on May 16, 2009
Born to Run succeeds at three levels. First, it is a page turner. The build up to a fifty-mile foot race over some of the world's least hospitable terrain drives the narrative forward. Along the way McDougall introduces a cast of characters worthy of Dickens, including an almost superhuman ultramarathoner, Jenn and the Bonehead--a couple who down bottles of booze to warm up for a race, Barefoot Ted, Mexican drug dealers, a ghostly ex-boxer, a heartbroken father, and of course the Tarahumara, arguably the greatest runners in the world.
Born to Run is such a rip-roaring yarn, that it is easy to miss the book's deeper achievements. At a second level, McDougall introduces and explores a powerful thesis--that human beings are literally born to run. Recreational running did not begin with the 1966 publication of "Jogging" by the co-founder of Nike. Instead, McDougall argues, running is at the heart of what it means to be human. In the course of elaborating his thesis, McDougall answers some big questions: Why did our ancestors outlive the stronger, smarter Neanderthals? Why do expensive running shoes increase the odds of injury? The author's modesty keeps him from trumpeting the novelty and importance of this thesis, but it merits attention.
Finally, Born to Run presents a philosophy of exercise. The ethos that pervades recreational and competitive running--"no pain, no gain," is fundamentally flawed, McDougall argues. The essence of running should not be grim determination, but sheer joy. Many of the conventions of modern running--the thick-soled shoes, mechanical treadmills, take no prisoners competition, and heads-down powering through pain dull our appreciation of what running can be--a sociable activity, more game than chore, that can lead to adventure. McDougall's narrative moves the book forward, his thesis provides a solid intellectual support, but this philosophy of joy animates Born to Run. I hope this book finds the wide audience it deserves.
on July 5, 2009
I have to ditto other readers who said this book changed their life. And that is not hyperbole. Prior to reading this book I viewed myself as a fast short distance runner and I rarely, if ever, ran more than 3 miles at a time. I felt this was just the way things were and that I should accept it.
"Born to Run" completely changed my internal thought process about running. I was already aware of the running shoe issue. I've been slowly using Vibram Five Fingers for over a year and I've been trying to alter my gate from heel strike first to toe strike first. I found that it just takes patience and time to adapt in getting those muscles developed. McDougall is no liar - we've been screwed over by the running shoe companies. The first time I ran with the Vibram's I could barely walk for a week I was in so much pain. Now I can climb mountains in them.
What changed for me after reading this book was just the simple notion that I wasn't limited by some personal flaw or lack of will. I was failing to run longer distances because both my mindset and my running style were flawed. One, we can all run farther than we think. Two, don't get obsessed over speed or time, just run at a pace that feels comfortable. Your body will tell you when you can step it up a notch. In other words, just enjoy the experience.
Before I started the book my max was 3 miles with a hard push on the first two. Five weeks after reading the book I can now do 8 miles or more. I can probably do 10 or more now, but haven't pushed because I'm still working on getting those calve muscles stronger and adapted to the new running style. Don't get me wrong - I'm running slow! But wow, does it feel good. I'm enjoying running more and I feel better than ever before. My blood pressure, which was high, is now below normal and I feel great. One of the points McDougall makes in the book is that many experienced ultra runners don't run that fast. Many of them are just doing 10 minute miles. That's part of what caused me to rethink my obsession over speed.
Unfortunately, as a few critics have pointed out, McDougall's book does come off as hyperbole in some parts. I also strongly disliked his focus on extremists. "Barefoot Ted" is one example.
Just search the net for the term "barefoot running" and you'll find some of the most absurd absolutist garbage about how the only way to run is barefoot and anyone who stoops to using shoes (even the likes of Nike Free shoes or the Vibram's) is misguided or even stupid. The sad reality is that we have all been lied to by the shoe companies - Nike especially. These lies are pushed on us by the alleged "experts." I recently picked up a pair of Nike Hayward Prefontaine runners. "Runners World" gave them a mixed review and slammed the shoe for not having enough support. So we have the barefoot absolutists telling us to ditch our shoes and we have the mainstream press telling us we need to wear the very shoes that are making us weaker runners. And the accepted normal shoes do make us weaker - I was told by a doctor after two major ankle injuries that I'd be limping for life if I was injured again. That ankle is the strongest it has ever been after changing my running style.
