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Review: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

In the three and a half years I've been running competitively, I have never really hurt myself.

Sure, I've turned my ankle here and there (I blame childhood softball and clumsiness more than anything), but I've never had real knee pain, heel pain or even shin splints.

This makes me lucky -- eight to ten runners gets hurt every year. By delving deep into the middle of the earth and finding a tribe of Indians who run great distances in little more than rubber foot coverings, Charles McDougall has made the case that less is more, especially when it comes to running.

McDougall's book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, has been called "that barefoot running" book, which perhaps it is. But it's not just about how Nike may have screwed an entire generation of runners. Born to Run is a wonderful memoir and narrative on why humans evolved into runners, and how we can become better runners when we shuck the marketing mumbo jumbo and rediscover the joy in hitting the open road.

McDougall, a contributor to Runner's World and Men's Health, wanted to know why his feet hurt, and how to fix them without involving shots or orthotics. So he went out to find the Tarahumura Indians, a Mexican tribe that lives in the Copper Canyons, a place they choose because it's so hard to get to, and they don't want to be found. By trying to run like the Tarahumura, McDougall discovers that all the padding, all the marathon scheduling, and all the training runners are told to do might not matter at all. The Tarahumura just run, and so do a band of out-there American runners he finds along the way.

I probably shouldn't have read this before I run the Philadelphia Half Marathon on November 22. I finished the book yesterday, and was self conscious about my shoes, feet and running form on that days' three mile jog. Should I ditch my shoes, run in an old flat pair, try not to heel strike? Am I making my feet and ankles weak in this spiffy new pairs of running sneakers?

So many questions and ideas ran through my head that I had to stop, shake my brain clear, and start again with the goal of not thinking at all. I've been fine so far. I think I'll make it through another month of training.

I might try something different after the half marathon, though. I'd like to test a pair of Nike Frees, which are supposed to mimic barefoot running, or at least try some barefoot drills in the grass. I might even break out my soccer cleats, which have no padding, and do some speed work in the park. A lot of what McDougall writes makes sense -- we didn't need sneakers for thousands of years, and only now we're worried about pronating? I started playing with my dog barefoot in my house, and I don't chase her with the same form I run in my sneakers. Maybe some of the points about running for joy and wonder rather than paces and times will bring me to that next level of running where going on a six mile jog is not a big deal but fun.

Even if you're not a runner, Born to Run is worth reading. It's one of those books that I want to dissect to see exactly how McDougall created such a wonderful narrative. I'm also comforted that, in the acknowledgments, he thanks his Men's Health editor Matt Marion by saying "Like everything I've written for Matt, it came into his hands like an unmade bed and came out with crisp hospital corners."

I worry a lot about my writing. Am I taking on the right assignments? Am I adding enough texture? What if I go on a jaunt that my editor hates? What if I tighten up the writing too much? What if I make a mistake and no one assigns anything to me ever again? Reading that someone like McDougall struggles with the same thing, and turns in imperfect drafts, is comforting. Maybe this book will help me be looser and freer about both my running and my writing.

I'm going to go on a run of running book reviews (pun intended). I've just been named Running Editor of Liberty Sports Magazine, a freebie in Philadelphia about all things sports. I'm doing it more for the opportunity to explore running through writing than for monetary glory. It might even get me a free pair of Nike Frees to test. When I started running, I thought it would be something I did a few times a week to stay in shape, but now it's become a big part of my life. If I can meld writing and running together sometimes? I just might find more joy in both.

For more on Born to Run, check out this interview McDougall did on the Daily Show:

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Tucker Goodrich said…
Jen, if you want to get an idea of what barefoot running is like, skip the Nike Frees. The worst things about sneakers for running form are raised heels and a cushioned sole. Both features are found on the Frees. Vibram FiveFingers, mentioned in born to run, are the way to go. But ease into it.

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