“Why does my foot hurt?” This is the question that Christopher McDougall set out to try and answer. A keen-but-amateur runner, he could not work out why he kept on injuring his foot whilst running, despite having the best shoes and equipment that money could buy. Eventually, he consulted multiple specialists, who all told him to stop running. In fact, they told him more than that: human beings aren’t designed to run.
This did not sit right with McDougall, who then launched his own investigation into man’s ability to run. What he finds will astound, delight and inspire you. From the plains of the Serengeti to the Colorado mountains to the harsh Siberian winters, McDougall uncovers feats of awesome running prowess. And tied throughout it all are the ancient tribes-people of mythical proportions, the Tarahumara.
The Tarahumara have long lived in the foothills of Mexico, for millennia cut off from civilisation and only in recent decades being introduced to the glories of Western culture (like Coke and cigarettes). McDougall sought to find out if the myths surrounding these mountain men and women were true – that they could run hundreds of kilometres at a time, with nothing but leather strapping on their feet and a handful of chipotle beans.
And thus is McDougall’s story set. He tries to find out everything he can about running, whilst attempting to set up a race that pits the ancient Tarahumara runners against modern ultra-runners. The resulting story is so engaging, so filled with adventure and the pure child-like joy that ‘running free’ brings, that you will want to lick the deliciousness from your fingers when you finish and dive back in for another helping.
I have never been a naturally good runner. It just ain’t my thing. But that did not stop me from enjoying the crap out of this book. In fact, I didn’t actually read it, I listened to it on my iPod as an audiobook (audiobooks are awesome [as is alliteration] and I keep meaning to write a post about them – do not be fooled into thinking they are dorky and tedious! All the cool kids are listening to them*). This meant that I could actually Run. Whilst. Listening. (Oh yeah, this shiz just got meta!). It sounds ridiculous, but it was just so inspiring that all I wanted to do was strip off my work clothes, get out on the road and run!
One big part of the book is about bare-foot running, which is a massive world-wide running movement where people run (as the name would suggest!) sans footwear. The idea (explained far more articulately and scientifically in the book) is that humans ran for millennia without shoes. Without the cushioning provided by modern footwear, our running gait is actually very different to that of a shoe-clad foot – ball of foot striking first in the former, and the heel striking first in the latter. Barefoot proponents theorise that the boon in running injuries is caused by sports shoes and the changed running technique that they allow.
McDougall’s presentation of the barefoot theory is compelling. The first time I tried barefoot running, I went down to the oval at the local state school (lots of lovely soft grass) and ran around and around the track at dusk, my hair streaming wildly behind me, feet sinking into the soft cold grass. In my head, I imagined myself looking something like a Pocahontas – lithe, statuesque grace; running free like a horse and painting with all the colours of the wind etc. When I got home afterwards, my sister happened to be there as i entered my house. She burst out laughing – hysterics, I tell you – at the mad-woman who stood before her. The reality of how I looked was a head of bushy-wild hair that would give Hermione a run (ha!) for her money and muddy-as-anything feet that I was now hobbling on. The first lesson of this story is that in no way did I look as good as I felt whilst I was running (!). The second lesson was that you should slowly build up to barefoot running. My half an hour of running around the oval had given me two massive blood blisters under my big toes. Apparently us modern shoe-wearing fancypantses now have princess-like feet that need to build up to running naked. But apart from a few blisters, some dirt and a questionable hairdo, I had never had so much fun running in my life.
There’s also a spiritual element to this book. A recurring theme is that running makes you a better person, and that being a good person makes you a better runner. This idea fascinates me and resonates with me.
I think what i loved most about this book is that the love for running, experienced by so many of the real-life characters featured through out, is simply infectious. It will make you want to run. It will make you dash Pocahontas-style around your neighbourhood, pondering your foot falls and trying to emulate the native Mexicans. And even more than that, this book will make you want to be a better person and will make you believe that you can be a better person, and that the first step might just be as simple a hitting the road…Verdict: An awe-inspiring, rollicking, good read.* May or may not be true. I know that my mum and I listen to them a lot, and we are both all kinds of nerdy awesome (!!)