A Review of Born to Run

Born to Run; Slices of Truth and Piles of Salt

by Ross Z

I was standing in line with two long-term acquaintances waiting to get into a political debate recently. Several people had mentioned the book Born to Run to me in the past several weeks. Greg, an avid cyclist, started describing the book. To my surprise, he started recounting events that I had been a part of. He then described claims regarding human evolution and running that I’ve been thinking about for decades. Later that night, I pulled the book down to my iPad and started reading.

As circumstances would have it, I soon learned that Micah True, a key figure described in the book, was giving a talk at my favorite running gear store in a week or so. So I buckled down and read and assessed. My assessment of the book is based on four criteria. Was it entertaining, was it accurate, was it fair, and does it serve a useful purpose? It is supposed to be nonfiction, after all. In a “guilty pleasures” way it was entertaining. It has serious inaccuracies, omissions, and possible misrepresentations, mixed with some good information. It was most definitely not fair to people with whom I’m personally acquainted. It may serve a very useful purpose if it gets more people to run and to run further. Greg commented that it made him want to get out and run, but since he’s already a good athlete, that’s no overall gain for our pathologically sedentary population. The “barefoot running” theme is very strange and badly oversimplifies a complex issue. I’m speaking as someone who has 3 pairs of Vibram 5-Fingers and uses them on rugged, rocky trails. The evolutionary biology portion relayed the fascinating idea that the distance running itself, combined with the intelligence to anticipate the prey’s actions, was our ancestors’ unique hunting technique.

Here’s a short synopsis of Chris McDougall’s story. He’s a magazine writer who has some credentials as a world traveller. He was a novice runner, but at around age 40 was trying to run more. He’s a big guy and was told running wasn’t a great idea. Fortunately, he didn’t listen. He got wind of the Raramuri (Tarahumari), an Indian culture that values running in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Mexico. He went down, found some of the reputed good runners and made the acquaintance of Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco. Micah wanted to put on an “international” ultramarathon in the region that brought out local runners and encouraged runners to come down from the U.S. Micah had become enamored with the Raramuri when he paced a guy in the 1994 Leadville 100. Micah started spending part of the year down in the Sierra Madre, trotting around (literally) getting to know the Raramuri on their own ground. Chris came back up to the U.S., hired a personal trainer, and helped with recruiting several good U.S. ultramarathon runners to go down for a 47 mile event centered around the village of Urique, Chihuahua in 2006. A local guy edged out the fastest U.S. guy. One of the U.S. runners was “Barefoot Ted”, an advocate of “minimalist” i.e. barefoot running. Inter-weaved with the account of Chris’ travels and the flashbacks to the Raramuri participation in U.S. ultramarathons in the mid 1990s are chapters extolling the virtues of minimalist running and of a few biologists’ work making a case for human adaptations to endurance running.

I would characterize McDougall’s writing style as quite entertaining in a florid, tabloid magazine fashion. The intent is to catch attention and draw the reader in with strong, subjective language. Complete exposition of a topic and accuracy are secondary. I did find the book entertaining, despite the discordance when I encountered incomplete information or claims that don’t match my knowledge of the topics or situations. Oh, I should probably give a bit of my biography, as it relates to topics in the book. I’m a 58 year-old who came to Tucson, Arizona to complete a Ph.D. studying the natural history and evolution of a termite native to the Sonoran Desert. I completed my first marathon in 1978, and my first 100 mile run in 1982. I’ve been involved in the trail runs held in the mountains around Tucson since 1979. I ran with the Raramuri when Rick Fisher brought a group of men up to train in our trail runs. I paced one of the guys in the 1993 Leadville 100, the first year they won the event. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the human body works (and doesn’t) in endurance running. I’m certainly not an expert in either biomechanics or human evolution, but I can read the primary literature and make some sense out of it.

It’s fun to read about McDougall’s experiences down in the Copper Canyon region of the Sierra Madre. He deserves credit for jumping into an unfamiliar place and trying to make sense out of what he encountered and write about it. That said, the book is more about the experiences of Anglos in contact with the Raramuri up here and down there, and less about the Raramuri themselves than I would like. There’s an odd section in which he sanctifies the Raramuri, putting them on a pedestal. I found them to be pretty normal guys, who told a lot of jokes when I ran with them. They weren’t shy and retiring, and they liked to tease me. I only knew a few words of Spanish, but that didn’t really matter since they switched to Raramuri once out of earshot of Spanish speakers. So I got the tone, but not the punchlines. Manuel Luna, who’s featured in the book, played Nintendo with my oldest son at my house and enjoyed himself. I was very sorry to learn about the misfortunes he’s endured in the intervening years. Micah indicated he knows Antonio Palma, the man I paced at Leadville. He says that Antonio’s doing OK. Other things I’ve heard about the Raramuri and their culture indicate that as more roads and development have occurred in their mountainous home their running has declined dramatically and the health difficulties and poor behavior of sedentary societies have flourished.

