Born to Run, Native Wisdom, and why I hate Michael Pollan

For some months everyone I knew in sport was reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and then chucking their sneakers to run barefoot. “Dude”, my cousin Chris told me, “my legs are like steel cables!” Coach Brian was giddily sprinting barefoot up and down San Vicente navigating tree trunks and slippery discarded Gu wrappers, then went and signed up for a 50K ultra marathon in the hills of Malibu. The more people evangelized the book the more it sounded like the moronic “Native Wisdom” arguments that Michael Pollan makes in The Omnivores Dilemma. In Pollan’s Berkeley-colored, Whole Foods isn’t liberal enough, left of Caesar Chavez world, returning to our ancestor’s way of life is the route to ridding ourselves of disease, stress, and strife. What Pollan conveniently forgets is that Native Wisdom means dead by age 35, and the moment western medicine and modern agriculture have been introduced to stone-age peoples their life expectancy shoots through the roof. My rage was coloring my view going in to McDougall’s book, and yet being in this sport was forcing me to figure out what the whooping was all about.

“Dude,” Brian texted me. “Let it inspire you; just take the good out and discard the rest. Please don’t pick apart a book that got me running slowly. I ran a 5:24 Tuesday night!” It is an enjoyable ethnography, I thumbed back. That can be inspiring. “Your intellect and logic are both your weakest and strongest suits.” He backhanded praised. I told him it was a good thing I looked best in a tuxedo. He shot back, “Actually due to the shallowness of your shoulder girdle, you probably look like Mr. Peanut.”

When I was a kid I worked my way through the career aspirations alphabetically. I had wanted to be an Anthropologist, then an Archeologist (thanks, Indiana Jones), then an Architect. (It took me 9 years to get to the S’s of Screenwriter.) Once I got to college I took my first actual Anthropology class, and while I almost failed it wasn’t from lack of interest, it was just poor study skills. I found myself drawn in by insider/outsider theory and the wanderings of Anthropologists among lost tribes. My love for Captain Sir Richard Burton was rekindled, and my sense of being an alien inside my own culture galvanized. It is no surprise that as a punk adolescent I would be enamored by social anthropology – I was fascinated by the habits and behavior of my fellow human being. Reading books like Number Our Days, which chronicled a Jewish senior citizen community center in Venice Beach showed me that my desire to tell stories in movie form was one way of exploring a culture and people – even if it was one I made up from scratch.

Born to Run is the story of a middle-class, middle-age white adventure writer who goes searching for the Tarahumara tribe of indigenous Mexicans. He encounters yet another whack job white guy named Caballo Blanco, “the White Horse”, who had himself become enthralled with the prowess of the mythic running people. The first half of the book is just that – an enjoyable ethnography of a hidden, legendary tribe of native Mexicans who run very far, very fast, all the time. The White Horse is himself a specter, both to outsiders and to the Tarahumara. He is much like Burton, a man who sought to shed his own identity and become accepted by an ancient people untouched by the evils of civilization.

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton was an explorer (who discovered the source of the Nile river), a master linguist (he spoke quite literally dozens of languages), possibly a spy for Britain in the middle east, and a convert to Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam. Sufism preaches obfuscation of faith, and it was unknown if Burton was truly a convert or had figured out how to pose in order to infiltrate the secret society. Upon his death his body was found covered in scars (apart from the scars on his cheeks where he caught a spear through the mouth on one of the failed missions to discover the source of the Nile). These scars were the result of the ecstatic whirling dervish sword dance performed only by devout Sufis. In death his body revealed the truth of his beliefs.

The White Horse is similar in this regard to Burton, and McDougall does a fine job of revealing this transformation in body and spirit. McDougall himself becomes transformed as a runner through his experiences with the Tarahumara and the White Horse and finds his own way to embrace running. The book’s final quarter is a detail of an ultra race the author was lucky enough to achieve as caboose.

But there are times that McDougall’s romantic infatuation with his subjects has him make intellectual leaps that threaten his underlying thesis. In short, he paints the Tarahumara as a people without chronic disease, violence, or capitalist greed. He attributes their health and their peacefulness to their running and then speaks with scientists and researchers who bolster his magical belief by connecting good science with his writer’s agenda. He conveniently ignores his own words when he sees the Tarahumara are frequently laid up because they are stricken with flu. That their distributed population and tribal politics would reinforce their peaceful nature – especially when they are outgunned and no match for the drug cartels that rule the entire area. To argue that the secret of life, health, and happiness lies in running everywhere is to miss certain facts of modernity and the evolution of humans. Like Michael Pollan who forgets that genetically modified foods have saved the lives of billions of people, McDougall paints the Tarahumara as perfect beings unsullied by modernity. Well, this simply isn’t a realistic argument for our modern world.

