Born to Run

Quote of the Day:

“”There’s something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time.”
— Christopher McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen)

Back in August, TB’s doorbell rang a little after five o’clock. I craned my neck around the wall to see if I should answer or not and was rewarded with the sight of “Brown” disappearing from view. UPS must be run by a dude who’s a little like me, because they don’t waste time with pleasantries. They just drop the box, hit the bell and vamoose. That’s customer service as far as I’m concerned. But I digress.

In my little brown box that day was a book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. I was perplexed. I knew I didn’t order some goofy book about running and I couldn’t figure out who might have. I spent half a minute or so trying to think of someone I could give the book to, or if not, where in the attic I could stash it. Finally I noticed the packaging insert and a brief note from “Little Boy,” reclusive but avid citizen of the TBU. “Here’s to kickin’ 40’s ass. I think you will find this book enlightening.”

Well, Little Boy had pushed all the right buttons. He knew about my middle age angst from the blog and appreciated my continuing and ever more difficult quest for enlightenment and so his note went right for the jugular. Even more though, this book represented, errr, represents, the only remuneration for my efforts ever received by TBU management. And I was reading the last book on my nightstand. So what the hell, I decided to place it next up in my queue.

This was a very good decision. Born to Run is by far the most interesting book I’ve read in at least a decade. It flows like an adventure novel, educates like a favorite and easy professor and blows apart assumptions I never even realized were not hard facts. Aside from the fact the very idea of running for pleasure is anathema to me, aside from the fact that running fifty or one hundred miles in a single day is lunacy to me, I was swept up with a new enthusiasm to change my approach entirely to physical and mental health. What if I could simplify my diet? Save money on shoes? Smile while running? It seems so possible, better yet, so natural in light of all I learned from McDougall, via Little boy.

Born to Run follows the quest of an aging American hippy expatriate who calls himself Micah True, but is known to the rural Mexicans among whom he resides as Caballo Blanco, the white horse. He lives deep in the treacherous Copper Canyons in a small hut he built. His neighbors are the Tarahumara Indians, a secluded tribe who have shunned the modern world in favor of their ancient customs, one of which is running. From childhood through old age, male and female, these people run for miles. A marathon is to them roughly equivalent to a typical American’s stroll through Walmart. It was these people, who he met by chance at one of the only two ultra marathon events the Tarahumara ever took part in, with whom Caballo Blanco sought refuge after becoming disillusioned with the course of his own life. Already an accomplished runner, he learned from the Tarahumara new techniques for running and a new approach to life in general consisting primarily of simplicity and joy.

But the hippy hadn’t completely dropped off the face of the Earth. He maintained a loose connection to the outside world and he never even tried to disassociate himself from the great American compulsion to find out who is best. So as his admiration for the Tarahumara grew, so too did his curiosity about how they would fare in a long distance race against the greatest American ultra marathoners. When he was tracked down by the author one strange day in a small country inn, he immediately realized he had found a way to sate his curiosity. He enlisted McDougall to arrange the American contingent for his race, to be held without publicity or fanfare in the depths of the Mexican canyonlands.

The coming together of the race in itself makes Born to Run worth reading. The personalities are huge–Barefoot Ted, the surfer, the knockout blonde, the unbeatable champion–and the challenges they face are engrossing. But what really makes this book great are the interludes. Between updates on the state of the race and short bios of its participants, McDougall treats the reader to a brief history of the Tarahumara and a vivid description of their homeland. Even better, he also provides a brief history of humanity, viewed through the lens of an anthropologist/biologist/athlete.

Have you, like me, always understood that in prehistoric times our human ancestors lived in caves and the men went out to hunt while the women gathered nuts and berries and tended the babies and the fire? Not so, according to evidence gathered by scientists at the University of Utah and Harvard. Actually, they hypothesized and proved that men, women and children all went out to hunt together and rather than dragging the carcass back to some camp or cave, the group simply feasted and rested where they made a kill, then moved on, constantly. (Might I say, a good name for these early people would be “Travellinmaen?”)

Oversimplifying, the early humans had no blades or spears yet and clubbing a lion was a damned hard way to kill it. But our ancestors had one major advantage over every other animal, one we still share to this day. We can outrun them. Yep, I never considered that possibility either. Cheetahs? Horses? Deer? It’s no contest. People outrun them all. If the race is long enough, that is. For biological reasons I’d rather not try to reproduce in this space, people are designed to run longest. (Basically because we release heat best). So our early ancestors ran. They ran those deer until their hooves fell off and they died. It’s called persistence hunting and there are actually a few people left in the modern world who still do it. And now can I blow your mind? Guess how far a group must run, in general, to run an animal to its death. Twenty-six miles. I finally understand why all those crazy folks line up in Boston and New York and everywhere else to run through the streets for several hours. It’s in their genes.

There is so much more to enjoy about this book. Violent drug lords make an appearance. Nike plays a prominent, villainous role. Money grubbers and coaches and junior college instructors are featured. But most of all, if you read this book I think you will find it is about you. You were born to run. And if I can find me a nice chunk of soft grass around these parts, I aim to kick off my shoes and give it a try, without counting off the tenths. Just to see if I can do it and smile like I did when I was eight.

About travellinbaen

I'm a 40 year old lawyer living in Ridgeland, Mississippi. I'm several years and a couple hundred miles removed from most of my old running buddies so I started the blog to provide an outlet for many of the observations and ideas that used to be the subjects of our late night/happy hour/halftime conversations and arguments.
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15 Responses to Born to Run

  1. Smilyj says:

    I often wonder where along in my life that i began to detest running. My little boy caused me to wonder about this. Often he wants to play outside, as little boys do, and so I go out with him. But he tires of how I play and inevitably his playing just regresses to running. I have questioned him about it and the answer comes back “Daddy, I just want to run.” So I just find somewhere to sit and watch him. Never gets to tired, never wants to stop til I get tired of watching him and make him come inside. Maybe those injuns in that book have answered “why” for me.

