BORN TO RUN is one of the all-time best books about running.
It inspired a renaissance, popularizing ultra-marathons and trail running.
Its advocacy of minimalist and barefoot running spurred a revolution, leading thousands to question the established, modern running shoe.
First published in 2009, its effects are still evident in the shoe industry – 10 years later.
Most of all, it’s just a great read for anyone that’s ever been a runner. The Bill Rodgers quote on the front cover says it all, short and sweet:
McDougall’s book reminded me of why I love to run.
It’s all anyone can ask for in a book about running. Before Born to Run came along, good writing about the sport was a rare commodity.
Only 2 previous books come to mind that had any measure of popularity. There was The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx. This is a classic tome from the 1970s (and still relevant today), about the rise of marathon running and the training ideals of the time. The hardcover edition has its iconic red cover, conjuring memories of an old copy from the public library – complete with its laminated exterior and telltale scent.
The other volume that comes to mind is The Runner’s Literary Companion, a compilation of short stories and excerpts from longer tales. With less nuts and bolts about training, the key word in the title is “literary.” The book focuses on good fiction that involves running.
A Modern Classic
McDougall’s book is the best of both worlds – he tells of superhuman athletes in an onslaught of entertaining, unbelievable events that keep the pages turning. The author keeps things grounded with his self-depreciating perspective. Better yet, the story is subversively peppered with training tips, like Caballo’s mantra of Easy, Light, Smooth, Fast.
The tale begins with a simple question, a question almost every runner has asked. McDougall wondered “Why does my foot hurt?”
After a few unsuccessful doctor’s visits, he finds himself evading dangerous drug cartels in Mexico to track down the mythically-framed Tarahumara tribe. They’re known as “the running people.”
Beginning with Caballo Blanco, an elusive runner who lives as a loner among the Tarahumara in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, a rush of eccentric characters runs through the book’s pages. We’re introduced to Ann Trason, ultra-running prodigy of the 80s and 90s. She’s pitted to race against Tarahumara men who wear little more than colorful robes and sandals for a high elevation, 100-mile run, day and night through the Colorado Rockies.
That’s just an introduction. Next we’re told about Emil Zatopek, a Forrest Gump-esque Olympic prodigy of the 1950s from Czechoslovakia. Soon we’re on to Scott Jurek, arguably the sport’s biggest star, as he collapses in Death Valley on yet another sadistic race.
From there we go to the east coast, where a young couple runs together at Virginia Beach to the rhythm of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” tearing up ultra events throughout the Appalachians.
Born to Run’s Game Changer
Eventually McDougall gets back around to the question of “Why does my foot hurt?”
The answer, as you might guess by this point in the story, is because of the modern running shoe industry. He argues that the human body is designed to run for long distances without all that cushioning and arch support, and that such “protective” shoes are the reason behind such a high incidence of running injuries.
He takes it a step further, sharing a theory about human evolution. To sum it up, some think that distance running played a role in homo-sapiens becoming the dominant species on earth. Despite our smaller brains and less-impressive physical stats compared to neanderthals, homo-sapiens possessed an Achilles tendon and other evolutionary features that led to greater endurance.
Our aerobic capacity allowed us to hunt in packs and literally run our prey to exhaustion, supplying a steady diet of meat that grew our brains and helped us thrive as a species. You could say that evolution has made humans born to run, thus the title. McDougall makes a compelling argument, with scientific data to back it up.
A predisposition to distance running means our bodies come installed with the necessary gear for it. This leads to an argument in favor of barefoot running, despite what Nike and the sales industry led us to believe throughout the 1980s and 90s.
How it Influenced Me
I didn’t read Born to Run until 2013.
The book was an instant success after its publication in 2009, so people had recommended it for a while before I got around to reading it.
I’d been getting back into running at the time. In 2011 I was doing some ultra marathon training, and even completed a Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run. I completed the 42 miles in 12 hours – good enough to inspire me to keep it up. I registered for the Leadville 100 run in 2012, but was plagued with injuries and backed out.
So I read Born to Run the following year, and it seemed to have all the answers. I did a lot of reading online about barefoot running. Information on the topic was easy to find by then, since the book inspired a sort of revolution.
Shoe manufactures started pumping out several models of “minimalist” shoes, and I got a pair by New Balance. You may recall that it was around this time that the so-fashionable Vibram Five Fingers footwear reached a height of popularity, too.
