Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Book Review: Born to Run

No, it’s not a biography of Bruce Springsteen. The full title is Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

Now, normally I wouldn’t have picked up a book about running. The list of nonfiction topics that interest me more stretches for miles.

But Pamela—who runs well, and ran well back in high school—recently bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers—a sort of foot-glove with no cushioning, not arch support, no ankle support. I was curious about the rationale and research on the VFFs, and so I browsed the web a bit, and found myself repeatedly directed to Born to Run. So on my next trip to a bookstore, I picked up a copy, opened it to the first page, and found myself hooked.

McDougall is a sports journalist, but he mixes much of the craft and structure of the novel with his story. It opens in media res, in a small town in Mexico’s Sierra Madre where McDougall is trying to find an elusive gringo called Caballo Blanco, the White Horse. According to hearsay that smacks of legend, White Horse is a crazy American runner who has drifted into the near-inaccessible Copper Canyon region, where the Tarahumara Indians still preserve much of their traditional way of life—including a peyote-based religion and footraces that stretch fifty to a hundred miles.

By four pages in, McDougall has found White Horse, and when he tries to speak to him, the Horse bolts for the door. End of chapter.

In the next chapter, McDougall says, “It all began with a question no on could answer…in January, 2001, I asked my doctor this: ‘How come my foot hurts?’”

Because, as it turns out, McDougall is one of those guys like me—one of those people that make sports docs shake their heads and say, “Well, some people just aren’t built for running.”

From there, the story jumps around in time, leaving threads hanging, leaving big questions outstanding, and generally employing the techniques of a suspense novelist. We journey into druglord country and meet the Tarahumara; then back in chronology to the 1994 Leadville 100, the annual high-altitude, hundred-mile race in Colorado, where a few Tarahumara showed up, won the race with ease, and then—poof!—vanished back to Copper Canyon.

We also meet the American Ultrarunners, a handful of truly odd people who run ultramarathons (distances in excess of 50 miles). Scott Jurek, probably the world’s leader in this kind of competition, is a sort of happy Zen geek, and he seems the most normal of the lot. Among the others are Jenn Shelton, a young, innocent-looking, hard-drinking riot of a Grrrrrl who shows up—and wins—ultraraces when hung over from too much pizza and beer the preceding night; Barefoot Ted, a manic, nonstop-talking maniac who runs 100-mile wilderness trails barefoot; the mysterious Caballo Blanco himself, whose biography is stranger than fiction by far; and other equally colorful characters. (I might add that ultrarunners are a different breed from other athletes. There really isn't much money in it, if any, so they're more like a club than competitors; there are many cases where a runner has stopped for prolonged periods to make sure another runner is okay to continue. See if you ever catch top marathoners letting their finish time slip by five minutes to help another runner.)

McDougall and Blanco eventually decide to hold an ultrarace in Tarahumara country; this time the gringos will come to los Indios. And, as a kicker, McDougall—who can’t run a mile without pain—decides to train up and compete himself.

Now, suddenly, the whole book veers off into a new structure, alternating chapters of science with the adventure of getting to and running the race in Copper Canyon, but by this point no reader would want to put the book aside (and the science is anything but dull). The science argument McDougall marshals is too complex to treat with any justice here, but to try and summarize a few points:

Humans evolved for running. We are the only primates with Achilles tendons to capture recoil from our feet. We are the only primates with nuchal ligaments, which stabilize the head when moving fast. Our close relatives, the chimps and apes don’t have a nuchal ligament. Horses do, though. So do wolves.

Did I mention that humans evolved for running? Quadrupeds compress their lungs with every stride, and therefore they are stuck in a pattern of one stride cycle = one breath. Humans can breathe in whatever pattern they like. Our upright stance may be entirely an adaptation for endurance running. (All the other explanations I've heard for why we are bipedal have been quite unconvincing.) Furthermore, we’ve lost most of the fur on our bodies so we can perspire all over; most mammals have to dump heat entirely by panting, which works fine for a while but isn't naerly as efficient as our acres of sweat glands.

It now appears that, back in the days when the Neanderthals were the big hunters on the block, already equipped with spears and fire, our direct ancestors down in Africa were obtaining most of their meat by chasing down prey, what is known as “persistence hunting.” We weren’t faster than many animals, but we had the endurance to chase them hour after hour, until they had nothing left and just stood staring at us, panting and helpless, as we closed in on them.

Kinda creepy, really.

So, if we evolved for running, why do most runners get injured? Answer: Shoes.

Running shoes encourage bad technique. We land on our heels and steer the impact up into our knees and ankles. No one would land on their heel running barefoot—or, if they did so, they wouldn’t do it twice. Our feet are filled with sensory feedback neurons along with a positively geodesic network of bones and tendons. Our feet tell us how to run, and if we run incorrectly, it will hurt—not later, not with a delay, but right then. Watch a top Kenyan or Ethiopian runner—all of whom learned to run barefoot—and you won’t see a long, reaching stride with a hard landing. Even though they tend to be lanky and leggy, they run with light steps and short strides, and a very rapid pace.

Running barefoot tends to make the runner move with the light, quick touch that someone shows when walking barefoot on hot pavement or pointy gravel. No crashing down. Little, light, fast steps.

Running with massive padded running shoes is the foot equivalent of running blindfolded, and the more specialized running shoes have become, the higher the rate of injury. (Even Nike has finally realized this, which is the origin of the minimalist running shoe, the Nike Free.)

