Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements,
cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to
Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why
does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall
sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners
and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that
everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.
Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the
reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons
are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced
techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest
and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner
while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is
matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara
immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence.
With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives
among the tribe, the author was able not only to uncover the
secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner
ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a
fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting
the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star
ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.
With a sharp wit and wild exuberance, McDougall takes us from
the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys
and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing
numbers of ultrarunners are pushing their bodies to the limit,
and, finally, to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons. Born
to Run is that rare book that will not only engage your mind but
inspire your body when you realize that the secret to happiness
is right at your feet, and that you, indeed all of us, were born
Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Christopher McDougall
Question: Born to Run explores the life and running habits of
the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, arguably the
greatest distance runners in the world. What are some of the
secrets you learned from them?
Christopher McDougall: The key secret hit me like a thunderbolt.
It was so simple, yet such a jolt. It was this: everything I’d
been taught about running was wrong. We treat running in the
modern world the same way we treat childbirth—it’s going to hurt,
and requires special exercises and equipment, and the best you
can hope for is to get it over with quickly with minimal damage.
Then I meet the Tarahumara, and they’re having a blast. They
remember what it’s like to love running, and it lets them blaze
through the canyons like dolphins rocketing through waves. For
them, running isn’t work. It isn’t a punishment for eating. It’s
fine art, like it was for our ancestors. Way before we were
scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees,
we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and
muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when
our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what
were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through
the bottom and middle—behold, the Running Man.
The Tarahumara have a saying: “Children run before they can
walk.” Watch any four-year-old—they do everything at full speed,
and it’s all about fun. That’s the most important thing I picked
up from my time in the Copper Canyons, the understanding that
running can be fast and fun and spontaneous, and when it is, you
feel like you can go forever. But all of that begins with your
feet. Strange as it sounds, the Tarahumara taught me to change my
relationship with the ground. Instead of hammering down on my
heels, the way I’d been taught all my life, I learned to run
lightly and gently on the balls of my feet. The day I mastered it
was the last day I was ever injured.
Q: You trained for your first ultramarathon—a race organized by
the mysterious gringo expat Caballo Blanco between the Tarahumara
and some of America’s top ultrarunners—while researching and
writing this book. What was your training like?
CM: It really started as kind of a dare. Just by chance, I’d met
an adventure-sports coach from Jackson Hole, Wyoming named Eric
Orton. Eric’s specialty is tearing endurance sports down to their
basic components and looking for transferable skills. He studies
rock climbing to find shoulder techniques for kayakers, and
applies Nordic skiing’s smooth propulsion to mountain biking.
What he’s looking for are basic engineering principles, because
he’s convinced that the next big leap forward in fitness won’t
come from strength or technology, but plain, simple durability.
With some 70% of all runners getting hurt every year, the athlete
who can stay healthy and avoid injury will leave the competition
So naturally, Eric idolized the Tarahumara. Any tribe that has
90-year-old men running across mountaintops obviously has a few
training tips up its sleeve. But since Eric had never actually
met the Tarahumara, he had to deduce their methods by pure
reasoning. His starting point was uncertainty; he assumed that
the Tarahumara step into the unknown every time they leave their
caves, because they never know how fast they’ll have to sprint
after a rabbit or how tricky the climbing will be if they’re
caught in a storm. They never even know how long a race will be
until they step up to the starting line—the distance is only
determined in a last-minute bout of negotiating and could stretch
anywhere from 50 miles to 200-plus.
Eric figured shock and awe was the best way for me to build
durability and mimic Tarahumara-style running. He’d throw
something new at me every day—hopping drills, lunges, mile
intervals—and lots and lots of hills. There was no such thing,
really, as long, slow distance—he’d have me mix lots of hill
repeats and short bursts of speed into every mega-long run.
I didn’t think I could do it without breaking down, and I told
Eric that from the start. I basically defied him to turn me into
a runner. And by the end of nine months, I was cranking out four
hour runs without a problem.
Q: You’re a six-foot four-inches tall, 200-plus pound guy—not
anyone’s typical vision of a distance runner, yet you’ve
completed ultra marathons and are training for more. Is there a
body type for running, as many of us assume, or are all humans
built to run?
CM: Yeah, I’m a big’un. But isn’t it sad that’s even a
reasonable question? I bought into that bull for a loooong time.
Why wouldn’t I? I was constantly being told by people who should
know better that “some bodies aren’t designed for running.” One
of the best sports medicine physicians in the country told me
exactly that—that the reason I was constantly getting hurt is
because I was too big to handle the impact shock from my feet
hitting the ground. Just recently, I interviewed a
nationally-known sports podiatrist who said, “You know, we didn’t
ALL evolve to run away from saber-toothed tigers.” Meaning, what?
