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on 16 May 2009
Born to Run succeeds at three levels. First, it is a page turner. The build up to a fifty-mile foot race over some of the world's least hospitable terrain drives the narrative forward. Along the way McDougall introduces a cast of characters worthy of Dickens, including an almost superhuman ultramarathoner, Jenn and the Bonehead--a couple who down bottles of booze to warm up for a race, Barefoot Ted, Mexican drug dealers, a ghostly ex-boxer, a heartbroken father, and of course the Tarahumara, arguably the greatest runners in the world.

Born to Run is such a rip-roaring yarn, that it is easy to miss the book's deeper achievements. At a second level, McDougall introduces and explores a powerful thesis--that human beings are literally born to run. Recreational running did not begin with the 1966 publication of "Jogging" by the co-founder of Nike. Instead, McDougall argues, running is at the heart of what it means to be human. In the course of elaborating his thesis, McDougall answers some big questions: Why did our ancestors outlive the stronger, smarter Neanderthals? Why do expensive running shoes increase the odds of injury? The author's modesty keeps him from trumpeting the novelty and importance of this thesis, but it merits attention.

Finally, Born to Run presents a philosophy of exercise. The ethos that pervades recreational and competitive running--"no pain, no gain," is fundamentally flawed, McDougall argues. The essence of running should not be grim determination, but sheer joy. Many of the conventions of modern running--the thick-soled shoes, mechanical treadmills, take no prisoners competition, and heads-down powering through pain dull our appreciation of what running can be--a sociable activity, more game than chore, that can lead to adventure. McDougall's narrative moves the book forward, his thesis provides a solid intellectual support, but this philosophy of joy animates Born to Run. I hope this book finds the wide audience it deserves
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on 24 May 2009
The title of this book suggests it is a tale about ultra-distance runners and tales of heroic enterprise. That is partially true, but not the entire truth, and that is why this book deserves a wide audience.

Under the tale of a 50 mile race through inhospitable terrain is a theme that running is fun, and that humans are uniquely adapted to running to such a degree that it is suggested that the trappings of civilisation have denied us our essential nature.

Using the story of a mystery runner in the canyons of Mexico as a thread, we are lead through a discussion of the mental and physical aspects of running, with a look at how tribes untouched by "civilisation" around the world demonstrate McDougall's thesis.

McDougall presents a convincing argument that biologically and mentally we are designed to be distance runners. He argues that it is external issues - the selling of running shoes, the limitations we put on ourselves and that society attempts to impose - that prove to be the limiting factor for many of us. If anything, the characters presented become not super-athletes (as some authors have portrayed ultra runners) but actually very ordinary people who have chosen to ignore the preconceptions about what we "ought" to be able to do.

Yes, the book does give a lot of insight into ultra running - but it also has as a lot in it for anyone who runs, be you someone who runs for pleasure and excercise, or a keen competitive athlete. Highly recommended.
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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).]
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on 4 May 2012
I am an ultra-runner and was interested to have this book recommended to me by another ultra running friend. However I ended up despising the book and the author. As others have mentioned the author has a magazine style of writing. This was too much for me in a book.

The story about the Tarahumara is interesting, but deserves better treatment than it gets here. Also I totally lost the plot when the author related a chess anecdote and got it completely wrong. I can only imagine how inaccurate the rest of the anecdotes were.