All of those sports-medicine corrections and orthotics for pronation and supination? It turns out our feet are supposed to roll and flex at every step. The human foot--what Da Vinci called "the masterpiece of engineering"--is designed to not only absorb and spread impact, but also to capture some of the energy of impact and utilize it for recoil. Encase your foot in a shoe designed to keep the foot from rolling through its full range of motion and you have eliminated not only a self-protection mechanism, but also a means for running with less energy expenditure.

The Tarahumara don’t run barefoot. They run in huaraches, sandals that are no more than a thin piece of tire rubber that ties on to the foot. This is enough to protect from puncture woulds, but not enough to imprison the feet or prevent feedback from the ground.

In early December, I bought a pair of VFFs, and went for a very tentative, very cautious run. You can feel the gravel under the soles of your feet. Put you foot down heel-first and you will gasp in pain—and you will adjust how you run.

My calves have been sore since December—sometimes a mild soreness, like I’ve had a good workout with weights, sometimes a more pressing soreness that told me I had pushed a little too far too soon. But I now have almost 100 miles on my VFFs, and my knees and ankles and hips all feel fine.

In other words, I’m a believer. I’ll never be a great runner, but if I feel like getting some exercise by running a half dozen miles, I can now do it without fear of injury. It’s one of the things all humans were designed to do.

And McDougall’s book? Yes, they finally do have the race, though for a time it seems it won’t be possible.

But it would be wrong of me to tell you how it all ends. You actually might want to read it. And, if you do, and you’re a writer, stop every so often to admire McDougall’s command of structure. Tricky, tricky, tricky storytelling.


Tim Stretton said...

David, as a runner (injury prone), reader and writer I reckon this is amazing.

I've got much too much to read but this has got to go on the list.

Fascinated to hear about the VFF too.

C. N. Nevets said...

Great post, David. I learned the same basic idea in my human osteology class, and it's great to see the information getting out in a popular format that people can read, digest, and think about.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

The VFFs have been a godsend. I've even worn them on long, rocky trail hikes. By the end of the longest hike (9 miles with a steep grade on loose rocks varying in size from a gumball to a baseball), I was saying, boy, are my feet going to be sore tomorrow...but, no. They felt great.

And when the sole of your foot is allowed to flex, you are also less likely to twist your ankle. With a substantial sole on a shoe, if the foot goes out of balance, the sole will tilt and take the foot with it. With a minimalist sole, the foot tends to "wrap" more than twist.

Let me know what you think of Born to Run. I think you'll enjoy it; I read it pretty much straight through, neglecting all manner of other duties.

David Isaak said...

Howdy, CN--

I like the way you toss off "in my human osteology class" as if that's a normal class to take. I'm guessing there's a story there. (Forensic science? Medical training? Just plain ghoulish interest?) To tell the truth, it sounds like a cool class.

I gather that you're right, however--a certain class of scientist has known all about the functioning of the foot and the impariment of running shoes for decades.

But there's a lotta money in the shoe business...

C. N. Nevets said...

haha David, bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. :)

It was a great class. The things I learned from that class were not only great for the subject matter but also some of the most honest insights into human health. It was awesome.

Jake Jesson said...

Wow, that's fascinating. I knew about endurance hunting, but none of my anthropology classes ever made the connection with running. Shoulda taken that human osteology class.

I am seriously considering these. I love running, but I haven't done it much - in part because of shoe frustration. I went barefoot until I was 12, after all... Anyway, the VFF makers should pay you advertisement fees. ;)

Ultramarathoner Jenn Shelton seems like the basis for an excellent character based on that interview (which I bookmarked for future reference). So do the other two, in fact. This book shall have to go on my (already horrifically long) reading list.

Alis said...

This is fascinating, David. I must confess, the best running shoes I ever had were a pair of Nike frees, which I still use for walking. But they still allowed me to heel-strike which sounds like it may be the root of the knee problem which stopped me running.

When funds allow, I may just have to get some of these VFFs.

Alis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alis said...

The deleted post was nothing exciting - just managed to post the same comment twice due to a glitch with the word verification gizmo!

RDJ said...

I'm bummed I've already broken in a pair of Pumas now. If I keep running, though...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jake--

I understand that going barefoot when you are young results in healthier feet even after you start wearing shoes; it apparently causes the tendons and muscles to develop in a more blanced fashion.

And, yeah, Jenn Shelton almost seems made up by a particularly inventive novelist.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Well, you can still heel-strike in VFFs--I have by accident a few times--but you won't be inclined to repeat it!

Part of the secret seems to be a shorter, lighter stride with more rapid turnover. StepStepstepstep.

I've started aiming for 180 steps per minute. That seems to prevent me from reaching too far forward and trying to "pull" myself along. That kind of stride works for sprinters, but it'll kill most people's joints if done over distance.

And how to get 180 steps per minute? Well, you can run with a Seiko digital metronome. But a lower-tech approach is to hum the Vapors' "Turning Japanese" under your breath. (Though, to tell the truth, I prefer Liz Phair's cover of the song.) Right smack on 180.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Ryan--

Sorry about the Pumas. Admittedly it's not on the scale of buying a new car, but running shoes are amazingly expensive.

VFFs ain't cheap, either: usually around $85. And you probably want socks with them (I sure did), and the Injinji toe socks set you back about $12 a pair.

On the other hand, Injinjis are really comfy to wear around the hous on cold mornings, so they're a multi-use investment...

Eliza Graham said...

Very interesting, David. My daughter's off cross-country at the moment with a knee ligament injury. She hasn't run for weeks and weeks. I doubt they make them in her small size, though!