“It all began with a simple question no one could answer. It was a five word puzzle that led me to a photo of a very fast man in a very short skirt…a murder, drug guerillas, and a one-armed man with a cream cheese cup strapped to his head. I met a beautiful blonde forest ranger who slipped out of her clothes and found salvation by running naked in the Idaho forests, and a young surfer babe in pigtails who ran straight toward her death in the desert….barefoot batman…the Kalahari bushmen, the toenail amputee…and ultimately, the ancient tribe of the Tarahumara and their shadowy disciple, Caballo Blanco. In the end, I got my answer, but only after I found myself in the middle of the greatest race the world would never see….And all because, in January of 2001, I asked my doctor this,
‘How come my foot hurts?‘”
Thus begins one of the most intriguing books I have ever read. Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run combines masterful storytelling, mythic (yet real) figures, and truths about running that will blow your mind. He drew me deep into the narrative with the first few sentences and told a story that was too fantastic not to be real. I found myself so invested in the characters, I could hardly wait to find out what happened to them next. Laced through the stories are discoveries the author makes about running as he spends time with these folks, many of which are quite startling…and liberating.
Plagued by repeated injuries and unwilling to accept the suggestion that perhaps someone of his size is just not cut out for running, McDougall begins a fascinating voyage to see running in a very different way. In the Tarahumara, he finds a people who run for the sheer pleasure of it, who are still running injury free into their nineties, and who seem immune to the top ten diseases that are killing Americans. What is it that they know and we don’t? They eat a spare, vegetable based diet. They live in simplicity and in harmony with those around them. They have a very precise idea of how to treat others that demands hospitality and self sacrifice.
This last factor is more important than you might think. Over and over, from running coaches and from runners themselves, the author learns that the most successful endurance runners are also gracious and generous human beings. Witness Ultra legend Scott Jurek. As a teenager, Scott came home after school every day to care for his sick mother who was dying of a debilitating disease. He persisted on the cross country team even though his inadequate practice opportunities meant that he did not excel. He was tormented mercilessly by his teammates. When his mother died, he suddenly had all this time on his hands. So he ran…miles and miles and miles. A teammate enlisted him to run an ultra with him, and Scott won it. From there, his life has been one triumph after another. And yet, this 7 time Western States Ultra champion, who won the Leadville 100 then set a course record at Badlands just two weeks later, has never forgotten what it feels like to be the one bringing up the rear. After every win, he wraps himself in a sleeping bag and stands at the finish line for hours cheering on each finisher.
McDougall introduces us to fascinating folks like Barefoot Ted, the verbose eccentric who eschews running shoes in favor of his own unencumbered (and unprotected) feet or, as an occasional concession to safety, Vibram Five Finger “shoes”. Jen and Billy are wild twenty somethings who party like rock stars, wake up late, and still have 100 miles in them. Eric Orton’s coaching and friendship enable the author to be part of the race of a lifetime, and he, in turn, gets to meet the Tarahumara for whom he has the greatest reverence and respect. And Arnulfo Quimare, the silent, regal, undisputed champion among a people who call themselves the Raramuri (running people).
The character who most captures my imagination is the enigmatic phantom, Caballo Blanco. After acting as “mule” for Manuel Luna in the Leadville 100, Micah True leaves Colorado to do something no gringo has ever done; live among the reclusive Tarahumara in Mexico. He fully embraces their lifestyle eating pinole (a corn porridge), beans, and limes and drinking homemade beer, ditching his running shoes for huarache type sandals made from old tire rubber, living in a hut he builds with his own hands, and running…running for miles and miles for the sheer joy of feeling his body move, strong and free. He embraces the Tarahumara culture of korima, unconditional living. If he is out running and needs assisstance, he stops at a hut and asks for it. By the same token, his home and his larder are always open to visitors who pass his way. And so, everyone is cared for.
It is Caballo Blanco who organizes the culminating event in the book. He dreams of an ultra-marathon that will allow the Tarahumara to race inside their own canyon where they will not be exploited or manipulated, but where they can have the joy of running with some of the very best ultra athletes currently racing. Just getting there is an adventure and it looks for all the world as though it may not come off. I will not reveal to you how it all turns out, but I will tell you that I was crying like a baby before it was over. The camaraderie, the kindness, and the ebullience completely overwhelmed me.
Whether you are a runner or not, you will find this story enthralling. If you are a runner, you just might find yourself seeing the run with new eyes. If you have lost that sense of fascination and wonder with what your body can do, perhaps you will find it here.
Photographs by Luis Escobar