You've probably either read Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, or at least heard about it. It has had a big influence on the way many runners run, and it also seems to have caused passionate reactions: some runners say the story it tells has rescued them from injury and given them a new sense of freedom. Others consider the book misguided.
My own view is that this book is actually made up of three very different stories glommed together into one: a wild, over-the-top, tall tale about the legendary barefoot-running Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's remote Copper Canyons; a surprisingly bitter polemic about modern running shoes; and a fascinating perspective on human evolution. The first two stories are somewhat misguided and misinformed, though entertaining. The third is well researched and, I think, profoundly important.
I don't know if I have ever before read a book that is so wrong and so right between the same two covers. So, this review can't be like one of those "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" assessments we've come to expect in our ever more polarized, quick-message pop culture. For one thing, it would be a mistake to count my two basically "down" assessments versus one "up" as indicating a net-negative. The third story--about our origins and nature as humans--outweighs the other two.
Here are my thoughts about those three strange-bedfellow stories, in turn:
The Over-the-Top Tall Tale: On the second page, McDougall writes: "When it comes to ultradistances, nothing can beat a Tarahumara runner--not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner." Well, that's true about the racehorse and the cheetah, for the simple reason (discussed later in the book) that when it comes to ultradistances, nothing can beat a well trained human runner. But in this provocative sentence, McDougall seems to be singling out the Tarahumara as different from the rest of us. (To emphasize that this wasn't just a careless mistake, he repeats the point a hundred pages later: "They had proved themselves, indisputably, as the greatest ultrarunners on earth.") What's actually the case, though, as we will later see, is that the Tarahumara are not fundamentally different. As the book's title suggests, all humans are born to run. And there are equally great ultrarunners in many countries.
As for the "not an Olympic marathoner" part, that's unsubstantiated speculation, since Olympic marathoners rarely run ultradistances. Marathons and ultras are two very different things! To put that in perspective, note that of the many hundreds of thousands of runners who have competed in America's largest marathon (New York) or largest ultra (JFK 50-mile) over the past four decades, only two have ever finished in the top three places in both races.
So, in saying "nothing" can beat the Tarahumara when in comes to ultradistances, McDougall is comparing apples and oranges (cheetahs and humans, or marathoners and ultramarathoners). What he cleverly does NOT say is that when it comes to ultradistances, no other ultrarunners can beat a Tarahumara! Yes, later in the book we will read a dramatitic account of a small race in Copper Canyon where a group of Tarahumara run 50 miles with a group of gringo Americans, and one of the Tarahumara guys finishes ahead of the seven-time Western States 100-mile winner Scott Jurek. Jurek is a close second, and overall the two groups from culturally opposite ends of the earth are fairly evenly matched. And what if some of the top Russian, Japanese, or South African runners had been there too? Bottom line: humans are humans. Give McDougall credit for eventually emphasizing that critical point.
In the early going, though, the author clearly wants to lure the reader with a myth that ranks right up there with Big Foot in its breathless buzz about superhuman beings somewhere out there in the deadly Barranca del Cobres--a land of treacherous trails, rattlesnakes, killer heat, ruthless drug dealers, and mysterious murders where an epic "greatest race the world has never seen" will take place. I think the Spartathlon, or a lot of other races, have been greater.
So for the first third of the book, McDougall keeps building on these misleading comparisons, at one point gratuitously contrasting the Tarahumara scrambling up and down steep canyon trails with Lance Armstrong struggling to run on a paved road: "Lance Armstrong is one if the greatest endurance athletes of all time, and he could barely shuffle through his first marathon despite sucking down an energy gel nearly every mile." When I read that, I thought: What would happen if you took a great Tarahumara runner who'd never trained for bicycle racing, and put him in the Tour de France? Again, apples and oranges.
The wild-tale part of Born to Run isn't just deceptive myth-building, though. Some of it is an unfortunate lack of knowledge about running history. In one gee-whiz paragraph, McDougall writes, "According to the Mexican historian Francisco Almada, a Tarahumara champion once ran 435 miles, the equivalent of setting out for a jog in New York City and not stopping until you were closing in on Detroit"--as though such a feat is the stuff of legend. Maybe McDougall should have consulted a historian of running, as well. The long-distance-running historian Dan Brannen, for example, would have pointed out that the Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, among many others in many countries, has run more than twice that distance nonstop. In 19th-century England, runners exceeded that distance in regular 6-day competitions, as shown in the vintage advertisement at the top of this page. McDougall has studied the Tarahumara well, but doesn't exhibit much knowledge of ultrarunning in the rest of the world.
