Buy “Born to Run” on Amazon.
This book is a masterpiece on what is easily the most ubiquitous form of exercise: running. Humans walk and run, it simply defines who we are. Our species can run farther and longer than any other species on earth, and that is our ecological niche, what gave us our evolutionary one-up on the world around us. McDougall gives us a relatively complete history of the sport of ultrarunning – running extreme distances of 50, 100, or even 150 miles in some of the harshest terrain on earth. His book is not merely dry nonfiction facts, but is beautifully crafted with some fantastic storytelling along the way. It was a real page-turner, shockingly gripping for a book about running, an activity which I used to have nothing but contempt for. From the beginning, we are introduced to a mysterious Caballo Blanco character, a man who is trying to put together a race between the Tarahumara tribe and the greatest ultramarathon athletes in the world. Stories of different runners and races eventually culminate in this epic showdown: the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, which consists of 50 miles of running over some of the harshest terrain in the entire world. Personally, I could barely wait to find out what happened.
Aside from the fantastic storytelling, McDougall asks some tough questions. Why is it that despite all of our ridiculously expensive modern footwear, our “corrections” for pronation and supination, and our booming shoe industries that 60-80% of all runners are injured every year? After all, it’s not like our ancestors were roaming around in Africa nursing their shin splints or plantar fasciitis, and those guys were running either barefoot or in rudimentary sandals! Why don’t other animals, like antelope or horses, need corrective footwear so they can run correctly? Are humans simply disposed to be terrible, injury-prone runners? How in the hell do these ultrarunners pull it off? McDougall sets out to answer these questions in the light of evolution – talking to scientists from some of the top universities in the US – as well as by studying the mechanics of the greatest runners in the world. He presents an extremely compelling case for barefoot running, describing how it teaches us to run with proper mechanics rather than pound the pavement with our cushioned arch supports. Once we learn proper form (Kenyans will run for about 18,000 miles before throwing on their first pair of shoes) then we can run in just about anything without worry of injury. Since writing this book, McDougall has apparently become a big fan of Vibram FiveFingers, everyone’s favorite minimalist shoes. If you are not convinced that barefoot (or minimalist) running is the best way to learn to run by the end of this book, you apparently cannot read!
Lastly, he does not just talk about running mechanics, but presents a philosophy of running and exercise in general. He argues that running is something you should love: engaging with nature, being in line with your primal heritage, and putting your body to the test. It should not be a grueling, all-out contest of pain; the best ultrarunners in the world are turn around after their first marathon with a smile on their faces and go run the next. Running outdoors in the woods or mountains or wherever you can gives us an adventure and a unity with our bodies and nature unlike any other sport; it is not a chore, to be pounded out on a treadmill for 30 minutes while you watch television or jam to music. Of course, McDougall conveys this much better in his full-length book than I possibly could in a couple of paragraphs.
The bottom line: this book is easily one of my favorites. Read it!