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Monday, October 24, 2011

Are We Born to Run?

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Vintage)Every once and awhile a book comes along about a sport that one can enjoy without being an aficionado of the sport. Jon Krakauer's book about the ill-fated climb of Mt. Everest in 1996 (Into Thin Air) fits into this category as does Michael Lewis's Money Ball. Christopher McDougall's, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, is another. One doesn't have to be a runner to like this book. It is about so much more.

The book's genesis was the author's quest to answer the question, "Why am I always getting hurt when I run?" It leads him to seek the advice of a number of doctors and researchers, to search for a relatively unknown tribe living in Mexico's Copper Canyons (the Tarahumara), into the world of ultra-marthoning (50 to 100 mile races in lovely areas such as Death Valley), into contact with barefoot running evangelists such as "Barefoot Ted" (who actually runs in sandals or minimalist shoes), and to explore the theories of evolutionary biologists who argue that human beings are "born to run."

On one hand the book's a story about the Tarahumara, a lost tribe of sorts, that has lived in Mexico's Copper Canyons for 100's of years, and whose members are renowned for their extreme long-distance running ability. Because they live in widely dispersed settlements, the Tarahumara developed a tradition of running up to 120 miles in a single session over a two-day period through rough canyon country. They use use the toe-strike method of running, which is natural for bare-footed runners, although they generally run in thin-soled sandals. The Tarahumara gained attention in the US (they were featured on ESPN) when in 1993 and 1994 some tribe members traveled to Colorado and competed in and won the Leadville 100, a cross-country ultra marathon that is held annually near Leadville, Colorado, where runners climb and descend "hills" at elevations ranging between 9,200-12,620 feet.

On another level, the book is about ultra-marthoners and one of the greatest ultra-marathon races ever run: The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon. Ultra-marathons are races that range from 50 to 120 miles long, sometimes longer. The 2006 Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon serves as the penultimate event of the book; it pitted a handful of Tarahumar runners against some of the best that America had to offer. In 2006, a Tarahumara runner won the event; in 2007, an American did.

On still another level the book explores whether humans are "born to run." Some evolutionary biologists believe that the reason why the human race straightened up from all fours to two legs was to take advantage of our ability to run long distances.  Surprisingly, humans can run much farther distances than can most animals (e.g., horses, chetahs, deer) because while humans can sweat to reduce body heat, their quadruped prey need to slow from a gallop to pant to do so -- if they don't, they keel over from exhaustion. According to this theory, 200,000 years ago ancient humans took advantage of this ability and used "persistence hunting" as a method of hunting, where, rather than outpacing animals, they would chase them over long distances until the animals overheated (because they couldn't sweat) and collapsed.

Given the fact that the initial impetus lying behind McDougall's book was why he kept getting hurt when he ran, his book also explores the latest research into the physiology of running and uncovers a number of surprising facts. For example:
  • The most expensive shoes are the worst (p. 173) -- as surprising as it may seem, runners wearing top-of-the-line-shoes are 123% more likely to get injured than are runners using cheap shoes. Expensive shoes have too much padding in the heal, which encourages runners to run on their heals rather than the balls of their feet (as the Tarahumara do), and researchers at the University of Delaware have shown that landing on one's heals causes far more "shock" and strain through the body (in particular, the knee) than does landing on the balls of one's feet.
  • When runners run with shoes with little or no padding (or no shoes at all), they gain more foot control and their stride becomes more natural, which leads their running to be more efficient and thus enables them to run very long distances.
  • Running barefoot or with minimalist shoes (i.e., shoes with minimal padding) increases the strength of one's feet. McDougall tells the story of Alan Webb who became America's greatest miler for awhile. When he was in high school, Webb wore a size 12 shoe and was very slow. For whatever reason, his high school coach saw potential in him, and started him working out in his bare feet. This caused the muscles in his feet to become stronger and led his arch to become higher. Soon, he was wearing a size 9 or 10 size shoe!
Findings such as these are what lie behind the latest craze in "minimalist" and "barefoot" shoes, such as Merrill's "Barefoot," Nike's "Free" and Vibram's "5 Fingers" lines of shoes. They all provide little padding, encouraging runners to land on the balls of their feet and adjust their strides accordingly.

Along the way, you meet some wonderful characters
  • Micah True (aka, Caballo Blanco), a former boxer who, after running with the Tarahumara in a 100 mile race in Colorado (The Leadville 100), moved to the Copper Canyons to live with (well, near) the Tarahumara for several years. True's solitary and mysterious runs through the canyon earned him the nickname Caballo Blanco. In 2006 with the help of Born to Run's author, Chris McDougall, True pulled together the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, which pitted Tarahumara runners against some of the best ultra marathoners in the world. A Tarahumara runner (Arnulfo Quimare) won that year with America's greatest ultra marathoner, Scott Jurek finishing second (Jurek returned the next year and won).
  • Scott Jurek, one of the greatest ultra-marathoners of all time, winning the sport's most prestigious races multiple times, such as the Hardrock Hundred (2007), the Badwater Ultramarathon (2005, 2006), the Spartathlon (2006, 2007, 2008), and the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (1999-2005).
  • Ann Trason, perhaps the greatest female ultra-marathoner, who has broken 20 world records and finished ahead of all but one of the Tarahumara runners in the 1994 Leadville 100.
  • Barefoot Ted, the evangelist of barefoot running, although he has developed and apparently wears sandals that are designed after the sandals worn by the Tarahumara. Barefoot Ted was one of the competitors in the 2006 Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon.
That pretty much covers it. The following link ("Are We Born to Run") will take you to a TED talk given by Christopher McGougall. If you're unfamiliar with TED talks, they are generally no longer than 20 minutes and typically do a good job of summarizing whatever the topic is. This one is only 16 minutes long and captures much of what the book is about.

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