Day 16; Christopher McDougall. Are we born to run?

Renowned for their long distance running ability, the Tarahumara tribe have survived Spanish, French and American invasions and outlived the Aztecs by hundreds of years. In his book, ‘Born to Run’, Christopher McDougall discovered many of their secrets and took part in the greatest challenge of his life, a fifty mile run through the heart of Mexico’s copper canyons. In July 2010 he spoke to a group of TED delegates in Pennsylvania about our desire to run.
McDougall opens with a story about Derartu Tulu, the first Ethiopian woman to win the New York City marathon in 2009. Viewers of that race saw something never witnessed before at that level. Tulu, who had almost died in childbirth several months earlier, should have been written off. Instead, she found herself up with the lead pack. When world record holder Paula Radcliffe began to drop off with a hamstring injury about four miles from the finish line, Tulu extended her a lifeline. “Come on; We can do it.”
McDougall feels that Tulu’s win isn’t surprising. In his opinion, it’s a matter of outliers. The Tarahumara are also outliers. Many of their customs remain the same for the past 400 years, set apart from the worries of our world; cancer, crime, mortgages. At the age of 70 or 80, their men are running ultra-marathon distances, apparently without injury. By contrast, if you speak to any runner in our world, they’ll be able to tell you about an injury they’ve sustained at some stage.
The problem, in MacDougall’s eyes, is one of our development. For hundreds of years people had to fight, to kill wild animals, to run daily. Yet up until the 1980s women weren’t allowed to run marathons for fear their uterus might fall out! (Incidentally, the same medical science said distances over 26 miles were fatal for humans). He presents three mysteries. Firstly, when Usain Bolt could be out-run by a hare, how exactly were we catching wild animals? Secondly, why do women get stronger as the distances get longer? Thirdly, how can a 64 year old run a marathon as fast as they did at 19?
His answer is this; MacDougall believes humans evolved as hunting pack animals. There are several keys to successfully hunting an antelope, for example, the women and adolescents must come, as they are the ones most likely to benefit from the animal protein; there is no room for materialism or ego, as everybody must work together; the whole pack needs to stick together for the young to learn, the experts to do their work and so on. What you end up with, when you factor these keys in and look at how we’ve changed, is a culture similar to the Tarahumara.
MacDougall then branches into one his favourite topics; that of running shoes. Barefoot running has received a lot of attention in recent years, largely due to documentaries on the Tarahumara, and has been embraced by companies aiming to make shoes with ‘barefoot running technology’. He states that literature, mythology and story-telling through the ages never associates running with injuries and that this is a problem of our time. In short, MacDougall is firmly in the barefoot running camp. He believes we need to find the fun in running again, to restore that natural ability to run which we all enjoyed for most of our existence.
This link between the Taramahara tribe’s lifestyle and the statement that running shoes cause all injury is tenuous at best. I don’t believe that running shoes are the root of all evil. Nor is barefoot running. It comes down to finding something that works for you. It stands to reason however, that stress and the busy modern life can increase the risk of injury, or at the very least, our perception of pain. Our lifestyles aren’t likely to change, so perhaps we need to do yoga, meditation, acupuncture, or whatever it takes to make us feel more serene. But as for the need to have fun when running? MacDougall certainly has a point…


2 thoughts on “Day 16; Christopher McDougall. Are we born to run?

  1. I mean, the Uterus thing I can believe, but did people ever think we chased after game animals rather than hunting in packs or using distance weapons? Surprised.

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