Born to Run

I saw this article in the NYT during the run-up to the New York City Marathon. It’s a story about barefoot running. I was so smitten by this idea that I bought the book and have started making the conversion to a forefoot strike. Heck, I even announced on Facebook that I was making the conversion. Now I have to do it.

I’m a runner of sorts. I do the occasional half-marathon and running is my number one form of cardio. However, it never feels great. Sure, it feels good, at times, but never great. I certainly never get the runner’s high and I think it’s because I usually have leg and foot pain. I’m not talking about acute injuries like pulled muscles, ripped tendons, or strained ligaments. I’m talking about general pain in my achilles, hips, and/or plantar muscle that have forced me to stop running for a few months after my last two half-marathons.

This needs to change. I’m ready to experiment.

So I’m taking a page out of this book. As I write this, I’m a month into a program comprised mostly of shoeless running-in-place in my living room with a goal of changing my running style. I’ve started from zero and will hopefully be able to run a mile or so outside by March 1st. The ultimate goal is that this new running technique will provide a life full of injury-free marathons and half-marathons.

But enough about me, let’s talk about this book. The author, Christopher MacDougall, faced running injuries much more acute than mine. He’s a writer with big-media type of resources (NYT, Men’s Health), so he set out to find a solution. Along the way, he discovered that there was enough material directly and indirectly related to his running discoveries to write a book about them.

His research sent him down a path to the Copper Canyon in Mexico and an indigenous people who are arguably the best runners in the world. They’re called the Tarahumara and they run like the wind in bare feet or in simple sandals that have no heal support. This book is mostly about them, but it’s also a wide-ranging, wonderful story about running in general. There a few distinct themes.

First of all, and most important to me, there’s a lot of running science in the book that advocates a forefoot landing. The theme being: Nike could be evil. MacDougall basically says that Nike and Bill Bowerman did more harm than good when they invented the modern running shoe with the cushioned heal. It wasn’t until MacDougall ditched the cushioned heal and started going minimalist that he was able to run injury-free.

Before the invention of a cushioned shoe, runners through the ages had identical form: Jesse Owens, Roger Bannister, Frank Shorter, and even Emil Zatopek all ran with backs straight, knees bent, feet scratching back under their hips. They had no choice: the only shock absorption came from the compression of their legs and their thick pad of midfoot fat. (page 180)

Do a search on YouTube about barefoot running and you’ll get a lot of stuff. Here is a video on running form by the guy who helped train MacDougall. The book has a few chapters devoted to technique, diet, and training. It’s certainly not a how-to book, but has enough information to get you started.

Secondly, besides being great runners, the Tarahumara are an amazing people who deserve our respect and our help. The theme being: The Tarahumara can tell us a lot about ourselves and educate us on how to live in the modern world. This part of the story is told in parallel with the story of a mythical figure called Caballo Blanco (white horse), who MacDougall met while researching this story. Caballo Blanco is a US citizen who has been living in and round the Tarahumara for years. It’s a human interest story and you have to stick with it because MacDougall bounces around a lot, but it has an awesome conclusion.

The Tarahumara live right. They are in great health, have virtually no violence, and party like rock stars. That’s something to shoot for.

Just like the rest of us, the Tarahumara have secret desires and grievances, but in a society where everyone relies on one another and there are no police to get between them, there has to be a way to satisfy lusts and grudges. What better than a booze-fest? Everyone gets ripped, goes wild, and then, chastened by bruises and hangovers, they dust themselves off and get on with their lives. (page 187)

Thirdly, the story of Caballo Blanco gets weaved into a history of the ultra-marathon movement. The theme being: Ultra-marathons are fun and just about anyone can do them. I do mean anyone. In fact, at the ultra-marathon distance, there is very little advantage in being male or being young. It’s a fascinating read and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I hope to be able to do one some day. The personalities involved in this movement are infectious.

Finally, the deepest and most affecting point relates to the linkage between running and humanity. The theme being: Without running we may not exist. Take 15 minutes out of your day and watch this:

Running is wired into human beings. Heck, it could be directly responsible for our survival. Our ability to sweat, allowing us to cool ourselves and effectively run all day, gives us dominion over all mammals. We can run down an antelope for food because they’re going to conk out before we do, it’s our natural advantage. There’s science behind this, here’s Dr. Dan Lieberman from Harvard:

To run an antelope to death, Lieberman determined, all you have to do is scare it into a gallop on a hot day. “If you keep just close enough for it to see you, it will keep sprinting away. After about ten or fifteen kilometers’ worth of running, it will go into hyperthermia and collapse.” Translation: if you can run six miles on a summer day then you, my friend, are a lethal weapon in the animal kingdom. (page 227)

But that’s the physical aspect of running. Running is also etched into our emotional well-being. Think about this.

Three times America has seen long distance-running skyrocket, and it’s always in the midst of a national crisis. (page 11)

MacDougall is talking about the big increases in running that happened after the Great Depression, in the early 70s (after Vietnam, race riots, a criminal president, etc…), and after 9/11. He goes on:

… Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe there’s a trigger in the human psyche, a coded response that activates our first and greatest survival skill when we sense the raptors approaching. In terms of stress relief and sensual pleasure, running is what you have in your life before sex. The equipment and desire come factory installed; all you have to do is let ’er rip and hang on for the ride. (page 12)

This stuff just fires me up to run. I say that as I sit here with some foot and ankle pain after a forefoot strike barefoot running session this morning. Hopefully it’s just my body acclimating, not rebelling.

I really enjoyed this book. I encourage you to check out MacDougall’s blog and some pics from the climactic race at the end of the book. I strongly suggest reading the book first, it will make the build-up to the climactic race quite exciting.