Would you believe that all humans, including all us fat, lazy Americans, actually evolved to run marathons? That’s the gist of the interesting book by magazine writer McDougall. In an effort to figure out why his foot hurts so much when he’s running, he takes us on an evolutionary journey that involves scientists, hunting, crazy ultra-marathoners, and a hidden tribe of Mexican natives called the Tarahumara who are the living proof of his thesis.
Wrapped in a perhaps overly colloquial narrative is sort of a history of the human race as runners. McDougall, braving the wilds and drug-runners of Mexico, tracks down Caballo Blanco, a white man who has chosen to “disappear” and live as the Tarahumara do. They hide out in canyons, shun society and technology, and run, run, run. At various points in time they’ve been coaxed out into the real world in order to show off their running prowess (they seem to win pretty much every race they’re brought to) but they always go back to obscurity afterwards. Caballo enlists McDougall to help him orchestrate a great race between the stars of the ultramarathon world and the greatest of the Tarahumara runners. Along the way, McDougall tries to learn everything he can about why we run (and why we don’t), and how best to do it. He accumulates a motley cast of characters on the way to the final showdown: a fifty-mile race through the Copper Canyons of Mexico. Who will win: the Tarahumara, hometown favorites; or the gringo superstars? And, will McDougall himself manage to power through? It’s pretty exciting stuff, really, so I suggest you read the book and find out.
While I do have a few complaints about this book, mainly that it could actually be a little drier and have less “flavor,” it really was pretty fascinating. The “story” of the book is mixed in with all the scientific detail and a ton of anecdotal information regarding the rise of serious running, mainly in the US. As a burgeoning runner, it really gave me a lot to think about, and helped to encourage me along. Mainly, I am just astonished by the notion of people who get off on running anywhere from 50 to 100 miles at a stretch. I’m still working up to the idea of a 5k. It’s always interesting to learn about a subculture that has its heroes and legends, superstars that you’ve never heard of.
If you’re interested in running, this book should definitely be on your to-read list. While it’s certainly a love letter to the sport, it doesn’t proselytize at all, mainly because McDougall himself is just one of us; a schlub trying to get some exercise. Yes, he ends up rubbing shoulders with bad-asses, and running a 50-mile trail race, but his voice is still one of a fairly humble individual who loves this crazy stuff,even if he’s not that great at it. I admit he seems to like to hear himself talk a bit, but most of what he’s got to say is pretty cool, so you won’t mind listening, and going along for the ride.