The Polemic About Running Shoes: I discussed this in my last blog post, noting that here, too, McDougall is just plain wrong about some of this facts. When I read his account of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, I was actually a bit saddened. McDougall writes that Bowerman invented the modern running shoe in 1972 by sticking a chunk of rubber under the heel to enable a runner to land on his heel and thereby unnaturally lengthen his stride. Ostensibly, that invited injury. Implicitly, it seemed, McDougall was blaming his own struggle with a painful foot injury on a guy who died years ago and who, if he'd ever been confronted by his accuser, would have pointed out that while he did indeed invent the waffle sole, he didn't invent the built-up rubber heel. That had been invented over half a century earlier. Claiming that Bowerman thought up the built-up heel caught my attention not only because I had been running with built-up rubber heels for years before Bowerman's presumed invention, but also because of a memorable incident in my first marathon, when I found myself pulling even with Ted Corbitt, whom the New York Times called the "godfather of American ultrarunning." At the time, I was "running on my toes," as my high school coach had taught, but Corbitt glanced at my footfall and suggested that I might run better if I let myself touch down on my heels. This was years before the first Nikes, and runners who wanted built-up heel cushioning could easily get it in shoes made by Adidas or Tiger. (In fact, I've been told by a knowledgeable friend that the first Nikes were basically Tiger or Asics models with a Nike swoosh glued on.) And the heel-running Ted Corbitt's multi-day and 50-mile performances are just as impressive, even today, as the Tarahumara's. Moreover, it wasn't just in the mid-1960s that some of our shoes had built-up heel rubber. In my collection of old running memorabilia, I have a hundred-year-old advertisement from a company called O'Sullivan Heels of Live Rubber, featuring a photo of the Olympic marathon champion of 1908, Johnny Hayes, shaking hands with the company's owner, Humphrey O'Sullivan. In the caption, Hayes is quoted as informing Sullivan that the shoes with which he had won the Olympic Marathon had the O'Sullivan Heels of Live Rubber, and that "I always wear your heels in my races."
What, then, of McDougall's core argument that running injuries have proliferated since 1972? I strongly suspect that here, McDougall has fallen into the very common trap of confusing correlation with causation. The fact that the rise of Nikes and other modern running shoes is correlated with a proliferation of running injuries does not mean they are the cause. The building of the modern Interstate Highways in America was correlated with a rise in the number of motor vehicle collisions and fatalities, but it wasn't the cause! Auto deaths increased despite the improved safety of the highways--because of other factors such as the rise of rush-hour congestion, happy-hour drinking, road rage, and the thrall of cars among teens (I was there). Similarly, I think, running injuries increased after the early 1970s because far more people were doing things like trying to complete a marathon in their first year of running. In the 1950s and '60s, most long-distance runners trained for years before attempting a marathon, so they were less vulnerable to injuries caused by ramping up too fast.
Finally, just one more point of misconstrued history. McDougall compares Bowerman with the legendary coach Arthur Lydiard, writing: "Lydiard was by far the superior track mind; he'd coached many more Olympic champions and world-record holders. . . . Lydiard liked Bowerman and respected him as a coach, but Good God! What was this junk he was selling?"
Is that what Lydiard thought? Well, in 1977, I filmed an interview with Lydiard at my house in Virginia, and got to know something about what he thought. And as it happens, Lydiard, too, designed and sold running shoes--under the Lydiard name. They were the same kind of basic design as the new Nikes. The "junk" argument is apparently McDougall's guess at what Lydiard was thinking, not anything Lydiard said. Bottom line: cultural evolution has put a lot of distance between us modern runners and our barefoot ancestors--and while some of us are still able to run like the hominids, others are not. Nike's shoes (like Lydiard's or earlier Adidas or Asics models) were a boon to some of us, and too much cushioned protection for others, but there's very little evidence that they caused an epidemic of injuries. The epidemic was probably caused by too many people trying to ramp up their mileage and speed too fast. Americans have become more and more impatient.
A New Perspective on Human Evolution: OK, I've taken too long to get here. I talk too much. Mea culpa. This third story is what makes reading McDougall's book worthwhile. And it's a curious thing, too: in the earlier stories, McDougall does what I supppose he does for magazines like Men's Fitness or Esquire--he indulges in a lot of macho, gonzo-journalist exclamations like "First, two villages would get together and spend the night making bets and pounding tesjuino, a homemade beer that could blister paint." Or, "Secret agents, whizzing bullets, prehistoric kingdoms . . . even Ernest Hemingway would have shut up and surrendered the floor if Fisher walked into the bar." When he gets to the science, though, McDougall drops the slick language and tells a story that is--to my mind--far more exciting and insightful than any of the wild or polemicized stuff that precedes it.
The gist of this story is that for a long time, evolutionary scientists have believed we humans evolved as walkers, but in recent years a few bold researchers have put together a now convincing case, the Running Man theory, that we evolved as long-distance runners who hunted by chasing down faster-running animals by getting them overheated or wearing them out. Key players in this scientific saga were researchers David Carrier and Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah, Daniel Lieberman of Harvard, and Louis Liebenberg of Noordhoek, South Africa. McDougall does an excellent job of reconstructing the story of how these scientists built their case, drawing on both lab studies and field observations over three decades. I won't steal McDougall's thunder by attempting to summarize that story. But it's a good one, and it has profound implications not only about our past and present nature as humans, but our now endangered future, as I'll be exploring in my own writing and website.
For more discussion of our nature and future as the planet's most enduring species, see http://www.willhumansendure.com/.