Born to Run (The Runners Book Club)

This is a blog primarily about two things:

Reading, and running.

Mostly I talk about those things separately, although for me there is natural connective tissue between the two subjects. Running and reading promote the thing I crave most: focus.

It is a common enough expression:

To get lost in a book.

You can get lost in a run too.

The world around you fades into the background as you focus in on the words, or your breathing; the pavement, or the prose.

There are also some more blatant intersections in the two subjects. Namely, books about running. Books for runners. Books written by runners. In Runners Book Club I don’t necessarily want to review these books but rather I want to extract from them useful conversation starters about why we run, how we run, or how we can run better.

Today, I want to kick us off with a big one.

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougal (2009).

The book starts with a simple question, one that runners all the over the world have been asking for years and years and will continue to ask as the decades roll on:

Why does this hurt so much?

McDougal wasn’t an elite athlete, he was just a hobbyist suffering for his love of the sport, and a swift visit to the doctor’s office didn’t exactly give him the answers he wanted. They told him, duh, of course it hurts, you aren’t meant to be running. They told him he’d be better off finding an activity less strenuous on his body and if he really, absolutely had to keep on running he best whip out his wallet because he was going to need top-of-the-line trainers and custom made orthotics.

McDougal was confused. Why is running such a hardship (and an expensive one at that) for him when he’s heard stories about human beings wearing nothing but a loincloth and sandals running for hundreds of miles across splintering switchbacks and thousands of metres of climb? What was going wrong for him compared to them?

So he decided to try and work it out.

He headed out into the Mexican mountains in search of the Tarahumara: a scattered tribe of legendary, but reclusive, athletes. Although he finds them, they aren’t exactly talkative. Luckily for him he also finds another English-speaker who has already grafted his way alongside the runners, the aptly nicknamed Caballo Blanco, a wild ultra-runner who had left his life behind to live simple and run free in the mountains.

From there, McDougal goes on a journey.

What he learns on the journey is simple: humans are natural runners.  

We’ve just forgotten how to be good at it.

The big talking point to come away with from Born to Run is the potential benefits of bare foot running, but I read this book just last week and as tempting as it might be to head out and do some laps on the grass it is absolutely freezing and I’m not looking to have my toes drop off. Plus, for some people it’s just not going to be appealing in any conditions, what with all the filth which might be clogging the streets whereabouts they live.

Still, there is something to be learned from barefoot running regardless of whether it appeals to you or not, and that is the importance of form. What McDougal noticed was that when he ran barefoot he ran with much better form, without even thinking about it. When his shoes were off he ran like he was trying to protect his body, as if without the cushioning of his trainers the body naturally reverted into a gait which suited his natural physiological strengths. He struck the ground lightly, with his forefoot, his back and neck straight, and his head still. Running like this he forgot all about his pains and injury slowly stopped bothering him.

McDougal didn’t always run barefoot though. Better form can be achieved whilst still protecting your feet from frostbite, and to practise better form, the book teaches us to think light and easy.

Run light, run easy, and it might just be that running becomes more fun, and injuries are less likely to put you on the side lines.

And that is the real takeaway from Born to Run for me. As interesting as the minutia of the books is, it’s not necessarily the barefoot running, or the vast distances, or the plant-based diets, which make up the key lesson. No, the central concept to come away with is that the Tarahumara, and all the marvellous athletes who show up over the course of the book, run with a smile on their face.

Now I don’t think that is to say that every run should leave you smiling, because I know that some of us aren’t just running for fun. We’re running for times. We’re running to race others, and ourselves. And to get that edge to make us competitive sometimes we do things maybe we don’t find as fun. To me that’s fine, because when I’m doing the hard sessions, when I’m cross training and stretching and icing and thinking about my diet it isn’t exactly fun, but I’m always doing it for a reason. It gives me purpose. Something to strive for. And that makes it all worth it.

What I come away from Born to Run with is the realisation that the conjoining factor between the ancient runners, and the modern Tarahumara, and the western athletes who joined them over the course of the book isn’t gait, or a disdain for footwear, but instead it is a passion for running, a childish joy in moving quickly, and also compassion for each other. No matter how good any of the runners McDougal encounters are, it’s never all about the winning.

Competition never gets in the way of their desire to do good.

It isn’t a book which is going to get me running barefoot during the coolest edge of winter, it isn’t going to get me to ditch my running watch, or my bouncy trainers, but it is a book which has reminded me to always keep in the back of my mind why I run.

Because I like it!

And so when the going gets tough, when the burn hits and I crash head first into the wall, I’ll remember to keep a smile on my face.

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