Book Report: Born to Run


Born to RunThat was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle – behold, the Running Man.” (Born to Run – p92
)

Title: Born to Run – A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Author: Christopher McDougall

Publisher: Vintage

Publication Date: 2009

Origin: I heard about Born to Run from a colleague; later, I purchased it for my brother-in-law, who’s unleashed an inner triathlon beast these last few years. After he and his wife had read it, they passed it over to me.

Summary: Born to Run is, at its heart, a fantastic true story. In telling this story, which starts with McDougall asking “Why does my foot hurt?” and ends several years later, McDougall introduces a remarkable cast of real characters and investigates humanity’s running heritage. Born to Run introduced much of the world to the endurance running hypothesis, which posits that the evolution of certain human characteristics can be explained as adaptations to long distance running, which in turn gave us an advantage in sourcing protein.

You can also catch McDougall’s TED talk: Are we born to run?

My Take: I loved Born to Run, and ripped through it in two evenings. I don’t read especially quickly, so this is more a testament to the “can’t put it down” nature of the book rather than any special reading ability.

Read This Book If: You love running, don’t love running, are wondering why your feet/knees/ankles/hips hurt from running, want to get a taste of the crazy world of ultramarathons, or just want to read a good (true) story.

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Notes and Quotes:

  • p11 got me thinking that I’m definitely missing something when I run: “There’s something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time.”
  • This quote on p13, from Roger Bannister, is totally applicable to job security, too: “‘Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up,’ Bannister said. ‘It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.'”

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” – Roger Bannister

  • I need to try making this some time, p44: “Months later, I’d learn that iskiate is otherwise known as chia fresca – ‘chilly chia.’ It’s brewed up by dissolving chia seeds in water with a little sugar and a squirt of lime. In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone.”
  • I just marked up this passage from p60 with a big “?”, as in “holy crap this sets quite an interesting tone”: “Not surprisingly, an event with more flameouts than finishers tends to attract a rare breed of athlete. For five years, Leadville’s reigning champion was Steve Peterson, a member of a Colorado higher-consciousness cult called Divine Madness, which seeks nirvana through sex parties, extreme trail running, and affordable housecleaning. One Leadville legend is Marshall Ulrich, an affable dog-food tycoon who perked up his times by having his toenails surgically removed. ‘They kept falling off anyway,’ Marshall said.”
  • p92…yep, I’m missing something: “That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle – behold, the Running Man.”
  • Ha, take that, jerk…p96 tells a story from the 1956 Helsinki Olympics: Zatopek’s inexperience quickly became obvious. It was a hot day, so England’s Jim Peters, then the world-record holder, decided to use the heat to make Zatopek suffer. By the ten-mile mark, Peters was already ten minutes under his own world-record pace and pulling away from the field. Zatopek wasn’t sure if anyone could really sustain such a blistering pace. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, pulling alongside Peters. ‘This is my first marathon. Are we going too fast?’ ‘No,’ Peters replied. ‘Too slow.’ If Zatopek was dumb enough to ask, he was dumb enough to deserve any answer he got. Zatopek was surprised. ‘You say too slow,’ he asked again. ‘Are you sure the pace is too slow?’ ‘Yes,’ Peters said. Then he got a surprise of his own. ‘Okay. Thanks.’ Zatopek took Peters at his word, and took off. When he burst out of the tunnel and into the stadium, he was met with a roar: not only from the fans, but from athletes of every nation who thronged the track to cheer him in. Zatopek snapped the tape with his third Olympic record.”
  • I’ve started using this mantra during my own runs, p111: “‘Lesson two,’ Caballo called. ‘Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You don’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”
  • p112: “Ultra god Scott Jurek summed up the Young Guns’ unofficial creed with a quote from William James he stuck on the end of every email he sent: ‘Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.'”

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.” – William James

  • This quote from p125 reminded me of a lesson of Mind Gym, that I relayed in Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable: Lisa Smith-Batchen, the amazingly sunny and pixie-tailed ultrarunner from Idaho who trained through blizzards to win a six-day event in the Sahara, talks about exhaustion as if it’s a playful pet. ‘I love the Beast,’ she says. ‘I actually look forward to the Beast showing up, because every time he does, I handle him better. I get him more under control.'”
  • I just liked this…I think it gives us some important perspective or healthy skepticism, p131: “The heroes of the past are untouchable, protected forever by the fortress door of time – unless some mysterious stranger magically turns up with a key.”

“The heroes of the past are untouchable, protected forever by the fortress door of time – unless some mysterious stranger magically turns up with a key.”

  • See, this happens to me while I’m trail-biking or playing soccer, but not road-running. I wonder if I’d get into that nice zone if I ran on trails? p149: “‘When I’m out on a long run,’ she continued, ‘the only think in life that matters is finishing the run. For once my brain isn’t going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It’s just me and the movement and the motion.'”
  • p172 runs through much of the research around running shoes and running injuries. I’d read this research about a decade ago, so none of it came as a surprise to me, but I expect it surprised a lot of casual readers. Basically: running shoes are bad for you. My own experience is that I’ve never run as well as I did when I was wearing a completely worn-through pair of runners that were 12 or 13 years old. They were nothing more than shields against cutting my feet.
  • Remember the quote from Obliquity, “Evolution is smarter than you are”? Well, it applies here; p176: “‘Just look at the architecture,’ Harman explained. Blueprint your feet, and you’ll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch, the greatest weight-bearing design ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down, the tighter its parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowel would ever stick a support under an arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure. Buttressing the foot’s arch from all sides is a high-tensile web of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, twelve rubbery tendons, and eighteen muscles, all stretching and flexing like an earthquake-resistant suspension bridge.”
  • p211 and 212 alludes to the importance of cross-training: “‘The Tarahumara aren’t great runners,’ Eric messaged me as we began my second month of those workouts. ‘They’re great athletes, and those two things are very different.’ … Before the Tarahumara run long, they get strong. And if I wanted to stay healthy, Eric warned me, I’d better do likewise. So instead of stretching before a run, I got right to work. Lunges, pushups, jump squats, crunches; Eric had me powering through a half hour of new strength drills every other day, with nearly all of them on a fitness ball to sharpen my balance and fire those supportive ancillary muscles.”

“The Tarahumara aren’t great runners. They’re great athletes, and those two things are very different.”

  • p235-236 touch on some tracking and hunting techniques that are just amazing. Back in the day, our very survival relied on these skills – those who developed them survived, those who didn’t starved. Truly a lost art.
  • p239: “Running was the superpower that made us human – which means it’s a superpower all humans possess.”
  • p250: “Poetry, music, forests, oceans, solitude – they were what developed enormous spiritual strength. I came to realize that spirit, as much or more than physical conditioning, had to be stored up before a race.” – Herb Elliot, Olympic champion and world-record holder in the mile who trained in bare feet, wrote poetry, and retired undefeated

“Running was the superpower that made us human – which means it’s a superpower all humans possess.”

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Posted in Books, Math and Science, Sports
One comment on “Book Report: Born to Run
  1. […] first came across the lead quote in the (excellent) book Born to Run, and I was immediately struck by the parallels to the employment market: in the workplace, every […]

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