You don't change people's minds by using extremists to make your case. And that's unfortunately what comes across at times in McDougall's book. I would have personally preferred more information about his personal transformation and less on the likes of "Barefoot Bob" and the other runners who share very little in common with everyday people who just want to get into shape.
I don't think "Born to Run" is going to be that interesting to those who are already hardcore runners. The more you already run, the more the hyperbole will stick out. But I do recommend the book to those who thought like I did about what was physically possible for them. After reading this book you won't be able to watch a marathon again and think of how it's beyond your abilities. You won't make it into the Olympics, but the odds are you can run a marathon.
And speaking of marathons, McDougall makes an earth shattering point about older runners and their ability to outrun teenagers. The age at which you can beat a teenager (in long distance running), assuming you've trained appropriately, will blow your mind. Since it's one of McDougall's "secrets" I won't post the spoiler here. It's just one of his many points that will make you rethink your own ability to run.
EDIT: I have to scoff at all the critics of this book who say to take it all with a grain of salt. Each person is obviously different so your mileage will vary. Nonetheless, the central message in McDougall's book is that YOU can run and you can run longer distances than you think.
I served in the Army and I was a runner in high school. And yet, at almost 40 - with heart disease and a stent implant! - I'm now running longer distances than I have ever run in my life. One of the reasons is simply because I took McDougall's advice. I'll never run ultra-marathons, but that doesn't matter.
There are nuggets of truth and inspiration in this book along with all the exaggerations. If you're already a long distance runner there's very little meat for you to digest and the hyperbole will annoy. But if you're one of the many people who've never gone more than a few miles there's a powerful message here.
I now can outrun all 3 of my nephews (15 to 24) nephews in the long distance. On one fast 4.5 mile mountain hike (Mt. Monadnock in NH) I beat my athletic 15 year old nephew by more than 3 minutes. He led the entire run/hike until the end when I left him in the dust after he ran out of steam. He had the speed, I had the stamina - just like McDougall presents it in his book.
on March 7, 2010
"Born to Run" is a revolutionary book containing an invaluable message that could change the way you think about running forever. Unfortunately, this message is buried within 282 pages of rambling narrative filled with improbable characters and punctuated with hyperbole on nearly every page.
By the time I had reached chapter 8, I had tired of the narrative and was wishing the author would simply get to the point. Where was the great stuff about "the joy of running" that other reviewers had said they'd found in this book? Where was that eye-opening screed against Nike as the company that had single-handedly destroyed running for an entire generation of runners? So I did a little digging, and I found the two chapters that addressed these topics. They were terrific! I found a couple other good ones too, that had little or nothing to do with the narrative. Then I basically skipped the remainder of the book.
As far as I'm concerned, the "must-read" chapters in this book are chapters 15, 25, 27 and 28.
Chapter 15 speaks about running for the pure joy of it. The Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who make up the main characters of this book evidently are a tribe who never forgot what a joy it is simply to run! This chapter talks about where running goes wrong for most of us - how it is that something so joyful can so easily devolve into a chore or a contest, and also how it is that America lost its dominance in distance running as soon as money entered the equation. The chapter equates love of running with love of life. It is an inspiring and thought provoking read.
Chapter 25 describes the devastating effect that Nike's invention of the running shoe has had on the sport of running, dramatically escalating the rates of injury that people suffer from running. This astonishing chapter, to me, would be enough to make buying the whole book worthwhile. The chapter cites several studies that have shown that the more expensive a running shoe you buy, the MORE likely you are to suffer running injuries! The heavily-padded and rigidly constructed cocoons that pass for modern running shoes have robbed the foot of the ability to do the things it was designed to do for the runner. As a result the foot becomes weak and out of shape, and injuries result. The heavily padded heel also has changed the stride of the modern runner to a long, heel-striking stride that is destructive to the joints no matter how heavily padded the shoe. Prior to this invention, runners ran on the outsides and balls of their feet, and injuries were substantially lower. Nike itself seems to have finally caught on to this by designing a new kind of running shoe (called the "Free") with minimal padding and support.
