“Born to Run” Running Strong After a Decade

“Born to Run” is one of the most successful and influential books ever written about running. More than a decade since publication I can make that declaration for three reasons.

First, some of the people featured in the non fiction account of the arcane world of ultra long distance running still promote their association with the book as an important part of their credentials. Second, according to author Christopher McDougall’s web site, best actor Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is scheduled to star in a film version of the book.

And my third reason is the most convincing evidence of this book’s outsized influence. During the current COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, my wife and I have desperately searched the house for new books to read. I found and re-read “Born to Run” and loved it all over again. I urged my wife who is an adamant non runner and lover of fiction books to read this non-fiction book about running. She read it in one day. The very next day, she laced up her vintage white Keds sneakers and went for a run! 

“Born to Run” fueled greater interest in running and a new curiosity about running barefooted or in minimalist shoes. Minimalist running shoes were marketed nationwide in the years following. The book’s popularity also probably helped at least a couple of careers and shined light and Ivy League caliber research on an indigenous people for whom running is a preferred mode of transportation.

McDougall introduced his readers to a running niche unknown to the general public and not well known even to most recreational runners in May 2009 when “Born to Run” was published. While most people were familiar with the New York and Boston marathons, fewer people knew that runners were meeting almost every weekend somewhere around the country to run 50 and 100 miles races some lasting more than 24 hours.  During these ultra marathon events runners made brief stops to shovel food in to their mouths, change out of blood stained socks and have their weight checked to make sure they were not dehydrated and risking kidney failure. Runners were lining up in California, Colorado and Tennessee to name a few, not to mention at Badwater 135, the self proclaimed “world’s toughest foot race” starting in Death Valley and crossing through places like Furnace Creek. The asphalt along the route was hot enough to melt the rubber off your sneakers.

But that was not even the most interesting part of “Born to Run”. The primer on the world of ultra marathons was merely a necessary backdrop for the true crux of the book. McDougall takes us on a wild ride to a place most of us have never heard of to meet a motley collection of colorful eccentrics. To tell his story he introduces us to a middle-aged lanky bald runner who Hollywood could never have made up: Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, also known as Micah True.

And that was just chapter one.

“Born to Run” brilliantly weaves together the true story of how the enigmatic Caballo Blanco, an American who re-located to be able to live and run in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, created one of the great running races you never heard of. The book deftly tells the story that brought together the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous people who use running for transportation, recreation and sport and a disparate group of American runners, including a professional with product endorsements, some relative unknown college students, personal trainers, the author and someone who actually defies categorization, Barefoot Ted.

Along the way, McDougall introduces readers to an assortment of physical therapists, athletic trainers, renowned running coaches, a Harvard evolutionary biologist and a New Zealand professor all of whom have devoted themselves to the study and art of running.

The story follows McDougall’s quest to finally resolve his own struggles with recurrent running injuries and his attempt to train and run a 50 mile race through the Copper Canyons. But the book is not an ego trip for McDougall, as many books written by runners turn out to be. In fact, McDougall’s running plays a minor role since he shines the light on those who have mastered the art. He brings us as close as he can to Micah True. He introduces us to the world of the Tarahumara which leaves you kind of flabbergasted that this community lives about 270 miles south of El Paso, TX and is not a lost tribe in the middle of the Amazon.

Tarahumara men running. credit:https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/skeleton

Much of what makes “Born to Run” inspirational is the author’s uncovering of how running is innate to humans and the role it has played in our development as a species. And for that he cites Daniel Lieberman a Harvard professor who studies human anatomy with a focus on anatomical features unique to humans that allow us to run distances longer than any other species. He tells the story of David Carrier, now a professor of Biology who with his brother tried to prove the ‘Running Man’ theory by attempting to run down an antelope to exhaustion over the course of several days. We are also introduced to a South African mathematician who became so obsessed with the idea of humans as persistence hunters that he left college to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari to learn exactly how they used running as their primary hunting tool. 

