“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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Karl Meltzer Crushes AT Record in Hoka Shoes: “My feet were money all the way”

The speed record for the fastest known time on the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail has been broken by ultra marathoner Karl Meltzer, who chopped an impressive 10 hours off the previous record for a supported thru-hike of the trail. He went through 19 different pairs of shoes during the 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes on the trail, according to crew chief Eric Belz, power hiking in more than twice as many pairs of shoes as the previous record holder.  Meltzer, who’s nickname is Speedgoat, wore only the Hoka One Speedgoat shoes and Drymax Speedgoat socks, two products named for himself. Crew chief Belz said on Facebook Live that the shoes were still in good condition even when the runner moved on to a new pair. Meltzer changed shoes as frequently as some  professional basketball players, Belz and Meltzer joked. Actually, even at that rate the new record holder wore his shoes for about 122 miles, more than the distance run in a basketball game but less than the 300 or so miles most runners get out of their shoes.


Karl Meltzer resting, elevating and icing his legs during his AT record hike.  Credit: atrun.redbull.com

Meltzer praised his shoes for having “grip like fly paper” but he heaped the real praise on his father for making sure the ultra runner took care of his feet every night. “My feet were money all the way” Meltzer said in a Facebook Live chat hosted after reaching the Appalachian Trail terminus in Springer, Georgia. He began his journey at the northern terminus on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Meltzer explained that he checked his feet every night and made sure his feet and lower legs were clean, even when he couldn’t shower for almost a month. “I had no blisters” Meltzer said, “Keeping your lower extremity good is really really important” he stressed during the on-line chat.

But neither shoes nor socks explain Meltzer’s string of ultra marathon victories or his newest record on the AT. The man is simply fast, strong and determined- this was his third attempt at breaking this record. Speedgoat is Meltzer’s nick name for good reason and now it is the trademarked business name for his line of product endorsements. He is one of the most if not the most successful ultra marathon runner ever. Sponsored by several companies most notably Red Bull he is also closely identified with the ultra cushioned shoes made by the up and coming shoe company Hoka One One and he has the eponymous Speedgoat model named for himself.

Until now the record for a supported thru hike of the AT was held by ultra marathoner and author Scott Jurek who hiked for 46 days. Jurek in turn bested the previous record by 3 hours set in 2011 by avid hiker, back packer, author and guide Jennifer Pharr Davis who shattered the previous record by 26 hours. Pharr Davis who hiked without major retail sponsorship wore Salomon Synapse Natural Motion boots, according to an interview that appeared in Backpacker magazine after her record. She still holds the woman’s supported record on the AT.

Howard E. Friedman

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Battle of the Sexes on the Appalachian Trail

Jennifer Pharr Davis who set the record for fastest know time for a supported hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011 has probably set another record- authoring the longest known essay about the same trail ever to be published in the New York Times. This essay consumes an entire page and a half, including pictures and will complement the long distance hiker and author’s previous record for her supported hike of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, a record just broken by ultra-marathon runner and author Scott Jurek.

Pharr Davis, a serious long distance hiker but with minimal ultra marathon running experience, hiked the 2,100 mile AT in 46 days with the aid of a crew to provide her with food and a chair or van to get some rest at road

Pharr Davis resting during  her AT record setting hike. New York Times, Melissa Dobbins

Pharr Davis resting during her AT record setting hike. New York Times, Melissa Dobbins

crossings along the way. Jurek, a 7 time in-a-row winner of the 100 mile Western States Endurance Run trail race which takes place each year in the mountains of northern California and a celebrated ultra marathoner, broke Pharr Davis’s record this past summer, but only by three hours, which is a surprisingly narrow margin over more than 46 plus days.

In a long piece supra titled ‘essay’ and titled ‘Gender Gap Narrows as

Pharr Davis on the trail. Appalachianjake.wordpress.com

Pharr Davis on the trail. Appalachianjake.wordpress.com

Miles Add Up’ which appeared in the sports section of the Times on November 4, 2015, Pharr Davis discusses the trail and the records for fastest known time on it. But her real subject is exploring the role of gender in feats of endurance. She recalls the incredulity she received after posting her AT record as she received suggestions that “she must be an exceptional woman-or, an androgynous one-to hike the trail so quickly”, comments, that she writes, caused her ” to doubt my own accomplishment. I wondered, what was different or wrong with me?”.

