60. ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall

Ever since I read Murakami’s excellent What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I’ve been trying to find another book about running that will give me the same amount of inspiration. I may have found it in Born to Run.

Born to Run is part-biography, part-ethnography about ultramarathons, a secretive Mexican tribe called the Tarahumara, the running history of mankind, and a race to end all races.

born to run christopher mcdougall

This book started with an injury. McDougall, a long-distance runner and journalist, found himself with an injury – Plantar Fasciitis – which left him unable to run due to a stabbing pain in his foot. (It’s somewhat ironic that, as I write this, I too have a stabbing pain in my foot, several weeks after having read this book about McDougall’s journey from pain to fitness.) After consulting several doctors who all told him that this is just what happens to runners, that the human body really isn’t made to run far, McDougall decided to do some research of his own, and found some quite interesting results.

This book is a favourite among running communities, particularly ultramarathoners who can run 50, 60 or even 100 miles through dark nights and freezing weather, and I think the reason it is so popular is because its core message is that humans evolved to be runners. McDougall explores the science of running in quite fascinating detail, pointing out that our musculoskeletal structure has more in common with running animals than walking ones. We have Achilles tendons in our heels and nuchal ligaments in our necks; so do dogs, cheetahs and horses. Of course, we cannot match those animals in speed, but perhaps our early ancestors relied on long-distance endurance instead of sprinting, and maybe this is why ultramarathons retain their popularity today.

The other major thread in Born to Run is about McDougall’s own experiences with the Tarahumara tribe who live in Mexico’s precipitous Copper Canyons. This tribe is known for its running; these people can run for miles and miles across treacherous ground in only sandals, and on the few occasions they have ventured out into the wider world to take part in races, they have almost always blown their competition out of the water. McDougall investigates the Tarahumara’s culture, diet and attitude towards running to find out what makes these people among the best runners in the world.

As well as extolling the virtues of barefoot running (and investigating the research which shows that expensive running shoes and lots of gear actually make runners more likely to develop injuries, rather than less), the book culminates in the story of a long-distance race between the Tarahumara and a few select American runners. McDougall, with the help of Tarahumara disciple Caballo Blanco, helped to organise the race and also took part in it himself. Even though he came last, he really gets across the sense of community and support that seems to be part of the ultramarathon and tribal Tarahumara community.

Ultimately, this book is a love song for running, and I loved its inspiring message. It’s all about cutting through the commercialism and competitiveness of modern running and getting back to our roots, as tribes, as barefoot runners, as animals born to run.

“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.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

What do you think?

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