Monday, February 21, 2022

Review: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Part memoir, part pop science, in Born To Run, extreme sports journalist McDougall promises us a story about "A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen." I don't think he quite delivers.

In the first few chapters, McDougall sets up the mystery of the "hidden tribe", the Tarahumara, a reclusive indigenous people in northern Mexico with a strong tradition of running days-long races over challenging terrain. In "Tarahumara Land" we are told there is no corruption, crime, child abuse, obesity, diabetes or heart disease. The "Tarahumara geniuses" also created a "one-of-a-kind financial system based on booze and random acts of kindness."

The answer to the mystery is simple: they don't adhere to a western diet nor live in a capitalist society. No, indeed, that answer is too simple for a lifestyle bestseller. The actual answer to the mystery is a diet of chia seeds and corn, running in shoes without much support or cushioning, and treating running as a fun, communal activity.

In unravelling these secrets, we take a deep dive into a weird and quirky subculture (a beat I love). A fascinating cast of characters is woven into the story: Ann Trason, a biochemist who smashes women's running records left and right and hates being called a wimp; Barefoot Ted, an irritatingly garrulous runner with an interest in Victorian sports equipment; Jenn Shelton, a fearless poet who can run further and faster than nearly anyone despite being wildly hungover. 

Despite the book's tagline, the narrative momentum is really driven by Caballo Blanco. The opening sentence of the memoir starts with a ghost hunt for the Caballo Blanco. The tension at the climax of the narrative is whether the unorthodox race organized by Caballo Blanco will indeed ever take place. The reveal at the end of the book is the real identity of Caballo Blanco. 

While McDougall paints these vivid (somewhat fictionalized) portraits of various Americans, the Tarahumara are kept at a distance. They're treated as a mostly homogeneous group: we learn a few names, but never their personalities beyond their appreciation for running. Who are the Tarahumara? What are their lives like? These mysteries are not revealed, and so the treatment of them feels a little "otherizing." To sell a story as one about a tribe of indigenous people, but have it really be about a few white Americans felt a bit off.

I was also not convinced on the science of barefoot running. McDougall rightly points out the lack of randomized clinical trials demonstrating the benefits of the Nike Pegasus shoe and its competitors, but evidence for the benefits of barefoot running isn't much better (e.g., see Hollander et al, 2017).

All that aside, I enjoyed some of the meditations around why we run. Running is instinct, community, love, fun, freeing. It was a fun audiobook companion for a long run.

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