Review: Born to Run
It all began with a simple question: why does my foot hurt? Christopher McDougall, a writer who enjoyed running, wondered why it was that he kept getting hurt. When he ran he got hurt. It was that simple. He visited a succession of doctors who suggested cortisone and orthotics and other high-tech solutions to these injuries. “Humans are not made for running,” he would hear from these experts. “If you do it, you’ll get hurt.”
But in his travels, McDougall came across a small Mexican tribe called the Tarahumara–a tribe whose culture was, at least in part, based around running. Long distance running, that is. And very long distance running at that. They would regularly run fifty miles at a time over some of the world’s most grueling terrain in races that would begin and end in wild village-wide parties. These people could run nearly endless distances, and do so for years and years without injury. McDougall had to learn their secret. As he writes in the book’s opening pages:
In the end, I got my answer, but only after I found myself in the middle of the greatest race the world would ever see: the Ultimate Fighting Competition of footraces, an underground showdown pitting some of the best ultradistance runners of our time against the best ultrarunners of all time, in a fifty-mile race on hidden trails only Tarahumara feet had ever touched. I’d be startling to discover that the ancient saying of the Tao Te Chaing–”The best runner leaves no tracks”–wasn’t some gossamer koan, but real, concrete, how-to, training advice.
McDougall’s quest to understand how some people can spend their lives running without injury while others suffer cruelly from only a short jog, though the ultimate point of the book, is interspersed with the build-up to this epic fifty-mile trail race. He introduces a bizarre and often-hilarious cast of characters and brings them all to Mexico with him. There they set out to see if these highly-trained athletes who had given themselves to ultradistance running would be able to compete with the Tarahumara, who are the furthest thing in the world from professional athletes.
Along the way McDougall offers many facts and reflections dealing with human physiology and evolution. While humans have gotten a bad rap as runners (compare them to most other mammals and they will look pretty pathetic in comparison) this is largely because they have been compared only in terms of speed. What humans have that most animals do not is endurance. McDougall comes to believe that humans evolved as running creatures, capable of running down prey not with sheer speed but with a long game of endurance and attrition. The application to all of this is that running is at the very heart of what it means to be human. Humans evolved as running creatures and now, as the book’s title suggests, are born to run.
As one who believes that God created humans as we are, without having us first evolve from some other kind of life form, I have to dismiss McDougall’s science in this regard. Yet the book was not without its important takeaways. Most interesting was what he showed about running shoes (both through anecdotal evidence and statistical evidence)–that there seems to be a direct correlation between the technology of a running shoe (and hence its price) and the incidence of injury. More expensive shoes tend to lead to more injuries. Which is to say that God made us with feet (and not shoes) for a good reason. When we wear shoes we reduce the ability of our feet to move and to mold themselves to whatever surface we happen to be moving across. This makes good sense, does it not?
As he reaches the book’s conclusions, McDougall undoubtedly overstates his case, going almost as far as to suggest that if we all just ran (in bare feet or, at the very least, really cheap shoes) we’d all be happier and healthier and the world would be a better place. In this way running has become his religion with the Tarahumara as his deities and the world’s best ultradistance runners a slightly lesser pantheon. Running seems to have become an idol. Idols typically are good things that are made ultimate things (to echo Tim Keller) and here we see McDougall falling into that age-old trap. A good thing has become ultimate and undue homage has been given to it.
Nevertheless, Born to Run is an interesting book and one that succeeds on most levels. While the science is suspect and while the author’s breathless adulation for his sport sometimes reaches celestial heights (and while there are occasional uses of rough language), the book still proves an enjoyable read and one that offers plenty of good food for thought. Those discussions of human physiology, though couched in the language of naturalism, pointed me to a Creator, a craftsman, whose works inspire fear and awe.
Verdict: Read it if you’re a runner (or want to be).