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Born to Run - An Interview with Author Christopher McDougall

Posted May 12 2009 4:00pm

Do you wonder, sometimes, why you run? Have you ever felt "in the zone", that you could just keep running when you thought you had reached your limit? What about after a run, have you ever felt on top of the world? According to Christopher McDougal, author of Born to Run, these are simply signs that you are human, and as a human you are born to run. You're equipped to run longer distances than other mammals that run this earth, including dogs, wolves, hyenas, and antelope, to name a few. I recently caught up with author Christopher McDougall, who captured this and a few other very intriguing angles on ultra running in his recently released book Born to Run. Here's what we discussed:

Will -- I was impressed with the breadth of the story you told, particularly how you stayed within the boundaries of endurance running. The personalities, culture, events, science, products and of course your own running experience, you touched on all of this. How did you put all of this together inside one cover?

CM -- Mostly by blowing deadlines. I delivered the manuscript a full year late, an appalling delay even by my tortured relationship with time. The problem was trying to figure out how to cram 3 books into one. Any one of the three main stories (the adventure tale of Caballo’s race, the history of the Tarahumara, or the thrilling research into human-running anthropology) could have easily gobbled up 300 pages on their own. In the end, I realized that this was really Caballo’s story, so he became my navigation point.

Will -- It's been said that endurance is at the heart of all your stories, and you are an ultra runner yourself. Why do you write about endurance sports?

CM -- Man, we can either go facile or very Freudian here. Since I’m constantly butting into either people’s heads and trying to psychoanalyze their buried motivations, maybe I deserve a taste of it myself. So: the snappy answer is that I’m probably attracted to tales of endurance because they’re our great American heritage. Endurance has always been America’s defining national characteristic. Long before we became the world’s tough guys, we were famous for toughing it out. Plymouth Rock, Valley Forge, the Pony Express, the Gold Rushers, the outgunned battlers of the Bulge... our country was founded on the wonderfully democratic notion that anyone could be a winner, even if they lost, just by gutting their way to the finish. That’s why Rocky was sequeled for the 57th time; not because he wins, but because he “goes da distance.”

Every book is some form of autobiography. My grandparents were immigrants from Sicily, Scotland and Ireland. My father was kicked out of the house at 17, joined the Marines, and beat all odds by becoming an extraordinarily successful attorney. You want to talk about endurance, he was running a race with zero margin for error

Will -- Why do you run ultras?

CM -- Same reason as every other ultrarunner: for fun. Sheer fun. Ask any ultrarunner (and by the way, I only qualify for that title by the most generous of standards); anyway, ask any ultrarunner on earth and I guarantee you’ll get the same answer. What could be better than flying through the woods in the dark with the wind cooling your sweating skin? Sheer sensual pleasure.

Will –- The Tarahumara Indians are an integral part of your story. What did you learn from them as runners? As people?

CM -- Take it easy. It’s that simple. That was also the first lesson I learned from the great lone wanderer of the Copper Canyons, Caballo Blanco. He taught me: “Focus on easy, because it that’s all you get, that ain’t so bad.” As runners, most of us are way too focused on the absurd obsession over whether we run 4hours in the marathon or 3:59.59. What difference does it make? That is something you instantly learn from the Tarahumara – their running is communal, playful, efficient and fun. That’s why I think ultras will ultimately be the salvation of recreational running. Once people learn to stop bashing themselves as hard as they can from start to finish and learn to enjoy those middle miles – the way both ultarunners and the Tarahumara do – then I’m convinced more people will really learn to love to run.

Will -- In one of the most intriguing chapters of the book you discussed that man was born to run. This chapter tells us how a biology student, a professor and a paleontologist conclude that we as a species are equipped to run very long distances. They suggest that the evolution has given our bodies very specific characteristics that make us uniquely qualified to run far. This seems like ground-breaking stuff. How did you find these guys?