Rick Fisher is the professional adventurer who started going down to Copper Canyon early in the 21st Century and bringing up groups of runners to compete in U.S. ultramarathons. I had a lot of contact with Rick and Kitty Fisher when they used the Tucson Trail Run Series as a training vehicle for Raramuri runners, including being a guest at their wedding. McDougall presents a pretty harsh and unflattering caricature of a complex person. Regardless of his faults, Rick deserves full credit for giving people in this country the opportunity to run with some unusual and extraordinary individuals from a very different culture that valued endurance athletes. McDougall’s book wouldn’t exist without Rick’s contributions. I got the sense it was easier to demonize based on second-hand information than to do the difficult research needed for the complete picture.

In the middle of the book, McDougall introduces Scott Jurek, an extraordinary runner who has won numerous ultramarathons. Everyone in the ultramarathon community has heard of Scott and respects his accomplishments. Scott went down with McDougall for Micah’s race with the Raramuri, and was the edged out at the finish. McDougall feels the need, on more than one occasion, to compare Scott to, and to speak disparaging of, two other fine ultra-athletes, Pam Reed and Dean Karnazes. Pam and Dean have both won Badwater 135 and put on some extraordinary continuous run efforts in the 100s of miles. Pam’s from Tucson and I know her pretty well to talk to. Everyone who knows her personally has never heard her say a negative word about another athlete. McDougall disparages Pam’s and Dean’s accomplishments and derides their supposed self-promotional activities. I’ve never met Scott, but his website, http://www.scottjurek.com/#/home/, is clearly self-promotional. Since ultramarathoning doesn’t enjoy the visibility and financial support that some other sports do, it could be argued that there’s a darn good reason for good ultra athletes to do some self promotion if big companies aren’t going to do it for them. Again, I’d be surprised if McDougall has contacted Reed or Karnazes and tried learn more about complex, talented people. The need to denigrate people, apparently to promote his opinion of the people he likes, is the most unfortunate aspect of Born to Run and badly detracted from my enjoyment of the interesting adventures described.

That actually points to an aspect of the book that was striking. This is very much a colloquial prose, subjective account of events and ideas based on limited experience, research, and a handful of people’s views on an array of complex topics. The acknowledgements list a limited group of ultrarunners and organizers associated largely with the Leadville 100 event. Leadville is a fine event, but it’s only one of many. Much is made of Leadville’s difficulty. No 100 is easy, but except for the altitude, Leadville is mostly dirt and paved roads and relatively easy running trails. Several events, including the Hardrock, Wasatch, Western States, and Angeles Crest 100s cross more rugged terrain with a higher percentage of trails. The only other U.S. event that’s discussed much is Badwater 135. The event director indicated to me that the account was based on written accounts that McDougall read on the Internet, presented as direct knowledge, with some misrepresentation. This pattern of partial exposition is unfortunate, since there are an array of challenging ultras held in this country, each with their own adherents and history. It would have been helpful if more research had been done and more shared.

Likewise, the chapters that promote “barefoot running” and present the work of a few evolutionary biologists present interesting ideas with egregious oversimplification. Frankly the barefoot running chapter comes across as an endorsement of one company’s niche product, the Vibram 5-Fingers, over the array of shoes that Nike and other shoe manufacturers sell in vast quantities. McDougall claims that people have a tendency to run with a heel-strike-first form promoted by the geometry and cushioning of typical running shoes. He further claims that that’s why “most people” suffer running injuries. A vast shoe marketing conspiracy is implied. In my 32 years of running marathons and further, it’s been my observation that many runners, especially faster ones, have a tendency to land too far forward on their forefeet, not their heels. There are certainly heel-strikers, but that motion pattern tends to be self-limiting. The biggest factor that appears to promote injuries is doing the same stride for endless miles on smooth level surfaces (roads). We aren’t designed for that. Everyone who learns how to run on trails learns to do a better job of setting their foot down more in the mid-foot with a stabile foot-plant so they don’t twist anything. They’re constantly adjusting stride and foot plant for the terrain. Over and over again runners have commented to me that trails beat them up a lot less than roads, although the risk of trauma rises; do I have a scar collection. I’m still waiting for a recently dislocated finger to work properly again. I’ve been experimenting with the Vibram 5-Fingers since they first came out. My feet “supinate” (roll out) too much, so I do better with flatter shoes. Nothing is flatter than a pair of 5-Fingers. However, without my flexible orthotics, which are a thin, tough, flexible combination of rubber and leather, the 5-Fingers don’t protect my feet sufficiently from Tucson’s very rocky, rugged trail surfaces. So I’ve made the 5-Fingers more like what the Raramuri run in, the huarache sandals cut from the thick rubber of old tires. It’s pretty amazing to see a Raramuri runner pick up a rock between their sandal and foot, then flip it out without missing a stride. I never mastered that with Teva and other sandals (which I’ve run in). Bob Novak, who makes my orthotics, is collecting information on how people and their feet adapt to 5-Fingers. He suspects over-pronators (flat floppy feet) might not do so well. But he’s suspending judgement and collecting data. For my part, if I were still in my 20s when I could run sub-5:30 pace in road 10Ks, I couldn’t imagine racing hard on rocky trails in the 5-Fingers safely. Lately I’ve been alternating between the 5-Fingers and a good pair of Brooks Cascadias. Note, since I wrote this, I've moved on to Altra Zero Drop shoes. They're flat like the 5-Fingers and protect my feet much better on trails so I don't have to add additional protection.