However the claim that barefoot running is the cure to all running ills cannot be made without any references to back it up (this is supposed to be non-fiction after all). Then the author criticises the running shoe companies for making money but goes on to push the Vibram Five Fingers running "shoes". What McDougall fails to mention is that he is in the pay of Vibram and hosts events for them. What a shill.
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on 31 January 2014
McDougall weaves together wonderful story-telling with sporting and anthropological history as he recounts his personal quest to understand how humans are able to run for hours on end for up to 100 miles and why modern running shoes are doing us more harm than good. If you enjoyed Feet in the Clouds then you will undoubtedly find this a similarly gripping read.
McDougall's writing is natural and witty and he uses the full palette of colour and vibrancy to bring to life the characters he befriends on his journey to run with the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico. Caballo Blanco and Barefoot Ted and their contrasting personalities particularly stand out the page.
The author's personal story is intertwined with a brilliant narrative that explores the science and evolutionary roots of our ability to run long distances. McDougall writes superbly tense accounts of some of the world's hardest trail races and paints vivid portraits of some of the tough-as-nails ultra-marathoners who compete in them.
The human side to the story is very engaging and expertly told, but in my opinion the best and most interesting chapters are the ones that reveal the human race's evolution into natural runners. I was totally fascinated for example by the chapter on persistence hunting. The author's main point of course is that modern running shoes have destroyed our natural running style and created an epidemic of running injuries that didn't exist prior to 40 years ago. It is a compelling argument for barefoot/minimalist running and well worth reading.
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on 9 December 2009
Being interested in pushing my running further I looked at a number of ultra distance books and picked this one because of the numerous and unanimous good reviews it had. Once started, I couldn't put it down. A fantastic read, not just for runners but sporty people generally. The author doesn't try and say 'look how good I am, I'm better than you' but rather says 'look, I was struggling, kept having problems and couldn't progress further - much like everyone else out there and wanted to see if I could change that'. It was that attitude that I liked. With a healthy portion of story interwoven with scientific study, the history of ultra running and the coming of the running shoe, the book was a perfect length, very well written and I've recommended it to anyone I know who's into any sort of sport.
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on 7 September 2011
First about me: I enjoy reading but I'm not a literature critic. I work as a scientist, with a keen interest in evolutionary science and human performance. I also regularly run, as part of my training regime (I study MMA), but mainly because I enjoy it and find it very de-stressing. I have never ran more than 13 miles (21kms) so I don't think I could describe myself as an endurance runner.
Now the book: overall I don't enjoy Christopher McDougall writing style, he writes a lot for men's "magazines" and it shows. According to Christopher every character and every situation in the book is the most extreme and greatest ever encountered at any stage in human history - EVER!!!! The book is so full of superlatives that it's difficult to follow and makes for poor reading. Which is a shame as the story and the insight and the "message" of the book is brilliant.
A lot of the science in this book is misrepresented. As a scientist I know only too well what happens to scientific facts when they fall into the hands of a journalist. However as a runner I know that running is largely physiological, and therefore I applaud his message of enjoying running and the wonderful health benefits it gives.
The overall message of the book is that humans are designed to run, not at great speed but for great distances. Indeed no other creature on the planet can match our running endurance. Despite this lots of modern day runners get lots of injuries. The reason for this the book alleges is that our feet aren't designed to run in overly supported runners. Ditch the 150 euro runners and ditch the injuries.
I became a "barefoot" convert 16 months ago and I agree with the above. Since my "conversion" I run faster, longer and with fewer injuries.
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"If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out,
Then how can you compete with horses?" -- Jeremiah 12:5

Born to Run is an exceptional book -- intriguing, surprising, and continually compelling. The writing exceeds what most of the best fiction thriller and suspense writers ever achieve. Run, don't walk, to get your copy!

From little things, large things sometimes emerge. Author Christopher McDougall couldn't find out why his feet hurt after running. His search for the answer took him way beyond the doctor's office and the usual cortisone shots into a world of people who run for days at a time in dangerous conditions without injury. I won't spoil the story by telling you what he learned, but he's a master storyteller who will keep you spellbound by his stories about running, runners, and those who train and "help" them.

I didn't know what to expect when I started this book, but I was satisfied more then ten times over with what I received. I had been an avid runner as a teenager but hadn't done much in a long time due to shin splints. Recently, I discovered that soft ground and spongy tracks allowed me to run again without shin-splint pain. I was quite surprised to see that after over 40 years without running I was running as well or better than I ever had. What was that all about? This book contained the answer . . . one that may surprise you.

If you love great stories about the indomitable spirit that lives in some people, enjoy dreaming about doing the seemingly impossible, or just want to be thrilled by mind-blowing accomplishment, this book is for you. If speculating about anthropology and evolution fascinate you, you have a treat here as well.

And don't be surprised if you develop an urge to run . . . without stopping.
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on 3 November 2015
I've been looking at this book for years and took the leap and bought it. Wow, what an interesting adventure / informative / technical / story for runners and adventureres alike. I loved it and couldn't put it down. I have jotted down a few tips from this guy and am hoping to improve my running, this got me excited about it again and am gagging to put my running shoes on and get out the door - pity about my sprained ankle (nothing to do with the book by-the-way!).
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on 30 September 2015
This book you cannot put down! As a Brit, I have to say that I don't like the style of writing - full of hyperbole - just hyped up. But the story is just excellent. There's also a very good chapter on running without padded shoes, but, like most topics in the book, it's a bit sexed up and plays the conspiracy theory a bit too much, even though it's spot on correct. Great book, and I will read it again.
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