Unfortunately, most of the medical establishment has evidently not yet caught up to these truths, according to the author. He cited expert after expert who all sang the same tune that "running is hard on the feet and joints" and "our bodies were not made for running." They generally counseled buying expensive running shoes or even more costly orthotics, or else giving up running as a sport altogether. Thankfully, there are also a few more enlightened medical experts out there, also cited in the book, who paint an entirely different story. The human foot is a marvel of engineering. It is only our tinkering with its environment (by encasing it in supports it doesn't need) that have made it seem so ill suited for what it was made to do.
Chapter 27 details how the author, a tall and heavy-boned man who had perpetually been plagued with joint problems and injuries when trying to run even short distances, was finally able to overcome these difficulties and become a distance runner by completely reworking his stride. This chapter includes a useful mention of three very similar running styles that all have books out detailing them, called Evolution Running, Chi Running, and the POSE method. These methods all stress getting rid of our overpadded running shoes and running more on the balls of the feet rather than landing on the heels, with short quick strides, keeping your weight centered above your feet. There is enough information in this chapter to help someone experiment with these methods, but from what I've read elsewhere it takes time and practice to master any one of them, and the reader would be best advised to refer to one of the books or videos available through Amazon that teach these techniques if the desire is to master this type of running style. Chapter 27 also talks about how the author switched to a much healthier, mostly vegan diet, and the positive effects that came from doing this.
Chapter 28 is an overly-long but nevertheless interesting development of a theory that humans evolved to be long-distance running machines. The author spends a good bit of time quoting various experts and presenting evidence to support this theory. While humans are nowhere near the fastest land animals in a short race, we exceed all other species in our ability to run long distances. The theory is that this would allow a hunter on foot to catch speedier prey simply by chasing them over long distances until they fall exhausted. The title of the book, "Born to Run", comes out of this chapter, making the case that we should all be runners because, after all, we are built to do exactly that.
I would advise busy readers to either buy this book used or else check it out of the library, and start by reading perhaps the first few chapters just to get the background of the narrative that winds its way through the book. If you find that the narrative appeals to you then you will probably want to just read the whole thing cover to cover. If, like me, you find the narrative to be not worth the time, then skip to chapters 15, 25, 27 and 28. These chapters are definitely worth the reading, and may change the way you think about running as a sport for yourself, especially if injuries have hindered you from running in the past.
I will let the final words of Chapter 28 sum up the value of this book: "So simple... Just move your legs. Because if you don't think you were born to run, you're not only denying history. You're denying who you are." This book has definitely inspired me to get back on my feet and try running again, after having given up on running because I thought my joints could not take it.
on May 17, 2009
My wife handed me Born to Run about 24 hours ago and said "you might like this." Having run quite a bit but nursing an achilles tendon injury for about 3 years, I had almost given up on my dreams of getting back into marathon shape. 24 hours (and very little sleep) later, I feel inspired, awed, and enlightened, and I have Christopher's wonderful book to thank.
In a nutshell, I have not been this entralled by a story since Shadow Divers, Seabiscuit and/or Into Thin Air. Christopher's recounting of the forbidding Copper Canyons, the amazing Tarahumara, ultramarathoners young and old, and the greatest race you've never heard of is enough for me to give this a rave review. But like the aforementioned books, there is so much more to this story, not the least of which was Christopher's own quest (and amazing resiliency) to run without pain. Finally, he put to words many of the thoughts and feelings I've had about running but am unable to articulate. And Christopher is a great writer - I laughed out loud many times throughout. He has a style akin to a Timothy Cahill - a great wit that was obviously aided by a wonderfully intriguing cast of characters.
As the sun was coming up this morning I was a bit sad to see this book end, and am already contemplating picking it up again. But only after I strap on the old, beaten up sneaks and get in a quick jog. Thanks so much for writing this book - I hope it changes lives and perspectives in the process.
on March 17, 2013
I have lived among the Tarahumara since 2005. I have real personal relationships with Tarahumara people. When I read this book I didn't see the people I know.
The author's worldview prevents him from being able to see the true condition of the Tarahumara. The New Age/Left Over Hippy crowd believes all things tribal are good. This blinds them to the mind boggling suffering of the Tarahumara. Contrary to what the nuts believe, foot and leg injuries are very common among the Tarahumara, running barefoot or in sandals does not prevent foot and leg injuries. The incidence of diabetes is astonishing, the number of children who die before age 5 is shocking. Rape and sexual abuse of women and children is considered normal, and acceptable here. Oppression and discrimination against the Tarahumara is the norm. I often look around and am amazed by how so much suffering can happen in such a beautiful place. Beautiful people, beautiful mountains and heart breaking suffering.
