Born to Run - Critical summary review - Christopher McDougall

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Born to Run - critical summary review

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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0307279189

Publisher: Vintage

Critical summary review

The quest for perfection is an everlasting aspiration of our society. Many individuals dedicate their whole lives to perfect their bodies, minds, or souls. Therefore, the current book market is abundant with guides that offer us steps toward achieving perfect mental or physical health. Even though its main topic is about running, The New York Times bestseller ‘’Born to Run’’ by Christopher McDougall is not a typical guide to mastering this skill. First of all, it’s a story about a Mexican tribe whose members are the world’s most amazing runners. So, get ready to learn their secret!

Are we born to run? 

Who are the members of the Tarahumara, the Mexican tribe that has achieved perfection in running? The author developed an interest in them after several doctors advised him to give up on running since, according to them, “The human body is not designed for that kind of abuse.”

One day, when McDougall was on an easy three-mile jog, he felt a sharp pain in his foot. He went to see Dr. Joe Torg, ‘’the godfather of sports medicine’’ and the co-author of the book ‘’The Running Athlete.’’ The X-ray showed McDougall had aggravated his cuboid, a cluster of bones parallel to the arch. Dr. Torg had only one piece of advice for him, ‘’Buy a bike.’’ McDougall wasn’t a professional runner, and he didn’t run often, but he still didn’t want to give up on it easily, so he went to other experts to seek advice. What they told him was pretty much the same: find another physical activity to enjoy. When he asked, ‘’Why?’’ The doctors said, ‘’Because running is bad for you.’’ To which he asked, ‘’Why is running bad for me?’’ And they replied, ‘’Because your foot hurts.’’ These answers offered by doctors endlessly triggered more questions, but McDougall decided to find answers outside the doctor’s office and went to the Copper Canyons, the place where the greatest sprinters in the world live.

There is something sensational about the running activity. According to McDougall, it unites two opposite impulses: fear and pleasure. ‘’We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time,” he says. Consequently, ‘’When things look worst, we run the most.’’ Americans have seen the popularity of distance-running skyrocket three times, always in the middle of national crisis: during the Great Depression, after recovering from Vietnam and the Cold War, and after September 11. 

Running has always been a part of our lives, so how come it is bad for us? How come some people can run like lions every day without getting hurt, and others need medication even after a short run? In the end, how can members of the Tarahumara tribe run their entire lives, despite their age, wearing just sandals? 

Rarámuri are the running people

Rarámuri, which means ‘’the running people,’’ is another name for the tribe Tarahumara. Conquistadores gave them the name Tarahumara because they didn’t understand the tribal language. The Tarahumara have always amazed other people - legends of their health, strength, and honesty have drifted out of the Canyons for centuries. For example, one explorer claimed he saw a Tarahumara chase and catch a deer with his bare hands. Another said they have a recipe for a food that gives them boundless energy. But, despite the long fascination with the Tarahumara people, they somehow manage to stay hidden and isolated in the cliffs. Many of them live inside the barely reachable caves. Others live in huts that are well-camouflaged. The famous Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz passed by the entire village without seeing it. They are even invisible to Google satellites. 

The Tarahumara people are honest (one researcher even speculates their brains are incapable of creating lies), kind, and serene. They don’t know about crime, abuse, corruption, or addiction. Their illness rates are low. Cancer? Barely detectable. However, their diet is far from being perfectly balanced: they rarely eat protein, living mainly on ground corn spiced up with a barbecued mouse. They drink corn beer or homemade tequila, brewed from rattlesnake corpses and cactus sap, in large amounts and almost every day. So, when do they run? Also, nearly every day, even after they spend all night drinking, and they can do it for hours and even days. According to the Mexican historian Francisco Almada, a Tarahumara champion once ran 435 miles straight. 

What is their secret? According to McDougall: ‘’They’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle - behold, the Running Man.’’

Successes on Leadville Trail 100

    If the people of the Tarahumara tribe are isolated from the rest of the world, how can we know if they are the toughest runners? Many people have asked this question. One of them was Ricky Fisher. He was a wilderness photographer from Arizona who became famous for being the only one in an expedition who managed to survive a rare flood in the Mogollon Canyon range. Not only did he survive, but he also took breathtaking photos of the site. During one of his expeditions, he became friends with a young Tarahumara man, Patrocinio Lopez. The two of them made a deal: Patronicio would get him runners, and Fisher would provide food for the entire village of Tarahumara. Fisher wanted to bring members of the tribe to the famous race taking place in Leadville. He even managed to find a shoe company that would sponsor the event. 

