Book Review: Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

In the seedy lobby of an old hotel in the Sierra Madre, an American journalist finds the legendary Caballo Blanco, and it will change his life forever.

No, this isn’t a tale of the old west, a spy thriller, or an advertisement for Mexican distilled spirits. It’s not fiction, genre or otherwise, though many of the characters are larger-than-life and their exploits are, by any measure, superhuman.

Born to Run is a story about running. Surprise.

Christopher MacDougall is a former Associated Press reporter, sometime freelance writer, and past-his-prime athlete who is launched on a remarkable odyssey by a rather mundane problem. He’s out of shape and trying to get himself back into condition, but he invariably injures himself just as he’s beginning to make progress. After a few less-than-helpful trips to the doctor, he begins to wonder how anybody can run without hurting themselves, and why anybody would want to run if it’s the fast track to crippling injury.

These questions lead him into the world of extreme long-distance running, where races of 50 to 100 miles or more across torturous terrain are the norm. He encounters some incredible athletes and unique personalities, discovers a few odd things about human performance in situations where endurance trumps speed, and begins to hear whispers of a tribe of extraordinary running savants in the mountains of Mexico–the Tarahumara, the “Running People.” They eat 100-mile runs for breakfast, continue running well into their geriatric years, and are almost supernaturally immune to both injury and illness. Some say they hunt deer by running them to death.

Before long, McDougall is trekking through the Copper Canyons, pondering his motives and chances of survival in a desert maze of  sheer, rocky precipices–the lair of historical outlaws Geronimo and Pancho Villa, and the home turf of modern drug runners. In his search for the Tarahumara, he hears rumors of the ghostly Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, a crazy gringo with a connection to the reclusive Running People. It turns out Caballo Blanco is much more than a campfire story, and he becomes the link between the Tarahumara and an assortment of American ultradistance runners who long to know their secrets and test their skills against the legendary tribe.

Along the way from the U.S. to Mexico and from the Rocky Mountains to Death Valley, McDougall learns a lot about the physiology of running, why humans are better adapted for long distance running than any other creature on Earth, what the Tarahumara do right that we do wrong, and the compelling stories of a host of people who run ridiculously long distances under ridiculous conditions for the sheer joy of it. He also discovers a connection between running and community, and why, for the long-distance runner, compassion might be just as important as conditioning.

The story wraps up with a dream-team throwdown race through the Copper Canyons between the Tarahumara and the Americans, and a bittersweet ending that acknowledges the twilight of a culture slowly eroding beneath the advance of civilization and the encroachment of Mexican drug gangs–a world in which the Tarahumara may no longer be fast enough to outrun their enemies.

This was a good read. A colleague tossed this in front of me during a work trip in the middle of the night shift, and I chewed through it in about three hours of nonstop racing, er, reading. It kept me awake and alert at 3 am, and that’s no small achievement.

McDougall tells an engaging story with plenty of humor and heart, leavened with enough science and investigative journalism to make this much more than a love letter to mountain trails and the people who run them. If you’ve got a runner or any other flavor of athlete on your Christmas list, get them a copy of this book. You won’t be sorry.

There are a few bits of coarse language sprinkled through the narrative, and these extreme athletes also enjoy extreme partying, giving some passages a sort of college frat vibe. So, I don’t recommend this book for kids. They’re not the target audience anyhow. Mid 20’s and up will probably like it just fine.

There’s some advocacy of minimalist running footwear and a variety of vegan-ish performance diet recommendations that are controversial at least and faddish at worst. The scientific court is out on much of this stuff, so though a lot of the incidental advice in Born to Run makes sense, I wouldn’t use it as a model for any sudden adjustments to your workout patterns, running stride, or daily menu without professional advice. Just sayin’.

Mr. McDougall has a tres cool website with lots of bonus info related to the book, photos of the people and places within, and much more. Check it out.

Chris McDougall’s blog. Also tres cool.

There’s also a fan club site where you can discuss the merits of barefoot running and parched corn with other like-minded individuals.

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