The Tarahumara are an example of a population that has found equilibrium of the demands of their people against the supply of the land. Their environment is harsh, difficult to farm, and can barely sustain their meager population. They cannot use mechanized vehicles in their areas so running still serves as a primary method of transport. Their population remains low because the environment cannot sustain higher density.

If they moved from an area of low-sustenance to higher abundance their population would swell. Yes, they would probably lose the distance running trait that makes them unique. But from a genetic standpoint the explosion of their genes into the larger population would be more beneficial to them as a people. The whole purpose of life is to reproduce – genes, culture, and values. We breed because it is how we change, we reproduce because natural selection is an iterative process. Environment functions as a floodgate to determine success, with disease and food being two aspects of environment.

Which brings me to McDougall’s argument that structured running shoes are to blame for the explosion of plantar fasciitis, torn Achilles tendons, and other running injuries. McDougall never discusses the statistics of running popularity to contextualize these numbers. (He discusses the popularity of running, and the kinds of injuries reported, but does not link the two.) I question if the number of injuries as a percentage of people who run recreationally aren’t the same over time – the figure that changes is how many people are actually running. McDougall argues that recreational running has been most popular in times of economic crisis – the free form of movement gains popularity when people are looking for release. Look at any city’s marathon and you’ll find thousands upon thousands of runners from slow to world-class. The myriad of fundraising companies like Team in Training and AIDS Project operate on the motto, “anyone can run a marathon” – and they’re right. Anyone can run a five hour marathon (I am proof of this). But as we see more and more people running marathons we’re going to see a lot more injuries. Not necessarily because of structured running shoes, but because of the increased amount of people running.

McDougall does pull back from this selective interpretation of the data when he discusses the speed and ability of runners thirty years ago against the runners of today. The Boston marathon club of the 1970’s had several 2:12 marathoners, whereas today McDougall claims that the U.S. hasn’t fielded a 2:12 marathoner in years. We’re getting spanked by the Kenyans because the Kenyans run barefoot for their young lives.

Which is why my coach, my cousin, and many of my friends have been chucking their shoes and running barefoot.

The barefoot running trend can be compared to Michael Pollan’s advocacy of buying locally. But in the same way Pollan’s argument falls apart when you compare the “green” impact of many individuals driving many cars to a farm versus adding the small farm to a distributed network of groceries (thus reducing the emissions impact), McDougall’s argument of barefoot running falls apart when you see that marathons, triathlons, and most sanctioned races take place on asphalt. Our modern world has been paved and concreted and running barefoot on that surface is a recipe for disaster.

This is not to say that he is wrong, he just omits the practical aspect of his argument. It is quite the revelation in his book when he discusses Nike’s culpability in suppressing research proving how bad structured footwear can be. And yet, Nike is not the only sneaker maker in the world. Nor is every foot or athlete the same.

I supinate, which means I roll my weight to the outside of my foot. I’ve stood on pressure boards and depressed my feet into molds that show a high arch and a distinct roll to the outside. It’s from weak inside leg muscles and ridiculously tight hamstrings and IT bands. I work hard to strengthen these muscles but it’s always evident when I am more comfortable crossing my legs when I sit and stretch my legs out in front of me. When I run without a shoe that compensates for this roll my legs scream in agony, I cannot go more than a few hundred meters, and my form collapses. I am not a gazelle.

But I have promised my coach that I will obey his workout plans, and he is adding the occasional barefoot run into my program. Because he is right, my intellect and my logic often are my greatest strengths and weaknesses. If my anger at Pollan and McDougall is because they enter into an area with an existing agenda, I am guilty of the same thing when I judge the efficacy of something that is, essentially, harmless if done carefully.

So I will try some more barefoot running and see if things change. Born to Run is a good story about running. In my pursuit of trying to learn to love running it has given me a lot to think about and digest, keying into my inner anthropologist and a desire to study a tribe from the inside.

If you see me whooping and hollering like a madman, running shoeless down San Vicente Boulevard, you’ll know I’ve become a changed man.

Or just wait for the autopsy.


