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Reflections on the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougal
By Derrick Peterman
After 30 years of running, I’ve discovered plenty of people who have a hard time understanding why I find it so enjoyable.
Maybe this skepticism isn’t too difficult to understand since running is basically a continuous, repetitive motion that in the short term leads to shortness of breath, muscle soreness, and makes one smell rather nasty.
Maybe I should simply be more tolerant of well intentioned, curious questions I get about running that seem motivated by a barely concealed incredulousness that someone could actually enjoy it, as well as those that try to unlock dark, elusive running secrets.
While my mind registers snide answers to the usual questions like, “What electrolytic rehydration drink do you use?” (“Water.”), or “What advice do you have about running gadgets?” (“Throw them away.”), and “What do you do when it rains?” (“I get wet.”), to the ever popular, “Don’t you get bored running?” (“No, am I missing something?”), my rational side generally shapes these answers into something more diplomatic, unless I happen to be in a bad mood.
In recent months, I found myself often being asked, “What do you think about barefoot running?”
So it seemed time to read the book often cited as a catalyst to this footloose movement, “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.
While, much to my dismay, this book did not inspire any smart-ass answers to questions about barefoot running, it is a fascinating read, weaving a lot of interesting research about running as it tells an intriguing story about McDougall arranging an ultra marathon super-race between an elusive Indian tribe in Mexico and a quirky menagerie of American endurance athletes.
The book starts with McDougall asking himself a simple question, “Why does my foot hurt?”
The search for the answer leads him to the depths of Mexico’s Copper Canyon to study the elusive Tarahumara Indians, a tribe whose members run hundreds of miles in rugged terrain and sun-drenched conditions — fueled by a corn beer they brew, I must add, making them the most hard core beer runners on the planet!
McDougall begins to investigate the history and secrets of the indigenous group, who display amazing feats of running endurance wearing lightweight sandals.
McDougall finds plenty of biomechanical research to suggest modern running shoes have been a lot of the cause of running injuries, rather than the prevention. Extra cushiony shoes actually require more force to push off the ground with, forcing runners to modify their natural running gait to a more inefficient heel-toe stride, causing injuries as a result.
“Running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot,” McDougall writes.
He gives plenty of space in the book for an ultra-marathoner known as Barefoot Ted, whose running endurance is only exceeded by his tenacity to preach for hours on the virtues of running barefoot to anyone with the stamina to listen to him.
It’s this part of the book that helped spark a bit of a barefoot running revolution, where barefoot running advocates claim we can break the shackles of running injuries and big nasty shoe companies by simply taking off our running shoes, running barefoot, and reaching a certain running nirvana.
The problem I have with these barefoot running advocates is that they take some perfectly good research and run it right off a cliff. Their gospel flies in the face of some actual historical facts about barefoot runners.
For example, barefoot running advocates often mention that Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic Marathon while running barefoot. True, but I find it both amusing and suspicious that barefoot running advocates conveniently fail to mention that Bikila came back four years later to win the 1964 Olympic Marathon in more dominant fashion wearing shoes on his feet. (In fact, Bikila decided to run the 1960 Marathon in his bare feet because the only available shoes for him didn’t fit.)
We often hear so much about African children running miles to and from school each day in their bare feet, and indeed, this is probably a major reason why these African children grow up to be world-class runners. What we don’t hear is that once these children reach a certain level of running success, they start putting on running shoes and reach even greater heights. Now, true, many of them earn shoe contracts and are paid to wear shoes, but prize money, other endorsements, and financial support from their athletic federation provide other economic incentives for them to find a way to run as fast as possible regardless of shoe contracts.
Now I ask you: Why do these runners — who grow up fully accustomed to the apparent advantages of running barefoot and are driven to win races — choose to put on shoes once they have the opportunity, and continue to run even faster, rather than continue to run in their bare feet?
Barefoot running advocates have absolutely no answer to this inconvenient question.
That said, McDougall does make a rather convincing case that with running shoes, less is often more. I never cease to be amazed of the performances of athletes in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s who ran in flimsy slipper-like shoes. And over time, I’ve found that the best running shoes are the stripped-down models with less overall cushioning. I considered running in lighter and thinner-soled racing flats, but found they simply don’t provide enough support, and my legs feel pretty beat up if I wear them for too long.
Understanding that running without shoes is less than a hindrance than one might think, simply taking off your shoes can expose you to more injuries. It is interesting to note that at the end of the book, Barefoot Ted nurses sore, bandaged feet after the end of the big ultra-marathon showdown, while the rest of the athletes, even those that raced in lightweight sandals, were relatively injury free.
Sure, the running shoe companies would love to sell everyone their high-end shoes with overhyped and overpriced gadgets (as if that’s a shocking revelation), but the main thing to take away from “Born to Run” is that simple running shoes are often the best shoes.
I also found McDougall’s writing on running form to be some most valuable information on running I’ve ever read. Since reading, I’ve modified my running form to have a slight forward lean, with the ball of my foot landing directly below the hips, and my arms swinging either forward or backward without any wasteful side-to-side motion.
Running with this form was a little awkward at first, creating the sensation of a continuous fall with each foot plant catching me from landing smack on my face. But over time, it became natural and leads to an overall faster running pace and less wear and tear on the body.
Perhaps the most notable chapter in the book describes research by University of Utah evolutionary biologists David Carrier and Dennis Bramble, who teamed up with Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Dan Lieberman, to discover the big evolutionary advantage early Homo sapiens had over Neanderthals because Homo sapiens were better adapted to distance running.
It cites the experience of South African Louis Lienberg, who spent a few years living with Kalahari Desert bushmen and joined them in hunts as they chased antelope until the animal collapsed from exhaustion after 3-5 hours. Such hunts are a more efficient means of hunting than using crude arrows and other weapons available when both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals roamed the earth, the researchers found. While Neanderthals had a number of physiological advantages over Homo sapiens, their inability to run down prey in packs is cited as a major reason why the Neanderthals eventually vanished from the face of the earth.
Perhaps that explains why, at an evolutionary level, modern-day runners continue to engage in this strange, repetitive habit that others find so foreign. Shoes or no shoes, running couldn’t be more human.
Derrick Peterman is a runner and craft-beer enthusiast in the Bay Area. You can read more of his writing on his blog, “Ramblings of a Beer Runner,” beer-runner.blogspot.com, where he explores the not-so-obvious parallels between running and craft-brewed beer, as well as the occasional enjoyable intersection.