Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows...

Title:Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0307266303
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:287 pages

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Reviews

  • Lena
    Sep 30, 2009

    Let me begin this review by saying that I am not, and never have been, a runner. Despite that fact, I was surprisingly fascinated by Chrisopher McDougall's account of how his desire to run without pain started him on a quest that led him both deep into Mexico's remote Copper Canyons and human evolutionary past.

    Born to Run begins as an adventure story. While trying to figure out how to get his own foot to stop hurting, he saw an article about a tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara. Thes

    Let me begin this review by saying that I am not, and never have been, a runner. Despite that fact, I was surprisingly fascinated by Chrisopher McDougall's account of how his desire to run without pain started him on a quest that led him both deep into Mexico's remote Copper Canyons and human evolutionary past.

    Born to Run begins as an adventure story. While trying to figure out how to get his own foot to stop hurting, he saw an article about a tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara. These people were said to be able to run for days at a time through unforgiving terrain wearing nothing more on their feet than sandals made from thin strips of tire rubber. So McDougall set out to find these mysterious people, but doing so was not easy. The Copper Canyons where they live are extremely difficult to get to, and the trip is made even more hazardous by having to pass through drug farming country on the way.

    In addition to being a sometimes nail-biting tale about the author's quest to find the Tarahumara, Born to Run also weaves in the fascinating history of the sport of ultra-running. Ultra-marathons are races consisting of any distance longer than a marathon. McDougall discusses how this crazy sport first came into being, highlighting along the way the stories of the participants who have slowly begun to make it famous.

    McDougall narrates this history in real time, resulting in descriptions of several races that were so gripping I couldn't put the book down. One of these races was the Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile race at 11,000 feet in which the Tarahumara faced off against an ultra-running prodigy named Ann Trason.

    As McDougall weaves together the story of ultra-running's past with his own quest to find the Tarahumara and become a better runner, he also relays a fascinating tale about scientific discoveries into our evolutionary past suggesting that it was our ability to run long distances without getting winded, and thus get all that extra protein from the bounding antelope we were able to outlast, that gave us the evolutionary edge needed to grow our huge brains. These sections also point out that we did not evolve to run on cushions with arch support, and that expensive running shoes may actually make runners more prone to injury than running in the bare feet nature so elegantly designed for us.

    The book concludes with the tale of a joint venture between McDougall and a character named Caballo Blanco, a gringo who had befriended the Tarahumara and made the Copper Canyons his home. Though the Tarahumara had wowed people at Leadville, Caballo longed to see them race against America's ultra-running best on their own turf. So McDougall helped him get together a half-dozen racers and they made the dangerous trek down into the canyons. The resulting race and the sportsmanship described therein is very moving, and I finished this odd combination of memoir, sports history, adventure tale and evolutionary science with damp eyes.

    Addendum

    Not quite a year after reading this book, I've been contemplating that question GR asks in the review process – "How did this book change your life?" because, quite unexpectedly, this book has arguably changed my life more than any I've ever read.

    It started because my geekish husband, a runner, decided he needed to figure out how to make huaraches, the thin, rubber-and-lace sandals worn for long races by the Tarahumara. He made some for himself, and for me, and a few other people in the Boulder Barefoot Club, and then a lot more people in the Boulder Barefoot Club, until finally, the BB Club's founder Michael Sandler, said, "Why don’t you just put up a web site?" Steven hemmed and hawed, but Michael, who was about to publish his own comprehensive book on barefoot running (called, appropriately enough,

    , said if we had a website, he'd put it in his book. And of course, who doesn't want to be in a book?

    So not quite a year later, we have, via the magic of the Interwebs, found ourselves selling huaraches and DIY huarache kits at

    to people in all 50 states and countries on six out of seven continents (we'd like to go for seven out of seven, but I'm not holding out much hope for barefoot-style running taking off in Antarctica). In the process, I, a walker, not a runner, have found that wearing these shoes, which allow me to intimately feel the ground and get the immediate feedback that forces me to adjust my slightly lopsided gait and have better form, have forever ruined me for other footwear, which now feels like wearing bricks on my feet.

    So in less than 12 months, our lives have completely reorganized themselves around the process of doing everything we can to get the word out about huaraches and the overall "natural movement" movement and its recognition that expensive, highly structured athletic shoes are not your friend. It's a huge project, one that has me working harder than I have in a decade.

    And, irony of ironies, it is also one that has left me with far less time to read than I had a year ago.

