2013-09-24

Book Review: Born To Run

Out of the three books I read over my summer vacation, Born To Run by Christopher McDougall stands out as the best by far.

Ostensibly, Born To Run is a book about the anthropological and biological evidence for why homo sapiens is a species that evolved explicitly to run long distances. Here, "long distances" means not just "a mile" or "10 kilometers," or even "a marathon." Rather, McDougall, with the help of a pile of fascinating evidence, reports on the theory that human beings were meant to be, essentially, ultra-marathon runners who survived by engaging in "persistence hunting." Persistence hunting is a technical term for chasing wild game across tens of miles in a single day. Humans can handle these kinds of distances so much better than any other animal, according to this theory, that they can pursue large game until it collapses from exhaustion, at which point we can club it over the head and eat.

If this sounds implausible, keep in mind that the people written about in McDougall's book were actually able to find the few remaining African indigenous people who really do engage in persistence hunting, for real, and successfully. Thus, the question is not actually whether human beings actually survived by persistence hunting, but rather to what extent they did so.

Of course, this alone is a fascinating topic for a book. If that were all Born To Run were about, it would be a very good book indeed. But the book is about so much more.

McDougall manages to fuse the humans-are-distance-runners story seamlessly into an exciting tale about an obscure ultra-marathon held in Mexico that pits American ultra-marathoners against a reclusive tribe of Mexican indigenous people famed for their seemingly inhuman ability to run long distances better than anyone else in the world. This part of the story takes us across the lives of a number of professional American ultra-runners, their humble beginnings, the trials-and-tribulations of their lives, the discovery of their love for distance running, and their eventual success in the sport, culminating in the aforementioned race in Mexico.

And, in a wonderful display of gonzo journalism, McDougall himself plays the role of the story's principle narrator, as he learns the sport of ultra-running and meets a rich and compelling cast of characters. There is Arnulfo, the revered indigenous Mexican running champion; Scott Jurek, the greatest American ultra-runner of all time; Bobby and Jenny, the hard-partying pair of up-and-coming ultra-runners who join the race in the spirit of adventure; "Barefoot" Ted, eccentric father of the barefoot running movement; and of course, Caballo Blanco, the story's central character.

It is important to keep in mind that everything in Born To Run is true. It is a true story, the characters are real, and the events in the book all actually happened. It's told as though it were a murder mystery, the end of each chapter begging you to move on to the next to learn what happens. The scientific information is woven into the story to create a single, cohesive tale of human biology and athletic achievement.

If you're a runner, you simply owe it to yourself to read this book.