“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazelle - when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.”
Surprisingly for its subject, this book is a great read and one that I think would also be appealing to non-runners. That is because Born to Run isn’t entirely about running. Running of course features heavily, but along with that, this book also tells an interesting story.
It all starts with the question “why do my feet hurt?” McDougall gives a bit of his background, including the pain he experiences in his feet when he attempts to run. He then heads off on a search for the secretive Tarahumana tribe of Mexico, known as the “running people”, or the Rarámuri. He weaves together a number of anecdotes about the Tarahumana and other remote tribes, then introduces a number of prominent long-distance runners, such as Emil Zatopek, Ann Trason and Scott Jurek. After all this set-up, McDougall returns to the question he opened the book with (“why do my feet hurt?”) and describes a theory of human evolution that argues that homo sapiens were “born to run”, and that distance running is what led to us becoming the dominant species on the planet. The implication of this is that our bodies come pre-equipped with everything needed to run, and that means expensive running shoes (like the ones McDougall bought and found made his feet worse) aren't needed. Barefoot or minimal running is suggested as a better option. This book helped bring both barefoot running and ultramarathons to the mainstream.
A major character of the book is Caballo Blanco, the white horse, aka Micah True. Caballo lived for many years among the Tarahumana. He had experience with how some Tarahumana runners had been exploited in the early 1990s, making money for a promoter but receiving little in return for their hard work in a very alien environment. He was also concerned with the impact of Western society on the traditional Tarahumana lifestyle as the Mexican government-built roads across their remote canyons. Caballo had a dream of bringing some of the best US ultramarathoners to Tarahumana country, to race against the best Tarahumana in their own land, to help the Tarahumana preserve their running heritage and their culture. Once McDougall and Caballo met, plans for the race were settled, and the actual race forms the last few chapters of the book. Although initially organised as a one-off event, this race is now an annual event attracting over 1200 runners from around the world.
Part of this story is personal for McDougall. After the opening where the only suggestions he received from doctors was to buy even more expensive running shoes and to look forward to cortisone injections, he decided to adopt the Tarahumana approach to running with the help of a coach. McDougall was determined to run in the event he helped to organise and made a number of lifestyle changes to help him achieve this. But just as I will not give away if the winner of that first race was the Tarahumana champion Arnulfo Quimare or the US champion Scott Jurek, I won't give away if McDougall was able to meet his goal and conquer the 50-mile race.
I found the human evolution theory to be a fascinating part of this book, and am interested in reading more on this subject. I listened to this as an audiobook which didn’t come with references included. I would be interested in flicking through a print copy to see if that version does include references. McDougall made a convincing argument, but he is also a journalist, accustomed to making an interesting and believable story. I did find the original article published by Bramble and Lieberman in Nature Magazine in 2004 online, but it needs a subscription to read which I don’t have. A quick internet search, however, disclosed that this theory is not settled science and is disputed by some scientists. Regardless, it’s a fascinating theory.
Another possibly controversial aspect to the book is on the subject of running shoes, and whether shoe manufacturers, in particular Nike, are responsible for an increase in injuries to runners. Again, McDougall makes some good arguments, but only gives the data which matches his point of view. As a runner, I certainly wouldn't be comfortable running without my shoes, unless I was absolutely sure I would be running only on a safe surface. However, I don't wear Nikes.
In some ways this is a dangerous book. I regularly run 5 kilometres, sometimes ten, but not often, and not for over a year now. I mostly run on roads or tracks, rarely on trails. The terrain of our local trails can be challenging and I don't want to injure myself alone in a remote location. I don't have any plans to do a conventional marathon or even half-marathon. But reading this book made ultramarathoning sound very appealing. I found myself thinking about UTA, a local trail event that features both long distances and difficult terrain. I am realistic enough to know that I am not capable of either the 50- or 100-kilometre events, but they now include an 11-kilometre starter event and a 22-kilometre event with very generous cut-off times. I even looked up the website for the event, but found the 2021 event is already completely sold out. Reading a book like this can be dangerous! But ultimately, this is a book that celebrates the joy of running and of feeling what your body is capable of doing.
Highly recommended, for both runners looking for inspiration and non-runners just looking for a good story.