    Damned life-changing books.

  • Dougal
    Dec 06, 2009

    I realise I'm in minority here but I really didn't enjoy this book at all. As a result of all the rave reviews I bought a copy for both myself and a friend - we were both hugely disappointed.

    The author, Christopher McDougall, is an American magazine correspondent and this perhaps goes someway to explain a lot of what I didn't like about the book. To begin with, it is written in a totally 'omniscient' manner, ie McDougall can see inside everyone's head. This is excessive, continuous, and extends

    I realise I'm in minority here but I really didn't enjoy this book at all. As a result of all the rave reviews I bought a copy for both myself and a friend - we were both hugely disappointed.

    The author, Christopher McDougall, is an American magazine correspondent and this perhaps goes someway to explain a lot of what I didn't like about the book. To begin with, it is written in a totally 'omniscient' manner, ie McDougall can see inside everyone's head. This is excessive, continuous, and extends right across the board from events to which he was privy, through events to which he was not, on to imagined `eureka moments' of various research scientists. In a similar manner, he describes events from the past, where he wasn't present, in a way he clearly feels will paint some sort of picture: eg `Then she wiped her greasy mouth on her sports bra, burped up some Dew, and bounded off'. Maybe she did wipe her mouth on her sports bra, but it seems doubtful, and I feel quite sure she never gave him an account, years later, of her burp.

    In a similar vein I confess that I didn't like the continuous use of words like `chomp' instead of `eat' and `chug' instead of `drink'. I imagine that is just a difference in usage when comparing opposite sides of the Atlantic but I did find myself wishing someone would just 'eat' something! And I do wonder if the use of block capitals as well as italics was really necessary. I am not talking about the start of each chapter but sentences like:

    '...I remember thinking What in the HELL? How in the HELL is this possible? That was the first thing, the first CHINK IN THE WALL, that MAYYYBEE modern shoe companies don't have all the answers...' (nine of those lowercase words are in italics, which I can't format here).

    So, we clearly have a very fictionalised account. But is any of it complete fiction? Well, yes it is. We are told on page 16 that the Tarahumara `barely eat any protein at all'. Well, with a physiology degree to back it up, I can tell you that leads only one way... to wasting and eventual death. It comes as a bit of a surprise then to be told on page 209 that `the traditional Tarahumara diet exceeds the United Nations' recommended daily intake [for protein] by more than 50 percent'. Perhaps by page 209 we are expected to have forgotten what he wrote earlier.

    On page 157 we are told, in relation to qualifying for the Boston Marathon that `...99.9 percent of all runners never will...'. Really? And how was that figure arrived at? For any average runner who puts in training, qualifying for Boston (like me!) is not difficult: 20,000 runners run it every year -- not qualify, which will be many, many times more -- actually run it. The implication behind his figure is that only 1 in 1000 marathoners who would specifically like to qualify do, ie 19,980,000 don't, which is clearly rubbish. His misuse of percentages crops up several times. It is patronising to the reader to assume that he doesn't understand what a percentage means. And it makes one more than doubt when we are told figures like '...70 to 80 percent..'. A particular problem with this is that it sounds as if he is being authorative when, in fact, he's not.

    His problem with Math(s) unfortunately isn't limited to the use of hyperbole with percentages. He unwittingly shows his problem, in typical journalistic style, in rather stark detail! On page 239, to work out how much older than 27 is an age that is equivalent to the increase in age from 19 to 27, he has to get out his notebook!!: `All righty. I flipped my notebook to a blank page and started jotting numbers. It takes....[I'll spare you the next four lines]...' He comes up with 36. Point made.

    But it is the disingenuous nature of much of his writing that I really took exception to. I will give two examples:

    One: who do you think ran the fastest?

    (a) Page 15: `Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time, and he could barely shuffle through his first marathon despite sucking down an energy gel nearly every mile.'

    (b) Page 157: `...Ted...transformed himself...into...a barefoot marathoner with such speed that he was able to accomplish something that 99.9 percent of all runners never will: he qualified for the Boston Marathon.' [I've already talked about the 99.9 percent]

    Answer: We don't know because we aren't told their times. Well, I can tell you: Lance Armstrong, by a long way. In 2006 his 'shuffle' resulted in a time of 2:59:36 and he came 868th out of 37,866 finishers; a brilliant result for a first marathon (and ten minutes under the very fastest age group Boston qualifying time)! And Barefoot Ted? In 2006 he completed the Boston Marathon in 3:20:16, coming in 3,848th out of 19,682 finishers. Not a shuffle either, but in a completely different, and slower, league. In fact, to refer to a result under three hours (faster than seven minutes a mile) as a shuffle is just gratuitiously insulting. McDougall seems to have a downer on Armstrong, as he slates him elsewhere in the book - the reason never becomes apparent.