CM -- lots of legwork and phone calls. The best part of the story occurred when I first called Dr. Lieberman at Harvard. I was desperate to interview him and check out his lab, but he was totally swamped with his own research at the time and said he didn’t have time. Then all of a sudden he goes, “Wait a sec. Do you know a one-armed runner who runs with his prosthetic attached? Most run without it because it sways around. You find me a one-armed runner, and you can come up for an interview.” Turns out, Dr. Lieberman was in the middle of a really exciting experiment on body torque and needed to check the difference between running with an arm and without one. Took me – no lie – 15 minutes to find his guy. 2 weeks later, I was in his lab with “One Arm Will” Stewart, an awesome athlete who holds the course record for the Catalina Marathon.

Will -- Does this theory hold water in the larger scientific community?

CM -- it’s still controversial, but so far bulletproof. No other evolutionary theory resolves so many long-lasting paradoxes about human behavior, like why women get stronger as distances get longer, and why older folks can run as fast as teenagers for ultra distances, and why we somehow feel this urge to congregate by the tens of thousands to run 26.2 miles.

Will -- You interviewed the "young guns", or younger ultra runners, for this book. What did you learn from this group?

CM -- Here’s something that trail great Susannah Beck said about Jenn Shelton: “She’s a barbaric wood sprite. Jenn is happier going for gorgeous epic runs than making some of the tedious choices involved in going for individual glory. I think she is aware that ultrarunning is kind of a goofy sport and winning isn't the most important or interesting thing about it.” That’s the lesson I’ve tried to learn from the Young Guns – go for the gorgeous, forget about the tedious side.

Will -- You talked about Dean Karnazes in your story, a controversial personality in the ultra running community. I've often wondered how one draws the line between enlightened ultra runner and basic capitalist. For example, would you say an accomplished ultra runner who promotes a running shoe, a gel, or even his or her online coaching gig for some form of monetary gain is different from a guy like Karnazes who promotes his own book or other ventures? Where would you draw the line?

CM -- I wonder about that a lot myself. Not so much about dean, who is a far better runner than I’ll ever be, and I sort of suspect he’s a better person. I saw him at the Vermont 100, and he won for all the right reasons – because he was happy go lucky, relaxed, chomping sugar cookies at aid stations, having a ball. I wish I were as genuinely friendly as he is. But one thing I puzzle over is how the running industry, and by that I mean the magazines, shops, and sponsored athletes, can sort of skate by the growing body of evidence that a lot of the stuff we’re told to buy is complete junk. Not just neutral junk, either, but really dangerous stuff.

Will -– Its counter intuitive, but logical, that running shoes can actually increase injury to runners by over protecting their feet. You discuss this at length in your book. Are you a believer in barefoot running? Have you tried it yourself?

CM -- two people I’ll never doubt again: Barefoot Ted and Caballo Blanco. Over time, I’ve realized that everything they’ve told me has been dead on the money. I thought Ted was a little extreme in his insistence on wearing nothing (or very next to nothing) on his feet. After three years of personal experimentation, I’ve learned very convincingly that he’s absolutely right. While writing the book, my old plantars fasciitis came back. I made the same old round of doctors and podiatrists, wore the sleep splint, stretched my calves, blah blah, but the only thing that cured it was going barefoot and re-learning my biomechanics. Now, I’m literally afraid to put running shoes back on my feet.

Will -- Where do you see the sport of ultra running in 10 years?

CM -- the most exciting thing will be not the races so much as the ethos. Go to the Leadville Trail 100 some time, or even better, Caballo’s race with the Tarahumara down in the Copper Canyons. You’ll be infected with a spirit of camaraderie and fun that will change the way you run every mile afterward. I think the ultrarunning approach, if not the races, will come to dominate recreational running.

Will -- You have had a successful career writing about endurance sports. Are there any words of wisdom you can share with those looking to break into this field as a writer?

CM -- blow kisses every day to the internet. Anyone can now go online and practice the art of storytelling without waiting for an editor to give you the go-ahead first. Believe me, I spent a lot of years grinding out tiny little 200-word assignments before anyone was willing to pay me to chase ghosts at the bottom of a canyon.
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