13 responses to “Born to Run, Native Wisdom, and why I hate Michael Pollan

  1. Just don’t step on broken glass, nails, dog poop, banana detritus, wine-os, etc. It seems to me one of the functions of footwear is to protect your feet from road hazards. “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back” is childish superstition. “Step on a nail and get tetanus” will put a crimp in your running big time. Those Kenyans running barefoot have been walking barefoot al their lives. The soles of their feet are probably tougher than a pair of Nikes. And all they have to be wary of is the lion lyin’ in wait over the next hill. They’re not city boys running down the highway where some yahoo driving by just tossed some crap out a window. I do recall you once picked up a nail and got a flat tire. But your tire didn’t bleed. Or get infected.

    OK, that’s all in absolute support of your thesis, by the way.

  2. Your review of Pollan totally misses the point. I’m not sure you read the book…or maybe just wanted to read it with tinted glasses. The DNA analysis that showed Americans are made of corn? The way he followed a steer through the slaughterhouse? His profile of Joel Salatin and how to run a responsible farm? I agree its silly to drive to buy grass-fed beef. But the thing is, the more us consumers ask for it, the more our local shops will carry it. My local grocery does carry it, as do my farmer’s markets, and they are within 1 mile. His message is hitting home for many in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and other “flyover” states that are being done a disservice by the farm bill. I’m sorry you missed the point as it was a doozy of a point.

  3. i think the point that everyone should take away from this is – i am a very funny coach.

  4. Wow, Max. I didn’t realize you’d gone all Rush Limbaugh on us. If I recall correctly, you’re the one with the photo of you with Michael Moore, not me, and yet I’m about to criticize your criticisms of Michael Pollan. Weird.

    I agree with your “how to lie with statistics” type analysis of McDougall’s ignoring running populations statistics, but while I’m not going to defend everything Pollen says, your math about emissions impacts is wrong. Highly mechanized long-distance farm-to-table systems are not as environmentally efficient, even if they may produce more product per acre and cost less per pound. They food produced is also often not as nutritionally dense per calorie, as the selective breeding in the current mainstream system is generally done for properties such as shelf life, aesthetics, and size rather than nutritive value.

    Buying locally, and biodiversity in food crops, both have big benefits. It is also true that research is showing that nutrient isolates (i.e. vitamin pills and enriched processed products where nutrients are denatured by processing and then replaced with foreign source nutrients) are not as effective at being absorbed as nutrients that occur normally in foods naturally. This is not because of ancient wisdom, but because food borne nutrients are often paired with enzymes that occur in the same food which assist in the absorbtion of said nutrients.

    And depending on what you mean by “genetically modified”, you are either right or wrong. If you mean hybridized, right on the money. If you mean Monsanto self-sterilizing monocultures that have been subsidized so heavily they’re causing biodiversity crises, soil damage, and hunger, not so much. (And if you mean something in-between those two, “saved billions of lives” is kinda pushing it on the GMO front, they’re just too recent.)

    The thing that has saved billions of lives in modern times is, according to my readings on the subject, sanitation (including the germ theory of disease, sterilization, and the all important “not living with streams of shit flowing in the streets”). That is really the true miracle of modern medicine. The obsession with drugs, “supplements,” and procedures, on the other hand, is a definite candidate for “taking a good thing too far.” (At least, that’s where current research seems to be pointing.)

    I’m a proponent of Western medicine, some GMOs (though I am also strong opponent of monocultural farming — see the dust bowl for one example of why), and shoes. And I think the whole “wisdom of the ancients and their mystical woo” angle is a load of hoakum. But there’s also room for improvement in how we currently operate our food and medicine systems, and lots of it.

  5. Borg my Berkeley-living friend, let me clarify a few points because I’m certain we agree more than we disagree. (And if I could afford to live in Berkeley, even Berkeley adjacent, I would.)

    Pollan paints Joel Saladin’s farm as a utopia, but he ignores the fact that Saladin rejects a streamlined delivery system for his product and demands customers come to him to retrieve their food. There is simply no way you can argue that having hundreds of individuals drive cumulatively thousands of miles to get to his remote farm in Virginia has a lower emissions impact than one or two trucks on a streamlined distribution route. It makes his operation unscalable and while it may be “better” food (debatable, next) because it comes from a sustainable farm, it’s not “greener” food by a mile. Or thousands of miles, really. Saladin exists at one extreme end of a spectrum, it cannot be seen as a model to feed a country of 250 million people – many of whom don’t live on farmable land. This is where Jill’s reactionary comment does have some truth – if consumers ask for the stuff their local groceries should stock it. Pollan is right here: don’t expect Kroger, Safeway, or Whole Foods to stock it any time soon because they’re too large to adopt a local farm strategy (though Whole Foods may be more adaptable). If your local grocer and restaurants can connect a local farm to a small distribution network the green footprint is smaller.

