This compelling new book by Christopher McDougall is subtitled as "A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen" and reading it feels like watching an incredible race. When I first heard of it I was sitting off to the side of a friend's get together making conversation with a young couple I had just met. I loathe making work the topic of conversation for a couple reasons, firstly that people are not defined by their job they are defined by their passions and secondly because my wife has issued an edict that if I ever socially meet someone who understands what it is I do at my job I am forbidden from talking to them about it lest we bring the whole social gathering to a geeky halt as we yammer away in acronyms and techno-speak. So I like to get a conversation started by asking people about their passions, what are the things that they enjoy enough to do when they aren't being paid for it?
This time I had hit pay dirt as not only my conversation partner but her spouse were avid runners. Now people who don't run will roll their eyes and say that people who run are somehow sick in the head or gluttens for punishment... actually that isn't too far off. Runners are an exceptional group of individuals, there is very little you can say about us as a group because we come from every different walk of life and run for highly individual reasons. The one thing I would say all runners have in common is that we are highly motivated, driven personalities. You don't get up and run around the block, the city or the country unless you have something inside you that is unsettled, something you are either running towards or away from.
It can seem like lunacy to get up an hour early every day to exercise in a way that statistically 80% of the participants are injured each year. Being a cross country runner from high school, it is simply a form of exercise I am comfortable with and that makes me feel I've done something to offset the highly sedentary nature of my work. I can't explain it to my wife but other runners know and when we find each other we instantly have a kinship that any non-runner cannot comprehend. We may argue about dirt versus asphalt or about every little aspect of the sport, but we are more alike despite our differences than any non runner would infer from our heated discussions.
So I was naturally excited to have found some interesting company for the evening. As talk turned from the general health benefits of running to the common running injuries to shoes, I mentioned that I was looking for a new pair of shoes having exhausted my current pair's expiration date of six months. I was starting to experience some shin splints as I was pushing my milage up and was wondering what recommendations my fellow runners might have for me. At this point I usually would entertain a discussion of the merits of Asaics vs Nike or Reebok's various pronation, supination reducing models.
Instead, Chris my conversation partner said "I'm pretty much doing just barefoot running right now. You should check out 'Born to Run', it is an incredible book about this tribe who can out distance run deer and antelope and they don't wear shoes at all...".
Well I made a note of the title and as I ordered my new Asaic Nimbus shoes I threw the book in the cart for good measure. By the time I finished reading it I was wishing I had just bought the book and a pair of Vibram FiveFingers instead.
Chris McDougall's journey to write this book started with trying to understand why his feet hurt. As a six foot four 230 pound guy, every doctor was telling him the same thing 'Buy a bike, guys your size aren't made to run!'. His journey took him to the Tarahumara of the Copper Canyons of Mexico and their ability to run well into their seventies in competitive range with teenagers . Why? At least part of the equation was their diet, but how could a group without the benefits of modern shoes and sport science experience such a low level of injuries?
McDougall takes us through the history of modern running shoes and the mysteriously stubborn injury rates that plague regular runners. He delves deeply into the biomechanics of running and foot anatomy to reveal some very common sense ideas so deeply buried in the media and sports industry that they seem counter intuitive. Your arch doesn't need support and cushioning, people have run without shoes for most of our history as a species. Indeed, Mr. McDougall presents some excellent evidence that it may have been our ability to run long distances, breath and sweat effectively that allowed us to superceed Neanderthallic humans on this planet.
Not that Chris McDougall is a barefoot running evangelist or that he is even a barefoot runner, or that this story is anything more than a recounting of his experience as he sought his own answers to why his feet hurt. Let's just say that it follows his incredible journey to his own answers and this book is a signpost to those who have their own questions to answer... for those who have their own reasons to run.
Highly recommended for Runners, Sociologists, Anatomists and Evolutionary Biologists alike.