Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Friday, June 3, 2011

"Born to Run" -- a Tough-Love Review

     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


Drew Streip said...

If I had written a review of this book when I finished it a few months ago, I would accuse you of having plagiarized my thoughts.

Spot-on analysis. MacDougal hyper-extended a typical men's magazine article, tackling multiple stories to appeal to the buzzword-happy ADD reading style of men age 25 to 55. The science is coated with a macho, Carpe Diem attitude.

And, as a writer, I recognized it all along. However, that's not to say I didn't fold the pages down in the middle of a chapter, take off my shoes and take off in a jog out my front door!

pjm said...

Well said, sir. I've long thought that the people hyping this book as some kind of barefoot Bible were missing the several other points of the book, many of which are more valid than the shoe polemic. And you've identified what I believe is the strongest argument against the minimalist/barefoot craze, one which I don't believe many of them (any of them?) have chosen to grapple with.

Myth-making still has a value, of course, and a good story is still a good story, as long as it's recognized as such and not mistaken for reference material.

Bart said...

Thanks for the analysis.

I think I'm more convinced by your criticism than your praise. The flawed thinking and hyperbole that plague the first two parts of the book are present in the third as well.

He builds this grand theory of persistence hunting and postulates that, if he can only find one tribe, somewhere, anywhere, he'll have proved it's true. How does one modern instance of something prove that it was critical to our evolution? Who knows, but that gets lost by great suspense writing that focuses purely on the search. When he can point to one guy in Africa who claims to have done this with a small group once, he declares his evolutionary theory proven.

It's a credit to his writing that he can get away with this, but I can't take it as more than an interesting theory that raises more questions than it answers.

Creigh BKB Ltd. said...

Perhaps two years ago, we were staying at my friends home in Estes Park, CO (Jacqui and Terry Chiplin of Active at Altitude) when I spotted the book on their coffee table.

My quick thought was "another running book" but I felt a quick glance would be OK.

I consumed the first 50 pages and enjoyed the easy read!

Suspending my disbelief, I ripped through the book and came to three snap conclusions:

1. a fun story with credible profiles and characters
2. barefoot running would get a shot in the arm
3. the incidence of injuries would spike due to misinformation and interpretation

The third conclusion was the most important.

It will take another two years for people to realize that they are bumping up against bad practices and get back to fundemental training and equipment principles.

In the meantime, the deconstruction of evolution theory is fascinating but I suspect the book was written to take advantage of the huge "running" audience, a vastly expanded and proportionately less fit crowd than it was 20 years ago, and sell books.

Poking a stick in the eye of the shoe companies is interesting since they all have responded by designing and developing minimalist shoes to engage that audience economically.

This is a wonderful and thoughtful blog!

Stephen Kairos said...

I'm unconvinced by the third proposition. Sure, it's the most academically supported of the three (in as much as he borrows from the work of experts as opposed to his other two). This doesn't make it true.
The study of human origins has a massive weight of a century and a half of lives dedicated to it's research. However, being the most existentially and emotionally motivated of all evolutionary topics has influenced it's bias. We so badly wish to understand who and what we are that the inevitable result becomes myth-making.
We are Hominids and as such are Apes. Yet no ape ever had a long arched foot. All the major apes are basically flat footed. They do not walk on their hind quarters effectively but they CAN (in a shambling fashion). But that is a far cry from toe running bipedally. Our capacity to toe resembles that of dogs, cats and horses (not in stride or arrangement of toe numbers... we even have an "opposable toe" and thus show our ape-likeness). We are similar in the bend and push of the toe-running stroke (when barefoot).
I'm not saying this to make an argument of origins. That is far outside the scope of my point and the topic discussed. I'm only saying that one cannot accurately reconstruct behavior from an assumed chain of physiological changes that we simply cannot reconstruct with what we actually know. It seems implausible to myself that apes evolutionarilly abandoned toe-running, specializing in opposable toes. They can run, but nothing like we do. The holy grail of human origins was the "Lucy" knee because it seemed to support upright standing and walking. Yet Lucy's feet don't seem particularly adept at bipedal toe running. That's not to say she didn't run (even ants can defintionally run, having a point in their stride when all six legs are off the ground). But was Lucy an ultrarunner? I seriously doubt it. It's far more plausible that upright walking and the balance-falling method of propulsion this benefits from gave early man a massive advantage when it comes to energy efficient travel. We are naturally migratory and require little caloric intake to accomplish this compared with other land predators.
I think that toe running came second to our ability to walk across continents almost effortlessly.
I agree that heel running is not anathema. Unlike the other toe runners I compared us to, we are whole-foot walkers, adapting our stride for effect. Dogs never walk on the proto-heel Achilles-root of their foot.

Before we were myth-making archaeological scientists we were runners. We don't need elaborate stories and fossils to tell us how to run. We've been doing it for 5,000 (at least) of known recorded history. Experience and our ability to record our lessons is better than any tribe or pop-sci trend in evolutionary biology. Experience trumps theory.

Stephen Kairos said...

Secondly (and hopefully with fewer embarrassing typos), animals that wear out their prey need to be able to run faster than we do. We could conceivably accomplish this with rabbits and a few of the smaller prey herbavors, but I doubt that even the fastest ultrarunner could repeatably wear out deer or antelope. Our ingenious use of tools and teamwork are far superior to our running abilities (speed wise). However, the point is not without merit.
When I used to work on a ranch in Wyoming, we regularly used short bursts of speed mixed with light jogging to easily give the impression of superiority to our horses when trying to wrangle them. Any prey animal can be manipulated by force being applied in a strategic manner. That's the key: strategy and easy force on tap.
Our bodies are the Swiss army knives of nature. History is a story in part involving naturally "inferior" humans achieving victory over naturally superior enemies or odds. Training is a facet of this triumphant ambition, weaponizing our potential like sharpening a stick or flint. Our tool making extends to our training. The problem solving creative impulse extends first to our utilization of our bodies.

anders järnkrok said...

Excellent review. The exaggerations and the bias made the book a little tough to read - but it did make me tip out on my toes for a run