born to Run" uses every trick of creative nonfiction, a genre in which literary license is an indispensable part of truth-telling. McDougall has arranged and adrenalized his story for maximum narrative impact. Questions crop up about the timing of events and the science behind the drama, but it's best to keep pace with him and trust that -- separate from the narrative drama -- we're actually seeing a glimpse of running's past and how it may apply to the present and the future.

McDougall makes himself a character in the book without distracting from the story. He's our hero, a runner stricken with injuries until he began investigating the Tarahumara, who led him to startling revelations about the way we run and the way they run. McDougall finds that running is a danger if done incorrectly and a salvation if done properly. The stories he tells of the Tarahumara and of the world's greatest mainstream runners all herald a return to the basics: running barefoot or with the cheapest, flattest sole possible; and running not for money or celebrity or victory but for camaraderie and the sheer joy of using our bodies for a basic, essential purpose.

"Born to Run" is an examination of sport, an allegory of cross-cultural understanding and a catalogue of philosophies of living. At this point in history, life is not necessarily about the survival of the fittest, or even survival of the fastest. We're past survival now; there's no need to run down prey or outrun a predator. But that's no reason, McDougall says, to stay rooted to the couch.

Dan Zak is a writer for the Style section of The Washington Post.

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