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  • Mini-Book Review — McDougall – Born to Run

    Posted by James McCormick on August 8th, 2009 (All posts by )

    McDougall, Christopher, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (2009, 287pp.)

    I’m a miserable runner, and apart from a brief time in graduate school, I haven’t run since high school. Walking has been my exercise alternative. Nonetheless, a childhood spent in the Boy Scouts and a youth spent doing prehistoric archaeology have given me an abiding interest in the discipline of hunting, especially the role of dogs in human culture and the tradition of persistence hunting practiced by the !Kung bushmen. In Born to Run, magazine writer McDougall has managed to bring together a tale of endurance running, sports capitalism, evolutionary biology, and Mexican ethnography to create a compelling reading experience. Maybe, just maybe, it’s an insight into who we were.

    A chance reading of a Spanish language magazine article on the exceptional running achievements of the Tarahumara Indians led the author on a multi-year quest to confirm what seemed counter-intuitive. A tribe of people (men and women) who could run incredible distances well into old age, without exotic diets, footwear, training regimes, warm-ups, etc. etc. Like the !Kung, they were reputed to run down deer through sheer stamina. As an oft-injured runner himself, McDougall simply couldn’t believe it. The Copper Canyon area of Mexico, where the Tarahumara live, is a remote, rugged, but increasingly dangerous part of Mexico where drug gangs, dope growers, and resource extraction compete to make life miserable for the natives. The author took considerable risks on his first journey to visit these people, only to discover that a white man had been living, and running, among them for many years — The White Horse — Caballo Blanco.

    The story thread running through Born to Run is Caballo Blanco’s efforts to assemble a small group of America’s elite ultradistance runners to compete in a race through the mountains of Mexico with the best runners of the Tarahumara. Included in the mix are one of the leading American advocates of barefoot running, and the author himself, attempting to recover from years of running injuries by altering his training to mirror Tarahumara methods. In providing a back story for this race, McDougall notes that the Tarahumara once made a huge splash in the running world in the 1990s by twice dominating a brutal high-altitude race in Colorado, the Leadville 100. Then they “disappeared.” By weaving the biographical details of the Western participants in the 2006 race, with the ethnographic literature of the Tarahumara, the author sets the scene for the friendly showdown, a “middle of nowhere” mountain race out of sight of cameras and the world’s attention. At the same time, McDougall gets a chance to make his case for the negative effects of high-tech running shoes on runner health and performance … and for the evolutionary forces that apparently shaped the human frame for endurance running even before our species made tools or used fire. It’s a possibility that our ancestors ran down their prey for tens of thousands of years without leaving a single trace in the archaeological record. Selective forces slowly altered their physiology (large head, springy Achilles tendon, hairless skin, upright posture) in ways that made it simply impossible for game animals to out-run humans. I must admit, I was shocked when the author outlined the limitations of four-legged creatures when it comes to running. For sprints, no problem. For long distances, however, the humans win. When added to the advanced cognition required for tracking and predicting game movement (proposed by South African scholar, Louis Liebenberg), one school of scholars now firmly proposes the “Running Man” theory of human evolution — that we are literally born to run down animals. That is our niche in the world.

    So this book is a skillful mix of adventure tale, archival research, plus interviews with running coaches, physiologists, race directors, and evolutionary biologists … culminating in that “secret” race in Mexico in 2006. Interestingly enough, the book has no photos, no maps, no URLs. But two minutes of Googling uncovered photos of the race itself. For the first fifty pages of this book, I assumed we were in for another hoax or scholarly flim-flam along the lines of Carlos Castenada‘s shamanistic voyage through the Yaqui Indians. But as I read further, the author didn’t stray into “magical realism,” though he was using the tools and tricks of outdoor adventure/extreme sport writing to add drama and vitality to a subject area that was plenty fascinating on its own.

    And the results of the race? Well, I’m not going to spoil the ending. But let’s just say that Caballo Blanco is now in the small-scale race management business in remote Mexico and Barefoot Ted has a stellar book to make his case that it’s running shoes, not running, that injure so many enthusiasts. Just out of curiosity, today I visited the local outdoor co-op to see if they have any pairs of the Vibram FiveFingers footgear now popular for “barefoot” running. Sold out completely. I suspect this book is going to make a big impact on the sports community and word of mouth will be strong.

    This book is recommended for anyone with an enthusiasm for running or extreme sports. Couch potatoes will enjoy the story. And anthropologists and biologists will be left with some fascinating scientific puzzles to ponder. A great gift or vacation book.


    2 Responses to “Mini-Book Review — McDougall – Born to Run”

    1. Caballo Blanco Says:

      Caballo BLanco is really cashing in.
      Last year we had 9 gringos and 200 Raramuri///we gave away 62,000 pounds of corn and 10 grand dollars as prizes to the Raramuri

    2. Simon Kenton Says:

      I’ve been using the Vibram Fivefingers for rafting, rowing, walking, working, and amusing my wife, who thinks of them as ‘the gorilla feet.’. They are comfortable, more comfortable than regular shoes. They seem durable. They do an adequate job of sole protection, and not an adequate job of protection from gravity impacts and heat, ie, don’t wear them doing construction or wildland fire-fighting. I haven’t had any foot injuries wearing them, even scrambling around sharp boulders in the canyon of the Middle Fork. I quit running 10 years ago owing to joint pain, and am thinking I might be able to run again wearing them: they have definitely altered my gait. That said, the thing that makes me slide them on every morning is that when I’m wearing them, I have no lower back pain.

      REI attempts to keep them in stock. They are an unfamiliar fit and will not necessarily fit when ordered in the size the conversion charts suggest, so it is worth ordering 2 pair in different sizes; try on the smaller and if it is glove-like, remand the other unopened.