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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Born To Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
By Christopher McDougall
Knopf. 287 pp. $24.95

This book has been out for a while, and I finally went out and dropped the $25 to get it after reading the first three pages at a bookstore on Friday night. (One of my original goals for this blog was to score free swag like books, a goal that has yet to be achieved.)

If you've got more than a superficial knowledge of distance running, you've probably heard of Mexico's Tarahumara Indians. They are reputed to be the world's greatest ultramarathoners, but I've always been a bit skeptical--why haven't they stormed the rest of the world like Kenya's Kalenjin runners have? McDougall answers that question quite well. Turns out two different Tarahumaras won the Leadville Trail 100 in the 90s, found even the low-key ultra world too modernized for their tastes, and found no reason to return. McDougall spent time living and running with the Tarahumaras and found out quite a bit else--and was there when the world's best ultra-trail-runners came down to their homeland and took them on.

The tale is a fascinating one, but in lesser hands it would have been mangled. McDougall is a below-average runner who has turned himself into a decent ultramarathoner; he's an absolute pro of a writer. Along the way to the climactic race, there are side trips to learn about human physiology and anthropology, various ultra races, and an amazing cast of characters. None of it is made up but much seems too entertaining to be true.

By far the most-talked about part of the book is the idea that modern running shoes are bad for runners. It's not new; Arthur Lydiard was going apeshit about this 35 years ago, and a recent trip to a running store left me feeling like John Cleese in the Cheese Shop sketch (a whole store reputedly full of shoes, yet not a single one I asked for). Anyone who zeroes in on that part doesn't get it.

The whole idea is that a strenuous life is the only enjoyable one, and a life of ignoble ease will slowly and painfully kill you. For it to be truly enjoyable, the strenuous life must not be thought of as working by the sweat of your brow all the days of your life, but rather a lifestyle that is embraced and loved by living in the moment rather than being concerned with the outcome. McDougall sets this out in such a way that he might end up responsible for more than a few suburbanites tuning in, turning on, dropping out, and becoming trail-running bums. His scenery is the brutal Mexican Copper Canyons and the high trails of the Rockies. Really, though, we can find this anywhere.

I live in northwest Ohio, with a relatively moderate four-season climate and no terrain to speak of. A lot of times, running seems like work, yet it's not at some of the most inexplicable times. I identified with McDougall's descriptions when I recall some of my most difficult yet enjoyable runs: 2+ hours in the winter. Our cold isn't extreme as compared to, say, Minnesota or Saskatchewan, but we do have some pretty fierce wind once you get out of town. I've done 20-milers in -15 degree wind chill, once wondering if gusts were going to blow me into the path of oncoming traffic. By simply trying to keep going rather than worrying about time and distance, I get to know my limits pretty well. And when I get home, I felt like one tough hombre.

This is not only the best track book of the year, it's one of the best in quite a while. Entertaining, and it's likely to make you examine your life and convince you to use up less and do more.

1 comment:

Dylan said...

105 degree temperatures this summer in texas while awful have made the runs in a way more memorable, meaningful