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September 13, 2013 / CB

Book Review: Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never SeenBorn to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the things you learn early in running is this truth: there is always someone, somewhere who is slower than you and there is always someone, somewhere who is faster than you. I’m a big believer that the sooner you make peace with this fact, the more you enjoy running. But, if you are one of those who knows no one can beat you, then you really need to read this book. And for the rest of us? Well, it’s just too good to pass up.

A Harvard grad, Christopher McDougall spent a number of years working for the AP in Africa, covering, among other things, the Rwandan genocide. Returning to the States, he began freelancing for magazines like Outside, the New York Times Magazine, and Men’s Health. It was under the auspices of this last publication that McDougall initially headed down to Mexico, searching for legendary runners.

The story he discovers, and then becomes a part of, is truly remarkable. It’s unlike anything I’ve come across before and may well change your perspective on running and the industry it has inspired. Like all good stories (which aren’t about girls), this one involves a ghost. The fabulously named Caballo Blanco is a mythic figure in the southwest. Maybe an ex-fighter, maybe a criminal, he is definitely a white man who disappeared into the Mexican Copper Canyons by choice, by running. When McDougall finally tracks him down, Caballo is just the sort of character you’re probably imagining, and he leads McDougall down a rabbit hole which ends at the feet of the Tarahumara.

“My eyes popped open to see a dusty cadaver in a tattered straw hat bantering with the desk clerk. Trail dust streaked his gaunt face like fading war paint, and the shocks of sun-bleached hair sticking out from under the hat could have been trimmed with a hunting knife. He looked like a castaway on a desert island, even to the way he seemed hungry for conversation with the bored clerk.”

The Tarahumara, or Rarámuri as they call themselves, are native Mexicans and probably the closest thing to mythic warriors that our world still contains. They can run and run and run, vanishing into the twisting canyons they call home even as you look at them. They are enduring phantoms when they have a mind to be. As I read the book, I pictured them as living Greek statuary, perfect ideals that few mortals could ever rival. They are not the distant Stoics of an ancient past, however. If they had come upon Pheidippides (who died running from Marathon to Athens), they likely would have helped him into the shade, given him a drink, and then run clear on into Poland. When they want to, the Tarahumara know how to have a whooping good time, fueled by homemade moonshine that sounds like it would degrease your engine and your brain.

Ultimately, this book is one of those rare and perfect mixtures of an inherently great story with exactly the right teller. McDougall’s prose is both journalistic and engaging from the first page. Even as he takes a rather long diversion into the history and evolution of running shoes, you are perfectly willing to go along with him. Like Caballo Blanco, you are already so hooked on the mythos of the Tarahumara that you both want to get back to story and also learn what secret wisdom they remember which the world has forgotten.

“I eased my hydration pack off my shoulders and got ready to sit down and rest. Better take a break now till we see what’s next, I thought, dropping the pack at my feet. When I looked back up, we were surrounded by half a dozen men in white skirts and pirate blouses. Between blinks, they’d materialized from the forest.”

As the book rounds the half-way mark, all that you have read and learned begins to coalesce into one of the finest pieces of sports writing I have ever read. Not only do you get to see the Tarahumara in full flight, on their home turf, but it turns into one of the greatest footraces of all time. A small, motley crew of the finest modern ultra runners arrive to toe the line with these ghosts of the desert. McDougall moves seamlessly from outside observer to participant and tells the final chapters with a determination and senseless joy any runner will recognize.

If you’re already a runner, this book will make you love it more. If you’re not a runner, there’s a good chance this book will make you one.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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2 Comments

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  1. Claire Ady / Sep 13 2013 3:26 pm

    I’d add to what you said by saying that most runners have also had an injury of some kind and want to find ways to avoid another, and this book makes a few interesting suggestions. although running without shoes just sounds insane to me

    • CB / Sep 14 2013 8:50 pm

      For sure! I thought that same thing about barefoot running and, while I’m not in bare feet, I am in running in no-drop shoes now. I love them and can’t see going back, not as long as my knees keep feeling this good.

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