    Two: Why do you think `...Abele Bikila - the Ethiopian marathoner who ran barefoot over the cobblestones of Rome to win the 1960 Olympic marathon...' didn't wear shoes? - we are told this interesting fact in a paragraph about Barefoot Ted researching the benefits of barefoot running. Well, I can tell you, although the book doesn't, that it wasn't anything to do with the benefits of barefoot running. What we aren't told in the book is that Abele Bikila had an upset before the 1960 marathon and couldn't find a pair of shoes to fit and decided to chance running barefoot as he had trained that way; nor are we told that he chose to run in shoes at the subsequent 1964 Olympics.

    On the subject of barefoot running, it's interesting that the photograph on the back of the hardback edition shows five runners, presumably principal characters from the book, all wearing running shoes.

    Turning to the so called `scientific research' that McDougall is fond of reporting, again we must doubt a lot of what we are told. Why? Because it is presented in a way we can't trust. Yes, some of it may be true, but how much? And how much are we being presented with information that is propounded as fact or we are led to believe shows one thing, but may show something else? Just one set of examples will make the general point:

    Page 170: `...no matter how much you run, your odds of getting hurt are the same.' This is utter rubbish and is clearly so, using reductio ad absurdum, apart from all the evidence to the contrary.

    Page 171: `Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes will decrease your risk of...injuries...[or]...improve your distance running performance?' No shoe manufacturer followed up the [Dr Richard's] challenge. The conclusion is drawn that `running shoes don't make you go faster and don't stop you from getting hurt..' This is absolute twaddle and I won't insult anyone's intelligence by explaining why.

    Page 172: The conclusion that McDougall draws from a study that found that "Wearers of expensive running shoes...are injured significantly more frequently than runners wearing expensive shoes..." is the following: `What a cruel joke: for double the price, you get double the pain.' Possibly, possibly. Could it just be that the buyers of more expensive shoes are those runners who push the boundaries of their training more aggressively?

    Unfortunately, the whole book is stuffed with this sort of biased writing dressed up as 'scientific fact'; we are used to it in the popular press -- we get a bookful here.

    For those of you interested in the 'science', I recommend reading this:

    I could go on, about the very dubious anthropological details, nutrition and hydration anomalies etc, but I have written too much already.

    The book is just an adventure story, fiction based on fact; enjoy it if you can stomach the style; just take everything with a very big pinch of salt!

    [For anyone considering it, at the very least don't purchase the Kindle edition: there is a spelling mistake on the first page that doesn't bode well for the rest of the book (the spelling mistake is not there in the print edition).]

  • Aaron
    Feb 10, 2011

    With its excessive hyperbole, convenient omissions, misleading statistics, logical inconsistencies and plain old errors, I stopped thinking about this book as actual journalism after fifty pages. Trying to read it as a novel wasn't that satisfying either because the book reads like several magazine pieces glued together rather than one continuous work. The personality profiles of Jenn and Billy and the screed against running shoes felt particularly extraneous. However, the book has a fun core of

    With its excessive hyperbole, convenient omissions, misleading statistics, logical inconsistencies and plain old errors, I stopped thinking about this book as actual journalism after fifty pages. Trying to read it as a novel wasn't that satisfying either because the book reads like several magazine pieces glued together rather than one continuous work. The personality profiles of Jenn and Billy and the screed against running shoes felt particularly extraneous. However, the book has a fun core of semi-mystical lost knowledge and its someone-recently-brainwashed-to-a-weird-secular-cult tone made the book enjoyable.

  • Jeanette
    Mar 20, 2011

    Painful as it was, I stayed with this until slightly past the halfway mark. I kept hoping I might learn more about the Tarahumara people, but it was not to be. There's very little about the Tarahumara, and almost everything about a bunch of self-absorbed, obsessive long-distance runners. I have no patience with extreme athletes. They need to strive for some balance in their lives. The sport is not everything. I also got tired of the "gee golly wow ain't it all just lipsmackingly wild and amazing

    Painful as it was, I stayed with this until slightly past the halfway mark. I kept hoping I might learn more about the Tarahumara people, but it was not to be. There's very little about the Tarahumara, and almost everything about a bunch of self-absorbed, obsessive long-distance runners. I have no patience with extreme athletes. They need to strive for some balance in their lives. The sport is not everything. I also got tired of the "gee golly wow ain't it all just lipsmackingly wild and amazing!!!" reporting style. A little more objectivity and a lot less hipness, Mr. McDougall.

