by Margaret Cabaniss
If you are at all interested and running — and probably even if you’re not — you’ve likely had someone recommend that you read Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s book about the hidden Tarahumara tribe, their virtually inhuman running prowess, and the journey of a ragtag bunch of American ultramarathoners to the wilds of Mexico’s Copper Canyon to learn their secrets. It’s part adventure travelogue, part extreme athlete profile, part history of sports medicine, and way more interesting than I just made it sound.
People have been gushing about this book to me for ages, but the more they gushed, the more I resisted — mostly thanks to the whole barefoot running trend it helped inspire. If there’s been a dramatic surge in web-footed runners in your neighborhood over the last few years, you can likely thank this book: While the author himself isn’t a barefoot runner, he makes a pretty strong case that our high-tech modern running shoes are destroying our natural (he would say evolutionarily evolved) capacity to run long distances, pain-free. The stars of his book, the Tarahumara tribesmen, make a pretty convincing argument themselves: They’ll often run 40, 60, 100 miles in a go with nothing but thin pieces of rubber tire lashed to their feet.
The book inspired waves of people to buy those wretched “barefoot shoes” in droves — after which they’d turn around and press the book on me with all the missionary zeal of the newly converted. As someone suspicious of movements in general, it really did not interest me.
It took the recommendation of a (formerly non-running) friend for me to finally pick the book up — and I devoured it in almost one sitting. Turns out that nearly lost tribes of superhuman athletes, and the kinds of characters who are attracted to the idea of running 100 miles in the desert in the height of summer, make for pretty gripping reading.
And then there are passages like this:
That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle—behold, the Running Man.
Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everything we sentimentally call our ‘passions’ and ‘desires’—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.
I mean, if you don’t want to get up right this second and run around the house whooping we are all Running People!, well, there’s probably no hope for you.
Yes, fine, I may have drunk the Kool-Aid a bit. I refuse to buy those cursed shoes, but suddenly I’m very interested in the Pose running method, and going barefoot more at home, and chia seeds and trail races and YIKES I really don’t know who I am anymore. But hey, it’s like they say in the book: “You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.”
So has anyone else read it — and if so, did it inspire new heights of running madness in your home, too? I’m still not quite on board the whole barefoot running train, but I am open to suggestions… Read anything else lately that you were dead-set against at first but found yourself embracing by the end?
Image: unknown, via Pinterest