The author should be ashamed of himself for writing such a misleading book. If you read carefully you will discover that he visited our area a few times and somehow thought this qualified him to write a book.
Truly there is none so blind as those who refuse to see.
on September 22, 2011
OK. I've heard of this book for a couple years now and finally read it after a friend asked me. I'm a year-round runner, have finished 20 marathons and three ultra-marathons. I've had running-related injuries but not since 2006. I understand the mindset of the people McDougall speaks of.
In my experience, the author plays fast and loose with the facts and stretches them beyond credulity. To point to Nike and Adidas as the de facto cause for evil in the world and to hope for a planet on which we simply all run antelope to a point of exhaustion in order to feed our children is just too far out there. He makes a practice of taking a fact and extending it to a rediculous extreme and then sits back, smiling, waiting for the reader's adulation.
There are good points in the book. The discussion of the facts of a foot's anatomy is helpful. Pointing out how a mid-foot strike point in stride is accurate. Eating mostly plants, less of it and staying fresh is well understood. But his extension of these things just zaps any credibility.
If he were right, we'd see 5-10% of runners in races barefoot or with minimialist shoes. In the five races I've run in the last two months, I've seen one out of a total of nearly 10,000. It just doesn't fly.
I also see now that the hero of the book, Caballo Blanco, has his own web site where he offers guided adventure tours to the very canyon which McDougall seems to want to protect from the evils of Western influence. Nope...all of them are making big bucks off this seeming "return to nature" polemic.
Didn't go for this at all. Just can't find it in me to buy it.
on August 12, 2012
Don't know where to start. Very poor writing style, almost juvenile.
Very egotistical in sense of portraying point of "if you ain't Tarahumara, you ain't worth living - unless you are an ultra marathoner - and especially an ultra marathoner".
Almost every "fact" discussed is either incorrect, exaggerated, twisted, or apparently fabricated! Read through it (if you can force yourself to) with a PC, iPhone, etc. to where you can google as you go along... And prepare to be shocked. No, ultra marathoners do not (routinely) outrun horses. In the several "man vs. horse" marathons / ultra marathons run regularly, the horses (with rider, saddle, etc. - and rules clearly set up in favor of humans) ROUTINELY (about 95+% or more) win those races. By the way, humans are NOT the only mammals that sweat... In fact the other one that swears extensively to cool off and even has - four - armpits are the horse genus (and mules bred for running and endurance have even MORE - much more - stamina and endurance than horses!!!).
And it just keeps getting worse. Look up Phenols (supposedly the compound in plants - "but especially high in corn" - that protects the plant and is somehow good for humans). Is that something you'd want to ingest regularly? Well, no worries, what his "expert" should have been talking about was Phytates (look that up on Wiki also). And, phytates are NOT good for humans also! Nor are they "5 times higher in corn than any other grain" ( especially high in beans and very strong in soybeans).
The whole vegan thing is blown out of proportion (weren't these "running Indians" running down antelopes, etc., to feed their families???). What about the running Africans? The Maasai, the Samburu, etc. back when they (the long distance running warriors) lived on a diet of milk, meat, and blood (yet were very tall, very lean, and low in cholesterol and had very good profiles). Or the fact that the life spans of Tarahumaras is 45? Yes, they have a moderately high infant mortality rate, but that is offset by a very high birth rate. The fact is that several will make it into their 50s, some into their 60s, and a very, very few to 70 - low 70s.... just like Micah True - who modeled his lifestyle and distance running like the Tumaharas - and who died this last April (2012) of a heart attack during a training run!
(Note that Micah True himself stated that the book "contained inaccuracies and exaggerations" ... Also read the findings of Dr. James O'Keefe after his analysis of the autopsy report and his belief that Micah True had a Phidippides Cardiomyopathy Condition caused by his extreme distance / extreme condition running - and that it is a cardiovascular condition suffered by many long-term endurance athletes (and kudos to the 1-star reviewer who accurately pointed out the real difference between the visual appearance of extreme distance athletes compared to that of anaerobic - with milder aerobic - athletes.... a group of top level sprinters to a group of marathoners for example).
