Reading Born To Run: The Hidden Tribe, The Ultra-Runners, and The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

On the recommendation of a couple of friends, I’ve been reading Born To Run: The Hidden Tribe, The Ultra-Runners, and The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall.

It’s been exhilarating; I love it. I’m happily going from the end right back to the beginning for a reread: this is my kind of book, and it’s come at exactly the right time.

OK, so, it’s about people who run a really long way (about 50 to 400 miles) as quickly as they can, despite the terrain (mountains, deserts) where the races are often pitched.

Christopher McDougall is an American author and journalist who researched into why and how humans push themselves to the limits of endurance, and who became fascinated by the reserved Tarahumara in northwest Mexico. These reclusive people live in a harsh, mountain environment where they run for both practical purposes and pleasure — sometimes covering hundreds of miles, wearing only home-made rubber sandals.

McDougall treks down there to interview both the Tarahumara and “Caballo Blanco” (Micah True) — an American runner who followed the Tarahumara home after Colorado’s Leadville 100 one year, to join their community. By talking with Tarahumara friends, Caballo Blanco, and other contacts, McDougall observes the Tarahumara running skills and charts the attempts of various coaches to bring Tarahumara runners to North American ultramarathon races. As part of this, he covers a brief history of ultramarathon running in the US, and tries to figure out what makes great runners great: is it their sandals? Their training? Or their seemingly fundamental joy in running for its own sake?

He introduces other US ultrarunners, such as Ann Trason, a prior track runner and biochemist who set the Leadville 100 female course record in 1994. A couple of the quotes about her made me smile – not least the author’s views on biochemistry (p.67):

Ann had run track in high school, but got sick to death of “hamstering” around and around an artificial oval, as she put it, so she gave it up in college to become a biochemist (which pretty much makes the case for how tedious track was, if periodic tables were more spellbinding). 

(I’m a biochemist.) One thing that intrigued me about Ann Trason, though, was that she apparently loved night running. Until I joined a running club last year, I didn’t know anyone who went on night runs, but I love them, so this felt good to read.

The book tracks the stories of a series of runners, including Californian beach dudes, Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett, who seemed to prepare for ultramarathons by drinking (she still took the record for female 100-miles on dirt), Scott Jurek, cited as one of America’s greatest, and Barefoot Ted. This leads into a discussion about the risks and benefits of various types of running shoes – the take-home message being largely that no shoe is going to protect your whole body from the impact of hard heel-striking over hundreds of miles, so any shoe that allows you to run like that is putting you at risk. The safer way to run is as you would barefoot, because the foot has evolved to both propel and protect us in our natural running gait. Also on evolution, there’s a cool section on the evolution of man to become the ideal long-distance runner: our nuchal membrane, our tendons, sweating, and the flex and stretch of our torso that allows us, unlike some animals, to breathe independently of stride. (Aside from this book, I’ve also seen debates about our waist and its function.) So it seems we are designed to run long distances and, according to the book, this is not a young person’s sport, either. Sprinting, maybe – but long-distance running can be a lifelong joy.

Of course, with sports like this, there are always going to be people who take things one step further. For me, this was Marshall Ulrich, “Leadville legend”, who had his toenails surgically removed because “they kept falling off anyway”. I’m still trying to un-read that. (You’re welcome.)

Still, toenails aside, joy is a big theme. Big. These guys are not doing it all for the money — it’s a human drive. Something primal and joyous and I totally get it.

The book really chimed with me, on a lot of levels. When I was younger I loved barefoot hill-running but had never heard of other people doing it, so I just assumed I was stupid. It started when I was a teenager; I hiked and jogged 80-odd miles (over about 3 days – I was never an ultra-runner) through the Lake District with a backpack, only to find that my (expensive) Vibram-soled boots had eaten into the side of my heel to produce an inch-wide pit that, after a couple of days in the mud and mire, turned black. Cue me sitting on top of Scafell Pike scraping out the gunk with a bit of rock while my boyfriend vomited. It felt grim, especially when, once I’d cleared the wound, I bandaged my feet and put the boots back on. Convention bound me to several more days of memorable discomfort. It was only later, as a twenty-something hobbling around Wales, that I gained the confidence and autonomy to hurl the damn things and run on barefoot. Cue a day of running and climbing on perfectly happy feet. (Ironically, we climbed Tryfan so fast, my new running buddy got dehydrated and threw up as enthusiastically as my last one.)

McDougall does briefly discuss the nearly-barefoot options available, like sandals and the “Vibram Fivefinger” – lightweight footwear with little rubber-toe-gloves. Google it. I’m not sure whether to laugh or buy some, but it doesn’t matter for me – I spend a lot of time barefoot.

So yeah, lots of running, lots of fun (and probably pain) and a big group of people who look like they’d be really good to hang out with. I’ve never run a marathon before, but last year I met a bunch of guys in a running club and some of them were talking about running 80+ miles, and having an almighty laugh (and a lot of food) on the way. And I thought, yeah, I can see why you’d do that. The ridges, the heights, the horizons, the sheer pleasure of just skimming along. Why wouldn’t you?

This book makes me feel the same.

This is a fun, interesting book. You really have to be into adventuring to love all the detail, but for anyone who gets it… it’s the kind of book that makes you want to run up a mountain and read it there. Or maybe run up all the mountains and write your own.

And that’s the brilliant thing about mountains: they’re all still there.