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.