  2. One of the big themes in this book is how running shoes have made it harder for us to run. They actually change our stride and how our foot strikes the ground and contribute to pain and injury. Some of y’all may have seen some tv segments on various shows about the shoe that fits like a glove to simulate barefoot running and how Nike has no research to back up their claims that running shoes are helpful–I had. Anyway, when reading about all that Smily, it made me think about that same thing–how kids can run and run and run, like we used to, barefoot around Woodhaven Street.

    Here’s another fascinating tidbit–in distance running, people get better and better until they are near 30 and then can keep up the same pace well into their 60’s. It is the only sport where we don’t scientifically peak in our late 20’s. Also, they have found that as the distance of the run increases, the gap between the sexes decreases until the point where women become better at longer distances than men. In those prehistoric hunts, the women started out the run in front, wearing down the animal on the longest stretches they had to run and then the men closed the deal at the end.

  3. Madd Dawg says:

    I am not surprised that your boy grows tired of watching you make Ken doll and Barbie play kissy face in their convertible mustang. We all grew tired of watching you play that too when we were all kids.

  4. The Daily Wit says:

    Someone else just mentioned this book. Sounds interesting. Smilyj, I know what you mean. My kids ask their mom,”Why does dad double over and make that wheezing sound when we walk around the block”?

  5. Fish says:

    This is very interesting. I was recently making fun of my cousin who is a Navy Seal. Well, over the phone at least! He is always wearing those “toe shoes”, you know? He refuses to wear shoes because he is always training and says that shoes hurt his back. I always thought he was a nut bag!

  6. Madd Dawg says:

    Question about this: “So our early ancestors ran. They ran those deer until their hooves fell off and they died.”

    Is this proven or just a theory? If we are talking about a period of time before humans had spears, that is a very very long time ago. If we now dig up old bones from an animal consumed by humans thousands of years ago, how we could now tell whether the animal was killed by this “persistence hunting” by by some other means? Is that possible to confirm?

  7. I’m not the best person to ask. I am mystified by the finer points of carbon dating, fossil study etc, though I understand that the techniques are universally accepted by scientists. The book answers the question in a fairly straightforward way to the lay person and tells the story in an interesting way.

    I’ll probably screw this up, but basically this U of Utah researcher got intrigued with the biological process by which a jackrabbit runs (moves quickly, whatever). Yada yada yada, he finds similar stretchy parts in a variety of fast animals and a connection with the human achilles tendon, which we need only to run, not walk. So he says “what’s missing, humans can’t go as fast as these other animals.” More yada yada, he hypothesizes we can go further, just not faster. He is aware of the persistence hunting stories that have been around, but never confirmed and adds that to his thinking. Yada yada, Neanderthals begin dying when the weather warmed while homo erectus (I think), a smaller being with a larger brain begins to thrive. This leads him to believe speed overtook strength in the quest for obtaining food and allowed the smaller creatures to dominate. Yada yada, big hole in his theory is no confirmation that persistence hunting existed, and still pre-spear era when neanderthal died, so how did little guy get his food. Bang zoom pow, a different kind of scientist holed up with the Kalahari bushmen reads his theory in a journal and says, “I can prove it. I’ve been on dozens of these hunts.” Turns out there are like a dozen, literally, old bushmen in Africa who still do these hunts. There are other tribes in various parts of the world who just let the custom die out within a couple of generations according to oral histories.

    Is this all enough to confirm or are these scientists outliers? I don’t know, sounds convincing, but hey, I couldn’t personally confirm carbon dating either.

    • We need to get Andy involved in this discussion. For the rest of you, he’s an archeaologist. I often kid him about how archeaologists and the like will find nothing but a pottery shard the size of a stamp and, from that, tell you that the villagers were made up exclusively of left-handed vegetarians who had a strong matriarchal system of government that mandated everyone sleep late on Tuesdays.

      Our beer-drinking sessions usually go like this:

      Me: So, Andrew, what did you find playing in the mud this week?
      Andy: I found a flint arrowhead. Well, a piece of one.
      Me: And what does that tell you?
      Andy: It means that about 10,000 years ago, nomadic hunters primarily dominated the central pine belt hunting mostly —
      Me: Oh, good god! It means someone got sloppy with their arrowhead collection. Jeez. Where’s the waitress?

  8. ZEEK says:

    Sounds interesting , but I can prove running ain’t in my genes, I promise ya that!

  9. ZEEK says:

    When I was a kid, though, it did always feel more natural and faster running barefoot, ya know?

  10. Madd Dawg says:

    I know that when my kids play football in the front yard, they always take their shoes off claiming that they are as fast as Chris Johnson (runs a sub-4.3 in the 40) when they are shoeless.

    I am going to test this persistence hunting theory by finding a beer truck and running after it until I catch it. Once I catch it, I will advise the driver that its contents now belong to me. I hope its not a truck full of Beast or Coors.

  11. Jessie Lou says:

    There are alot of barefoot runners out there – there are shoes designed to be as close to running barefoot as possible – I think they are mainly to protect your foot.

    Zeek – you have to teach yourself to run. The Presidential Fitness Award was NEVER in my reach at Beach Elementary. But a few years ago I started to run by going 10 seconds at a time and building up. The most I’ve ever gotten up to was 15 minutes BUT that is better than I ever hoped or thought I could do. And if you stop doing it or miss a week it is almost like starting over for me. It is very empowering to me. That all said I cannot do it on pavement – only on the treadmill.

  12. Pingback: Run Forrest Run…the hell you say. » MISSING THE GROUND

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