Born to Run; Slices of Truth and Piles of Salt. I wrote this review in 2010. While not a nutrition book, Born to Run is a popular press introduction to the idea that extended endurance running is what defines genus Homo. I edited and updated for this page. From what I know of the Tarahumara diet, I’m pretty sure they were running in a carb-adapted state in Tucson and at Leadville in 1993. Their smaller stature also suggests as a group they subsist mostly on lower fat plant materials. As with other groups, when they start having access to sugars and easily digested carbohydrates, it seems obesity and chronic disease appear. Micah True has passed away since I wrote this. He had health issues consistent with a long term high sugar/carbohydrate diet. Running doesn’t fix that. In fact Jeff Volek and Steve Phinney claim the combination of high activity and high carbs causes problems in and of itself.
I was standing in line with two long-term acquaintances waiting to get into a political debate in 2010. Several people had mentioned the book Born to Run to me in the past several weeks. Greg, an avid cyclist who was with me in line, started describing the book. To my surprise, he started recounting events closely related to activities that I had been a part of. He then described claims regarding human evolution and running that I’ve been thinking about for decades. Later that night, I pulled the book down to my iPad and started reading.
As circumstances would have it, I learned that Micah True, a key figure described in the book, was giving a talk at my favorite running gear store in a week or so. So I buckled down, read and assessed. My assessment of the book is based on four criteria. Was it entertaining, was it accurate, was it fair, and does it serve a useful purpose? It is supposed to be nonfiction, after all. In a “guilty pleasures” way it was entertaining. It has serious inaccuracies, omissions, and possible misrepresentations, mixed with some good information. It was most definitely not fair to people with whom I’m personally acquainted. It may serve a useful purpose if it encourages more people to run and to run further. Greg commented that it made him want to get out and run, but since he’s already a good athlete, that’s not an overall behavior change. The “barefoot running” theme is very strange and badly oversimplifies a complex issue. I’m speaking as someone who has purchased 4 pairs of Vibram 5-Fingers and used them on rugged, rocky trails. The evolutionary biology portion relayed the fascinating idea that the distance running itself, combined with the intelligence to anticipate the prey’s actions, was our ancestors’ unique hunting technique.
Here’s a short synopsis of Chris McDougall’s story. He’s a magazine writer who has some credentials as a world traveller. He was a novice runner, but at around age 40 was trying to run more. He’s a big guy and was told running wasn’t a great idea. Fortunately, he didn’t listen. He got wind of the Raramuri (Tarahumara), an Indian culture that values running in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Mexico. He went down, found some of the reputed good runners and made the acquintance of Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco. McDougall claimed Micah wanted to put on an “international” ultramarathon in the region that brought out local runners and encouraged runners to come down from the U.S. Micah had in fact been putting on a race for several years already. Micah had become enamored with the Raramuri when he paced a guy in the 1994 Leadville 100. Micah started spending part of the year down in the Sierra Madre, trotting around (literally) getting to know the Raramuri on their own territory. After learning this, Chris came back up to the U.S., hired a personal trainer, and helped with recruiting several good U.S. ultramarathon runners to go down for a 47 mile run centered around the village of Urique, Chihuahua, held in 2006. A local guy edged out the fastest U.S. guy, Scott Jurek. One of the U.S. runners was “Barefoot Ted”, an advocate of “minimalist” i.e. barefoot running. Inter-weaved with the account of Chris’ travels and the flashbacks to the Raramuri participation in U.S. ultramarathons in the mid 1990s are chapters extolling the virtues of minimalist running, as well as some anthropology/morphology researchers’ work making a case for human adaptations to endurance running.
I would characterize McDougall’s writing style as quite entertaining in a florid, tabloid magazine fashion. The intent is to catch attention and draw the reader in with strong, subjective language. Complete exposition of a topic and accuracy are secondary. I did find the book entertaining, despite the discordance when I encountered incomplete information or claims that don’t match my knowledge of the topics or situations. I should probably give a bit of my biography, as it relates to topics in the book. I came to Tucson, Arizona in 1978 to complete a Ph.D. studying the natural history and evolution of a termite native to the Sonoran Desert. I completed my first marathon in 1978, and my first 100 mile run in 1982. I’ve been involved in the trail runs held in the mountains around Tucson since 1979. Gene Joseph and I co-administered the Tucson Trail Runners from about 1990 until mid 2018. I ran with the Raramuri when Rick Fisher brought a group of men up to train using our trail runs. I paced one of the guys in the 1993 Leadville 100, the first year they won the event. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the human body works (and doesn’t) in endurance running. I’m not a specialist in either biomechanics or human evolution, but I know more than most. I can read the primary literature and make some sense out of it.
