I saw Christopher McDougall on The Daily Show, talking about his book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (2009). He brought up the rather intriguing idea (to me) that running barefoot can be fun and good for you. After reading another article about him in The New York Times, and constantly battling injuries myself, I decided I wanted to hear more about what he was saying. Now that I've finished McDougall's book, I'm annoyed that it's below freezing and the ground is covered in snow, because I would like to get out there and try some barefoot running. Although I was a little disappointed in the book as a whole, it kept my interest and reminded me why I try to run in the first place.
Part of my problems with the book stemmed (of course) from my expectations. From what he said on The Daily Show, I thought that McDougall had spent months with the Tarahumara and really became a part of their culture. And the back of the book states: "McDougall's ambitious search leads him deep inot the ragged folds of Mexico's Copper Canyon, where he somehow manages the impossible: He plumbs the mystic secrets of the fleet-footed Tarahumara Indians while never losing his deep enchantment with the majesty of their culture." I was looking for some deep insight into the Tarahumarans and their lives. But when you actually get into the book, it turns out McDougall only spent a couple days with the Tarahumara, barely even interacting with them. I did not get a good feel for their culture or how they live, and I felt that McDougall often fell back on the convenient stereotype of noble, primitive man who lives in some sort of Eden because he is far from the world's corrupting influences--but without any actual evidence.
Without having much information on the Tarahumara, the book is padded with some other interesting information about when the Tarahumara ran the Leadville 100 foot race and other famous ultra runners around the world, as well as a quick view, from an evolutionary background, of how we developed to be runners. The end culminates with a small race in Tarahumara canyon country between a couple of the best American ultra runners and some of the best Tarahumara runners.
McDougall also discusses the problems with the modern running shoe, which I thought was really interesting. This idea did not stem from the Tarahumara, but it is true that they use simple, flat sandals when they run. Many running coaches assert that it is best to land on the fleshy part of your forefoot, but the modern running shoe, with it's cushy, padded heel and modern stability, forces you to land on your heel. Studies have shown that the more cushioning you have, the harder you're going to jar the landing--so you're putting more stress on your body. Also, always having your feet controlled and supported weakens them. So, you might be better off with minimal support and cushioning, but running with better form. Although if you try to jump into running barefoot, you could also hurt yourself, because you haven't built up your foot strength yet. McDougall went from constantly nursing injuries to running more and faster than he ever had before. But McDougall also had a world-class, personal coach training him on form and running; it wasn't as easy as simply getting simpler shoes.
Having just read Krakauer's latest book, with his attention to detail and in-depth research, it was a little frustrating to read this one. I felt that McDougall often erred on the side of attention grabbing and storytelling rather than really digging deep and finding the truth. He superficially focused on the eccentricities of everyone involved but rarely gave any indication of their real lives. Superlatives were thrown liberally throughout the book without much evidence or explanation to support them. The Tarahumara were the "best" runners, and everyone was constantly "risking their lives" or "almost dying."
All of my complaining may indicate that I liked this book less than I actually did. In reality, it was a quick, informative, and enjoyable read. If I hadn't just read Krakauer, and if I hadn't been expecting something more (by the misleading advertising, which is always a pet peeve of mine), I wouldn't have been as frustrated. If you see the book as a series of light, interesting articles on why we run, ultra running, and races between Tarahumara Indians and Americans, then you will be satisfied; I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in running.