Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Born to (Endurance?) Run(!)

Although ultramarathoning is still considered a fringe sport by the at large American population, it is rapidly growing -- the fastest-growing outdoor sport in the country in 2002, in fact -- and given the popularity of Christopher McDougall's "Born To Run", I'm not surprised by that claim. What you may be surprised to discover, however, is that homo sapiens evolved because we ran. And we survived -- thrived -- because we ran far.

This book is part self-discovery, part history of running lore, and part exploration of running mechanics. McDougall embarks on this journey because of a single, simple question -- "How come my foot hurts?" -- to which few medical professionals proffer anything except, "You just aren't physically built to run". Refusing to accept their hopeless diagnoses, McDougall devours all things running-related, visits medical specialists, and eventually hunts down Caballo Blanco -- the White Horse -- a gringo living amongst an ancient, hidden tribe: the Tarahumara. The eventual meeting of Caballo Blanco marks the beginning of a fundamental shift in McDougall's running form, philosophy, and life disposition. To wit, running well meant living lean and building soul as much strength. And Scott Jurek, the perfect embodiment of American ultrarunning, bridges the gap between the modern ultrarunner and the Tarahumara. Sprinkled throughout the story of how a handful of elite American ultrarunners, Jurek and Luis Escobar included, trekked down to the Copper Mountains of Mexico to race against the legendary Tarahumara, McDougall offers up thoughtful and well-reasoned explanations of barefoot running, the evolution of running, and "persistence-hunting" (hunting via running).

There are many (many!) underline and write-in-the-margins excerpts in this book -- some about Jurek, the Tarahumara, Caballo Blanco, and others just about running. The story about Jurek's resolve at his first Badwater 135 race is particularly moving:
"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 all 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.
No chance, Jerker.
Yeah, I know.
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."

Barefoot Ted is also extensively quoted -- running barefoot is witnessing a tremendous uptake in believers -- due, in no small part, to the popularity of this book. The sage of barefoot running, Barefoot Ken Bob, declared:
"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." I've only experimented with barefoot running once -- I think it may be worth earnestly pursuing -- since it forces you run more naturally...tightening of body, straightening of back, and shifting of legs squarely under the hips.

McDougall also interviews and extensively quotes a handful of academics, e.g. Dr. Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah (my alma mater!), regarding the history and the role that running played in human evolution. Theories are explained, evidence presented, and examples provided, all culminating to Dr. Bramble's solution to human excess and epidemics: "Just move your legs. Because if you don't think you were born to run, you're not only denying history. You're denying who you are."

There is much more to this book -- more than I could conceivably write here -- but suffice to say, I devoured this book in several hours and have been digesting it since. And to hijack a saying of the Tarahumara: "When you run on the earth and run with the earth, you can run forever."

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