16 April 2010

The emperor has no shoes

Christopher McDougall's BORN TO RUN can be credited with launching the biggest fad to hit running in the past five years. And when I use that f-word, I use it in the nicest way possible. (Roll it out over your tongue for a second. A faaaaaaaad. Such a pleasing sound.) I read this book to see what the fuss was about, and I see now, even if I'm not prepared to join in the fussing.

McDougall opens the book a broken man, a longtime runner plagued by seemingly unsolvable foot pain and told to basically get a bike and move on. Then he hears about an indigenous tribe in northern Mexico whose members routinely run hundreds of miles, and whose all-day social running competitions (preceded by all-night drunken parties) are rarely witnessed by outsiders. When he finds a guide to introduce him to the Tarahumara, he discovers their feats to be even more impressive: Not only do they run long distances in the desert heat, they scramble up rocky cliffs in their way either barefoot or with very thin sandals.

(One of the book's major effects has been to advance the spread of the Vibram Fivefingers shoe, which is supposed to help you mimic barefoot running while providing a little comfort. They are also the most ridiculous looking type of footwear I have ever seen, and in the big city I see a lot of Regrettable Footwear Choices. I saw a guy wearing these in 30-degree weather outside in the park, and as he vainly massaged his toes I thought, You know what would work great on those? SOCKS AND SHOES.)

McDougall adopts their running stride, their barefootedness and some of their fuel, all while doing research into why and how humans have run throughout their evolution. In the midst of his own quest he takes a detour into the world of ultrarunning, a sort of supersport for crazy people who enjoy competing in events like 100 miles nonstop in the Rockies. Unlike the Tarahumara, inviting but impenetrable, these death cheaters (of which Scott Jurek is probably the sanest) are only too happy to open up to McDougall about their exploits, which could fill several books of their own.

The long hours McDougall logs with the personalities of BORN TO RUN paid off for me; his research did not. Armed with anecdotes, the author sets out to construct a powerful image of pre-modern man running for survival -- he even brings in the testimony of an anthropologist who witnessed a high-speed hunt on foot in Africa -- but it all seems a little too convenient. A section about the birth of Nike in the 1970s is fascinating, but capped off with a sort of blanket indictment of shoe companies for making our feet unstable and injury-prone. It's good to be skeptical of the effects of modern technology, but if people have evolved to run over thousands of years, how could thirty years of sports footwear undo that?

I sort of wish I could be on the bandwagon on this one, but maybe if I manage your expectations you will enjoy it more than I did. Pick it up for the adventure story and the suspense, not to have it change the way you think about running; you'll be much better off.

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