Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
– Roger Bannister
Today I’d like to share with you one of the most interesting fitness-related books that I’ve read in recent memory – It was inspirational, captivating and – Ta da – Based on a true story!
I ordered this book after hearing a glowing recommendation during a chance encounter while I was out buying running shoes. A friend suggested that I read it prior to picking my new shoes as it would surely change my perspective on what my body actually needed strapped to my feet.
He wasn’t wrong.
Born to Run was a written by journalist Chris McDougall and is a memoire of his search for running truths. It is sprinkled with his personal research as well as anecdotes of some of the specialists and enthusiasts he encountered during his odyssey. As any runner out there knows, injuries are exceptionally widespread in the running world. Knees, ankles, feet, hips, backs… Running can make you feel very, very old in a very, very short amount of time. As a dedicated runner who like many of us, does not have the ideal running build – 6’4″ & 230 lbs – McDougall made it his mission to develop the ideal running technique and took as his model the Tarahumara – Also known as the Raramuri – Tribe of Mexico.
While this story in itself is fascinating, I have to confess that what immediately sucked me in were the stories within the story, the accounts of the individuals that McDougall meets during his adventures. From the truly inspirational to the totally insane the runners he encountered all have unique backgrounds, distinct ideals and approaches to running, and different ambitions.
There’s the God of long distance running – Scott Jurek – Who waits at the finish line of every race he runs to cheer on the last finishers, sometimes days after he himself crossed the finish line. Two weeks after winning his 7th Western States 100 race, which takes place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, he headed down to the Mojave Desert to race in the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135 mile footrace that boasts temperatures as high as 120 degrees. The extreme conditions were utterly foreign to the Seattle-native and by mile 60 he was vomiting and weak, laying on the scorching sand next to the trail.
“There’s no way, Scott told himself. You’re done. You’d have to do something totally sick to win this thing now.
Sick like what?
Like starting over again. Like pretending you just woke up from a great night’s sleep and the race hasn’t even started yet. You’d have to run the next eighty miles as fast as you’ve ever run eighty miles in your life.
For ten minutes, Scott lay like a corpse. Then he got up, and did it, shattering the Badwater record with a time of 24:36.”
There’s the spirited and wild Jenn, who chose running as an expression of poetry and art and love. “She was capable of absolutely anything except moderation. Even when she wanted to rein herself in, whatever was building inside her – passion, inspiration, aggravation, hilarity – inevitable came fire-hosing out.” She left life-guarding on the sunny beaches of Virginia behind to run shrieking and howling across hundreds of miles of mountain trails, shouting Ginsberg and Kerouac into the vast wilderness at the top of her lungs. “I started running ultras to become a better person. I thought if you could run one hundred miles, you’d be in this Zen state. You’d be the fucking Buddha, bringing peace and a smile to the world.”
There’s the gregarious, effusive and intense Barefoot Ted whose goal to compete in a triathlon for his 40th birthday lead him on a shoe – And eventually shoeless – Journey to Mexico. He tried the most technologically advanced and the most expensive shoes, all to no avail, eventually stumbling upon a community of runners led by Barefoot Ken Bob, who’s mantra was:
Shoes block pain, not impact! Pain teaches us to run comfortably! From the moment you start going barefoot, you will change the way you run!
From there Barefoot Ted went on to become the first sponsored barefoot runner sporting Vibram FiveFingers when conditions got rough and competing in races like the Boston Marathon, the Mother Road 100, the Leona Divide Fifty-Miler, and the Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run.
“No wonder your feet are so sensitive, ” Ted mused. “They’re self-correcting devices. Covering your feet with cushioned shoes in like turning off your smoke alarms.”
And the ultimate character? Caballo Blanco. Micah True. Shaggy. A man so inspired by the truths he saw in the eyes of the Tarahumara during one encounter that he left his life behind and moved to the Sierra Madres to live in a stone hut in the canyons between hundred mile trail runs and visits with the elusive tribesmen.
“When he arrived in the Barrancas, he decided to chuck logic and trust that the Tarahumara knew what they were doing. He got rid of his running shoes and began wearing nothing but sandals. He took some vicious falls and sometimes barely made it back to his hut on his own two feet, but he just gritted his teeth, soaked his wounds in icy river, and chalked it up as an investment. By his third year, Caballo was tackling trails that were invisible to the non-Tarahumara eye. He’d slip-scramble-sprint downhill for miles, barely in control, relying on his canyon-honed reflexes but still awaiting the pop of a knee cartilage, the rip of a hamstring, the fiery burn of a torn Achilles tendon he knew was coming any second. But it never came. He never got hurt. After a few years in the canyons, Caballo was stronger, healthier, and faster than he’d ever been in his life.”
While most runners have at the very least heard the gospel of this book debated at running clubs and starting lines, I found that the most important conclusion presented can be applied non-running life as well. As the title suggestions this is a book intended to take us back to basics – Back to what our bodies can inherently do, which I believe many people are trying to achieve in their own lives, be it through yoga, meditation, hiking… On some level don’t we all want to be the best version of ourselves that we can?
As McDougall chases the secret of injury-free long distance running, coach and former track champion Joe Vigil is searching for the formula to what he refered to as the Natural Born Runner. Both of these noble quests came to the same unexpected conclusion.
What kind of individual wants to spend two days running nonstop up mountains and across rivers? Is it a desire to win? To be the best? To outwit the other guy?
After studying the science of running, visiting the masters, chasing down the wisdom of dying cultures and training champion after champion, Vigil believed that it was an inherent spirit and a fundamental “love of the game” that gave an athlete the fire to be a superior runner:
“Vigil had become convinced that the next leap forward in human endurance would come from a dimension he dreaded getting into: character. Not the “character” other coaches were always rah-rah-rah-ing about; Vigil wasn’t talking about “grit” or “hunger” or “the size of the fight in the dog.” In fact, he meant the exact opposite. Vigil’s notion of character wasn’t toughness. It was compassion. Kindness. Love.”
Why spend two days running nonstop up mountains and across rivers? That’s easy.
To see if you can.
To get out and stretch you legs and see where they’ll take you. To get back in touch with a part of yourself that is lost in a world of alarm clocks, deadlines, zooming traffic, and the monotony of daily life.
Even if you’re not a runner, you have to respect these conclusions. By remembering the infectious joy you felt as a child when you did something and regaining that as an adult you are unlocking the potential to truly be at home with yourself, to truly love something, and to be truly happy.
Have you read Born To Run?