Thursday, 1 July 2010

Tramps like us

A review of Christopher McDougall's "Born To Run". Profile Books. 304pp.

There are many books about running, but I can only think of three which I have read that earn the tag literature. Two of those books are Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Am Running and Feet In The Clouds by Richard Askwith. The third is this superlative tome by Christopher McDougall. What all three have in common is the author is a real writer (two journalists and one novelist) and the author is a runner who has been there and done it.

McDougall's book is ostensibly about the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico who are amongst the world's greatest runners (witness their tribal ball game which takes place over 100-mile route). But it is far more than an anthropological treatise on one tribe as McDougall examines what it is that makes us go out there and run in the first place, taking in the evolutionary development of humankind over the millennia. Interviews with mechanical biologists are played out in exquisite language that makes you want to go away and read the scientific literature straight away. Indeed, much of the empirical evidence for human as runner presented here reinforces what I have already read in Alice Roberts' Incredible Human Journey. But what strikes me the most is the philosophical evidence:

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain.

Running as a means of freeing one's mind has been something I have been aware of for several years, but I had never considered that running was an art form. Running as art to my mind had been freerunning or parkour, but I was troubled by the only way to be free as a runner was to jump over obstacles. But, if as McDougall hypothesises, all running is art it frees all runners to be artists and allows us all to express ourselves and our creativity by simply running. Running long distances is built into the human psyche as a group activity, hence we wish to run together at races:

Know why people run marathons? Because running is rooted in our collective imagination.

McDougall also presents two beautiful race reports, one from the 1994 Leadville 100 when a team of Tarahumara runners faced the great ultrarunner Ann Trason, and one from a less formal race held in the Tarahumara homeland in which McDougall himself competed. These sections draw you right into the action, as if you were there on the Leadville or Mexico trails yourself cheering the runners along. This is a rare skill indeed in describing the outcomes of a footrace where the tactics and teamwork employed by the runners are minimal.

For a few moments I couldn't tell them [Arnulfo - a Tarahumara runner - and Scott Jurek - American Ultramarathoner] apart - they were two fiery silhouettes moving with identical rhythm and grace.

My copy of Born To Run bears the quote: a bible for the barefoot running community. I contend that all runners should read this book and learn from it, not least as I remain to be convinced by the barefoot running movement. The Tarahumara and one of the characters who races with them in Mexico - Barefoot Ted - actually wear sandals. Plus, while we may be highly evolved runners, we are not evolved to run on tarmac but on the kinds of trails that the races of Born To Run describes.

Find a copy of Born To Run, buy it, read it and discover why you run and why you enjoy your art.

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