Reporter Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen chronicles the delicately interwoven tales of a variety of runners. The book has given way to a new philosophy on running that is emerging as the healthier way to run and live. In his book, McDougall explores how people get into ultra-running, the nutritional benefits of veganism, possible reasons why humans are thought to be designed for running, and most importantly; why barefoot or “minimalist” running form is a superior form.
McDougall starts off the book discussing his own issues with running and how doctors kept prescribing orthotics and telling him that at six foot four inches and 238 pounds, he should just accept that he wasn’t meant for running. As a contributing editor for Men’s Health who’s participated in a variety of extreme sports over the years he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He set out to find “Caballo Blanco” a former boxer who McDougall had a read about who now lived in Mexico and ran with the Tarahumara, an elite tribe of ultra-runners in Mexico’s Copper Canyons.
McDougall finds Caballo and gives us the full story on how the Tarahumara can run races hundreds of miles long while most of us can only run a few short miles at a time and manage to frequently injure ourselves. Together, McDougall and Caballo plan a race in the Copper Canyons that brings some of the world’s best ultra-runners together with the Tarahumara to celebrate a mutual love of running.
The book jumps around a lot from runner to runner as we get each character’s background stories. Intermixed with those stories are some informative chapters over several interesting elements of running and its history. McDougall focuses primarily on the running man theory as the cornerstone for the book. It hypothesizes that humans evolved as a species that chased animals as a large group until the animals became exhausted and the humans could catch and eat them. This tied into the topic of veganism, which the book says is the type of diet the running man followed since humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, gathering plant sources of food and hunting the very occasional animal for growing children and pregnant women in their group to eat. McDougall’s book supports the modern application of this theory by detailing the accomplishments of the record breaking vegan ultra-runner, Scott Jurek, whose own book, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey To Ultramarathon Greatness, on vegan ultra running should be on shelves this June.
Obviously the running man couldn’t pop into the store for a fresh pair of Nikes, nor do the Tarahumara. This leads us to the part of the book that has really altered running culture since it’s publication, the idea that we are designed to run barefoot. McDougall accuses Nike of creating a shoe industry where thick padded shoes cause people to land on their heels with their knees locked and legs stretched out in front of them, forcing their joints and backs to bear the brunt of running. The barefoot running style, on the other hand, includes bending at the hips, knees, and ankles with your back straight, allowing your muscles to absorb all of the forces of running.
There are parts of the book that feel slightly drawn out but it does include a lot of interesting stories and information. In the end, it’s a book full of useful information that you are welcome to embrace or regard with skepticism. Either way, McDougall has helped bring about a change in running culture that includes the development of many new minimalistic running shoes. It has also helped provided more evidence of the nutritional value of a vegan diet, something that more people are embracing today. It will be interesting to see this change develop as more research is conducted, and more books are written, on the topics McDougall covers.