Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Book Review: Born to Run (2009)

A friend of mine had a psychotic episode a few months after doing a half-marathon. (She's okay now.) What she went through reminded me of when my old coworker also ran a half-marathon, then went psycho -- on me, how annoying. Then there's our friend who runs 20 miles every day and is skin-and-muscle-and-bones at this point. So does running marathons turn you crazy, or are you crazy to begin with, and that's why you run marathons?

"Yes, and yes," I imagine is author and fit old guy Christopher McDougall's answer to that question. In Born to Run, McDougall traces his journey to the desolate Copper Canyons of Mexico to answer a question of his own: why does his foot hurt? He consulted doctors, physical therapists, runners, etc, and found out about a tribe in Mexico whose members regularly run ultramarathons (i.e. 100+ miles at a pop) through mountains. The Tarahumara slap on hand-cut rubber sandals to protect their feet against sharp rocks, and never sustain the injuries common to runners here, like stress fractures and pulled hamstrings. Why not?, McDougall wonders, and tramps south to find the answers. Along the way, he eats awesome Mexican food, realizes that human beings evolved to run long distances, and trains hard enough to race against a mythical running bum, elite ultramarathoners, and the best runners of the Tarahumara. It's epic.

I was spellbound by the chapters where he explains the science behind human running. He evokes images of tigers and cheetahs, down on four legs and with bodies shaped for minimum wind resistance. Then he describes us humans, up on two legs, but with the same ligament in the back of our skull as the big cats, to stabilize our head while going at high speed, and with our butts sticking out because, um, they're our tails? I might have missed the point in that argument there. But anyway. McDougall discusses how scientists from different fields combined their observations and concluded how homo erectus beat out the Neanderthals via running. It's mind-blowing.

I took away three lessons from Born to Run. One -- for maximum performance, eat like you're going to have to chase down a deer at any time. That means no stuffing your face with giant burgers and a heaping of fries. (Mmmm, fries.) The ultra runners in the book are mostly vegetarian. (A couple of them are borderline alcoholics, too.)

Two -- our feet know what to do when they hit the ground. Pronation is normal, whatever Nike says. Hilariously, after years of telling people they should have padding and springs and gels in their shoes, Nike's new tagline is "Run barefoot." They're going for the barefoot feel with a little support, because that's actually all we need. Top running coaches switch their athletes to cheap shoes for that reason. In other words: your technique matters more than your shoes.

Do you run barefoot, Fragrant Elephant?, you challenge. Why, no, gentle reader. I use the Mizuno Wave Creation 12, which boasts "gender engineering" and, more importantly, bright pink slashes of color. But seriously, I got 'em because the toes sections curve upward slightly, which helps me roll on my toes better, so my heels aren't involved in my running at all. Thank you for asking.

Finally -- running is happy time! Running is joy! I'm glad I live in a city where most of the runners look like they're having a good time. Yay Boston!

To return to my intro paragraph -- no, you probably won't see me run a marathon. I'm reserving my best running for the zombie apocalypse. But I urge you to read this book. It's delightful summer reading!