Pharr Davis recounts the successes and failures of other long distance hiking and ultra running superstars, such as Karl Meltzer and Heather Anderson, the latter of whom recently set a fastest known time for an unsupported hike of the AT, another record for a female. The author goes on to interview exercise physiologists and other experts, even Scott Jurek himself, who offer thoughts about the advantages or disadvantages of either sex when it comes to completing long distance endurance activities, debating the value of men’s strength and muscle build versus women’s lighter weight skeletal frames and increased levels of estrogen.

For herself, Pharr Davis surmises that “maybe women have a genetic and evolutionary advantage when it comes to enduring physical pain and stress”. Frankly, anyone who can go fast over 100 miles and especially 2,100 miles gets my attention and respect, and, this may indeed be one area where guts and grit make the difference more than an X or Y chromosome.

Scott’s shoes for the Appalachian Trail Record 2015

Scott Jurek shows his feet after 2,180 miles on the AT (from Scott Jurek's Facebook page)

Scott Jurek shows his feet and re-fuels after 2,180 miles on the AT (from Scott Jurek’s Facebook page)

What do you wear on your feet if you plan to run and hike more than 45 miles a day, seven days a week for more than six weeks, on hard packed dirt and rock covered trails, running over tree roots, through the water, pounding stone and sharp rocks, slogging through mud and either running up or down steep terrain and even mountains for much of the time?

Last week, ultra long distance runner Scott Jurek set a new record for the fastest time to complete the entire 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail. Jurek ran and power hiked the trail in 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes, breaking the previous record by 3 hours. For some perspective, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which oversees the trail suggests people allow 5-7 months to complete the entire trail. Jurek took just six weeks and four days.  But the Trail Conservancy estimate allows time for resupplying food along the way from towns near the trail as well as the slower pace of a backpacker carrying all his or her own gear. Jurek, on the other hand, ran the trail “supported”, meaning he did not carry his clothes or a tent and his food and a place to rest or sleep were prepared by his support crew, which for most of the effort, was his wife, Jenny.

Jurek closing in on Mt. Katahdin, a terminus of the AT, wearing Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes (from his FB page)

Jurek closing in on Mt. Katahdin, a terminus of the AT, wearing Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes (from his FB page)

Nonetheless, covering that distance in that amount of time still required Scott Jurek to run or hike on average close to 47 miles a day, day after day, seven days a week. So what did he wear on his feet?

I put that question to Brooks Shoes‘ Derek Lactaoen. Brooks, based in Seattle, WA is a long time sponsor of Scott Jurek’s long distance trail efforts. On this AT effort Scott went through 8 pairs of shoes, Mr. Lactaoen reported, which averages out to 272 miles per pair of shoes, if he switched them at regular intervals, which no one was really tracking. At that calculated average, Jurek did follow Brooks’ estimation that its trail shoes will last between 250-300 miles.

And what shoes did he wear? For a record breaking run of the AT, you would need real grit.

Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail shoes

Brooks Pure Grit 4 trail shoes

And, of Scott’s eight pair of shoes, seven pairs were from Brooks’ Pure Grit shoe line, three pairs of Pure Grit 3 and four pairs of Pure Grit 4. The eighth pair were Cascadia 10 shoes. No information was available about why he selected these models, but at this point after running so many of his ultra marathon races as a Brooks athlete, the fact that he used primarily the Pure Grit shoes says something about what he is most comfortable in. The Pure Grit 3 shoes are low weight, about 10 ounces, and have a relatively low heel drop, about 7 mm, according to Runners’ World. And, according to Brooks, Jurek had no significant foot problems on his run with the exception of some blisters. He did have to deal with an injured quadriceps and a sore knee, injuries that have been well reported.

Brooks Pure Grit 3 trail shoes

Brooks Pure Grit 3 trail shoes

So, what can an average runner or hiker learn from the selection of shoes Scott Jurek chose to wear for his 2,180 run and hike of the Appalachian Trail? The take home message probably is that when it comes to shoes, stick with a brand and model that are comfortable and work for you, and if you can afford to change shoes as they wear out, definitely do so.

Oh, and it’s okay if your are running in last year’s model. Scott did.

Howard E. Friedman

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