Forget Bruce Springsteen. This “Born to Run” is a fine book by Christopher McDougall. Published in 2009, it has been a best-seller practically since its appearance. It is long on sharply drawn serious and/or comical characters and short on macho prose in the male health mag genre. Well written, breezy and conversational, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” is a lively and hip introduction for nonrunners (such as me) to the world of ultramarathoners. These athletes compete in 100-plus mile races in venues everywhere from Mexico to Leadville.
Meet the reclusive and largely vegetarian Tamahumara tribe in their hidden dwellings in the Copper Canyons of the Mexican Sierra Madre, where there’s no murder, no theft and precious little disease. Join them for a prerace bash that would exhaust Hunter S. Thompson, and then watch them the next morning as they cheerfully stroll to the starting line for a 36-hour, 120-mile competition. Watch them finish one-two in the Leadville 100.
McDougall takes you on some of these races and occasionally joins the field (with no great success) but generally keeps himself out of the spotlight. He cites wide and impressive orthopedic and medical authority to support three painful truths about running shoes, which boil down to “run barefoot!” He introduces you to coaches such as Joe Vigil, whose Adams State harriers in Alamosa came from nowhere to win 26 national titles in 33 years. You meet runners: Emil Zatopek, who paced a friend to an Australian 5,000-meter record in the first half of a 10,000-meter race, which Zatopek then went on to win; Ann Trason, who won the Western States 100 race 14 times over 30 years; the mysterious Caballo Blanco, who may appear at the start of a race and disappear shortly after the finish; Jenn and Billy, who got busted for “a burst of trailside passion.”
But the most interesting parts of “Born to Run” set it apart from many other works on the subject. Google “Amazon running books,” and you’ll come up with 15 or 20 volumes, each concentrating on a different magic secret — chi running, diet, training systems. McDougall believes we, in the 21st century, are literally born to run because of the way we breathe. And he starts by getting us out of the trees and up off our knuckles, millions of years ago. At the University of Utah, Harvard and other institutions, anthropologists, biologists and others have tied the 2 million-year-old ascendance of Homo erectus over the Neanderthal to a new diet that included plenty of meat. “Meat!” exclaims Dan Lieberman, of Harvard. “Where did they get it? The bow and arrow is 20,000 years old. The spearhead is 200,000 years old. But Homo erectus is 2 million years old. That means that for nearly 2 million years, hominids were getting meat with their bare hands.” This leads to a discussion of persistence hunting — running animals to death — and to the conclusion that our remote ancestors secured meat this way. We can, too, McDougall says.
No other mammal can take more than one breath per running stride. We can. We can also cool our bodies by perspiring while we’re running. Other animals can’t. Keep the deer or kudu going for 15 or 20 kilometers — a mere step for most human distance runners — and it will collapse in exhausted hyperthermia. A contemporary man in reasonable physical condition can outrun a horse over distance.
McDougalltries, not always altogether successfully, to deal with the zen-like state achieved by several of today’s ultramarathoners. Contemporary distance runners often claim to welcome and push through what I always thought of as “the wall,” where I was, well, done. They strive for an “easy, light and smooth” way of going and insist that when you reach this plateau, you will have achieved “fast” without further conscious effort. Maybe so. Observers of the Tamahumara describe them as “coming like a cloud over the ground.” Trason relaxes into a long run. She insists that running is romantic. “You have to be in tune with your body.” And what could be more sensual, she says, more romantic, than “paying exquisite attention to your own body?” All readers may not agree, but most will have to admit that McDougall makes a pretty good case for the romance of running.
In any case, “Born to Run” is a most enjoyable read — with a generous helping of intriguing peripheral information.