Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Christopher McDougall is a man after my own heart. When one of the top sports-medicine doctors in the country told him his foot injury demanded that he quit running, McDougall instead got a cortisone shot and a second opinion. And then a third. Because as he aptly analogizes in his fascinating 2009 narrative Born to Run, running is fundamentally about love. Here McDougall contends, “The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding.”

Determined to understand why humans are the only mammals seemingly unable to “depend on [their] legs,” McDougall sets off to study the ways of the Tarahumara, a tribe of superathletes hidden in Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre. Through his investigation, we travel from ultraraces in Leadville, Colorado, to the offices and opinions of the world’s top scientists. We trace the history of the running shoe, and uncover a startling reality. We meet an amazing cast of characters and become privy to astonishing feats of human achievement—culminating in the definitive ultrarace quietly unfolding within the Barrancas. But what McDougall ultimately reveals is our evolutionary destiny: We are all distance runners. Endurance, we come to learn, is about survival. “Running was the superpower that made us human—which means it’s a superpower all humans possess.”

I recently asked Christopher to talk a little more about his ideas. Here’s how the conversation went …

JF: Born to Run imparts philosophical wisdom within the context of the factual account. Do you think people who love to run are inherently philosophical?

CM: I can really only speak for myself, and I’m still amazed by how many times I’ve finished a run and realized how wrong I’ve been about something. Maybe sixty percent of the time I’ve apologized to people has been after I’ve gotten home from a long run. That’s a pretty good way of confronting your own human limitations while simultaneously burning off the previous night’s Haagen-Dazs.

JF: What do you hope readers who are not runners will take away from this book?

CM: Only that they remove the “not” from that sentence.

JF: When you hit a wall on a run, what motivates you to continue?

CM: I don’t. I surrender on impact. Why try to fight through and make the whole experience miserable? I prefer to stop and walk, rather than bull straight on into the bricks. Pretty soon you realize the wall is behind you, and you’re on your way again.

JF: Has an understanding of human evolution and why our bodies are built as they are changed your approach to life beyond running?

CM: More than anything, it reminded me that as much as we like to think of ourselves as these mega-cerebral masters of the universe, we’re really animals first. And if we don’t respect our raw, physical legacy, we’ll pay the price in a lot more than just heart disease and obesity. Like any other creature in captivity, our minds and spirits will decay as badly as our bodies.

JF: Born to Run points out that women are more reliable ultra-runners than men. “Women get the job done.” Why do you think that is?

CM: Most likely because they’re less prone to testosterone-induced delusions. For lots of reasons, social as much as physiological, guys are more prone to showing off. Ken Chlouber, the legendary creator of the Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon, always uses women as his pacers because he’s learned that they keep focus on getting to the finish line, not getting in front of anyone in front of them.

JF: Can you compare running to writing? Which requires greater stamina?

CM: For me, they’ve become inseparable. If I couldn’t burst out the door every day and go run around in the woods for a while, there’s no way I’d ever get anything written. I don’t think it’s stamina that’s required, so much as strategy; rather than fighting through the tough parts, pull back and relax for a while before getting back into the fight.

JF: As a runner and a writer, I found this book extremely inspiring. Which books inspire you?

CM: Bone Games is fantastic. And I’ve always loved Never Come Morning by Nelson Algren.

-JF, 2011

Editorial Note: This interview was conducted while I was working in digital marketing at Random House and has been reposted with the company’s permission.

Citation: McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run. New York, Vintage, 2011. Print.

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