Friday, August 07, 2009

Back to nature: Review of Born to Run

As if you probably couldn't tell from previous posts like this one and my bare-bones triathlete posts, I'm not a gearhead. I mean, I like shiny new stuff as much as the next person and I really want a new bike, but I think some of the scientific fitness gear and 450-page books on the "right" way to train can be a distraction from the sheer joy and fun that we could have if we let go of being perfect, just a little bit at least, and were really present for the experience of fitness.

My husband read a style="font-style: italic;">Born to Run and for him it was a manifesto on toughness and the joys of the strenuous life. I, however, saw it from my own nature-girl point of view and saw it as a call for us to get back to basics and to recapture the joy of our own bodies in motion.

Author Christopher McDougall, a sportswriter and would-be runner who is plagued by ever-increasing injuries. Frustrated, he seeks out the best doctors in the business, who tell him, essentially, that he was not made for running. "Running is tough on the legs," one doctor tells him. "She was so gentle and apologetic, I could tell what else she was thinking: 'Especially your legs, big fella.'" In his quest to find a way to run without pain, without cortisone shots, and without orthotics, he goes off in search of a legendary tribe of "natural runners," the Tarahumara, who have retreated to the some of the toughest terrain in the world and who run 80-100 mile races for fun (the women's run "shorter" races of around 40 miles so that they can get back to their kids sooner). And they do them in sandals made from recycled car tires.

As a writer, McDougall turns his personal quest to rediscover natural running into an exploration of our origins as natural runners, citing evolutionary biologists who say that the way we are built proves that we are made to not only run, but to run long distances. Our bodies are full of evidence of our running past: Our tendons, the shape of our feet, the size of our butts (I should be an excellent runner, I guess), the way our skulls our built... all of these point to an animal that is adapted to cover long distances. We aren't built for short bursts of speed like a cheetah, but as a "naked, sweating animal," we are adapted to run longer in the heat than any other creature. "Then why do so many people hate it?" McDougall asks, like we all are probably asking.

The problem is our brains. "The brain is always scheming to reduce costs, get more for less, store energy and have it ready for an emergency," was one explanation. We have an instinct to relax when we can, just in case we encounter a cougar at the convenience store. Another answer is the American consumerist view of running, "too artificial and grabby... too much about getting stuff and getting it now: medals, Nike deals, a cute butt.... No wonder so many people hated running; if you thought it was only a means to an end -- an investment in becoming faster, skinnier, richer -- then why stick with it if you weren't getting enough quo for your quid?" In the 1970s, when running seemed so widely popular, the media focus was on participation, at first, about the craze and the phenomenon. Everyone was doing it. Now I think, more people are actually running, but less people are racing, and many of the people running are wondering why they're not better at it instead of enjoying the fact that they can do it.

And then there's the modern obsession with gear, which like me, McDougall thinks gets in the way of the joy of it all. In some cases, it's even harmful, like the modern running shoes that McDougall claims are responsible for the high injury rate among runners. We spend more money on shoes when we're injured, trying to find a way to fix it. Instead, he says, "We spend double the money and get double the pain." The crazy band of runners he chronicles who show up for "the greatest race the world has never seen" don't have fancy gear or even running watches. They just run.

Today when I went to swim I tried to appreciate the fact that I was able to do my laps under an open sky at an almost deserted, beautiful clear pool. I thought counting laps was getting in the way of my enjoyment, so I didn't. Even my watch was distracting me -- I kept looking at it to know how long I had been swimming. I'm still striving to be that natural-born athlete, in short. Still, I'm trying.

1 comment:

  1. I love running. I will never be at the front of the pack and I couldn't care less. I just want to do the best I am capable of which, (because of the lazy mind you described), sometimes becomes a fuzzy issue. So I do use my GPS as a tool to "keep me honest". OK, I love my data but my data does not define me, it's a tool. At the same time I've had friends who would rather quit running than strap a GPS on their arm (I call them purists). Either way, there is a way we can enjoy running just for the sake of running. Because like the author of the book, I agree that our bodies were created to run. Thanks for the review. I've been wondering about the book.

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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07