An advocate of barefoot running, an explorer, an ultra runner and philosopher, Chris McDougall, author of bestselling Born To Run spent time talking to kindred spirit, runner and writer, Julia Armstrong
A year ago I received an email from Chris McDougall, who was in London and had been reading some of my writing. Recognising our shared passions, he asked me if I’d like to join one of his seminars – I was off to race 100k on that day, so it was not to be.
Like me, Chris is a writer who loves to run, or a runner who loves to write, and in his book Born to Run he takes us on an adventure of earthbound flight. He’s 48 years-old and lives in Peach Bottom, in rural Pennsylvania, where he does his running around the Amish farms there – mostly barefoot now.
I ran barefoot as a child – even on the road once – and when I did wear shoes they were Green Flash gym shoes, progressing to very light shoes like the Nike Eagle and the Sock Racer. It was only when I developed injuries that I started trying to wear heavier shoes and it took me a whole circular route to find my way back to ‘almost barefoot’ Nike 3.0s and the injury-free running that I enjoy today. So for me, reading Born to Run was a journey of discovering what I already knew, but at deeper and more profound levels, and of finding a group of friends yet to be met…
Walk like an animal
In his work as a journalist for Men’s Health and as one of Esquire magazine’s original Restless Man columnists, a big part of his job was experimenting with extreme sports, where he didn’t experience any injury or pain, and yet his experience of running often saw him sidelined within a few miles. It was a foot injury that took him to two sports injury doctors, both of whom recommended that he cease running altogether and buy a bike! Chris was confused. “How is it antelopes don’t get shin splints, wolves don’t ice pack their knees?” he wondered. “Why should every other mammal on the planet be able to depend on its legs except for us?” These were the questions that sowed the seeds for his inspiring and uplifting book Born to Run – described by Ranulph Fiennes as, “a fascinating and inspiring true adventure story, based on humans pushing themselves to the limit.” His search for pain-free running led him to the conclusion that heavily padded trainers contributed to many runner’s injuries. But, most importantly, he discovered the Tarahumara, a tribe of Mexican Indians who are reputed to be the best distance runners in the world.
Best beer for running
He wanted to uncover their secret: how they could run for hundreds of miles, and fast too. In 1993, one of them, aged 57 years-old won the Leadville 100 Miles, one of the most prestigious ultra races in the world. He wanted to discover who these mysterious people were, who lived hidden away in canyons and with a training diet heavily supplemented by their own corn beer, called Lechguilla – brewed from rattlesnake corpses and cactus sap! He wanted to know how they were able to run marathons seemingly back to back, when he was hurting after a few miles.
Run to live
Chris has a few twists and turns on the path until he meets Eric Orton, who teaches him how to run with as little padding on his feet as possible, and who encourages him to set up a 50 mile race with the Tarahumara.
During his quest, Chris meets a band of ultra runners and together they travel to the Copper Canyons to learn the secrets of the Tarahumara and to race them. What becomes evident is that this is a story of freedom; of runners setting their souls free – or maybe just letting their soul express itself, running being the language the soul would speak if it could talk. The message that comes through, is of course, in the title, that we were born to run and that running could help prevent many of the diseases of our time. “If you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.”
Chris believes that everyone is born to run. “If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be here. Distance running is the only natural advantage that early humans had in the wild, and it’s a natural skill we’ve all inherited. It’s only in our lifetime that running has become associated with drudgery and injuries. Throughout most of history, it’s been linked with freedom, fun and vitality.” Chris says that the way to regain that joyfulness is, “to stop thinking of it as work, and remember that running is, basically, playtime.”
It’s simple: love running!
The interesting thing to me was the love of running that Chris discovered amongst the people he had gathered to race the Tarahumara, and amongst the tribe themselves. “It was remarkable how similar the ‘Mas Loco’ pack of ultra runners was to the Tarahumara. They shared the same essential feeling that running was a kind of earthbound flight, and didn’t need any other motivation than sheer enjoyment.”
I asked Chris what he found out about himself that he didn’t already know by training for and racing 50 miles. “Simple,” he replied, “that I could do it. I’d been told for years that running is bad for the body, that the impact is too hard on our legs, that if you run too much you’re bound to get hurt... and then I discovered that by ignoring those scare stories, I could run much better than I ever had in my life.”
Chris found a way to run for miles without injury simply through taking off his shoes. He didn’t have any physio treatments or do any core work, for him, it was easy. “All I had to do was lose my shoes and learn how to run barefoot, and my problems vanished. You’ll get all the core work you need by running with good posture and nicely aligned joints.” he says.
Running is renowned as an activity that makes a difference to the mind, allowing it to clear and process. I asked Chris what he thinks occurs during running that allows this. “It makes sense that if we evolved as long-distance runners, every aspect of our existence would reinforce that instinct. I think the reason we get a flood of good feeling during a run is because we’re hard-wired to derive satisfaction from the activity that best guarantees our survival.”
Chris’s race may have been longer than the 10k in the local park, but just like any of us he had highs – and lows as he ran.
“There was the wild party feel of the whole event, even though everyone was running their hearts out, it still felt more like a celebration than a competition,” he says of his high point. And when things got hard, his low point, he still managed to find a positive force out there to help him: “When I found myself deepest in trouble, someone appeared out of the blue to help me out, and save my race” (I won’t say any more than that, to avoid spoiling the book).
Chris’s book is deeply moving and powerfully inspirational. I was filled with the excitement of possibility stretching ahead on the running road, by the words of 96 year-old Jack Kirk, who said: “You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.”
For more reading - Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall, £8.99, Profile Books