Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gear Review: Born to Run

Many runners have a certain running book that they've found stands out for them. It's the book they open when they're looking for inspiration or motivation. For me, that book was Running with the Buffaloes. Once a Runner was a close second, but the story of the University of Colorado's cross-country team just hit a little closer to home and was just a little more powerful for me. Today, many runners have found that "their book" is Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. I initially had no interest in reading that book, having already read a lot of barefoot and minimalist literature a few years prior, and having talked to a few too many people who were convinced that running barefoot would cure everything from overpronation to ovarian cancer. Then a few months ago, I attended the wedding of one of my college teammates. My old assistant coach was there, and one of the things he asked me was whether I had read Born to Run. I told him no and explained why it didn't really interest me. He told me to give it a chance, that it's not 300 pages of "Shoes are evil" rants, and that he had enjoyed it. So, with an open mind and only a couple years late, the review that you've all been waiting for: Born to Run.

The majority of Born to Run tells the story of McDougall's attempt to learn the secrets of the Tarahumara and the chronicle of a race between the Tarahumara and a group of American ultrarunners. This is, without a doubt, the most compelling and best part of the book. The first part of this story involves McDougall's foray into the dangerous Copper Canyons in an attempt to speak with the reclusive Tarahumara, and his eventual meeting with the enigmatic Caballo Blanco, an ex-Coloradoan who made his home in the canyon and became a Tarahumara in all but blood. McDougall then goes on to describe the failed attempts by a greedy agent to have the Tarahumara race the outside world at well-known ultramarathons like Leadville, followed by Caballo's efforts to pit some of America's top ultrarunners against the Tarahumara on their home turf in the "Ultimate Fighting Competition of underground ultras." McDougall does a fantastic job of relating the stories of each athlete to the reader, from the great Scott Jurek to the wild and crazy East Coast "Young Guns" to the slightly insane Barefoot Ted. His description of the race itself is even more exciting. McDougall recounts his own race, while also describing the races of the other competitors, with all the thrilling detail you'd expect from a running book.

Also excellent is the chapter on the Running Man, or the evolution of homo sapian as born to run. It's a theory I've heard before, but McDougall explains it with excellent clarity. This chapter explains how human anatomy is perfect for distance running, and how humans likely evolved to be able to run down prey over multiple hour hunts. However, I feel that this is a chapter that people sometimes misunderstand. McDougall himself points out that in a few hundred years, humans' facial shape has changed to better accommodate the food that they ate at that period in time. What isn't mentioned, but can be inferred from that last statement, is that there has also been plenty of time to introduce less than perfect biomechanics into the gene pool. For quite a while now, we've no longer has to chase down their food or escape from predators, and someone with flat feet won't end up with plantar fasciitis and not be able to catch food, allowing them to live to pass on that gene to offspring. McDougall's point in that chapter concerns the big anatomical structures, such as the Achilles tendon and nuchal ligament, and as long as the purpose of this chapter is understood, it is an informative piece of literature.

If that was the entirety of Born to Run, I'd give it a thumbs up. Not exactly Running with the Buffaloes, but a pretty good read nevertheless. However, between chapters of this narrative and the information on the Running Man, McDougall inserts chapters that can tend to read like a high school student's poorly researched persuasive essay, and it's in those chapters that Born to Run falls flat.

Early in the book, McDougall builds up the Tarahumara as superathletes, the greatest ultradistance athletes in the world. There is no doubt that the feats of the Tarahumara are insane. As a collective people, there are probably few other cultures that come close to their athletic prowess. Athleticism and an active lifestyle is emphasized in their culture, and their tribe competes in multiple day-long races covering hundreds of miles. While I understand McDougall's point that it is their lifestyle that makes them such amazing athletes, I feel that his portrayal of non-Tarahumara athletes is unfair and insulting to top elite athletes. Early in the book, he compares the Tarahumara to Lance Armstrong, who struggled through his first marathon. What he completely neglected to mention (but hopefully the reader is astute enough to realize) is that Armstrong is a cyclist, and despite having an extraordinary VO2max, he does not have the running economy of a trained runner. That's not a valid comparison. Additionally, he claims that the Tarahumara are better ultradistance runners than Olympic marathon runners. Well, I'd certainly hope so, considering Olympic marathoners are training for a very specific event that is not an ultramarathon. America's very top runners are generally weeded out, often as early as high school, and cultivated through high school, NCAA, and professional or elite development programs to be great track and road runners, not ultramarathoners. Surely not every marathoner would make a great ultramarathoner, just as not every miler makes a great 5K runner, but we will never know whether Ryan Hall and Nick Arciniaga could beat Scott Jurek in a 100 miler, because Ryan and Nick probably don't want to risk injury or waste the valuable time to train for and race the Hardrock 100 when the Olympics are on the horizon. A professional runner, like any other runner, runs for love of the sport, but also has to consider sponsors and money, two things offered in far greater volume at more traditional distances. With the very top runners out of the picture, the athletes left to go ultra-long are the lunatic fringe who prefer long races on trails and those who weren't quite good enough to score a sponsorship (no offense intended, because you've gotta be damn fast for Nike to come calling). When McDougall finally acknowledges the great elite runners who do not run ultras, he praises those of yesterday, and wonders why American runners today have gotten slower. Without a doubt, yesterday's top runners were incredible. However, if runners today are slower, yesterday's records would still stand...but they don't.

