Friday, June 26, 2009

Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
by Chris McDougall has the difficult task of living up to its reputation. After the first few chapters, I had my doubts that it could. But doubt gave way to intrigue, then to fun, and then thrill. The book reads like a novel. It's hard to put down, because the short chapters end with little mysteries that are only uncovered in the next chapter. Kinda like The DaVinci Code, only better. Two chapters could be excerpted as stand-alone essays, one on running shoes and injury, and one on the running man theory of human bipedalism. The running man chapter should be nominated for the Best American Science Writing series.

That said, I do have some criticisms. I'm skeptical of the romantic portrait of the tarahumara that McDougal paints, but that is a small issue. I'm also skeptical that the tarahumara do not get running injuries. McDougal states this several times but doesn't offer any evidence other than anecdote. Indeed, one of the tarahumara has a typical running injury during the Leadville race but this is dismissed as a function of running in running shoes for the first time. But he was also running in Colorado for the first time so maybe that was the cause? Or more likely, Tarahumara are humans like the rest of us and get injured. This is an important point because McDougal is building the case that there is way to run injury free, and this way includes both running techique and avoiding modern running shoes. McDougal quite correctly asks why running isn't like every other sport, that is, one requiring practice of a certain techniqe. Nevertheless, while the evidence that certain kinematics (such as "overpronation") cause injury is, essentially non-existent, there also isn't good evidence that running a certain way (such as chi or pose running) reduces injury. Ditto for shoes. McDougal makes the oft-heard claim among barefoot runners that running injuries have increased since the advent of the modern shoe. I've not found the citation documenting this but even if it is true, that doesn't necessarily implicate the modern running shoe. Since the 70s (when the first modern shoes started to appear), americans have also gained alot of weight and become more sedentary. We drive cars *everywhere*. And modern marathon advertisers have spent big money to get the couch-to-5K crowd running 26.2. So while I'm sympathetic to the idea that certain running kinematics and retro shoes are less likely to contribute to injury, I want to emphasize "contribute" because the one variable that we do know that causes an increased rate of running injury is running itself.

But I shouldn't (and didn't) focus on the science. It is part of the message but not critical. What is the message? That running is fun (indeed it evolved to be fun). Mixed in with the message and the science are fun biographies/stories of some of the big names and personalities in the sport of ultrarunning. And fun histories of some of the big ultra races. But the story behind the story is the mysterious Caballo Blanco and his quest to get the best North American ultrarunners to race in his Copper Canyon ultramarathon with the turahumara runners. The science, the biographies, the histories weave in and out of this central story and the story doesn't close, as it should, until the final chapter. It's a fun run to the finish.

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