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June 22, 2009

Book Review: Born to Run

One of the nice things about tapering is that decreasing your activity and increasing your rest for several days leaves you with time to catch up on some reading. It’s a great opportunity to get lost in a book that might quell some nervous energy, and perhaps take your mind off of the fact that very soon you’ll attempt to run 100 miles.

Of course, I had to go and pick up a book about ultrarunning.

The advance buzz for Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run was unlike any other running book since Dean Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man, and the folklore surrounding the Tarahumara Indians of the Copper Canyons of Mexico is almost mystical in ultra circles – so I grabbed a copy of this book thinking that it would be one for the ages.

In most respects, I was correct. The first 100 pages or so read like the greatest running story ever told. There are vivid descriptions of the notorious Copper Canyons, a detailed primer on the Tarahumara culture, and a stirring account of the three years that the Tarahumara participated in (and dominated) the Leadville 100. It’s also something of a who’s who of the ultrarunning community, with in-depth biographies of Ann Trason and Scott Jurek, shout outs to “Young Guns” such as the Skaggs brothers and Anton Krupicka, and even a mention of a noteworthy blogger or two. If you make it through the first half of the book without itching to lace up your running shoes and disappear into the wilderness, someone might have to check you for a pulse.

The narrative revolves around one Anglo - nicknamed Caballo Blanco by the locals - who assimilated into the Tarahumara culture, and his desire to stage a 50-mile race in the Copper Canyons between the top ultrarunners of all time and the best Tarahumara runners. His efforts are largely futile, with one notable exception: Scott Jurek was all for it. Soon thereafter, a handful of Americans (including Jenn Shelton, one of the best young runners around) make their way south of the border, and the game is on.

For the most part, the account is a gripping one, culminating in a race that justifies the 250-page buildup to it. The primary drawback I found was that along the way to telling us about the race, McDougall takes several very looooong tangents to discuss all manner of things only peripherally related to the event at hand. Many of these detours crop up right as the action is getting good – in the middle of the Leadville reports, or right as the gun’s about to go off for the final race.

Granted, some of the tangents will change the way you perceive the simple activity of running: whether it’s understanding man’s anthropological origin as a species engineered to run just as often and efficiently as deer or coyotes, eliminating the modern-day distractions that hold our inner (and super-athletic) souls captive, or improving your speed by adopting a philosophy of love and acceptance (yes, really). There’s also an extended treatise about the evils of running shoes, with a very convincing argument that we should be asking for less from our running gear instead of more.

The side dissertations are very interesting (I’m actually quite intrigued by the notion of barefoot trail running), and McDougall is an excellent writer, so they are generally a smooth read – but the placement became a bit frustrating after a while. I finally decided to read this book in pieces: I tore through the narrative that built to the climactic race first, then backtracked and took my time with the biomechanics and anthropology lessons. This way, I satisfied my impatience with wanting to know how the race came out, but still absorbed the larger lessons that I would have otherwise hurried past.

One other minor quibble is that there aren't any pictures included. Most hardbacks will include a few glossy black and white pages with photos of the characters involved; this book doesn't, and it's a glaring omission. Although McDougall's writing is very descriptive, I found myself craving a real-life glimpse of Caballo Blanco, or the Tarahumara tribal robes, or even the Copper Canyon terrain that figures so prominently in the story.

All in all though, Born to Run is a very solid book. I anticipate that it's going to be one of those that carry well through the years; one you can read several times and still pull some new insight from each time. (Of all the running books I’ve read, there are perhaps two or three about which I’d claim that.) It will engage your spirit of adventure, compel you to push your physical boundaries, and – in the same way that the American runners are given Tarahumara monikers prior to the final race – it might even make you want to have a nickname (I’m thinking of Caballo Gordo for myself). If you’re looking to inspire your training or just searching for some smooth summer reading, put this book towards the top of your list.


*update 8/21/09: Christopher McDougall was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recently; the interview is embedded below.

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Jo Lynn 6/22/09, 10:57 PM  

I'm always looking for a good "vacation read". Thanks for your review.
If you don't post again before this weekend -- GOOD LUCK!!
Hydrate like Hell! It's gonna be hot.

Bruce 6/23/09, 3:42 AM  

thanks for the review, will have to keep an eye out for that one. All the best at the WS.

Deene 6/23/09, 8:15 AM  

interesting. i'll have to pick up a copy of the book. I notice messages by the caballo on the trailrunner listserv(or maybe he's a wannabe)

Alisa 6/23/09, 12:26 PM  

It's on my birthday wish list.

Thanks for the review!

Rainmaker 6/23/09, 5:29 PM  

Nice write-up. I'd seen a few others in the last day or so, but yours was by far the most complete.

caballo blanco 8/27/09, 5:48 PM  

Run Free!


Anonymous,  12/12/11, 4:54 PM  

I read the book for the technical nature as a primer to barefooting. So, naturally I found the story annoying, in addition to the colorful language as I prefer clean vocabularies. However, the story is cool, and the facts interesting. Definitely a recommended read for barefoters, or those thinking of going barefoot.

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