Speaking of Nike, McDougall's criticism with shoe companies is the most ridiculous part of the book. Shoe companies are a business. They are not perfect. I think we all can admit that, Nike employees included. However, McDougall goes way over the line here. Unfortunately, in the chapters about shoe companies, McDougall comes off as an angry, bitter man who is upset about his own injuries and is now blaming shoe companies for his problems, Nike in particular. In one chapter, he rips on University of Oregon coach and Nike founder Bill Bowerman, implying that Bowerman knew little about running and invented the foam heel wedge, which was integrated into a shoe called the "Nike Cortez." Interestingly, a few chapters later, McDougall names this same Cortez as being a flat and minimal shoe. Also interestingly, Ed Ayres, the founding editor of Running Times, will tell you that he was running in shoes with a raised heel long before Nike was founded. McDougall backs up his accusations with science, and while much of it is technically correct, is also incomplete and fails to tell the whole story.

McDougall cites several statistics on injury rates among runners, yet never cites any sources. I'm sure he didn't just make them up, but they are quite a bit different than numbers I've seen in the past, and the scientist in me would love to read the sources from which he got his data. (To be fair, I don't cite my sources either, but this is an internet blog, not a book, and if you're really curious, most of my stuff comes from one of these books or from my physical therapy textbooks). In one part of the book, he claims that up to 8 out of 10 runners are injured every year. 8 out of 10?! Either there's a real emphasis on the up to part of that sentence, or he's talking about the little twinges that runners get that they ignore and are gone in two days. In another part of the book, he mentions that injury numbers have risen since the advent of cushioned shoes...but ignores the fact that the number of runners as a whole have also risen, with much of the growth in the back of the pack. With more people running, of course there are going to be more injuries. Additionally, running was more exclusive in the '70s. It was more self-selecting. The runners who got fast had no choice but to have great biomechanics, otherwise, they'd have been injured and would not have been able to put in the training necessary to be great. Today, you can have less than perfect biomechanics, and with the help of modern technology, you can still put in high training volumes. Don't get me wrong, I truly believe that orthotics are over-diagnosed (though there are certainly people who do benefit from them). But 12oz running shoes with cushioned midsoles and perhaps a small medial post? That's a godsend for a lot of people.

If you're looking for an easy read that tells an interesting story about a race between the Tarahumara and some great American ultradistance runners, Born to Run is a good book. However, it's not a good book to read for real data on minimalism and barefoot running. Born to Run, at its core, isn't even about barefoot and minimalist running, but rather about a tribe of people and how humans are born to run. In that respect, it is successful. However, if you're looking for information on barefoot and minimalist running, you're better off finding an actual kinesiology book or talking to a trained professional with a degree. I agree with some of McDougall's points and disagree with some of his others, but I've come to those conclusions after reading hundreds of articles on both sides of the argument, as well as those that are completely unbiased and fall on neither side, which are often the most informative of them all. So please, if you read this book, enjoy it for its good parts, but don't take it for gospel. There are just too many incomplete and misleading points, and I can't help but feel that the book would have been better had McDougall done a bit more research.

Born to Run retails for $24.95, but can be found for less on Amazon.


  1. Thanks for that honest and unbiased review.

    Great blog, BTW. Lots and lots of interesting info on your site. Keep it up.


  2. The first decent, unvarnished commentary on BTR that I've read. Damned refreshing!



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