  • Lea
    Apr 04, 2011

    So I picked this book up, thinking it would be a cool story about this lost tribe of distance runners -- which it was -- but I got soooo much more than I bargained for.

    Yes, I did learn about the Tarahumara tribe, but I also learned about the biomechanics of running and how shoe manufacturers disregard runner safety in preference of turning a profit, ultramarathons and the hardcore runners who participate in them, the lawless culture of Copper Canyon, the nearly lost techniques of persistence hun

    So I picked this book up, thinking it would be a cool story about this lost tribe of distance runners -- which it was -- but I got soooo much more than I bargained for.

    Yes, I did learn about the Tarahumara tribe, but I also learned about the biomechanics of running and how shoe manufacturers disregard runner safety in preference of turning a profit, ultramarathons and the hardcore runners who participate in them, the lawless culture of Copper Canyon, the nearly lost techniques of persistence hunting, the evolution of the human body, and on and on and on.

    This is my all-time favourite kind of book -- entertaining, sure, but chock full of information I've never even thought about before. I'm kind of a geek -- I just love to learn new stuff!

    I went into this thinking that it would probably be a pretty good book, but maybe best for super athletes, but nothing could be further from the truth. This book is for anyone who enjoys discovering new ideas and information. It also might inspire you to pick up your running shoes (or not!) and hit the trails for a nice long run.

  • Books Ring Mah Bell
    Jul 17, 2011

    Truly, I cannot recall the last time I read a book that I loved as much as this.

    Should you think this book is for serious runners alone, please think again. I am not by any means a runner. I ran track in high school, but the runs I did were short, sweet, sprints. After high school, I had a difficult time finding 200 yard dashes to race in, so I did a few 5k's... I didn't love them much at all. There was no way I was going to win a 5k, not ever. The distance just sucked. (In retrospect, some trai

    Truly, I cannot recall the last time I read a book that I loved as much as this.

    Should you think this book is for serious runners alone, please think again. I am not by any means a runner. I ran track in high school, but the runs I did were short, sweet, sprints. After high school, I had a difficult time finding 200 yard dashes to race in, so I did a few 5k's... I didn't love them much at all. There was no way I was going to win a 5k, not ever. The distance just sucked. (In retrospect, some training may have helped.) I looked at most distance runners as mentally ill - something was wrong with those people. They were running from something, I decided, maybe from being fat, or being sad, maybe running from addictions or desires. Nuts. All of them. (Maybe I was just jealous of their slow twitch muscle fibers.) Most of the time I found the races to be miserable, and looking at most of the runners, it seemed they did too. Grimaces, frowns, bloody nipples, knee braces... yeah, FUN!

    This book jogged my memory of those few times I did find running to be fun. One of those times was during a 5K called "Hair of the Frog", put on by a local brewery. It was early spring, it was cold, raining ice, There was thunder and lightning. I'm not sure if it was oxygen deprivation, or perhaps that amazing runner's high, but midway through the race, I was in nirvana. The trees around me looked beautiful encased in ice. I felt.... amazing. Alive. Primal. It did not matter that I was not going to win this race. (In fact, this race even had an award for finishing DFL, Dead F-ing Last.) It was then that I got it. I understood why some people really love to run. Had it not been for the pints of beer waiting at the finish line, I'm pretty sure I would have rerun the course with glee. Over time, I forgot about that sensation, busy with life, I rarely ran. I remember now.

    Author Christopher McDougall writes about and participates in extreme adventure sports. He struggles with running injuries. The doctors suggest shots, orthotics, and offer the advice, "if it hurts, stop doing it.".

    While in Mexico on an assignment, McDougall discovers the Tarahumara, an anthropological gem - a superhuman species, hidden deep in the formidable Sierra Madres. These people run extreme distances, and they run into old age, when the rest of the world resigns to rocking chairs. McDougall sets out to find these people, to discover how they run without injury, how they continue to run into old age. In the process, meets a man, Caballo Blanco, who wants to set up a race between these superhumans and the elite ultra runners of the United States.

    There is so much more to this book than people running. This book talks about culture, society, obsession, science.

