Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: Born to Run

Born to Run is Christopher Mcdougall's book about running. It brings together several threads: the first is about the Tarahumara runners --- a tribe in the backcountry of Mexico that seems to be culturally adpet (and adapted) to distance running. The second story is about the scientific aspects of running --- Mcdougall's thesis is that human beings were made to run, and not just sprint away from predators, but long distance running --- the stuff of which ultra-marathons are made of. Finally, the third thread brings together some of North America's Ultra-runners (including ultra-legend Scott Jurek) in a running race with the Tarahumara runners on their home turf.

The first story almost defies belief. What surprises me (even when it shouldn't --- I know ultra-marathon cyclists first hand, and they definitely don't get the same kind of attention Lance Armstrong gets, medically or in the press) is that with a tribe full of people who do amazing feats of running, there hasn't been a medical/scientific research team going in there to measure attributes such as VO2 Max and doing comparative studies against say, the well-known Kenyan runners (who've proabably been studied to death). Nevertheless, Mcdougall weaves a great story about a group of Tarahumara runners who showed up at the Leadville 100 and beat everyone else (with the winner in his 50s!) with style, all wearing nothing but sandals they made for themselves out of worn out tires and string.

The second story is about running and footwear. There are several points that Mcdougall bring out to bolster his thesis. First of all, only humans gather around in big groups voluntarily to do sports of massive endurance, whether it's a marathon or a double century. That endurance isn't an accident --- physiologically speaking, humans can dissipate heat better than any other land animal, and even more importantly, humans enjoy these endurance sports. Unfortunately, the other points that Mcdougall discusses aren't as compelling. He discusses persistence hunting, but then admitted that it wasn't something easy to do, and it took a while to find a tribe in Africa that could do it. Even so, it's not practiced by many tribes --- hardly compelling evidence that running was the way humans ran down their prey and got lots of protein to feed that huge brain that we carry around. Then, there's the discussion about how modern footwear is bad for you. However, there's no discussion whatsoever about what's good for you. I've tried the Vibram Five Fingers, and I don't think they're any better for me in avoiding foot pain, or even going fast. I think it would have been a lot more convincing if, for instance, Mcdougall actually did a study about how Tarahumaras constructed their running sandals, why they did it the way they did (they certainly don't do bare-foot running, and my guess is in any kind of rocky country or scree, barefoot running will destroy your feet), and gotten a physiologist, doctor or other scientist to distinguish the important characteristics of good footwear. But perhaps expecting scientific thinking from a journalist would be too much. Then there's the discussion about running technique. He visits Eric Orton, a fitness coach, and gets the following response: "Should I get orthotics?" "Forget the orthotics." ... "How about yoga? That'll help, yeha?" "Forget yoga. Every runner I know who does yoga gets hurt." That intrigues me. Yoga's been frequently prescribed (and over-prescribed, I think) for cyclists. But there's no follow up, no explanation at all about why Orton doesn't think Yoga's a good idea. All in all, this segment felt incomplete, as though Mcdougall suddenly lost interest in the subject and abandoned the book (or threw in other filler) just when it was getting interesting to me.

The final story about the running race just felt out of place to me. Sure, I like a shoot out as much as the next guy, but ultimately, just once race isn't exciting to me. His reportage of the Leadville 100 races were as exciting as the Tarahumara race between Jurek, Barefoot Ted, and the other cast of colorful characters, but it's also clear that he spent so much time on the North American racers that by contrast, the Tarahumara racers got very little coverage. While Mcdougall is a great sports writer, this was not the best part of the book for me.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, and definitely, if you're a runner or have an interest in ultra-marathon running, the book deserves a read. But I guess a really readable layman's treatise on the actual physiology of running and how humans move will have to come from another writer. Recommended with caveats.
Post a Comment