    Nutritional density of farmed crops is still a very hot debate with studies flipping back and forth. A basic search will yield page after page of conflicting data made even more difficult to determine because there are so many variables between farms, companies, and studies. I don’t think this argument can be won by either side because it’s rarely comparing apples to apples. If someone ate a healthy, balanced diet of Big Farm foods they’re getting a complete meal. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. Actually, if it comes at a cheaper price because of efficient farming methods, it does matter because we can feed more people for less money.

    Which brings me to your last point about genetically modified foods. I have two words for you: Norman Borlaug. He’s credited with saving billions of lives through biotech food research. It’s undisputed. He won the Nobel Prize for it. I’d agree that the corporate ownership of genetically modified seeds that create sterile lines and cross-contaminate other’s crops are bad things. But that’s corporate irresponsibility, not a damnation of scientific research. Pollan doesn’t separate the two things so he comes off as an anti-science Luddite.

    At worst, the grotesque argument underneath Pollan’s preaching is the death of millions from starvation. “The planet can’t sustain you, so tough luck” is his underlying thesis. McDougall doesn’t go that far, but he tiptoes around that argument when he extolls the virtues of Native Wisdom.

  6. Geeze, guys. There’s another greenprint issue you’re both leaving out of the question: global sourcing. Unless you’re shopping REALLY local markets, (and you don’t live in California) you’ll find your grapes from South America, your tomatoes from Mexico (take THAT Cezar Chavez)… because, as a nation, excluding those whose diet always includes a toy, we expect a full shelf of choices. In season or not. So, we have tomatoes year ’round. Not just the 2 months a year when vine ripened, local tomatoes are available. (OK, in Florida, tomatoes are available much of the year. But the good ones are shipped north. Locals complain that they never get good local tomatoes.)
    Or, if you’re into high quality sustainable fishies, the best are flown in “fresh” daily.
    So our demand for variety is ultimately at odds with our intellectual yearning to be a locavore.

    So, not to put too fine a point on it (especially in this context), Max’s body’s demand for 4500 calories a day in a locavore, non-processed environment, would put enormous strains on an entire ecosystem. And his budget. Just to feed him. Local farmers don’t want to be paid the pittance foreign farm workers are paid. They want to make their farms profitable enough to stay in business.

    When we support local, sustainable farming… or subscribe to the Slow Food Movement … or buy only artisanal products… and we commit to a higher cost per calorie , we’re in a distinct minority. Because we’ve chosen to limit our variety, our choices and our sources. The ret of the country isn’t like that.

    Bottom line, we feed our nation through a global delivery system. Most people don’t have the resources to spend more on food. They’re already spending as much a percentage of their income on food as they are on health care. And as healthcare costs go up and their basic living expenses go up, while income stagnates, the only obvious corner to cut is the cost of food. There’s a reason for the cliche about seniors eating cat food.

  7. Norman Borlaug mostly worked with hybridization (crossbreeding), from all I’ve read about hin, which was kind of my point. Other techniques in GMO (i.e. techniques of direct manipulation of genes through resequencing) may also prove to have benefits, but are too new to have saved billions of lives.

    And yes, Pollen’s waxing over Saladin’s rejection of any form of streamlined delivery is ridiculous. But as you point out, that’s an edge case.

    The reason the data is conflicting on nutritional density is, as you say, because it’s not comparing apples to apples. But the studies that I’ve read (or, rather, read condensations of in general science publications, since I rarely read agricultural science publications) have shown that when you do compare apples to apples, selective breeding for traits other than nutritional density unsurprisingly often come at the cost of said nutritive value / calorie. It also comes at the cost of biodiversity, which may sound like a hippie buzzword, but there is plenty of good science regarding the dangers of monocultural farming in terms of soil quality, food system resilience in the face of crop failure, etc. But the nutritive gap between, say, a plant bred for size and color and that which is not is much smaller than between any full plant and processed food where the original nutrient complex is oblitterated by the processing and foreign-source vitamins are added back in. There is what seems to me like good research in this area..

    As for feeding more people for less money, that is all fine and well until your crops are wiped out by a dustbowl or blight through crop overspecialization. It’s happened before. The problem not necessarily the methods of efficiency per-se, and more the expectation of uniformity that leads to crop overspecialization. Feeding a lot of people inexpensively is a great thing, but there are improvement opportunities in how we do it (especially in meat farming), and there is also more than one way to get efficiency and lower costs.

