“Everything about the Tarahumara seemed backward, taunting, as irritatingly ungraspable as a Zen master’s riddles. The toughest guys were the gentlest; battered legs were the bounciest; the healthiest people had the crappiest diet; the illiterate race was the wisest; the guys working the hardest were having the most fun…”
So begins the exploration of a riddle by author Christopher McDougall in his excellent book Born to Run.
I will say at the outset of this review that I could not, in fact did not, put this book down as I read it cover to cover on an airplane ride recently. I was transfixed with the McDougall’s glorious story telling and hanging in anticipation to see what would come next. After reading a few chapters, I was ready to bestow a title on this book that I have always hoped to bestow: best running book ever. Alas, I can’t quite go that far, for reasons that I will explain, but this book comes close. Born to Run provides an interesting and exciting portrait of a part of the sport of running that most of us don’t even know exists.
Born to Run is part action adventure story and part scientific exploration into the art of running. The backdrop of the story was Christopher McDougall’s investigative reporting into an indigenous culture of the isolated Mexican region known as the Barrancas del Cobre or Copper Canyons. The people, known as the Tarahumara, live in this isolated region with a culture mostly unchanged from their ancestors. They live in caves and small cliff dwellings. They are known for their ability to hide and disappear when approached, giving them an almost ghostlike quality in history. And they are known to run. They have been famed for their ability to run gracefully, effortlessly, and with seemingly unending energy over amazing distances. Running is a part of their culture, it is a means of transportation, and it is also a social outlet and a way of staying healthy.
McDougall began researching the Tarahumara after seeing a picture of one of their members in a magazine photo. The picture showed a man running down a steep slope in his traditional Tarahumara garb and the traditional sandals that their people wear for running. He was fascinated by the photo and started to following the trail; He began exploring the history of the Tarahumara, their few appearances with modern competitive running and a mysterious character called the Caballo Blanco, who becomes a central figure in the story.
Caballo Blanco, who McDougall hoped to meet in order to talk about the ways of the Tarahumara, was at the time of their meeting in the very early stages of hoping to stage a race between some of the best ultra-runners in the modern competitive arena and some the best Tarahumara runners. The timing may have been a coincidence, but it allowed McDougall to chronicle this race that pitted Tarahumara runners on their home turf against Scott Jurek and other top runners. Born to Run faithfully tells us the story leading up to the race and then gives us the play-by-play of the race itself (in which McDougall was also a participant).
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