Born to run (and ride): what cyclists can learn from runners

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall ((New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

Born to Run

Born to Run

Although I am a cyclist not a runner (my running experience was mostly high school cross country), I occasionally read books by runners. Belatedly, I’ve been reading Born to Run, a best seller, out since 2010, and it’s giving me much to think about!

Why does my foot hurt when I run? This was the question that pushed Christopher McDougall to write this book. Is it because human beings aren’t built to run? Or because we do it wrong? Or because running is fine for a while but we inevitably wear out or hurt ourselves and have to stop. He could not be satisfied with these conclusions, however, because there were anomalies that kept bothering him.

One was that new developments in sports medicine and running equipment were not improving the well-being and performance of runners but instead seemed to be making things worse. McDougall was attracted to evidence in the evolutionary history of human anatomy that the ability to run was one of the characteristics that distinguished our kind of hominids from others and gave us a decided edge over other species. It didn’t seem reasonable that one of our initial advantages should in these later years become a sore point in our physical ability.

Perhaps most unsettling was the fact that a few people, including an obscure tribe in an almost impenetrable canyon in Mexico, could still run even to the point of running down wild game. Added to their number were a few people in recent American life who ran for the sheer joy of running, people who didn’t know the rules now laid down for proper running, who had no special shoes or other equipment, whose training was erratic and eccentric, but who could run fast and set records that even a generation later are hard to equal.

Determined to find an answer to the immediate question about his sore foot and to the broader question of how running fits into the history of humankind, McDougall pressed forward. He talked with other runners, consulted doctors and therapists, read studies and other reports, and interviewed people who designed and marketed fancy shoes, orthotics, and other equipment designed to help people run longer, faster, and safer. Summaries of these investigations make up much of his book, but McDougall presents them in a circuitous manner.

His career as war correspondent and writer for magazines like The New York Times Magazine and Esquire taught him to write separate pieces that related to his search. He links them together loosely rather than in systematic, academic fashion, piece by piece drawing readers more fully into the exploration. The plot line to McDougall’s book consists of two intertwined stories that are named in the book’s subtitle: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

The hidden tribe of exceptional runners is the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon who have preserved the ability to run that McDougall believes to be inherent in humankind but largely forgotten by everyone. In addition, there are a few people, especially a man known as Caballo Blanco—the White Cowboy—from conventional society who have slipped out of the patterns now practiced as the norm in order to recover distinctive features of the Tarahumara way of life.

The “greatest race” is one that McDougall, Caballo, and a few others were able to create in the Canyon, a race that pitted marathoners from developed societies against Tarahumara runners. McDougall constructs an adventure story that keeps people reading, and in the process he also answers some of his questions. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he provides a body of narrative and conjecture and invites readers to infer answers.

My inferences can be stated briefly. Running was one of the unique and distinguishing evolutionary developments that helped our kind of hominids become what we are. While the capability of running was inherent in the anatomy, it was combined with social factors that helped to maintain groups of human beings who worked (and ran) together in order to gather and catch food and do everything else that people do. Running is a natural capacity that people love to do and learn to do by being with others who run.

In most societies we gradually adopt habits and attitudes that discourage us from running and we forget how to do it. When we try to do it again, we develop practices and attitudes that are potentially injury-causing. In order to run the way that we were born to do, we have to unlearn some of our later practices and recover another way to run, a way more like that of the Tarahumara in Mexico and Bushmen in Southern Africa. If there’s a rule on how to run this way, Caballo defined it: “Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast” (111).

Now I have a question: Why does my left leg hurt when I do long rides? With McDougall as my guide, I’m looking for an answer.

One Response to Born to run (and ride): what cyclists can learn from runners

  1. jacbikes says:

    Thanks, Keith, for an interesting review. These are fascinating anthropological/physiological/sociological observations. It makes me think of the broader implications for rigorous physical exercise of any kind – bicycling, farming, walking etc. Humans inherently were “made” to be physically active, & when we aren’t we suffer for it with physical ailments (heart disease, cancer, diabetes), as well as emotional imbalance (depression). Our modern societal/cultural habits predispose us to seek every means to be “comfortable” (“labor saving devices”) but we are in danger of comforting ourselves into sickness & death. I know when I am bicycling regularly, I feel much better physically & emotionally, as well as spiritually. There are risks in physical exercise – from over use, injury, equipment that is not adjusted properly, but on the whole we are more in tune with what we were born to be when we exercise regularly & with vigor! Here’s hoping you find the cause of your leg pain so you can keep up your cycling with joy!

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