Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Reviewed by Laura Clark

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” – Unknown Just substitute your own problem body part for Christopher McDougall’s simple question, “Why does my foot hurt?” and you can instantly identify with his dilemma. McDougall does not want to win a race or qualify for Boston – all he wants is his daily five-mile fix. As an adventure writer and former war correspondent, his body seems remarkably indestructible. That is, until he turns forty, laces up a pair of running shoes and begins to jog through the placid Pennsylvania countryside.

In a desperate effort to feel whole again, McDougall’s journalistic mind, followed by his hobbled body and financed by Runner’s World and Men’s Health, leads him on a byzantine quest through cutting-edge science all the way back to our hunter-gatherer beginnings. Refusing to accept his doctor’s injunction that the human body is not designed for running, his investigations pit him against drug runners, Mexico’s desolate Copper Canyon and firmly entrenched scientific myths. Somewhere along the trail he not only finds the answer to our perennial question/complaint, but learns about so much more than mere bio-mechanics. McDougall’s attempt to insert running man into the gazelle/lion scenario leads him to the desolate Copper Canyon of Mexico, the last stand of the Tarahumara Indians, an almost mythical tribe of Stone Age super-athletes who call themselves the Rarámuri, or the Running People. And no wonder. They think nothing of running sixty miles or so across rough desert terrain just to get to the site of a forty-eight hour race. After a cops-and-robbers scene worthy of Laurel and Hardy, McDougall finally locates the elusive Caballo Blanco, a former prizefighter with a broken-down body who has lived restoratively among the Tarahumara for ten years. Caballo takes him for an eye-opening run, explaining the basics, “Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless… When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three, and you’ll be fast.” Caballo’s mantra is surprisingly similar to the techniques espoused by Chi Running, the Pose Method and the cult of barefoot running. The price for these lessons? McDougall becomes the point man for Caballo’s dream: a 50-mile race between Americans, Mexicans and Tarahumara on Rarámuri stomping grounds, billed as “The Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.”

Reading Born to Run is like deciphering those layered novels that shift back and forth across time and character subplots. Coincidental to McDougall’s quest for unhindered running and Caballo’s race director mishaps, we visit the Western States and Leadville 100 Mile races, sample a persistence-running hunt with Bushmen and visit Bill Bowerman’s waffle iron. We learn that less is more when it comes to shoe price but more trumps less when you are toting wilderness supplies. McDougall does fictionalize or exaggerate some of his encounters but on the whole, the book makes for a quite enjoyable read.

As the 50-mile contest of body over mind nears completion, what shines through is the sheer joie de vivre of the event. It seems the secret to running like the Tarahumara has to do more with pure delight and community spirit than with training tables or VO2 max. The spectators, basically the entire town of Urique, and the runners have themselves become the event. Although the race features a hard-fought photo finish, it is a finish that unites rather than divides. Small, unheralded acts of kindness feature just as much in the final outcome as leg turnover. Those who get the most applause are those who have struggled the most just to make it to the finish line.

While I have read many books on running and written many reviews, I am always somewhat surprised and disappointed when a fellow runner comments, “Now that I have read your review, I don’t have to read the book.” Not so with Born to Run. Although geared to trail runners and ultra aficionados, it strikes an everyman chord with runners of all persuasions. McDougall’s investigative forays are seamlessly interwoven with his personal journey so that readers never feel ping-ponged back and forth between time and place. Look for Born to Run to assume its place alongside such cult classics as John Parker’s Once A Runner.