Monday, November 9, 2009

Nacimos Para Correr

Rather than make one more bad Springsteen reference, I thought I'd resort to my first language for today's blog post. While it does lose a little something in the translation, "Born to Run" is a master work of running journalism. Mixing in cultural anthropology, human evolutionary theory, running lore, extreme ultra-running and a cast of unforgettable, larger-than-life characters, Christopher McDougall has turned a personal quest (i.e., figuring out why his foot hurt and he was unable to run) into a sort of Rosetta Stone for those of us who think about the mysteries and enigmas posed by running.

The reason for this review is because I got to spend an hour-plus last week listening to Chris speak at the Barnes and Noble in Manchester, New Hampshire. There was a crowd of about 50 people, probably 65/35 percent men to women. Some of us wore our work clothes; others looked like they might have been about to go for a run. Chris showed up right on time, wearing a black Smartwool zip mock-turtleneck and his Vibram Five Fingers, essentially gloves for the feet.

McDougall began with the story of the book, which segues neatly into the barefoot running "debate" which Born to Run has rekindled. At its core, the message of Born to Run is that running - in particular endurance running - played a critical (perhaps the critical) role in humankind's evolution. McDougall notes that our big brains required lots of energy, which ended up needing to come in the form of meat. We've had that big brain for 2 million years, but we've only had weapons for about 200,000 of those years. If that's the case, how did we kill our prey before the advent of spears, arrows and firearms? We became the ultimate endurance running animal, and through "persistence hunts", learned - literally - to run our victims to death. This realization explains why endurance is a major equalizer. As distances grow, the gap between male and female performance narrows. While we may lose raw speed with age, a well-conditioned endurance athlete can compete at long distances well into their late 40's and beyond.
The backdrop for this gripping yarn is the Copper Canyons of Mexico and the only known inhabitants of that area, the long-isolated Tarahumara Indians. With the help of a wayward specter of a man known as "Caballo Blanco", McDougall finds his way to the source of his initial puzzlement and wonder: a 55 year-old Tarahumara who had just won a 100-mile race wearing flowing robes and sandals.

The argument is compelling, but tracing our running history necessarily raises the question: how did we run before shoe companies started peddling all sorts of fancy modern shoes? These shoes provide cushioning and - by design - interfere with our natural running stride. Common sense would lead us to believe that the advent of the modern running shoe would lead to far fewer injuries among runners. While Charles Goodyear's rubber vulcanization process led to the first rubber shoes in the mid-19th century, it was not until the 1960's and 70's that mass-produced, running specific shoes made their way into the American (and ultimately the industrialized world's) consciousness. Nike, co-founded by legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, started selling "waffle trainers" in 1974. Nike grossed over $19 billion in 2008, and its stock went up 60% (in contrast to the S&P's -18% performance). There's clearly no financial incentive for Nike and its competitors to greet barefoot running with an open mind (though - ever savvy - Nike did create the "Nike Free" line of unstructured shoes to help "strengthen the foot"). And while publications such as Runner's World and Running Times may occasionally cover barefoot running as an eccentric niche within the sport, it would be potentially catastrophic for such publications to trumpet a movement - however sound - which would potentially put their advertising base out of business.

McDougall re-learned how to run, eventually arriving at the conclusion that shoes were contributing to his chronic injuries. He now runs barefoot - or in the Vibram Five Fingers - and has been injury-free (except for one problem he encountered when he wore some old running shoes on a winter run) since.

For my part, I embarked upon my path as a diagnosed "biomechanically inefficient" runner. I theorize that the severe groin tear which ended my soccer playing days has resulted in asymmetries in my hips. Start logging 30, then 50 and now 70 miles per week, and those imbalances will manifest themselves in injury. True enough, I started running in heavy motion control shoes such as the Asics Gel Kayano, a feature-packed 13-oz. behemoth which I supplemented with custom orthotics.

Interestingly, barefoot running found its way into my training (just 1-2 miles per week) before I read Born to Run. While there are certainly additional relevant factors, I have not had a running-related injury since April 2008, despite steadily increasing both my mileage and the intensity of my training. I have also moved down from heavy, overly supportive shoes to a much lighter array of training and racing options. The results have been nothing but positive.

So, whether you want a fresh perspective on what has become a tired expectation that running safely requires over-engineered foot coffins, or you want to read a page-turning tale of what human beings can do when we reconnect with our true nature (and, thus, our greater selves), pick up a copy of "Born to Run". You will not regret it.



Kathleen said...

I love that book, too -- and was thrilled to hear McDougall speak as well. (Caballo Blanco came to the L.A. reading.) It's good to hear that you've been running relatively injury-free since changing your style a bit.

Billy said...

Awesome write up Ron...couldn't have said it better myself.