Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and
the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
I can’t remember how I first heard about this book, but I’m glad I did because it has been a revelation. As the author has acknowledged in an interview, it is really three books in one. It is partly about the Rarámuri (“Tarahumara”) Indians of Mexico, a shy, peaceful tribe that has survived by running and hiding in the most rugged terrain on earth, the Copper Canyon. “Rarámuri” means “running people,” and indeed running is the foundation of their culture. It is not just a means of escape, it is something they find great joy in, and they have learned how to run great distances, for days on end, through impossible terrain. McDougall, a runner himself, became fascinated with them after struggling with running injuries that threatened to take away his favourite sport. He wanted to know how they ran so much without difficulty, and that is how the book started.
Born to Run is also about a group of crazy “ultrarunners,” long distance runners who regularly compete in 50 to 100 mile races up and down mountains, and who run even longer distances just for fun. This is not a sport with a lot of glory and sponsorships, they just love running, and so when they were brought to the Copper Canyon to race the Rarámuri, it was like the meeting of twins separated at birth.
However the part of the book that blew my mind was about running itself, and how we really are born to run, built to run, evolved to run. This may seem hard to believe for those of us who learned to run in great, galumphing, heel-first strides. The way we normally run is just about least efficient, most punishing way to do it. We’ve taken something completely natural and made it so difficult that only those with the highest pain thresholds can get much enjoyment out of it. The problem is the running shoe. The running shoe practically forces us run in the worst way possible, by slamming down on our heel with a straight leg. The shoe’s cushioning prevents us from feeling the pain of hitting the ground in this way, so we keep doing it despite the damage it does to our bodies. If that wasn’t enough, the much-lauded arch support in these shoes actually weakens our feet, making them even more vulnerable to injury and less able to carry us. Think of an architectural stone arch—put a heavy weight on it and the stones lock together more strongly; but push up from below and the arch falls apart easily. That’s what arch support does to our feet.
So what is the alternative? Run like the Rarámuri, and like every other barefoot or sandaled runner in the world, on the balls of our feet. It’s how children naturally run, before they are taught the wrong way, and it is how animals run, whose heels never even touch the ground. It’s the only possible way to run without shoes, because the other way just hurts too much. Pain is the best running coach—the bottoms of our feet are among the most sensitive parts of our bodies and when they aren’t cocooned by an inch of foam rubber they can tell us quite clearly when we’re running wrong.
The way the Rarámuri run is to land softly on the balls of their feet, making first contact with the outside of the foot, rolling in, and gently coming down on the whole foot while stroking the ground backwards. Steps are light and quick, and much shorter than we run in running shoes. It is more efficient to run with smaller strides, and landing on the ball of the foot takes advantage of the springy tendons and ligaments in our feet and legs. We have far more connective tissue in our legs than most animals, so running for us is a bit like riding a pogo stick—we only need to use enough muscle to keep the bounce going and our tendons and ligaments do the rest.
For me as a biologist the most fascinating part of Born to Run was about how running is the key to our evolution. Until recently, no one has been able to account for our bizarre morphology, the form of our bodies. Compared to other animals, we are slow, weak, and defenceless. We really have no business being on this planet. People sometimes say that making tools evened the odds, but we didn’t start making tools until long after we assumed our present shape. So why are we the way we are? The only theory that explains us is “persistence hunting.” Persistence hunting is tracking and running down a prey animal until it collapses. Animals are obviously faster on the sprint, but they cannot run long distances. Their fur traps heat so they can only run for so long before they must stop to cool down. Also the way their bodies scrunch up and extend with every galloping stride limits how much they can breathe. We, on the other hand, have no fur and can sweat, so we shed heat as we run, and being upright means we can breathe as much as we need to while running. Add to that our efficient, springy legs and you have a long distance running machine.
Running may be the key to our evolution in another way. If we didn’t evolve by making tools, what caused us to develop our supersized brains? The answer may be tracking. Tracking is partly a matter of perception—being able to see the slightest signs left by an animal—but it is also a matter of thinking. To track an animal efficiently you have to be able to put together the story of what the tracks mean, what the animal was doing when it left a track, and where it might be going. This employs quite a number of different mental skills—learning, memory, extrapolation, inference, deduction, visualization. Throw in the need to teach these complex skills to the next generation and you may have the basis for speech as well.
This is the best, and frankly the only, theory I’ve ever heard that explains human evolution. It’s not just a theory either, because persistence hunting has been observed. It only takes a few hours to run down an animal like an antelope, which is well within our capability. Then there’s the fact that running, punishing as it is in running shoes, is the most popular sport on Earth, not to mention the preferred mode of locomotion among children. Kids know what we grownups have forgotten—running is easy and running is fun.
Chris McDougall has become a convert to barefoot running since writing this book. His injuries have cleared up, and he can run farther and faster than he ever did before. But it’s not about distance and time, it’s about joy. Over and over McDougall talks about the pure joy he saw on the faces of the Rarámuri and the crazy ultrarunners, even at the end of a long, gruelling race. Running simply feels good, when you do it right.
If you’re tempted to give it a try, check out RunningBarefoot.org. The site has an extensive section on getting started, as well as plenty of other advice and discussion on barefoot and minimalist running. I particularly love the site’s motto: “Shoes? We don’t need no stinkin’ shoes!” You might also enjoy the blog of Barefoot Ted, one of the racers in Born to Run, and the site of Caballo Blanco, who organized the Copper Canyon race featured in the book.
I’ll leave you with this video by Christopher McDougall. When I first saw this I was struck by how much his form looked like the pottery paintings of Olympic athletes from ancient Greece. This is how they ran. It’s how we’ve always run. Thanks to Chris McDougall for showing us how to get our birthright back.