‘Born to Run’ author Christopher McDougall in Aspen
Few books have been as ubiquitous on Aspen bookshelves over the past decade as Christopher McDougall’s 2009 narrative nonfiction blockbuster “Born to Run.”
It sparked the barefoot running craze and shined a fascinating light on Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe and its running traditions, while announcing McDougall as a must-read participatory journalist and oddball sportswriter.
But, McDougall said, he nearly cut out the “Born to Run” chapter that gained the most attention for the book, that sparked a revolution in running — and in footwear — and fueled the ongoing debate about the merits of going barefoot.
“I was teeter-tottering between cutting it or leaving it in,” McDougall, who will give a talk at the Winter Words author series Tuesday night, recalled in a recent phone interview from his home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “because it’s the only chapter that’s not part of the narrative. It’s this side trip into the laboratory. I wasn’t sure it fit, but I’m glad I left it in.”
The rest of the book centers around the author’s immersion with the Tarahumara and his injury-prone running life, but he breaks off to tackle the latest science, delineating a series of “painful truths” and making a case for running shoes as a cause of injury and barefoot running as the faster, safer option.
McDougall’s latest book “Running with Sherman,” published in October, makes an argument for forging relationships with animals. In it, McDougall adopts an outcast donkey from one of his Amish neighbors and embarks on an unpredictable adventure of rehabilitating the donkey, which becomes his jogging partner along with a rag-tag crew of humans, eventually coming to Colorado to compete in the annual Burro Days races in Fairplay.
He didn’t think initially that Sherman the donkey would carry his next book. But as he learned about the animal’s need to be useful, and the long history of human-animal partnerships, his narrative began taking shape.
“That’s when it dawned on me that this was something broader and deeper,” he said. “This is something that has been natural to humans for generations but it’s lost on us, and we are trying to grope our way back. That’s when I figured there is a story bigger than just running with a donkey.”
Curiosity about the unknown, rather than expertise, has propelled McDougall’s writing throughout his career. He has a gift for bringing readers along on his fumbling path from ignorance to discovery.
“If I’d written any of my books from a position of real knowledge, the books would have been weak,” he said. “It was about coming in as a student.”
He wasn’t a runner before writing “Born to Run,” he noted.
“If I was more experienced or I had opinions on running shoes, it might have been scoldy and tired,” he said. “But instead I’m coming in from a position where I’m not sure, I’m trying to understand.”
McDougall developed that skill in his years as a foreign correspondent with The Associated Press, when he was reporting from Europe and from war zones in Rwanda and Angola.
“The number one job requirement was you were always trying to get to know a different culture while something dramatic was going on and you usually had limited knowledge of the language and culture,” he explained.
“It all starts when you find one person who is interested in mentoring you a little bit,” he said of his process in diving into these lesser-known sports. “Ninety-nine percent of it is to show up, shut your mouth and do your best. You show up with a lot of humility. You take your bruises.”
Since “Born to Run” he has become a consummate tour guide into the subcultures of uncelebrated sports. He’s yet to tackle skiing and snowsports at length. Though he’s made several trips to Aspen with his brother to run trails in the summer, McDougall has never before visited in the winter and is not a skier.
He’s currently in the early stages of a book about body surfing, following people who body surf massive waves in hazardous conditions with none of the fame, prizes and sponsorships available to surfers who use boards. The sport, he found, has a history going back thousands of years in the Pacific Islands.
It appears an ideal match for the author who has made riveting narratives out of parkour, burro racing and barefoot running.
“There seems to be an endless supply of people doing amazing things, but they are not on television, not getting Nike sponsorships,” he said. “So much of what we consume is filtered through just a few sports like football, baseball and basketball. There is so much else going on out there that to me is way more impressive and participatory.”
Given McDougall’s affinity for first-person narratives and fish-out-of water outsider stories, it’s unsurprising that Hunter S. Thompson — the Woody Creeker and groundbreaking gonzo journalist — was an outsize influence on McDougall.
As a sophomore in college in 1982, McDougall sent a handwritten letter to Thompson through the Woody Creek post office. He’d read all of Thompson’s work, and studied Thompson’s collection “The Great Shark Hunt” several times cover to cover in those days, planting seeds for how McDougall would approach participatory journalism.
“I drank that stuff up,” he said of Thompson’s early work in conventional journalism and trailblazing gonzo pieces like “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” “You can watch him become this person who is writing authentically and idiosyncratically, and not at all of the past.”
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.