McDougall says that human beings are endurance animals. He is absolutely correct. We are much better at trotting along than all but a few other animals. But he only talks to a few scientists. He makes much fuss over a handful of occasions in the Man Against Horse 50 mile run/ride in which the people finished ahead of the horses. What he misses is that in events like that, the horses are required to stop for vet checks, which slows down their total time considerably. I suspect he’s unfamiliar with format of such events. There’s also a lot more variation from year to year in the finish times of the horses than the humans. So, yes in years in which the horse field was slower, humans have finished ahead. The year my wife and I did Man Against Horse, we received ribbons for being the 29th and 30th things to cross the finish line. It was cool. A horse/rider won that year. A better comparison of people and horses might be the Tevis Cup/Western States 100 events. The best horse finish is 10:46, the best human 15:07. Horses are one of the animals that, if they stay in heat balance, can out-run people over long distances. Dogs are great running companions if you can keep them cool, since they can’t sweat.

The most interesting idea McDougall popularizes in his book is that our ancestors might have used the running itself, plus the big brains, as a hunting method. He’s repeating the ideas of several well-regarded evolutionary biologists. In some ways this is the most interesting and worthwhile part of book. Of course, that opinion comes from someone who counted ten of thousands of termites and proposed ideas about the evolution of termites; bias exists. I’ve known people were strange creatures since the 1970s, when one of my professors at New Mexico State University, Walt Whitford, described his work to me. Walt was shaving chimpanzees from the colony kept at Holloman AF. He dusted them with powder that changed color when they sweated, then heated them up. He compared this to airmen he dusted. I don’t remember if he shaved the airmen. One 40 pound chimp didn’t much like this when he was hustled out by a pair of large MPs and clapped them together like a pair of cymbals; chimps are very, very strong in the arms. The chimps didn’t have nearly the sweat gland distribution that humans do. I think we’re the sweat champs of the animal kingdom. Humans were much better at maintaining a constant body temperature as they were heated up than chimps. McDougall recounts more recent studies showing we’re darn good at trotting along and staying in heat balance. We may in fact be better at that than in other animal in warm climates. Horses were cooler climate steppe dwellers before we took them all over the world. He describes one anthropologist’s experiences with Kalahari bushmen who still practiced “persistance hunting”. They pick out a herd animal and trail it relentlessly, for several hours if necessary, until the animal becomes exhausted. Then they move in for the kill. The success rates for that sort of hunting are supposed to be very high. It’s also suggested that watching and anticipating the animal’s movements selected for very intelligent hunters who could in essence build a mental model of their prey and predict it’s behavior. I should mention that the 2004 Nature article he cites, which I have had a copy of for several years, also repeats the hypothesis made years before that human heat tolerance and endurance is an adaptation to scavenging in the heat of the day when the big carnivores were asleep. Stealing their kills doesn’t sound as noble as being the hunters, I admit.

Let’s recap. My four criteria for the book were entertainment value, accuracy, fairness, and worth. It is quite entertaining if you enjoy florid, over-dramatized prose. I found it easy to read once I got used to the writing style. It has many, many lapses in accuracy and completeness. I was actually pretty surprised when I found that McDougall doesn’t seem to know anything about the Raramuri’s training in the mountains around Tucson since that was fundamental to Rick Fisher’s follow-up to the first fiasco in the 1992 race. He also presents the year he participated in Micah’s run as it’s first occurrence, when in fact Micah had been putting on the run since 2000. It’s definitely not a fair book. McDougall has people he’s enamored of whom he speaks well of. Others are ignored or denigrated. That element struck me as parochial and mean-spirited. Lastly, the worth of the book is very much an open question. I have yet to encounter someone who was inspired to run or run more as result of reading the book. A few people seem to have been influenced to use “barefoot running” footgear, although it remains to be seen if the overall effect is positive or not. To be fair, my circle of friends outside of work includes many people who are already accomplished endurance athletes. At Mica True’s talk, I didn’t see a single trail or ultra runner I knew, and I got the sense there were a number of non-runners in the audience. I need more information about what those folks have done since reading the book to answer the worth question. Interestingly, as a direct and indirect result of Micah’s talk, several people there and in our trail running group expressed interest in visiting the Raramuri’s home region in the Sierra Madre Occidental. The biology presented was accurate and worthwhile as far as it went, excluding the misinformation comparing humans to horses. Born to Run definitely deserves credit for popularizing work scientists are doing to understand our biological history.

Here are some more links if you’d like to read more about the topics McDougall and I touch on--

Chris McDougall has a website-- http://www.chrismcdougall.com/index.html

As does Micah True-- http://www.caballoblanco.com/

Pam Reed, too-- http://pamreed.com/pr/

Daniel Lieberman is one of primary sources for McDougall’s discussion of human evolution as endurance athletes-- http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/danlhome.html

And he has a website (funded by Vibram...) specifically related to “barefoot running”-- http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/0aHomeBios.html