Book Review: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

By: Matt Reno

Earlier this month, Vibram settled a class action lawsuit based on claims of the health benefits of their FiveFingers shoes. This news is sure to stoke the fires on both sides of the "barefoot" or "minimal" running debate. Since the matter of which is better - more or less cushioning in running shoes - is far from settled (and I personally believe it's different for every runner), I thought this would be a good time to revisit the book that brought the whole barefoot craze to the mainstream. This review is for the dozen or so runners out there who haven't yet read Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. 

Since getting into running, I've had many friends call me crazy for running 10, 13, or 26.2 miles at one time. I've read about ultrarunners, people who run 50 or 100 miles straight, and I consider them a little crazy. In his excellent book 
Born to Run, Christopher McDougall argues that not only are those activities not crazy, but they're completely normal because that's what human beings are designed to do.

Born to Run is a must-read for running fans, whether you're a beginner or a hardcore marathoner. In fact, people who don't run might do well to pick this one up, as it shows how running is something any human being is capable of and that our modern, sedentary lifestyle goes against our very nature. Writing with humor and an obvious lust for life, McDougall weaves together fascinating anecdotes about secluded tribes and evolutionary science, all tied to the story of the "world's greatest race."

The book revolves around an interesting cast of characters, mainly Caballo Blanco, the now late American who moved to Mexico to live among a tribe of ultrarunners called the Tarahumara. The Terahumara are a simple, peaceful people whose lives are centered around running. Lots and lots of running. No Nikes or PowerBars for these folk. They run in sandals and get drunk on a potent corn beer the night before a big race. Despite running through the heat and mountainous terrain for 100 miles at a time in what most people would consider "improper" footwear, these tribesmen have amazing endurance and rarely get injured.  

McDougall travels to Mexico to learn more about this mysterious tribe and to help Caballo Blanco organize a 50-mile race featuring some of the toughest ultrarunners in the world. Competing against the Tarahumara runners are some entertaining individuals. Party animals Jenn and Billy add to the tale a good deal of humor yet also suspense and danger while the obnoxiously loquacious Barefoot Ted may annoy his fellow runners, but his propensity for going long distances without footwear opens the door for McDougall to go on some interesting tangents. He discusses the history of the running sneaker and how it has purportedly led to an increased injury rate because the human foot is built to withstand the impact of the ground without added cushioning.  Even more fascinating are the chapters devoted to the evolutionary scientists who theorized that our ancestors, homo sapiens, survived and adapted into a stronger species because of their amazing capacity to run after their prey until the animal died of exhaustion.  

Wit, action, and riveting anecdotes that will change the way you think about running are all on full display in Born to Run. McDougall is an excellent writer and makes this book appealing even for those who would never consider running an ultra. Although after reading this book, your mind might be slightly changed about that subject. Though you may never want to put yourself through the rigors of running such a long distance, you'll at least stop thinking people who do are crazy. In fact, you might start to realize that they're simply doing what we were all born to do.

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