It’s hard to believe, but May 5th marks the fifth anniversary of the publication of Born to Run, Chris McDougall’s manifesto on the subjects of ultra-distance running, minimalist footwear, and the athletic prowess of the Tarahumara people of Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
It’s an understatement to say that Born to Run changed the conversation about running. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that there WAS no conversation about running before the book came out. Afterwards, everyone was talking about running, including non-runners who couldn’t tell (and wouldn’t care about) the difference between a four-minute mile and a gym class mile.
Full disclosure: I have not read Born to Run.
I vaguely remember that when the book came out, I dismissed it as a shallow attempt to simplify and sensationalize the tradition of long-distance running among the Tarahumara. After all, I remember reading about their multi-day races in the pages of Sports Illustrated in the 1970s. I should have known that it was something more when colleagues at work who had never shown any interest in serious running started stopping me in the halls to ask if I had read the book, and to tell me how interesting they had found it.
If anything, the fact that someone had written a book about running that really appealed to casual runners and even non-runners ticked me off. I’m not proud of that response, and I know it just shows that I was being an arrogant running snob, but it was annoying to think that this guy McDougall was getting credit for discovering some great truths about MY sport, and was making a name for himself with wild claims for minimalist/barefoot running. What did he know about any of it? By the time I started getting emails from parents of kids that I coach, I had more-or-less perfected my response, which was to express neutrality about the book’s claims and affirm that it was certainly a thought-provoking read.
Repeat of full disclosure in case you missed it the first time: I have not read Born to Run.
Meanwhile, my running buddies and I watched as the book almost single-handedly upended the running shoe industry. McDougall had written that there was no evidence that modern running shoes helped prevent injury, and that, in his opinion backed up by anecdotal evidence, they did more harm than good. Nike and all the rest of the shoe giants had been selling us “coffins for the feet.” Boom!
This audacious assertion really hit home with a lot of people. Emboldened by McDougall’s stories of the Tarahumara running for days wearing thin, uncushioned sandals on their feet, injured runners began casting aside their cushioned shoes and reporting that they were running pain-free for the first time in years. At the risk of blaspheming, it was as if a savior had appeared in the waiting rooms of Orthopedic Sports Medicine clinics across the land and had told broken-down runners to throw away their crutches and walk again. And some of those runners reported miracle cures, prompting even more people to kick off their old shoes and try running barefoot or barely-shod. Ironically, instead of bypassing the shoe industry, the demand expressed itself as a desire for toe-shoes, minimalist shoes, and other expensive aids to help people run more naturally.
Meanwhile, debate raged about what it all meant and more and more people read McDougall’s book. By now, I was curious about it, but felt that reading the book would be almost an endorsement of McDougall’s whole return-to-a-simpler-time philosophy. Stubbornly, I avoided the book, even as I started incorporating principles of minimalist running into my own training (lighter training shoes, barefoot strides, etc.)
Of course, one thing that must be said is that McDougall didn’t invent any of this. The idea that lightweight shoes or bare feet might be superior to heavy, cushioned shoes has been around since heavy, cushioned shoes have been around, sometimes more in fashion than others. And the idea that “primitive” or “natural” traditions are superior to the new practices of modern industrial society has been with us since there was such a thing as modern industrial society. McDougall isn’t a scientist (although scientists have supported many of his assertions), and he isn’t a great runner or coach. How did he manage to make us all pay attention to these issues?
I believe that when I finally get around to reading the book, I will find that Born to Run is a great story, and that McDougall is a great story-teller. I expect I’ll chafe at over-simplifications and outlandish claims made without evidence, but I think that once I pick it up, I probably won’t want to put it down.
And I’ll have to admit, that whatever else I think about it, Born to Run will remain as the most influential book about running ever written.