As McDougall discovers that the Tarahumara, the Bushmen and even Barefoot Ted can run just fine in flat sandals or, in Ted’s case, bare feet he questions the need for our modern over engineered running shoes and the multi national industry behind them. McDougall proceeds to take down modern running shoes and in the process the industry leader Nike. He draws support for the idea from physical therapist Irene S. Davis who’s treatment for injured runners evolved to recommend that they strengthen their feet, not their shoes. Cushioned over built shoes have existed only since the 1970s when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman brought the world cushioned Nike running shoes. Nike provided their shoes to competitive runners than marketed them to a growing number of recreational runners as the jogging boom began to ramp up.

The story concludes with an epic ultra marathon pitting modern running technique and technology against an ancient one as Caballo Blanco managed with difficulty to bring together some of the best ultra marathoners in the United States to race against the best of the Tarahumara runners over 50 miles in the Copper Canyon.

“Born to Run” has not only inspired people to run and still ranks among the best selling running books but the book likely had an influence on the running world. Barefoot running had a moment after the publication of the book with introduction of stripped down shoes which tried to mimic the unstructured sandals worn by the Tarahumara. I saw a young man trail running in New Jersey with a home made version of the ‘hurrache’ sandals the indigenous runners would make themselves and I saw a woman hiking steep terrain in the Catskills barefooted. Even today running races of various lengths and terrain will often have at least a couple of barefoot runners.

Corporate money capitalized on the barefoot running phenomenon too. Vibram, an Italian leading manufacturer of rubber soles for shoes and boots, launched the Vibram Five Fingers, a ‘shoe’ that looks like a glove but for the foot with shaped toes. The rubber bottom provides some protection for the sole of the foot. Vibram was sued for allegedly making some claims that running in Vibram Five Finger shoes “reduces running injuries” based on how the shoes changed a person’s gait. Vibram settled the lawsuit putting aside up to $3.75 million but denied fault and liability. The shoes are still sold. And as for Nike, “Born to Run” did not hurt the world’s leading shoe brand. Nike has gone from selling shoes that give you more support to their now famous very engineered Vaporfly that give you even more cushioning plus a carbon fiber plate to propel runners faster.

While mass enthusiasm for barefoot running has waned, the notion that our feet are stronger than we realize lives on. Physical therapist Irene S. Davis who was at the University of Delaware at the time of the book and now heads Harvard’s Spaulding National Running Center encourages patients to strengthen the muscles in their feet through a series of exercises and not to rely on over built shoes. Daniel E. Lieberman, at the time of publication already an established professor at Harvard and author of the idea that humans are anatomically adapted for long distance running, began studying the running biomechanics of the Tarahumara in 2012 adding to his research on natural barefoot runners in Kenya and attempt to fully understand just what our feet are capable of.

Some of the runners featured in the book went on to further success. Jenn Shelton who was in the early days of running ultras at the time “Born to Run” was written  went on to compete around the world and win various marathons. She now is a running coach. Scott Jurek was already one of the most winning ultra marathoners at the time he was featured in “Born to Run”. He went on to set a fastest known time running the 2, 190 mile length of the Appalachian Trail and for running 167.5 miles in 24 hours. Jurek’s bio on his web site proudly proclaims in large font Born to Run.

Other runners featured in the book openly promote their association with this juggernaut of a running book more than 10 years after publication. Eric Orton, the author’s running coach during the build up to the first ever Copper Canyon ultra and an author himself advertises on his coaching web site that he was “a featured character in the worldwide best selling book Born to Run”.  Barefoot Ted mentions his “Born to Run” bonafides in the first line of his web site and he mentions his appearance in the book multiple times. He also sells his own line of minimalist running sandals and leads running trips and races in the Copper Canyon. For that matter, Christopher McDougall’s web site also mentions “Born to Run” in the first line above the titles of his more recent books. But he is the author after all.

And the Tarahumara continue to live and run in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, with their health and safety challenged by environmental threats and the risk of violence from drug cartels. The first ultra marathon organized with great effort by Micah True featured in “Born to Run” continues as an annual event, drawing runners from around the world. And as for the Caballo Blanco, several years after publication of the book he collapsed while running in his beloved mountains where his body was recovered. His spirit runs on.

Howard E. Friedman

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