Born to Run – A ‘Delayed’ Review

“How come my foot hurts?”

A question that led Christopher McDougall to a life changing exploration that was later documented in the all-time classic book ‘Born to Run’. A foreign correspondent by training, Chris covered wars in Rwanda and Angola, and was also an amateur or recreational runner. When his foot hurt, he was either advised to stop running or take painkillers. Not satisfied with the rudimentary responses, Chris tried to get to the depth of the problem. When he viewed  his personal problem as a crisis for the society, it led him to discover the complex world of human physiology behind the simple act of running.

Released in 2009, the book soon became a best seller with raving reviews from critics and runners. Simon Kuper, reviewing it for The Financial Times, wrote that the book,

…reaches the state of bliss that runners, or so we are told, very occasionally experience in the midst of an endless run.” 

Simon Kuper, Long Distance Love, The Financial Times

Reading the book resembles a typical long run – No body knows what they are getting into, taking one step at a time, experiencing moments of pleasure and confusion, and finally, a finish that is relished later than when it happens. The book starts like a travelogue, where Chris takes the reader to the Copper Canyons of Mexico, the drug cartels, and his discovery of the Tarahumaras. His meeting with Caballo Blanco in Mexico prompts him to chronicle the history of Ultra Running in USA – the weird and crazy ultra marathons, participation of Tarahumaras in these marathons, the troubles with sponsorship and some excellent biographical sketches of runners. In the process, he analyses the impact of shoe industry in long distance running and the innovations to these shoes over the last few decades. It is here, he delves into the art of barefoot running and tries to understand it through scientific research on human physiology. The final part of the book is an absorbing report on ‘the greatest race the world has never seen’. It is difficult to classify the book as a serious read or a casual read – and still lovely read either way. The reason, the book is still relevant, a decade after first edition, is because Chris attempts to shift the way we think about the importance of running shoes. The enduring legacy of the book has been the debate it triggered between running with shoes and running barefoot.

Barefoot running does not require anyone to discover it, as by default, everyone started running before learning to put on shoes. Human beings have been running for time immemorial and footwear, especially running shoes, came much later. Even as recent as 1960 Olympics, the winner of the marathon event, Abebe Bikila, ran barefoot (He later won the 1964 Olympics wearing shoes).

The growth of shoe industry coincided with the growth in recreational running as well as growth in consumerism in the 1960s and 1970s. Due to various reasons, including aggressive marketing campaigns, shoes soon became an integral part of long distance running.

Chris found this development troublesome and he presents the alternative – Barefoot running. He presents passionate arguments for barefoot running through a mix of personal anecdotes of many runners and scientific research. While he brings in a certain degree of dogmatism to his conclusion, the views, insights, and research work by various people adds credibility to the book.

He looks up to Dr. Joe Vigil, holder of two masters degree and a PhD, a renowned coach at various levels including the US Olympic team and a critic of the impact of shoe industry on running. Dr. Vigil is a purist in his thoughts and he believes that running has to be aligned with nature. He feels that the American approach to running in the recent years have become too artificial.

Back in 70s, American marathoners were a lot like Tarahumara; they were a tribe of isolated outcasts, running for love and relying on raw instinct and crude equipment. Slice the top of ‘70s running shoes, and you had a sandal: the old Adidas and Onitsuka Tigers were just a flat sole and laces, with no motion control, no arch support, no heel pad. The guys in ‘70s didn’t know enough to worry about ‘pronation’ and ‘supinations’; that fancy running-store jargon hadn’t even been invented yet.”

Dr. Joe Vigil, Former Coach of US Olympic Team

While not a direct proponent of barefoot running, Dr. Vigil was keen on finding one Natural Born Runner – ‘someone who ran for sheer joy, like an artist in the grip of inspiration- and steady how he or she trained, lived, and thought.’ 

Also featured in the book is Dr. Daniel Liberman, Professor of Evolutionary biology at Harvard University and an author of many popular science books like Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health. His extensive research on the biomechanics of endurance running can be found on his website, an encyclopedia for anyone who wish to understand the subject scientifically.

Dr. Liberman is a passionate advocate of running as a life style. Regarding injuries, he believes

“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-folded shoes, had strong feet and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.

His research convinces him that humans were designed for running without shoes and it is natural instinct for everyone to be able to run without shoes. 

Apart from the views of experts, it is the stories of runners who run barefoot that makes the book an absorbing read. He starts with the Tarahumara runners, whom he romanticises – from their running to their quality lifestyle. Then, there is the fascinating story of Caballo Blanco, an American who settled in the Coupon Canyons to live and run with the Tarahumaras. Other runners include ‘Barefoot’ Ted, who went on to make one of the successful minimalistic footwear.

In the two years following the release of the book, the frenzies over barefoot running reached its zenith. In 2011, Chris claimed that the ‘bare-foot’ styled shoes (I use one of them) was a $1.7 billion industry in his article for the New York Times titled ‘The Once and Future Way to Run” attracted attention from even those who have never run. 

What I’ve been seeing today is there is a growing subculture of barefoot runners, people who’ve gotten rid of their shoes. And what they have found uniformly is, you get rid of the shoes, you get rid of the stress, you get rid of the injuries and the ailments.

Christopher McDoughall, “Are we born to run?”, TED Talk

In summary, Chris presents three key hypothesis:

  • We are born to run, and our legs are designed to run. Hence, we don’t need external support in form of shoes.
  • Shoes, especially the badly fitted ones, are the major cause of injuries.
  • Runners can run faster and longer without shoes than with shoes.
  • Reviewing it ten years after it was first published can mask many of the euphoria or the excitement that the book brought during the initial days. It was certainly the start of what I would call as the ‘Barefoot Running’ movement. While the subsequent events took some sheen out of the arguments presented by Chris, his basic premise is still relevant and valid. One can agree or disagree with the contents of the book, but cannot avoid the book in entirety.

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