Saturday, September 5, 2009

Born to Run: a review

I have been alternating reading and listening to the book Born to Run by author Christopher McDougall for the last week and have found it absolutely captivating. I had heard about the book from a few friends and had even read a 2005 article of the same name in Natural History Magazine claiming that humans have a deep-seated evolutionary tie to running. I dismissed the theory back in 2005 as a cute story thinking that some overzealous running science geek had set out to legitimize his running addiction with scientific "evidence".

However, the evidence seems to be mounting. You see, humans have all of these traits that define us as runners as opposed to walkers like our closest extant evolutionary relative the chimpanzee. For instance, we have an achilles tendon and natural arch in our foot that give us our bouncy gait--both not present in the walking chimp. We also have a butt which serves to keep us from falling forward when we run but is not useful when we walk (chimps have a case of pancake ass). We also have several compelling "anti-bobblehead" adaptations to stabilize our heads when we run. These include an organ in our inner ear that keeps our head from nodding and an elastic ligament attached at the base of our skull that damps the bobbing effect. There is a lot more evidence presented that suggests that humans are runners through and through: and not speed demons, but endurance runners. Cool.

I tend to gravitate toward the geeky science stuff that this book offers, but that is a minor part of its allure. It is an incredible story about a number of whack-job characters that have one thing in common--they love and live to run. The book's main focus is on a reclusive band of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara. They have developed a knack for endurance running as both a survival technique and way of catching game. Over the last few centuries, when threatened, they learned to run far away and hide in places that others would not venture: places like their present address in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. The finale of this book takes place in the Copper Canyons of Mexico where a race is organized that pits the best Tarahumara runners against the best American ultramarathon runner, Scott Jurek, along with a few other colorful ultrarunners.

I found so many of the stories enchanting, like the one about the 1995 Leadville 100-miler where Ann Trason (aka Bruja) took on the Tarahumara runners. I won't tell you how it ends. Then, there's the story about the Czech Olympian Emil Zatopek who ran his first marathon in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic marathon--and won! McDougall tells the tale of a green Zatopek running up alongside the veteran marathoner, Jim Peters, in the Olympic marathon. Peters knew Zatopek had not run a marathon before and decided he would go out at a blistering pace, wear Zatopek down, and zoom off to victory. So, early in the race, Zatopek pulls up alongside Peters and asks if they are going the appropriate pace for the marathon distance since he hasn't run one before. Peters fires back that they are actually going too slow. So, Zatopek thanks him and speeds off, never looking back. He won the marathon and broke the Olympic record that year. God, I love that story!!!

I was thrilled to tell Sprinkles the other day that this book revealed why her feet are so big and floppy and lack an arch. It's because she never goes barefoot: indeed never has in her life. There's a whole section of this book on barefoot running that is pretty interesting though much of the information is not actionable for most of us. The author presents a lot of interesting information that tends to indict our modern cushiony shoes as doing, at best, nothing to ward off modern-day running injuries, and, at worst, being the cause of them. "Putting your feet in shoes is similar to putting them in a plaster cast," says Dr. Hartmann--Physical Therapist to such stars as Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebrselassie. He goes on to say that, "the deconditioned musculature of the foot is the greatest issue leading to injury, and we've allowed our feet to become badly deconditioned over the last 25 years." This is supposedly thanks to modern-day running shoes. Allegedly, Alan Webb's feet shrunk 2 shoe sizes and his injury rate plummeted once he started conditioning his feet with barefoot running exercises. Sprinkles, this is your ticket to that lovely size 9 foot you've always wanted!

As you can see, I loved this book. It combines great stories, meaty characters, and terrific writing. I give it two toes up!

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