Book review: Born to Run
Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra-Runners, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen
by Christopher McDougall
2009 Profile Books Ltd (UK)
ISBN: 9781861978233 (UK)
282 pages plus acknowledgements
First published 2009 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. New York
What is the book about? Did I like it?
I shouldn’t be surprised how much I enjoyed this popular book, despite its length (see style comments). I love running (particularly off-road running) and storytelling. I am fascinated about evolution, human nature, and the timeless question, why are we here? And I am interested in barefoot running and human health. All these topics are Born to Run territory.
The backdrop for these topics is an ultra-marathon race run in the remote Barranca del Cobre region of Mexico in 2006. Legendary off-road runner, Scott Jurek took part, as did the book’s author, a handful of other American runners, and a group of Tarahumara Mexican Indians, the ‘hidden tribe’ of the sub-title.
The writing style
There are many ways to tell a story and a key choice for a storyteller is to choose brevity or embellishment. McDougall doesn’t just opt for the latter, he commits to it with gusto. He drags out everything but the science, on purpose (I think). Born to Run is a yarn. Now, I’m not sure it needs to be, but that’s what it is. It’s a marathon story for, well, a marathon story and, while I would still have cut half the text, I can see why the author and editor chose the path they did. One of McDougall’s lightly-touched scientific topics is our brain’s understandable preference to take the easy path (to conserve energy for an emergency) when a long hard slog is both more fulfilling, and what we’re built for. McDougall’s rambling creates an atmosphere that helps to bring the facts to life and, I suspect, makes the learning process more satisfying and successful. I may be being generous, but I think McDougall’s writing is indulgence by design. Whatever the truth, my sound-bite bombarded brain enjoyed the long, slow, noisy meal of Born to Run.
There were two highlights for me: the running tips and chapter 28 (p214—244 of the UK edition).
First highlight, the running tips. I should preface this by saying that, in the month or so since I read the book I have changed my running style and I feel stronger, fitter, and running feels easier. Needless to say, I have had no injuries. The tips I latched onto, in no particular order, were:
- ‘Love the beast’, that is, embrace fatigue. Get to know it, to anticipate it, and to conquer it. Think, bring it on because I know I can push through it. There is no denying that fatigue comes in waves and the further you run the more waves you have to overcome.
- Run barefoot (at least some of the time), or run like you’re barefoot. Which means, run on the incredibly strong and bouncy pad of your foot, not heel-toe, as modern shoes (not biological evolution) enable you to do. Heel-toe running is a false economy and no amount of rubber is going to protect your body from the impact of landing on your heel.
- Keep your back straighter, your gait more regular (legs staying squarely under your hips), and your strides shorter.
- Don’t train too fast (speed work is okay in bursts) so your body learns to slowly burn fat, not quickly burn sugar.
Second highlight, chapter 28 (the longest of the book’s 32 chapters), which is about the evolutionary and biological science behind running. In a nutshell, ‘humans evolved to go running’ and chase down prey. Our unique hairless, sweating physiology and our aerobic capability enabled us to wear down any other species. Added to that, our super-sized brains enabled us to outwit our prey. We scrawny (when compared to Neanderthals) Homo sapiens are ‘persistence hunters’ who survived due to our cunning and our ability to run long distances. It’s there in the title; we’re Born to Run.