How it Broke Me
So I did some runs in my fancy new shoes and it felt liberating. I even did a spate of barefoot walks on all types of terrain, and some sprints in grassy fields. I tore out the cushy insoles from my work shoes and got some good ol’ Chuck Taylors (minimalism incognito) to wear casually.
Everything was going well. So well, in fact, that one day I decided to do several squats at the gym, followed by by 6-mile run – more than double the distance I’d attempted in my minimalist shoes to date.
My knees were screaming the next day, and remained extremely tender for weeks.
Thus endeth the experiment in minimalism.
The injury frightened me so much that I gave up running for several years. Dual obsessions with backpacking and running are probably not good on the knees. A friend’s comment while we were out on a beautiful backpacking trip sealed the deal:
“I’d rather be able to do this in old age than risk it all on running,” he said.
The Pendulum Swing
I get the impression I’m not the only one who experienced this after reading the book. The masses ran barefoot out their front doors, came home more injured than before, and sought more cushioning.
The ensuing popularity of shoes like the Hoka One (Moon Shoes, a buddy called them), are evidence of the fallout. Articles proclaimed that the “minimalism fad is over.”
The story in Born to Run ends with an underground, unsanctioned showdown in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. Pitting the best of the Tarahumara against the best from the United States, it’s a now-legendary event in the world of ultra-running.
Maybe minimalism isn’t to blame for the backlash, so much as the outrageous feats of the book’s characters. Barefoot running advocates always recommend starting very slow.
Maybe it’s the storied accomplishments of these champions in Born to Run that got everyone into trouble. Our subconscious mind remembers their feats. Shedding our shoes sounds so intuitive and tantalizingly simple, inspiring us to do too much, too soon and ultimately getting injured.
As for me, I’ve been doing a little running again for the last few years. I’m up to regular 40-minute runs on soft terrain in minimalist shoes, injury-free. Now approaching the age of 40, I feel more efficient than ever before. We’ll see how it goes.
More About the Book
If you loved the book and have some more questions about it, you may find the answers below:
Fact or Fiction?
Many of the events are so unbelievable and so well-written that it often reads like fiction, but Born to Run is a true story. It’s a non-fiction book about real people. See more about them below.
Character List – where are they now?
Catching up with the cast of characters from the book:
Caballo Blanco (Micah True)
Caballo Blanco reportedly went on to organize an annual race in the Copper Canyons, which still goes on today. He became active on Facebook and even had his own website, caballoblanco.com, which is now offline.
Sadly, Caballo Blanco passed away in 2012, at the age of 58. He went out on a solo run in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, and was later found there dead. His autopsy was inconclusive, but points to a cardiac event.
Scott Jurek has become one of America’s most famous and accomplished ultra runners. He’s now the author of two bestselling books – Eat and Run and North. The latter chronicles his record-setting run of the entire Appalachian Trail.
Scott has a website here.
Ted McDonald is still going on with all his barefooted-ness, producing Luna Sandals. He has a website, and is active on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
Jenn Shelton is still running and coaching. She’s active on the usual social media channels, including Instagram. In 2015, a 45-minute film was done about her, available on Vimeo. Here’s an interview she did in 2018, and here’s her latest race results.
Billy Barnett has settled to Hawaii and is still running, too. Here’s an article that none other Jenn Shelton wrote about him in 2015, and a more recent interview from 2017. He has a sporadically updated blog (last post was in 2018) and he’s on Instagram. Here’s his latest race results.
Lieberman is the Harvard evolutionary scientist whose work was cited to back up the premise of barefoot running. Here’s an interview that Runners World did with him in 2014.
Born to Run Debunked?
Born to Run and barefoot running have not been officially “debunked.”
The book is a true story, and hard science about the pros and cons of barefoot running is still inconclusive. This specifically refers to the lack of hard statistics regarding injuries in traditional vs. minimalist shoes, or no shoes at all.
Is the Book Being Made into a Film?
In February of 2015, the internet lit up with a slew of news articles announcing that a Hollywood adaptation was in the works, starring none other than Matt McConaughey as Caballo Blanco. It unfortunately seems as though it was lost in so-called “production hell,” and may have been permanently shelved or scrapped altogether.
In the meantime, you can check out this documentary.
Who Won the Race at the End?
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read this book yet, this is the end of the post.
Arnulfo Quimare of the Tarahumara won the race. Scott Jurek finished in 2nd place, not very far behind him.