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 mountains and 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. He became fascinated by the reserved Tarahumara in northwest Mexico, reclusive people living 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 interviews 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, Blanco, and other contacts, McDougall 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: their sandals? Their training? Or a 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). 

Oi! (I’m a biochemist.)

One thing that intrigued me about 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 was good to read. Also beach dudes Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett, who seemed to prepare for ultramarathons by drinking (she 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 can protect your whole body from the impact of hard heel-striking over hundreds of miles, so the safer way to run is barefoot, because the foot has evolved to both propel and protect us in our natural running gait. 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 to breathe independently of stride. It seems we’re designed to run long distances and this is not a young person’s sport. Sprinting, maybe – but long-distance running can be a lifelong joy.

And 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 I’d never heard of other people doing it. As 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 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.)

So yeah, lots of running, lots of fun (and probably pain) and a big group of people who look like they’d be fun 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.

Sure, 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.