It’s fun to read about McDougall’s experiences down in the Copper Canyon region of the Sierra Madre. He deserves credit for jumping into an unfamiliar place, trying to make sense out of what he encountered, and writing about it. That said, the book is more about the experiences of Anglos in contact with the Raramuri up here and down there, and less about the Raramuri themselves than I would like. There’s an odd section in which he sanctifies the Raramuri, putting them on a pedestal. A friend of mine who’s lived down there has seen a darker, more violent side to their culture. I found them to be pretty normal guys, who told a lot of jokes when I ran with them. They weren’t shy and retiring, and they liked to tease me. I only knew a few words of Spanish, but that didn’t really matter since they switched to Raramuri once out of earshot of Spanish speakers. So I got the tone, but not the punchlines. Manuel Luna, who’s featured in the book, played Nintendo with my oldest son at my house and enjoyed himself. I was very sorry to learn from Micah about the misfortunes he’s endured in the intervening years. Micah indicated he knows Antonio Palma, the man I paced at Leadville. He said that Antonio was doing OK. Other things I’ve heard about the Raramuri and their culture indicate that as more roads been cut into their mountainous home their running has declined dramatically. The health difficulties and poor behavior of societies eating toxic high sugar diets have flourished.
Rick Fisher is a professional adventurer who started going down to Copper Canyon in the late 20th Century. In the 1990s he started bringing up groups of Raramauri to compete in U.S. ultramarathons. I had a lot of contact with Rick and with Kitty Williams when they used the Tucson Trail Run Series as a training vehicle for Raramuri runners, including being a guest at their wedding. McDougall presents a harsh and unflattering caricature of a complex person. Regardless of his faults, Rick deserves full credit for giving people in this country the opportunity to run with some unusual and extraordinary individuals from a very different culture that values endurance athletes. McDougall’s book wouldn’t exist if Rick hadn’t brought the Raramuri up here to compete. I got the sense it was easier to demonize based on second-hand information than to do the difficult research needed for the complete picture.
In the middle of the book, McDougall introduces Scott Jurek, an extraordinary runner who has won numerous ultramarathons. Everyone in the ultramarathon community has heard of Scott and respects his accomplishments. Scott went down with McDougall for Micah’s race with the Raramuri, but was the edged out at the finish. McDougall feels the need, on more than one occasion, to compare Scott to, and to speak disparaging of, two other fine ultra-athletes, Pam Reed and Dean Karnazes. Pam and Dean have both won Badwater 135 and staged some extraordinary continuous run efforts in the 100s of miles. Pam is from Tucson and I know her pretty well to talk to. Everyone who knows her personally has never heard her say a negative word about another athlete. McDougall disparages Pam’s and Dean’s accomplishments and derides their supposed self-promotional activities. I’ve never met Scott, but his website is very, very self promotional. He calls himself a “living legend”. Since ultramarathoning doesn’t enjoy the visibility and financial support that some other sports do, it could be argued that there’s a darn good reason for good ultra athletes to do some self promotion if big companies aren’t going to do it for them. As with Rick Fisher, I’d be surprised if McDougall has contacted Reed or Karnazes and tried to learn more about complex, talented people. The need to denigrate people, apparently to promote the people he likes, is the most unpleasant aspect of Born to Run and badly detracted from my enjoyment of the interesting adventures described.
That actually points to an aspect of the book that was striking. This is very much a colloquial prose, subjective account of events and ideas based on limited experience, research, and a handful of people’s views on an array of complex topics. The acknowledgements list a limited group of ultrarunners and organizers associated largely with the Leadville 100 event. Leadville is a fine event, but it’s only one of many. Much is made of Leadville’s difficulty. No 100 is easy, but except for the altitude, Leadville is mostly dirt and paved roads and relatively easy running trails. Several events, including the Hardrock, Wasatch, Western States, and Angeles Crest 100 cross more rugged terrain with a higher percentage of trails. The only other U.S. event that’s discussed much is Badwater 135. The event director told me that the account was based on written accounts that McDougall read on the Internet, presented as direct knowledge, with some misrepresentation. This pattern of partial exposition is unfortunate, since there are an array of challenging ultras held in this country, each with their own adherents and history. It would have been helpful if more research had been done and more shared.
