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Fictionalised and often disingenuous account
on 31 January 2011
I realise I'm in minority here but I really didn't enjoy this book at all. As a result of all the rave reviews I bought a copy for both myself and a friend - we were both hugely disappointed.
The author, Christopher McDougall, is an American magazine correspondent and this perhaps goes someway to explain a lot of what I didn't like about the book. To begin with, it is written in a totally 'omniscient' manner, ie McDougall can see inside everyone's head. This is excessive, continuous, and extends right across the board from events to which he was privy, through events to which he was not, on to imagined `eureka moments' of various research scientists. In a similar manner, he describes events from the past, where he wasn't present, in a way he clearly feels will paint some sort of picture: eg "Then she wiped her greasy mouth on her sports bra, burped up some Dew, and bounded off". Maybe she did wipe her mouth on her sports bra, but I doubt it, and I feel quite sure she never gave him an account, years later, of her burp.
In a similar vein I confess that I didn't like the continuous use of words like `chomp' instead of `eat' and `chug' instead of `drink'. I imagine that is just a difference in usage when comparing opposite sides of the Atlantic but I did find myself wishing someone would just 'eat' something! And I do wonder if the use of block capitals as well as italics was really necessary. I am not talking about the start of each chapter but sentences like:
"...I remember thinking What in the HELL? How in the HELL is this possible? That was the first thing, the first CHINK IN THE WALL, that MAYYYBEE modern shoe companies don't have all the answers..." (nine of those lowercase words are in italics, which I can't format here).
So, we clearly have a very fictionalised account. But is any of it complete fiction? Well, yes it is. We are told on page 16 that the Tarahumara "barely eat any protein at all". Well, with a physiology degree to back it up, I can tell you that leads only one way... to wasting and eventual death. It comes as a bit of a surprise then to be told on page 209 that "the traditional Tarahumara diet exceeds the United Nations' recommended daily intake [for protein] by more than 50 percent". Perhaps by page 209 we are expected to have forgotten what he wrote earlier.
On page 157 we are told, in relation to qualifying for the Boston Marathon that "...99.9 percent of all runners never will...". Really? And how was that figure arrived at? For any average runner who puts in training, qualifying for Boston (like me!) is not difficult: 20,000 runners run it every year -- not qualify, which will be many, many times more -- actually run it. The implication behind his figure is that only 1 in 1000 marathoners who would specifically like to qualify do, ie 19,980,000 don't, which is clearly rubbish. His misuse of percentages crops up several times. It is patronising to the reader to assume that he doesn't understand what a percentage means. And it makes one more than doubt when we are told figures like "...70 to 80 percent..". A particular problem with this is that it sounds as if he is being authorative when, in fact, he's not.
His problem with Math(s) unfortunately isn't limited to the use of hyperbole with percentages. He unwittingly shows his problem, in typical journalistic style, in rather stark detail! On page 239, to work out how much older than 27 is an age that is equivalent to the increase in age from 19 to 27, he has to get out his notebook!!: "All righty. I flipped my notebook to a blank page and started jotting numbers. It takes....[I'll spare you the next four lines]..." He comes up with 36. Point made.
But it is the disingenuous nature of much of his writing that I really took exception to. I will give two examples:
One: who do you think ran the fastest?
(a) Page 15: "Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time, and he could barely shuffle through his first marathon despite sucking down an energy gel nearly every mile."
(b) Page 157: "...Ted...transformed himself...into...a barefoot marathoner with such speed that he was able to accomplish something that 99.9 percent of all runners never will: he qualified for the Boston Marathon." [I've already talked about the 99.9 percent]
Answer: We don't know because we aren't told their times. Well, I can tell you: Lance Armstrong, by a long way. In 2006 his 'shuffle' resulted in a time of 2:59:36 and he came 868th out of 37,866 finishers; a brilliant result for a first marathon (and ten minutes under the very fastest age group Boston qualifying time)! And Barefoot Ted? In 2006 he completed the Boston Marathon in 3:20:16, coming in 3,848th out of 19,682 finishers. Not a shuffle either, but in a completely different, and slower, league. In fact, to refer to a result under three hours (faster than seven minutes a mile) as a shuffle is just gratuitiously insulting. McDougall seems to have a downer on Armstrong, as he slates him elsewhere in the book - the reason never becomes apparent.
Two: Why do you think "...Abele Bikila - the Ethiopian marathoner who ran barefoot over the cobblestones of Rome to win the 1960 Olympic marathon..." didn't wear shoes? - we are told this interesting fact in a paragraph about Barefoot Ted researching the benefits of barefoot running. Well, I can tell you, although the book doesn't, that it wasn't anything to do with the benefits of barefoot running. What we aren't told in the book is that Abele Bikila had an upset before the 1960 marathon and couldn't find a pair of shoes to fit and decided to chance running barefoot as he had trained that way; nor are we told that he chose to run in shoes at the subsequent 1964 Olympics.
On the subject of barefoot running, it's interesting that the photograph on the back of the hardback edition shows five runners, presumably principal characters from the book, all wearing running shoes.
Turning to the so called `scientific research' that McDougall is fond of reporting, again we must doubt a lot of what we are told. Why? Because it is presented in a way we can't trust. Yes, some of it may be true, but how much? And how much are we being presented with information that is propounded as fact or we are led to believe shows one thing, but may show something else? Just one set of examples will make the general point:
Page 170: "...no matter how much you run, your odds of getting hurt are the same." This is utter rubbish and is clearly so, using reductio ad absurdum, apart from all the evidence to the contrary.
Page 171: "Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes will decrease your risk of...injuries...[or]...improve your distance running performance?" No shoe manufacturer followed up the [Dr Richard's] challenge. The conclusion is drawn that "running shoes don't make you go faster and don't stop you from getting hurt.." This is absolute twaddle and I won't insult anyone's intelligence by explaining why.
Page 172: The conclusion that McDougall draws from a study that found that "Wearers of expensive running shoes...are injured significantly more frequently than runners wearing expensive shoes..." is the following: "What a cruel joke: for double the price, you get double the pain." Possibly, possibly. Could it just be that the buyers of more expensive shoes are those runners who push the boundaries of their training more aggressively?
Unfortunately, the whole book is stuffed with this sort of biased writing dressed up as 'scientific fact'; we are used to it in the popular press -- we get a bookful here.
For those of you interested in the 'science', I recommend reading this: [...] -- you'll have to copy and paste; Amazon doesn't allow direct links.
I could go on, about the very dubious anthropological details, nutrition and hydration anomalies etc, but I have written too much already.
The book is just an adventure story, fiction based on fact; enjoy it if you can stomach the style; just take everything with a very big pinch of salt!
[For anyone considering it, at the very least don't purchase the Kindle edition: there is a spelling mistake on the first page that doesn't bode well for the rest of the book (the spelling mistake is not there in the print edition).]