Just as scientific research / studies have shown. The author (who seems to no longer be running ultra marathons himself) takes data on how mild- to-moderate running levels as being more healthy than doing nothing (doh!) and arbitrarily extending that concept to ultra long distance running... which is simply not true...
Heck, I could go on and on and on. Like in the book when Micah True's boxing record "got to 12 - 0"... yet when I looked up boxing records, his Wiki bio and NY Times article on his death, his boxing record was 9-11!!!
And it simply goes on and on!!!
Like the author pointing out that the best runner of The Running Indians beat the world's best ultra marathoner in that particular Copper Canyon Race... but not that the tables were reversed the next year with the world's best ultra marathoner BEAT the best runner of The Running Indians (like insinuations that ultra marathoners routinely beat horses in man vs horse races).
I'll leave the reader to read through the 3-star reviews and, especially, the 2-star and 1-star reviews to get the full picture on just how bad the writing style is (metaphors, hyperboles, etc., etc.,). I will close with pointing out how little one learns about the Tumaharmara and their day-to-day lives, their culture, their specific health profiles, dietary deficiencies, etc.
Fortunately, National Geographic has done that for us. Check out their 2008 issue (around the time that the author was there and BEFORE book was published) and note the tremendous difference in the pictures painted... of course the National Geographic authors weren't out to make a killing with an egocentric book of mis-truths by selling a "best seller" book ( which proves that a sucker IS born every minute - fortunately I read a library copy!)...
Ignorance in this Age of Information is so offensive as to be an abomination!
on July 8, 2009
It's not that you aren't warned by the title of this book: three superlatives in one sentence should tip you off that there is a lot of hyperbole in this book.
"Born to Run" is an entertaining read, as long as you don't mind that a lot of the facts and characters are exaggerated. It's kind of funny to read that American River 50m is a "hot, hilly, and hazardous cross-country ramble" when in fact the race is one of the easiest 50m races in the country: most of the course is flat and run on a bike path! Also, the Leadville 100m raceis hardly the beast it sounds like: it's not even in the top ten hardest 100m races.
What bothers me more than these embellishments is the depiction of ultrarunners as a bunch of fringe folks or freaks. I'm an ultrarunner myself and have run numerous 50m and 100m races. The overwhelming majority of ultrarunners are perfectly well adjusted people who lead normal lives, and this book does a real disservice to them. Depicting ultrarunners and their accomplishments in a breathless and exaggerated tone also undermines the central argument of the book, i.e., that running long distances is something normal that humans are well adapted to do.
This brings me back to the main message of the book, which makes the book worth reading. The sections on the evolution of humans and the science of running are quite interesting and compelling. Focus on those and read the rest with a grain of salt!
One more thing. If you go to Luis Escobar's site [...] and scroll half way down you can see what looks to be the non-photoshopped version of the cover image, along with photos of the Copper Canyon race described in the book (apparently it was 47m and not 50m like the book says. Details, details ...).
on May 11, 2009
If, when you finish with this book, you don't immediately get yourself outside and run like hell, then there's probably not a drop of living blood in you. This book is the perfect antidote to everything that's wrong with modern running and the way to find everything that's still so right with it. Even if it were all a work of fiction McDougall's tale would still be worth the price of admission. Fabulous.
on July 10, 2009
This is an interesting story about long-distance runners, interspersed with lightweight science about running. As such, it is a bit of a ramble, but if you're looking for a good running story with some interesting ideas about running, you won't mind too much. Nice beach reading, you know.
The story is well-told, though the writing does not count as beautiful (the style is that of a Men's fashion (er, "health") magazine).
The bits about the science of running are interesting, but a bit disappointing. Unfortunately the author does not seem to appreciate precision or argument. Perhaps the most egregious example: he shares some statistics about marathon times, that he uses as evidence that people get faster and faster (over long distances) until they peak at age 27. The good news, he says, is that it takes them till age 64 to return to their 19 year old speed.
It seems these numbers came from averaging finishing times by age for a marathon. If so, this hardly earns the claim. 19 year old marathoners are probably first-timers. 64 year old marathoners almost certainly are not. It's misleading to compare experts vs. novices.
So you have to take all the ideas he presents with a grain of salt, and be left wondering how much there is to what he's suggested.
Nonetheless, a fun mess of a book.