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Book Review: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

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The term marathon has become synonymous with long and grueling: an experience only the strongest manage to make it all the way through. Students speak of marathon study sessions before a big exam, volunteers man phones for a good cause with an all-day telethon. But we don’t actually think these activities compare to a true marathon: running, running, and running some more; as long as it takes to reach that finish line, some 26 miles and change down the road. Unlike the 100-yard dash, most amateur marathoners aren’t actually aiming to win. Simple completion is a signal accomplishment.

Yet McDougall describes a growing underground of hard-core runners who will sneak in a marathon after breakfast. Some of the incredible personalities appearing in this book have survived such epic tests of endurance, a whole new term has been coined to describe the kind of physical challenge they take on. “Ultra-running,” as its adherents refer to it, can mean anywhere from 30 to 200 miles of running at a stretch. A new human extreme in the modern world of extreme sports – extreme endurance. This is incredible enough, but it turns out a ittle-known Mexican tribe, the Taruhumara, have been doing this for centuries. Living in isolated and inaccessible canyons deep in the desert, “the Running People” have had little enough contact with the outside world to realize that running back-to-back marathons into your 60s is considered unusual.

McDougall has followed one thread after another to try and answer his own questions: how do such people exist, when every time I run a few miles a week I inevitably get injured? What do these extreme ultra-runners and Taruhumara tribespeople have in common? How is it even possible to run a few miles, let alone a few marathons, in sandals, over rock and desert and up and down mountains under a desert sun? How is it that they look like they’re smiling, when they should barely be able to breathe?

Part adventure story, part runner’s diary, and part popular science, McDougall’s book ties together unforgettable real-life characters, the close calls of off-the-beaten path investigative journalism, and ongoing research in evolutionary anthropology to produce something epic. His story is about an amazing group of people, and an amazing experience they all shared, but it’s also about humanity as a species. It’s about all of us, and running as a connection to our own evolutionary origins. He makes a compelling case, though time will tell if the science bears out.

The most obvious and immediate comparison that comes to mind is with Jon Krakauer’s book, “Into Thin Air”, a first-hand account of the 1996 Everest Disaster. In that book, Krakauer’s love of climbing comes through, even amidst close calls, lost friends, and a level of exhaustion few will ever experience. Similarly, McDougall paints a vivid psychological picture of the hard-core runner, obsessed with pushing against their body’s physical limits, not out of competitiveness, but for the sheer joy of it. You might not think long-distance running sounds as edge-of-your-seat as mountain climbing, but you’d be wrong. Whether you’ve run a mile recently or not, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking book.

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About J.J.S. Boyce