I recently had one of the more pleasurable reading experiences of my life. I read a lot. As you might imagine, much of this is fairly technical in its nature so it’s probably not too hard to knock my socks off. But I’m fairly well versed in the classics as well. And while I’m not saying this guy is Shakespeare, or even Hemingway, he certainly spins a good yarn. I admit that the four books I’d read previous were dreadful, so maybe it’s a right place right time experience. But from the time I picked up Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run I was captivated to the point that if my flight had been longer I would have finished it in one sitting.
The book is about a bunch of things, but mainly running. I’ve recorded my disdain for such literature in the past but this is different. It’s written by a writer, not a runner. More and more the writings of “experts” are filling up our bookstores. What our publishers have seemed to overlook is that a good writer is an expert, who can write on any subject. I think it’s a disservice to the public to assume that just because someone has credentials in a subject they should be allowed to write about it. After all, would you choose the person who wrote ER as your emergency room doctor?
The main characters are a native Mexican people called the Tarahumara, or Raramuri (running people) and a gringo called Caballo Blanco. The story of Tarahumara is fascinating.
In Tarahumara Land, there was no crime, war, or theft. There was no corruption, obesity, drug addiction, greed, wife-beating, child abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, or carbon emissions. They didn’t get diabetes, or depressed, or even old: fifty-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great grand-dads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides. Their cancer rates were barely detectable. The Tarahumara geniuses had even branched in economics, creating a one-of-a-kind financial system based on booze and random acts of kindness: instead of money, they traded favors and big tubs of corn beer.
You’d expect an economic engine fueled by alcohol and freebies to spiral into a drunken grab-fest, everyone double-fisting for themselves like bankrupt gamblers at a casino buffet, but in Tarahumara Land, it works.
It’s also a story of the history of ultra-running, biomechanics, the shoe industry, and the evolution of human beings.
For example, you probably didn’t know that “runners wearing top-of-the-line shoes are 123 percent more likely to get injured than runners in cheap shoes…” and this is because we do things like build arch supports:
Dr. Hartman explained, “Blueprint your feet, and you’ll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch, the greatest weight-bearing design ever created. They beauty of the arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down, the tighter its parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowel would ever stick a support under and arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure…”
And if I told you that humans evolved as the most-efficient endurance runners on the planet you’d probably think I was a looney, but read Born To Run and then come argue with me.
The book is not above a bit of hyperbole and often borderlines the Largo-ian “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” mantra for writers. But it never strays so far as to lose credibility. But do keep in mind that for anything to land on the best seller list it’s got to take a spin through the hype machine. For an example, watch the news piece below. While it does lay a nice hook for the story, Caballo Blanco himself states “I was NOT happy with that information…did me, the Raramuri, nor the canyons any favors…take it with a grain of salt.”
Embedded video from CNN Video
I was inspired enough to get in contact with Caballo Blanco himself, and will be running with the running people come March. You’ll get the straight dope then but, for now, I recommend finding a copy of Born To Run.