Likewise, the chapters that promote “barefoot running” and the work of a few researchers present interesting ideas with egregious oversimplification. Frankly the barefoot running chapter comes across as an endorsement of one company’s niche product, the Vibram 5-Fingers, over the array of shoes that Nike and other shoe manufacturers sell in vast quantities. McDougall claims that people have a tendency to run with a heel-strike-first form promoted by the geometry and cushioning of typical running shoes. He further claims that that’s why “most people” suffer running injuries. A vast shoe marketing conspiracy is implied. In my decades of running marathons and further, it’s been my observation that many runners, especially faster ones, have a tendency to land too far forward on their forefeet, not their heels. There are certainly heel-strikers, but that motion pattern tends to be self-limiting. The biggest factor that appears to promote injuries is doing the same stride for endless miles on smooth level surfaces (roads). We aren’t designed for that. Everyone who learns how to run on trails learns to do a better job of setting their foot down more in the mid-foot with a stabile foot-plant so they don’t twist anything. They’re constantly adjusting stride and foot plant for the terrain. Over and over again runners have commented to me that trails beat them up a lot less than roads, although the risk of trauma rises. I have a scar collection, plus a finger that is no longer straight after getting dislocated and popped back in during a run. I had been experimenting with the Vibram 5-Fingers since they first came out. My feet “supinate” (roll under) too much, so I do better with flatter shoes. Nothing is flatter than a pair of 5-Fingers. However, without my flexible orthotics, which are a thin, tough combination of rubber and leather, the 5-Fingers don’t protect my feet sufficiently from Tucson’s very rocky, rugged trail surfaces. So I’ve made the 5-Fingers more like what the Raramuri run in, the huarache sandals cut from the thick rubber of old tires. It’s pretty amazing to see a Raramuri runner pick up a rock between their sandal and foot, then flip it out without missing a stride. I never mastered that with Teva and other sandals (which I’ve run in). Bob Novak, who makes my orthotics, was collecting information on how people and their feet adapt to 5-Fingers. He suspected over-pronators (flat, floppy feet) might not do so well. But he was suspending judgement and collecting data. For my part, if I were still in my 20s when I could run sub-5:30 pace in road 10Ks, I couldn’t imagine racing hard on rocky trails in the 5-Fingers safely.
—Note, since I wrote this, I hit my foot on a protruding rock with the 5-Fingers. I got the worst bruise on the ball of my foot I’ve ever had. That was my last significant run in 5-Fingers. I’ve moved on to Altra Zero Drop shoes. They’re flat like the 5-Fingers, but protect my feet much better on trails so I don’t have to add additional protection. In the Tucson Trail Runners, everyone who’s experimented with 5-Fingers has moved to other shoes, most commonly the maximum-protection Hoka designs, which also are fairly flat like the Altras.
McDougall says that human beings are endurance animals. He is absolutely correct. We are much better at trotting along indefinitely than almost any other animal, especially when it’s warm. He talks to a few scientists. He makes much fuss over a handful of occasions in the Man Against Horse 50 mile run/ride in which the people finished ahead of the horses. What he misses is that in events like that, the horses are required to stop for vet checks, which slows down their total time considerably. I suspect he’s unfamiliar with the format of such events. There’s also a lot more variation from year to year in the finish times of the horses than the humans. So, yes in years in which the horse field leaders were slow, humans have finished ahead. The year my wife and I did Man Against Horse, we received ribbons for being the 29th and 30th things to cross the finish line. It was cool. A horse/rider won that year. A better comparison of people and horses might be the Tevis Cup/Western States 100 events. The best horse finish is 10:46, the best human 15:07. Horses are one of the animals that, if they stay in heat balance, can out-run people over long distances. Dogs are great running companions if you can keep them cool, but they can’t sweat.