    It’s also a bit of a red herring that we can feed a lot of people cheaply, because there is a not insubstantial portion of the current system that is possible due to government subsides of oil (both for fuel and oil-based farm chemicals), and direct subsidies of farming. So you can pay from the top and make a more monolithic system seem efficient, or reduce the toploading of resources and make a more distributed system seem more efficient. It’s like in computing: you can get efficiency from a supercomputer or from a network of workstations. It’s just a matter of deciding which cost-benefit tradeoffs seem most applicable to your situation.

    It’s also not the case that it needs to be all one or the other. But there are economic and environmental efficiencies to be gained in the global food system, as well as health gains (even though our life expectancies are higher and food is cheaper).

    As for variety: I demonstrably get more variety from the local farms than I do from the big markets.
    And like with healthcare, the French system is better than the US system. Even outside the big cities they often have open air markets that include local and global produce, but with more variety. Variety in the biggest markets is constrained by pay-for-shelf-space arrangements that are the norm in the industry.

    Also, most people in the U.S. do live on farmable land. Or at least they did before the dustbowl. I am not an expert on soil mechanics, so I don’t know how permanent the damage was during the dustbowl, but the U.S. is one of the most fertile places in the world even now. Yes, there are places in the U.S. where you can’t efficiently and effectively farm — but there are more places where you can.

    Finally, with regards to people not having money for food: we’re the wealthiest nation in the world by far, so how exactly are we in danger of starving? Spending equal amounts of one’s income on health care and food seems reasonable. Other than keeping oneself alive, and a roof over your head, what exactly are economic essentials? In many poorer nations, people basically spend essentially 100% of their resources on food and shelter, and the government gives them whatever healthcare they can.

    The obvious corner to cut is the bloated administrative and legal costs of the healthcare and insurance systems and create a healthcare system that isn’t a gloal joke. And reduce the cost of basic living expenses such as housing, where a speculative market has led to hyperinflation of values. That and reversing the income stagnation trend by bailing out and subsidizing industries that directly provide jobs rather than ones which theoretically provide jobs through investments that they’re not making.

    Do all those things and then if the country still “doesn’t have enough money for food” we can talk about how “elitist” I am for suggesting that look at revising our food system to do things like stop overutilizing oil in farming simply because subsidies encourage its overuse, get antibiotics out of meat, and encourage diversity of both crops and sources.

    I’m not arguing that we should go back to native wisdom or whatever — but the idea that any criticism of the current food production and distribution system is tantamount to promoting genocide is just reactionary malarkey.

  8. “But the nutritive gap between, say, a plant bred for size and color and that which is not is much smaller than between any full plant and processed food where the original nutrient complex is oblitterated by the processing and foreign-source vitamins are added back in.”

    Actually, the bigger problem is plants bred for mechanical rather than hand harvesting. Harvesting machines sweep down a row and brutally pluck the fruit or veggie when most of the crop is ready. Which is to say… not so ripe that skin is tender. Then the not quite ripe product is placed in cold storage until it is needed. Then given an ethanol blast in a modif1ed atmosphere to finish the ripening process.
    And that’s what they breed for, instead of flavor and nutitional value.

  9. “I supinate, which means I roll my weight to the outside of my foot. I’ve stood on pressure boards and depressed my feet into molds that show a high arch and a distinct roll to the outside. It’s from weak inside leg muscles and ridiculously tight hamstrings and IT bands. I work hard to strengthen these muscles but it’s always evident when I am more comfortable crossing my legs when I sit and stretch my legs out in front of me. When I run without a shoe that compensates for this roll my legs scream in agony, I cannot go more than a few hundred meters, and my form collapses. I am not a gazelle.”

    Me too. Orthotics helps. To some extent, I can trace the weakness in my knee to dancing with my 2 year old son, falling down and tearing my meniscus. 30 + years of compensating (plus a meniscus ‘scoping 12 years ago) cause that right foot to waddle out. High arch is genetic. Weak inside leg muscles is being addressed by Duane (and weights) who makes me cry. But who is slowly, slowly making me walk the straight and narrow.

  10. I can’t speak for anyone else. But in my case, I’m enjoying running a lot more now, and without injury since I chucked my shoes 2 years ago. I, unfortunately, didn’t have good enough biomechanics to run in shoes. But I’m sure barefoot isn’t for everyone.

  11. Wow all this is long. I may need to sit down with some lamb kabobs imported from New Zealand (since it is cheaper than lamb from right here in the mountain west) and read it all.

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