One of my Christmas gifts this year was Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, which I was familiar with as the book that brought the nascent underground “barefoot running” movement to the mainstream. After devouring it within the first twenty-four hours I owned it, I’m pleased to report it’s more than that.
In some ways, it’s similar to Daniel Pink’s Drive, in that it takes the conventional wisdom about a particular topic, points out how science has poked holes in that wisdom in the last several decades, and proposes an alternative hypothesis. In Drive’s case, the conventional wisdom is that sticks-and-carrots are the best way to motivate people; in Born To Run’s, it’s that running is bad for your legs (and feet, and knees, and other joints). We evolved to walk, says this bit of wisdom, so running long distances leads inevitably to injury. As the book goes on, we discover more and more that points to this conclusion (and its basis) being incorrect.
Where we start, though, is with a trip McDougall takes to Mexico, where he encounters the Tarahumara and a man called Caballo Blanco. The story of how this eccentric ended up in Mexico, his dream for holding the ultimate long-distance running race, and McDougall’s quest to make it happen, and his struggle to compete in it is the narrative around which all of the sports science is woven. And while that story starts off a bit overwritten (the first chapter makes the Tarahumara sound like a remnant of lost Atlantis), it gets good fast. It’s a tale of improbable feats and unlikely characters that sucked me in, which is why I finished it so quickly. For me, fun story + science = great read, even if I’m not that into the topic. When I am — like I am with running right now — it’s a recipe for a book I can’t put down until it’s done.