Nov. 21, 2009
BOOK REVIEW: 'Born to Run': Extreme Running Goes Beyond Fitness: It's a Compulsion
Reviewed By David M. Kinchen Book Critic
As I sat down at the computer to write my review of Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Knopf, 304 pages, $24.95), I came across a story in the Wall Street Journal about "Mega Marathoners" -- older people running multiple marathons.
Reporter Neil King Jr. describes one of them: "Some compulsives collect shoes. Others obsess over video games. Eugene DeFronzo, 73 years old, runs marathons. He clocked his 402nd here on a recent Sunday, and has three more planned this year.
"The Connecticut personal-injury lawyer cracked three vertebrae when he slipped during a race last December. He pulled a hamstring in Tampa two months later, and again in Mississippi a week after that. He nearly passed out in the parched hills of South Dakota in August, finishing last by two hours. In October, he got lost in the woods of Indiana when organizers cleared away the markers. 'It's an obsession,' he says. 'No different than gambling, drinking or doing drugs.'"
DeFronzo's compulsion is shared by the people McDougall writes about. Replete with incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began when the Pennsylvania-based author and contributing editor for Men's Health sought the answer to a simple question: "Why does my foot hurt?"
He journeyed to Colorado to run in and write about ultramarathons, races of 100 miles through the mountains. He talked to people who told him that the "best" running shoes -- footware costing hundreds of dollars per pair from Nike or Adidas -- are actually the worst for your feet if you're an ultra runner. He goes toe-to-toe with barefoot runners and runners who use Five Fingers foot gloves, perhaps the closest thing to barefoot running.
A runner himself and a former Associated Press war correspondent, McDougall went to Mexico's Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), actually a series of 20 canyons at least four times larger than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in the U.S. At some risk to himself -- this popular tourism area of Northwest Mexico's Sierra Madre in the state of Chihuahua is in the heart of opium and marijuana cultivation -- McDougall met with members of the traditional indigenous people of Copper Canyon, the Tarahumara. Descendants of the Aztecs, the Tarahumara are known for their endurance and run nonstop for hours. They literally chase their prey until it drops.
He learns about a popular Tarahumara community race called “rarahipa” played by kicking a wooden ball along the paths of the steep canyons. All players must run nonstop until the finish. It is not uncommon for a game to last for days and continue without breaks, even through the dark of night.
The superhuman talent of the Tarahumara people is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence. With the help of Caballo Blanco (white horse), a mysterious gringo who lives with the Tarahumara, McDougall was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.
McDougall writes that running was the superpower that made us human, which means it's a superpower all humans possess. How else could a relatively weak creature like humans survive against much more powerful adversaries, McDougall asks.
If you're a runner, this book is a no-brainer, made to order for you. If you're not a runner and seek to learn why people punish their bodies in the compulsion that drives ultramarathoners and Iron Man triathletes you'll also enjoy Born to Run.

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