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.