Since running the rim-to-rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon in 2017 with some friends, I’ve been hooked on running ultramarathons and long distances.
So on the recommendation of some co-workers and friends in the ultra community, I picked up Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It’s mostly a fun read that tells the story of a once-in-a-lifetime trail race organized in the Copper Canyons of Mexico.
I wouldn’t say I learned a ton from the book, but I did appreciate the vocabulary it gives around how I feel when running; meditative, free, and clear.
The writing is also quite charming. Ultra-runners are an oddball crew, and the McDougall does a good job highlighting the idiosyncracies of the cast of characters in the book.
The history of Ultras
Part of the fun of the book comes from sharing the history of various ultramarathons. Leadville, and to a lesser extent, Western States are both featured as some of the oldest races in trail running. Though I’ve had friends do both, I had no idea how each one started, and gradually grew more mainstream.
The book centers around following an elite tribe of ultra-runners in Mexico, the Tarahumara. These legends regularly run for 50-100 miles at a time in homemade sandals made from tires. They have no training, and seemingly never have to deal with any sort of injury.
The argument the author makes is that today’s modern shoes and training regimens actually hurt our ability to run at distance! Instead, running barefoot helps strengthen your arch, stabilize your ankles, and overall prevents injury.
It’s definitely made me re-think the way I run to take far more smaller steps, and attempt to land softly on my feet.
Humans as endurance hunters
The last interesting idea of the book is that humans not only can run, but it was running that actually separated us from Neanderthals and allowed us to grow our brains substantially.
The theory goes something like this: when humans became bipedal, they actually lost a large amount of speed. You can run far faster running with four legs than on two. But what modern humans gained in exchange was the ability to better regulate our breathing and take in deeper breaths. Humans are the only animal which can breathe independently of our running stroke. Our hairless bodies allow us to sweat and keep cool over much longer distances. Our muscles are tuned not for fast-twitch leaping, but for repeatedly absorbing impact.
This all goes so far to say that humans were able to hunt deer and other large animals by reliably running them into the ground. In this light, running isn’t a negative at all! It’s a key part of what makes us human.