That anyone who isn’t sleek as a Kenyan marathoner should be
extinct? It’s such illogical blather—all kinds of body types
exist today, so obviously they DID evolve to move quickly on
their feet. It’s really awful that so many doctors are
reinforcing this learned helplessness, this idea that you have to
be some kind of elite being to handle such a basic, universal
Q: If humans are born to run, as you argue, what’s your advice
for a runner who is looking to make the leap from shorter road
races to marathons, or marathons to ultramarathons? Is running
really for everyone?
CM: I think ultrarunning is America’s hope for the future.
Honestly. The ultrarunners have got a hold of some powerful
wisdom. You can see it at the starting line of any ultra race. I
showed up at the Leadville Trail 100 expecting to see a bunch of
hollow-eyed Skeletors, and instead it was, “Whoah! Get a load of
the hotties!” Ultra runners tend to be amazingly healthy,
youthful and—believe it or not—good looking. I couldn’t figure
out why, until one runner explained that throughout history, the
four basic ingredients for optimal health have been clean air,
good food, fresh water and low stress. And that, to a T,
describes the daily life of an ultrarunner. They’re out in the
woods for hours at a time, breathing pine-scented breezes, eating
small bursts of digestible food, downing water by the gallons,
and feeling their stress melt away with the miles. But here’s the
real key to that kingdom: you have to relax and enjoy the run. No
one cares how fast you run 50 miles, so ultrarunners don’t really
stress about times. They’re out to enjoy the run and finish
strong, not shave a few inconsequential seconds off a personal
best. And that’s the best way to transition up to big mileage
races: as coach Eric told me, “If it feels like work, you’re
working too hard.”
Q: You write that distance running is the great equalizer of age
and gender. Can you explain?
CM: Okay, I’ll answer that question with a question: Starting at
age nineteen, runners get faster every year until they hit their
peak at twenty-seven. After twenty-seven, they start to decline.
So if it takes you eight years to reach your peak, how many years
does it take for you to regress back to the same speed you were
running at nineteen?
Go ahead, guess all you want. No one I’ve asked has ever come
close. It’s in the book, so I won’t give it away, but I guarantee
when you hear the answer, you’ll say, “No way. THAT old?” Now,
factor in this: ultra races are the only sport in the world in
which women can go toe-to-toe with men and hand them their heads.
Ann Trason and Krissy Moehl often beat every man in the field in
some ultraraces, while Emily Baer recently finished in the Top 10
at the Hardrock 100 while stopping to breastfeed her baby at the
So how’s that possible? According to a new body of research,
it’s because humans are the greatest distance runners on earth.
We may not be fast, but we’re born with such remarkable natural
endurance that humans are fully capable of outrunning horses,
cheetahs and antelopes. That’s because we once hunted in packs
and on foot; all of us, men and women alike, young and old
Q: One of the fascinating parts of Born to Run is your report on
how the ultrarunners eat—salad for breakfast, wraps with hummus
mid-run, or pizza and beer the night before a run. As a runner
with a lot of miles behind him, what are your thoughts on
nutrition for running?
CM: Live every day like you’re on the lam. If you’ve got to be
ready to pick up and haul butt at a moment’s notice, you’re not
going to be loading up on gut-busting meals. I thought I’d have
to go on some kind of prison-camp diet to get ready for an ultra,
but the best advice I got came from coach Eric, who told me to
just worry about the running and the eating would take care of
itself. And he was right, sort of. I instinctively began eating
smaller, more digestible meals as my miles increased, but then I
went behind his back and consulted with the great Dr. Ruth
Heidrich, an Ironman triathlete who lives on a vegan diet. She’s
the one who gave me the idea of having salad for breakfast, and
it’s a fantastic tip. The truth is, many of the greatest
endurance athletes of all time lived on fruits and vegetables.
You can get away with garbage for a while, but you pay for it in
the long haul. In the book, I describe how Jenn Shelton and Billy
“Bonehead” Barnett like to chow pizza and Mountain Dew in the
middle of 100-mile races, but Jenn is also a vegetarian who most
days lives on veggie burgers and grapes.
Q: In this difficult financial time, we’re experiencing yet
another surge in the popularity of running. Can you explain this?
CM: When things look worst, we run the most. Three times,
America has seen distance-running skyrocket and it’s always in
the midst of a national crisis. The first boom came during the
Great Depression; the next was in the ‘70s, when we were
struggling to recover from a recession, race riots,
assassinations, a criminal President and an awful war. And the
third boom? One year after the Sept. 11 attacks, trailrunning
suddenly became the fastest-growing outdoor sport in the country.
I think there’s a trigger in the human psyche that activates our
first and greatest survival skill whenever we see the shadow of
(Photo © James Rexroad)