Book review: Forget everything you’ve read about running
December 30, 2010
Two summers ago when the recession was seemingly kicking everybody’s butts, I wrote a Gear Review in this publication about my Adidas trail running shoes, and how I was putting hundreds more miles on them than I should but, feet and knees be damned, was not going to buy new ones because money was tight.
After all, running magazines, books and coaches have all emphasized that running shoes need to be changed every 300 to 500 miles. Such shoe companies as Nike and Asics have touted the value of well-cushioned shoes; physicians have preached the value of orthotic inserts; and we, the consumers, have unwittingly believed them. The more expensive the shoe, the better, or so we have been told.
Then along comes Christopher McDougall’s bestseller “Born to Run,” which turns nearly 40 years of running advice on its head. The key to long-distance running bliss, McDougall offers, is to ditch the shoes and go barefooted. In fact, if you’re to believe McDougall, the shoes that are the worst for your running health are those with gel-support and the other orthotic bells and whistles.
In the story, McDougall travels to Mexico’s remote Copper Canyon to learn about the Tarahumara Indians, a reclusive tribe that has become legendary for its running prowess. McDougall went there because he wanted to know why runners like him are constantly injured, but the Tarahumara can run hundreds of miles at a time, often unscathed.
As “Born to Run” builds up to a 50-mile race in the Copper Canyon featuring the Tarahumara Indians and some of the biggest names in ultra-marathoning, it weaves in some of running’s brightest figures from the past – from Emil Zapotek to Steve Prefontaine.
McDougall also theorizes that homo sapiens outlasted the Neanderthals because they were, indeed, born to run – tracking down their next meal, or avoiding becoming one.
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Running, McDougall concludes, is something we were meant to do – so long as we do it happily. Forget the stopwatches, split times and fancy shoes. Enjoy a barefoot jog in bliss and dismiss the trappings and strains of modern running, McDougall reasons.
I’m not ready to ditch the shoes just yet, but what I did realize during the recession is that yes, running shoes are vastly overrated. The hundreds of excess miles put on my shoes in summer 2009 did not lead to new injuries or aggravate any old ones.
If anything, “Born to Run” reminded me that we runners often take ourselves too seriously. Getting back to the basics of feeling alive, rather than feeling the pressure to perform in your neighborhood foot race, is McDougall’s obvious message.
“Born to Run” is a special book. If it doesn’t change your life, it will inspire you to get off the sofa and go for a run. It’s inspired me to run my current pair of Adidas shoes into the ground – even when happy days are here again. And when summer comes along, a barefoot run might be in order.