Book Review: 'Born to Run,' discovering our primal instincts

While running in the Salt Lake City Half Marathon this past April, the same question kept cycling through my head: "Why are all these people out here?"

I knew why I was there — simply to be able to say I've tried running a half marathon. But were the more than 12,000 participants there for the same reason? Or, were there just that many clinically insane people in the Salt Lake City area? Little did I know that I would get my answer soon after reading the book, "Born to Run," by former Associated Press war correspondent and Men's Health Magazine contributing editor, Christopher McDougall.

What first piqued my interest is that the main undertone of the non-fiction book about ultra athletes is that expensive, high-tech running shoes are causing more injuries than they prevent. The book quotes study after study published in reputable scientific journals which blatantly state, "The more you pay for your running shoes, the more injuries you will receive."

McDougall, who experienced the gamut of all running injuries and had multiple needles injected into his injured feet, helps the reader rediscover the wonder and fine craftsmanship of the human foot and explains, in plain English, how our feet are far more technologically advanced than any running shoe could replicate.

Although barefoot running is obviously not a new concept, it is emerging more and more into the marathon scene. In 2006, SLC resident Brett Williams ran the Salt Lake City Marathon barefoot after finding research online stating how it naturally corrects the runner's form. Williams ditched his plan to buy $150 running shoes, and the only injury he received from the asphalt course was a minor scrape. In McDougall's book, he finds something even more impressive — a native tribe in Mexico's Copper Canyons, the Tarahumara Indians, who run treacherous canyons and mountains for hundreds of miles wearing only homemade sandals, a skirt, blouse and a smile. McDougall also finds that the older members of the tribe can outrun the teenage tribe members.

The author goes on a quest to find out why he — a fairly young, athletic man from a first-world developed country with access to the best technology — has crippling injuries when going on a short, leisurely jog, and a 65-year-old man from a third-world country can run at a heart-racing pace for days in homemade sandals and still manage to smile in the meantime.

One of his answers is from University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble, who makes a bold statement along with his colleague, Harvard University biological anthropologist Daniel Lieberman, that homo sapiens evolved as ultra runners. The scientific community scoffed at their statement, pointing out that humans are neither fast nor aerodynamic, so how is running our greatest weapon?

Although the evidence to back Lieberman and Bramble's hypothesis was hard to find in archaeological digs, they found evidence through a crazy college boy from South Africa, who ditched his math studies to hunt with a dwindling African tribe. This tribe used ultra running to hunt their prey, and they were successful in each hunt.

The book introduces many other unique characters, real people, and the way McDougall weaves them into stories reads more like a juicy novel than non-fiction. The main "character" who anchors the stories within the book is a mysterious gringo who planted himself within the Copper Canyons and the Tarahumara culture and runs solo throughout the canyons. McDougall wonders throughout the book, "What is this American expatriate running from?" It is not until the end of the "greatest race the world has never seen," and the end of the book, that McDougall gets the answer.

Born to Run is a fascinating book to read and delivers a jarring lesson in human evolution. After reading this book, you will probably understand the primal desire which compels 12,000 people to run through the streets of their city. What's more, you will probably then ask the question, "Why are these people not running more?"

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