The most interesting idea McDougall popularizes in his book is that our ancestors might have used the running itself, plus the big brains, as a hunting method. He’s presenting the ideas of Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman. In some ways this is the most interesting and worthwhile part of the book. Of course, that opinion comes from someone who counted ten of thousands of termites and proposed ideas about their evolution. I’ve known people were strange creatures since the 1970s, when one of my professors at New Mexico State University, Walt Whitford, described his work to me. Walt was shaving chimpanzees from the colony kept at Holloman AF. He dusted them with powder that changed color when they sweated, then heated them up. He compared this to airmen he dusted. I don’t remember if he shaved the airmen. One 40 pound chimp didn’t much like it when he was hustled out by a pair of large MPs and clapped them together like a pair of cymbals. Chimps are very, very strong compared to humans. The chimps didn’t have nearly the sweat gland distribution that humans do. We are the sweat champs of the animal kingdom. Our muscles have changed for maximal endurance, not strength. Humans were much better at maintaining a constant body temperature as they were heated up than chimps. McDougall recounts more recent studies showing we’re darn good at trotting along and staying in heat balance. We may in fact be better at that than any other animal in warm climates. Horses were dwellers of cooler climate steppes before we took them all over the world, and bred them for different characteristics. He describes one anthropologist’s experiences with Kalahari bushmen who still practiced “persistance hunting”. They pick out a herd animal and trail it relentlessly, for several hours if necessary, until the animal becomes exhausted. Then they move in for the kill. The success rates for that sort of hunting are supposed to be very high. It’s also suggested that watching and anticipating the animal’s movements selected for very intelligent hunters who could in essence build a mental model of their prey and predict its behavior. I should mention that the 2004 Nature article he cites, which I have had a copy of for several years, also repeats the hypothesis made years before that human heat tolerance and endurance is also an adaptation to scavenging in the heat of the day when the big carnivores were asleep. Stealing their kills doesn’t sound as noble as being the hunters, I admit.
—Note. Since I wrote this Werdelin, et al have documented that when genus Homo appeared, large numbers of carnivore species went extinct. That sounds like direct competition for food, not scavenging.
Let’s recap. My four criteria for the book were entertainment value, accuracy, fairness, and worth. It is quite entertaining if you enjoy florid, over-dramatized prose. I found it easy to read once I got used to the writing style. It has many, many lapses in accuracy and completeness. I was actually pretty surprised when I found that McDougall doesn’t seem to know anything about the Raramuri’s training with gringos in the mountains around Tucson since that was fundamental to Rick Fisher’s recovery plan from the first fiasco in the 1992 race. McDougall also presents the year he participated in Micah’s run as its first occurrence, when in fact Micah had been putting on the run since 2000. It’s definitely not a fair book. McDougall has people he’s enamored of, about whom he speaks well. Others are ignored or denigrated. That element struck me as parochial and mean-spirited. Lastly, the worth of the book is very much an open question. I have yet to encounter someone who was inspired to run or run more as result of reading the book. Some people seem to have been influenced to use “barefoot running” footgear, although everyone I know has backed away from the 5-Fingers for serious running. To be fair, my circle of friends includes many people who are already accomplished endurance athletes. At Mica True’s talk, I didn’t see a single trail or ultra runner I knew, and I got the sense there were a number of non-runners in the audience. Most seemed to have limited experience. I would need more information about what those folks have done since reading the book to answer the worth question. Interestingly, as a direct and indirect result of Micah’s talk, several people there and in our trail running group expressed interest in visiting the Raramuri’s home region in the Sierra Madre Occidental. The book definitely has spurred involvement in the race, but for 2015 the race was cancelled due to safety concerns. The biology presented was accurate and worthwhile as far as it went, excluding the misinformation comparing humans to horses. Born to Run definitely deserves credit for popularizing work scientists are doing to understand our biological history.
–Note. Micah True (Michael Hickman) passed away during a run in New Mexico at age 58. I enjoyed meeting and listening to him when he was in Tucson. An autopsy showed his heart was enlarged. His girlfriend Maria Walton said he was hypoglycemic. These are the sorts of issues Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney say relate to the long term damage associated with high carbohydrate diets and high levels of physical activity over time. Maria and others have tried to continue Micah’s work.