    One of the most compelling parts of the book - the evidence presented that we are indeed born to run. One scientist points to the nuchal ligament on the back of our skulls, which fast moving animals have to keep the head in place while running. The topic of persistence hunting comes in to support the point and it is utterly fascinating. Running on two legs may not make us as fast as the quadripeds, but it does allow us to breathe more efficiently. And all these fabulous sweat glands we have? We can run longer without overheating, unlike the mammals not as well equipped with such a cooling system. we may not be fast enough to run down a deer in minutes, but after enduring for several miles, we can overtake the deer as it drops from overheating and exhaustion.

    The cast of characters is simply amazing. I have already mentioned my thought that serious runners are a bit off in the head. The group of ultrarunners mentioned in the book may make the case for me. We meet Jenn and Billy, two surfer kids turned ultrarunners, that party all night to the point of puking, and get a few hours of sleep (by passing out) and rise, ready to go for a VERY long run. Jack Kirk, an elderly trail runner, is mentioned briefly, but was so fascinating I had to google him. (

    ) There's Barefoot Ted, running trails sans shoes (or if his feet need protection, he uses Vibram Five Fingers). And the mastermind behind the race, Caballo Blanco, a gringo who indeed was running from something.

    This story is so, SO worth reading.

    The only thing that could have improved the book... pictures.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a trail calling me to run.

    Maybe I am a runner after all.

  • Diane
    Apr 01, 2012

    After hearing my running friends rave about this book for years, I finally got around to reading it. And now I owe them an apology, because I had gotten so sick of being preached at about chia seeds and running barefoot and vegetarianism and ultramarathons that I have been quietly rolling my eyes whenever anyone mentioned this friggin book.

    But once I got into the story, all of my eye rolls stopped. Sure, there were

    After hearing my running friends rave about this book for years, I finally got around to reading it. And now I owe them an apology, because I had gotten so sick of being preached at about chia seeds and running barefoot and vegetarianism and ultramarathons that I have been quietly rolling my eyes whenever anyone mentioned this friggin book.

    But once I got into the story, all of my eye rolls stopped. Sure, there were a few groans about McDougall's punchy, magazine-writing style that doesn't always translate well to book form, but overall, this was an engrossing read. It covers a motley cast of outdoorsy characters from America and Mexico, including the elite runners of the elusive Tarahumara Indian tribe, several incredible foot races, research on running and training methods, and there is even a captivating digression into how the Bushmen of the Kalahari go hunting.

    At its heart, the story is about human endurance, compassion for others, and the theory that our bodies were "born to run." There is a thoughtful chapter on the evolution of homo sapiens from other mammals, and the ways in which the human form is designed to be able to cover an incredible amount of distance.

    "Know why people run marathons? Because running is rooted in our collective imagination, and our imagination is rooted in running. Language, art, science; space shuttles,

    , intravascular surgery; they all had their roots in our ability to run. Running was the superpower that made us human -- which means it's a superpower all humans possess."

    As mentioned, there are also sections on the nutritional power of chia seeds, vegetarianism, and a training theory that runners should spend more time barefoot to build up their strength. I won't lecture you about any of that as I had found it exhausting when others preached to me (there is a line between enthusiasm and evangelism), but I did find the information interesting and will take it under advisement.

    Along the way, McDougall shares his own stories of running injuries and how he found different trainers to teach him ways to run more efficiently and with more joy. Yes, joy.

    "How do you flip the internal switch that changes us all back into the Natural Born Runners we once were? Not just in history, but in our own lifetimes. Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled at to slow down? Every game you played, you played at top speed, sprinting like crazy as you kicked cans, freed all, and attacked jungle outposts in your neighbors' backyards ... That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain ... Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else."

    The narrative builds to an amazing foot race in the blazing hot Copper Canyons of Mexico, with some top American athletes competing against a group of Tarahumara runners. Friends, I would be lying if I said I made it through that incredible story without getting choked up by the beauty of what happened that day. I could share quotes, but I think you need to read it in context and experience the grit and grace and humanity for yourself.

    This book was so inspiring that I vowed to make an effort to go running more often. And I shall run with joy and compassion in my heart.

  • Nicholas Sparks
    May 03, 2012

    This has to be one of my favorite books of the last few years. It's non-fiction, but it reads like a thrilling adventure, complete with a high-octane conclusion, all with a bit of science thrown in. It's a fantastic look at the sport of ultra-distance running, but trust me when I say that once you start reading, it's impossible to put down.


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