“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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On the Trail: Another New Trail Shoe Trend

(originally appeared in Trail Walker, quarterly publication of the NY/NJ Trail Conference Spring 2015)

Extra thick soled hiking and trail running shoes are being promoted this Spring and hikers will even see extra thick hiking boots heavily advertised soon, as well. Some of these shoes, referred to as “maximalist” shoes, have soles that are more than three times as thick as even standard hiking and trail running shoes. While ‘maximalist’ shoes have been around for a few years, they were mostly a niche product available from the manufacturers on line or in independent outdoor gear stores. Now, national and regional retailers like REI and Campmor are even selling this unique type of shoes.

The maximalist trail shoes stand out primarily for one feature – mid-sole material almost 1.25 inches thick, often made of a proprietary mix of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) foam blended with rubber to create increased cushioning.

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

, like the famous Western States 100 mile race  (Karl Meltzer) and posting speed records on the Pacific Crest Trail (Heather “Anish Anderson”) and John Muir Trails (Liz Thomas).

Hikers, backpackers and ultra-marathoners have embraced these re-designed shoes for three reasons. First, the generous cushioning through the mid-sole layer of the shoes provides shock absorption whether running or hiking on the trail or on the road. Second, the shoes have either minimal “drop”, (the height difference between the heel and the forefoot), or, no ‘drop’ at all. Proponents of shoes with minimal or zero “drop” claim that they promote a natural gait with a less forceful impact and allow for a more efficient functioning of the achilles tendon. Third, the maximalist shoes, which now include mainstream brands such as Vasque, Brooks and Skechers, in addition to the two most popular brands, Hoka One One and Altra, generally have a wider and more anatomically shaped toe box. Altras have zero drop while Hoka Ones have a minimal drop.

A few years ago when shoe manufacturers promoted “barefoot” running and trail shoes, like Vibram Five Fingers, they cited research and quoted biomechanics experts supporting the shoes’ benefits. And, they maintained that their shoes hearkened back to our ancient hominid roots as barefoot walkers. Now, very few ‘maximalist’ companies are citing any research backing their claims and the thick soled shoes in no way mimic human ancient foot wear or ambulation. Yet, the shoes are catching on with elite and recreational trail runners and hikers. And some weekend hikers claim that these cushioned, low drop shoes with a lot of room for their toes, helped resolve nagging problems like heel pain and shin splints. One note of caution, thogh.  Theelevated  platform design of these shoes may prove unstable to anyone prone to ankle sprains. And, if you are getting good results with your current hiking shoes, than, no need to switch.

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Racing the Antelope…

Racing the Antelope cover

 

Racing the antelope seems to be a pure folly. Why even try to outrun an animal that can eclipse even the fastest human being alive. No contest. Yet, in suggesting this impossibility in the title of his 2001 book, professor of biology and ultra marathon runner Bernd Heinrich suggests that most people could indeed do what they think is impossible. Not to outrun an Antelope in a sprint, but to have the stamina to outrun most animals over a long distance. For Heinrich maintains, humans are designed to run. And we would do well to learn from many different species in the animal kingdom to help us understand the physiology needed to run fast and to run long.

 

Racing the Antelope concludes its final chapter remembering the author’s record setting 100 Km ultra marathon race which took place in Chicago in 1981 which he ran in 6:38:21, setting the official world record for that distance. And his success is all the more remarkable since Heinrich was already an accomplished biologist busy doing field work and publishing scientific papers. Yet specifically because of his analytic mind and intimate familiarity with the animal kingdom, Dr. Heinrich was in a position to bring a keen understanding of the science of running to bear on his own training. And train he did, running more than 100 miles a week in the lead up to his historic race.

 

The author takes us on a tour of animals familiar to us yet he dissects their lives in a way which should bring fascinating appreciation to anyone and especially someone who knows the physical pangs of exhaustion from a long run or hike. He begins describing how the hawk-moth cools its body despite almost non-stop activity during flight and feeding. The author than goes on to describe the problem of overheating among human athletes. Fortunately, Heinrich explains, humans have a superb method of cooling via sweating.

Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich (Photo credit: Sterling College)

The author goes on to describe the mind-boggling migratory routes of various bird species, including the white-rumped sandpiper which flies 2,900 miles non-stop during its migration. Heinrich uses these amazing feats to deconstruct just how a species endures a physically exhausting activity. He discusses caloric needs, the anatomy of muscle placement to maximize flight and a unique avian mechanism for delivering as much oxygen as possible with each breath.

 

Subsequent chapters peer into the world of frogs whose explosive strength in their hind legs shed light on the benefit of fast twitch muscle fibers over slow twitch. Unless of course you want to run for a long distance, like say, a 50 km race. In that case, a greater percentage of slow twitch fibers are beneficial. Remarkably, one can influence to some extent their own ratio of slow to fast twitch muscle fibers by the type of training one does he explains.  Shorter but quicker sprints will favor more fast twitch fibers. The author goes on to write about camels as well as running among early hominids. But the central chapter of the book is about the antelope.

 

Dr. Heinrich cites a scientific article from Nature magazine which declared the pronghorn antelope “the world’s premier ultra-running animal”. Indeed, the pronghorn has been timed at running 61 miles an hour. And while a cheetah can also reach high speeds, the pronghorn can sustain that rate far longer covering 7 miles in 10 minutes. What does the pronghorn have that we don’t? A combination of a high VO2 max, the ability to get the most work for the amount of oxygen available. Ultimately though the antelope couples this VO2 max with other unique adaptations, including a larger heart, lungs and windpipe, increased muscle mass and a higher concentration of hemoglobin in the muscle tissue to take up the available oxygen. “Pronghorns are just better at everything that affects sustained running speed”, Heinrich writes.

 

He goes on to explain aspects of the endurance of camels including their unique methods of dealing with intense heat despite often limited access to water. And the author touches on the basilisk lizard and even differences in running between dogs and cats before diving into his own preparation for his record setting ultra. Anyone training for or thinking about training for a race or hike or backpacking trip that will take him or her out of their comfort zone should be inspired by just how hard Professor Heinrich trained. Yet he neither romanticizes his training nor describes his feat as superhuman.

 

And that is the point of the book. We are, all of us, runners in our core. And we can run and, if properly motivated, run far. “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare”, a quote Heinrich shares from Tanzanian marathon runner Juma Ikangaa, seems to aptly represent his core philosophy for all who dream to run farther than they have run before.