Born To Run

Book cover image

This book starts off with the bang of a marathon, and keeps on in the same pace until the end. The story of the greatest ultramarathon that only the inhabitants of a distant Mexican town could witness is told in the usual manner of US best-sellers, with portraits and far-out stories interspersed with strange facts (Did you know that lizards cannot walk and breath at the same time?) and science reporting. As with many other such books, it is sometimes difficult to believe that the story really took place in this breakneck speed, or that the depicted characters were that peculiar or crazy. Can it be that one man leaves all he has behind and builds himself a hut in the middle of nowhere, running tens of miles every day? Did the marathon savant couple from the east coast really run a complete ultramarathon two days after getting hammered with booze until they blacked out? The science reporting is also rather simplifying; I don’t think scientist who spend hours buckled over a book or magazine blurt out “Holy moly! There is something going on here” (p.220) when they come up with a novel idea.

But you know what? It works. This book fills one with an awe for the wonders of the simple sport of running, and the desire to actually put your shoes on, get out, and run your longest distance ever. You can just as well leave the shoes off, though: One of the pivotal arguments of the book is that the reason more people are not running is the modern running shoe. By desensitizing our feet and promoting a style of running highly unsuitable for the human build and evolutionary history, the running shoe has caused more injuries than anything else, according to McDougall and the many experts he consults. There is something retrospectively obvious in this argument. It can’t be possible that the comfortably cushiony shoes that are pushed by the major shoe companies are what the human foot is supposed to be wearing when pounding ground of such variety. I made the similar experience of going from a highly cushioned shoe which gave me all kinds of problems with my knees and feet to one that is much thinner and lighter, and being able to run double the distance without any serious issues. It is nevertheless refreshing to hear so many arguments in favor of the built-in resources of the human body, and how going simpler instead of paying more money for more technology might help us.

The part I found the most fascinating was on how and why human beings evolved to run. Popular science reporting is a difficult topic. Complicated discoveries that take ages to properly uncover and report are frequently presented as aha moments, and ongoing discussions that are far from being conclusive are thrown out there as ultimate facts that can never ever again be challenged. Real science, as it goes on in academic circles and scientific journals, is much more nuanced and slow-moving. It is therefore sensible to take the fascinating background story of human beings’ becoming intelligent distance runners with a pinch of salt. One thing is really certain about the arguments presented here: They are extremely fun to read, and fill one with content to be part of a species that can triumph over much bigger and stronger animals by sheer willpower and intelligence. The next time I’m out there running, I will definitely gather more energy and courage from my new-found brotherhood with the fearless hunters of the savannah.

Born to Run is quintessential reading for anyone who takes running and reading with the seriousness they deserve.