In 1992, on the day of the race, five Tarahumara men were standing at the beginning of the famous Leadville Trail 100, wearing sneakers by the sponsor, ready to do what they do the best. However, all of them gave up before they made it halfway through. The next year, the result was different because the Tarahumara racers wore their signature sandals, instead of sneakers. One of them came in first place, and another came in second. Third place went to a non-Tarahumara racer, who was an hour behind them. ‘’It was amazing,” said Harry Dupree, a participant in the race. “Here were these little guys wearing sandals who never actually trained for the race. And they blew away some of the best long-distance runners in the world.” 

In 1994, the Tarahumara racers also triumphed over other participants, including famous ultra-marathon runner Ann Transon. That was their last year participating in the Leadville race, however. At the end of the event, Fisher was fiercely arguing with the race’s creator, Ken Chlouber, accusing him of sabotaging the victory of the Tarahumara runners. When they saw the argument, the Tarahumara left and never came back.  

Caballo Blanco among the running tribe

When the Tarahumara left Leadville, one man followed them to their home. His name was Micah True, but he was best-known by the nickname Caballo Blanco (in English: the White Horse). Caballo Blanco was an excellent runner. However, when leg injuries became frequent after he turned 40, he decided to improve his running techniques and therefore, moved to the Copper Canyons. What Caballo did first was get rid of his running shoes and began wearing sandals. He started eating food that was a part of the Rarámuri diet. Things weren’t easy for him at first: he would often go back to his hut badly injured, after a day of running.  But, the hard training paid off. After three years of living in that way, White Horse was tackling trails that were invisible to the non-Tarahumara eye, without getting hurt. 

How did he get along with the rest of the tribe, considering they don’t easily accept foreigners? He became good friends with them. ‘’The Tarahumara made him welcome in their own wordless way: they barely spoke to him, but when Caballo awoke every morning, he found a little pile of handmade tortillas and fresh pinole by his campsite,’’ says McDougall. In return, White Horse’s hut, which he built by himself, was often a rest station for Rarámuri during their long runs through the canyon. One of the Tarahumara even said there were some Rarámuri who didn’t respect their traditions as much as Caballo Blanco did. 

After 10 years of living in the canyon, White Horse came up with a plan. He wanted to organize a race with the Tarahumara and some famous ultrarunners of that time, but this time on the Tarahumara home terrain. But who would take a risk of coming to the Copper Canyon and hiking through the badlands, far from the road and fresh water, with no chance of a rescue helicopter to pass through the tight cliffs? The project was challenging, but Caballo was determined to give it a try. 

The greatest race in the history of the world

    Caballo Blanco managed to gather six ultrarunners for the race. Christopher McDougal also participated as a 7th competitor. On the Tarahumara side, there were Arnulfo and Silvino. When Caballo told McDougall he wanted Arnulfo for the race, McDougall was sure Arnulfo wouldn’t show up. ‘’This thing was never going to happen [...] I admired Caballo’s taste and ambition, but I seriously questioned his grasp of reality,’’ writes McDougall. Arnulfo had never left the area where he lived and was extremely quiet. Moreover, he had never lost any of his race in the canyon.

    The first person White Horse contacted for the race was Scott Jurek, one of the most dominant ultramarathon runners in the world. The main reason why Caballo contacted him was that Jurek mentioned in one article the Tarahumara were his idols. Another participant was Eric Orton, an adventure-sports coach and longtime student of the Tarahumara, who also coached McDougall several months before the race. There was also Luis Escobar, who was a top race runner and one of the best sports photographers. Barefoot Ted was a participant whose nickname spoke for him: he was trying to master running without wearing any shoes. Winners of the East Coast races, Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett, were the youngest, being just 21 at the time.

    The race trail was 50 miles long, and included 6,500 feet of climbs and descents. That wasn’t a problem for the Tarahumara who ''run downhill the same way they run up, with a controlled, steady flow.’’ Contestants faced numerous difficulties down the trail. Shelton, for example, fell facedown on the rocks, bouncing and sliding on her chest. Despite the injury, she managed to continue competing. 

    The cheering crowd and the mariachi band greeted the winners at the finish line. The first one was Arnulfo. Silvino had been just behind him, but in the end, Jurek ran him down. It took McDougall more than 12 hours to cross the finish line. ‘’Scott and Arnulfo could have run the course all over again and still beaten me,’’ he recalls. 

Final Notes

    The book ‘’Born to Run’’ reminds us that simplicity is often the essence of perfection. Whether we want to become fast runners or just to run recreationally, expensive training and fancy equipment are not necessary. We can rely solely on our bodies because we are, indeed, born to run. 

12min Tip

    Try running by keeping things simple: forget about GPS watches, heart-rate monitors, or special running sneakers. Remind yourself why you like running and go with that thought in mind.

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Who wrote the book?

Christopher McDougal is an author and journalist. He has worked for the Associated Press as a foreign correspondent covering wars in Rwanda and Angola. He has always been fascinated with the potential of the human body. A... (Read more)

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