Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Born to Run

Over the weekend, I finished reading “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.  Since its publication five years ago, this has been one of the most talked about books on running.  I sometimes wondered if I was the only runner who hadn’t read it yet.  What finally piqued my interest was reading “Eat & Run” by Scott Jurek.  A chapter of that book described Scott Jurek’s experience racing against the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyons.  This book follows the author’s quest to learn about the Tarahumara and culminates with the author’s description of the same race.  Reading this book right after reading “Eat & Run” made it more interesting.

I enjoyed this book on three different levels.  First, I often find it inspirational to read about gifted or accomplished runners.  The Tarahumara have competed in numerous ultramarathons in the US, including the Leadville 100.  Their running ability is legendary.  This book describes what the author was able to learn about their culture, their history, their diet and their running technique.  The book also gives the backgrounds of several ultrarunners from the US who competed against them, either at Leadville or in the Copper Canyons.

Besides being a book about runners, this is a book about running.  It explores what makes the Tarahumara such great runners.  It goes on to explore the pros and cons of modern running shoes versus running barefoot.  In so doing, it ignited the growing movement toward running with minimalist shoes.  Finally, it explores how running may have played a major role in human evolution.  That’s where the title comes from – the conclusion that as a species we’re uniquely adapted for long distance running.

Where the author succeeds best is in his storytelling ability.  The book follows his quest to find and learn about the Tarahumara.  To find them, he first needed to Micah True, a.k.a. Caballo Blanco, the only American who knew much about them.  It culminates with the efforts of both to organize an improbable race in the Copper Canyons between the reclusive Tarahumara and several of America’s premier ultrarunners.  I was captivated by the author’s tale.  I found myself reading as many as 15 chapters in a day, because I couldn’t put the book down.

Some of the insights into diet and running technique made this book an excellent companion to “Eat & Run.”  I’m gradually making changes to my diet, and both books gave me ideas.  They also gave me some thoughts on improving my training.

While many have been inspired by this book to switch to minimalist shoes, I’m not planning to jump on that bandwagon.  I think the book makes a good case that running barefoot or with minimalist shoes encourages better technique and also strengthens the muscles and ligaments in the feet.  If I were new to the sport, I would seriously consider running with minimalist shoes to learn to run more like the Tarahumara.

Of course, I’m not new to the sport.  I’ve been a heal-striker for so many years that I would have difficulty changing my technique.  I might be able to do it over a period of years, but the transition would no doubt be bumpy.  I was quite injury prone when I was in my 20s and 30s, but I’ve gradually found a footwear solution that works for me.  It’s been 10 years since I’ve had an injury that forced me to take a full week off.  What I’m doing may not be perfect, but it’s awfully late in the game for me to try to reinvent myself.

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