Born to Run is the story of Christopher McDougall’s search for a mysterious character—one part Carlos Castenada; another part super athlete; a third bit society dropout—who had decided that he was “going to find the best place in the world to run.” His search leads him to the Copper Canyons in Mexico for the showdown race between the best U.S. ultra-marathoners and the leading Tarhaumara runners.
Beyond the primary narrative about an extraordinary race, Christopher McDougall weaves together several interdependent stories in Born to Run. Another story is about the emerging popularity of marathons, most especially ultramarathons involving prodigious feats of distance running.
A third narrative reveals the emergence of United States marathon runners to dominant roles in the 1970s and 80s: Frank Shorter winning Olympic Gold in the 1972 Munich Olympics; Bill Rogers being ranked number one marathoner in the world for three years; and Alberto Salazar dominating the New York Marathon and winning other major marathons.
Over the last several decades numerous ultramarathon races have emerged: first, double marathons, twice the 26 mile marathon distance; then, hundred mile races, with celebrated races being the Leadville 100 and the Western States 100. The most extreme ultramarathon extends 135 miles from the depths of Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney.
A fourth storyline concerns various of the competitors in the featured ultra-Marathon race, involving the legendary Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyon in Mexico and the best of modern society’s ultramarathoners.
A fifth covers the spiritual side of running as a path to transcendence, an active meditation.
And the final is the author’s own personal journey of discovery and development of a certain level of competence as a long distance runner through overcoming injuries that earlier precluded his running and learning how to run.
But as entertaining as are the stories about the racers, and the racing, the most significant story is Mr. McDougall’s fascinating narrative of the role of running in the evolution of the human species. University of Utah biology professor, Dr. Dennis Bramble, succinctly states that running is at the core of human evolution and identity. “If you don’t think you were born to run you are not only denying history, you’re denying who you are.” Running enthusiasts assert that running is central to health, vitality, even youth. As Jack Kirk, renowned as the Dispea Demon, so labeled for having run the famous footrace some 67 times, proclaims, “You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running.”
Though the earliest economic model is widely considered a hunter/gatherer approach—vegetables, fruits, grains, roots—actually the earliest human’s economic model was pure hunting.” While Homo sapiens enjoyed both a vegetarian and meat diet, the Neanderthals who emerged some 200,000 years prior to the homo sapiens, only ate meat.
By contrast to the Neanderthals’ hunting style of physically overwhelming animals, Homo sapiens hunted by chasing animals and literally running them to death, engaging in what scientists describe as a “persistence hunt. Homo sapiens’ lean, lithe body type is well suited for this persistence hunt. If Neanderthals could be described as hunting men, then Homo sapiens are running men, with a body type well suited for persistence hunting.” Mr. McDougal writes that the Homo sapiens would seem to be at a major disadvantage “for the Neanderthals were stronger, tougher, and probably smarter . . . (for they had) a big brain. Neanderthal’s were fantastically gifted hunters and skilled laborers. And, they may well have acquired language before we did.”
Until some 45,000 years ago—when temperatures increased sharply, forests shrank dramatically and grasslands emerged to replace the previous forests—the Neanderthals dominated. Shrinking forests and warmer temperatures contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs, other creatures and mammals that thrived in the colder climates of earlier times.
Neanderthals captured their prey through trapping, surrounding, and collectively overpowering their targets, by pounding them to death with stones or piercing them with sharp objects. The hunting Neanderthals necessarily were big, strong, and powerful. The Neanderthals were well suited for a cooler climate, by nature of their hunting style; the Homo sapiens were more adaptable to a warmer climate. When their places changed, the running men Homo sapiens were much more adaptable to shifting circumstances than the hunting men Neanderthals, who had a difficult time sustaining themselves. The bigger, slower animals that could be trapped and overwhelmed by the Neanderthals declined and were replaced by lighter, faster animals, which could be captured by persistence hunting.
Mr. McDougall advances the proposition, familiar to and resonant with those who share his passion for running, that running is fundamentally a “form of prayer.” He asserts that there is a connection between compassion and competition, for the runner the competition is more with the course than with other racers. Running with others is motivated more by the objective of shared experience than dominance, for as Mr. McDougall writes, “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other . . . but to be with each other.”
Much of what is described here can readily be applied to other strength endurance sports, including cross-country skiing and cycling. The author blends field research, personal experience, scientific research, covering multiple disciplines—sports science, evolution, human mechanics, the biology of body structure, spirituality, psychology and more—to develop his thesis that running is the core of what it means to be human.
He writes that people run, “Because running is rooted in our collective imagination and our imagination is rooted in running. The language, art, science in space shuttles, starry night, and intravascular surgery; it all had the roots in running. Running was the superpower that made us human—which means it’s a superpower that all humans possess.”
Born to Run will appeal to multiple audiences including those fascinated with outdoor adventure, personal development, excellence and competition, distance running, connections with earliest life forms, health and fitness, confronting and overcoming personal challenges, place experiences, spirituality, and active meditation.