Chasing After a Great Story

By Neal Comment

(Note: the sound on this was a bit low; you might want to turn it up.)

“Running 100 miles held no attraction for me at all,” Christopher McDougall explained as we sat in a pub around the corner from the Random House offices, waiting for our lunches to arrive. “But ultrarunners turned out to be the exact opposite of what I expected.” Rather than emaciated skeletons, he elaborated, the long-long-distance runners he met looked perfectly healthy&#and were awfully exuberant. It all came together for him, he explained, when one of his running coaches let him in on a secret, pointing at a tree in the distance and telling him to walk to it, then run back, then repeat the cycle, and repeat it again. “You can do that all day,” McDougall said enthusiastically. “Burst and recover, burst and recover.”

We were discussing the story behind Born to Run, an account of how his efforts to establish contact with the Tarahumara, a Native American tribe famous for their ability to run incredibly long distances without falling prey to the injuries that beset most modern runners, ended up with his own participation in a 50-mile run through the Copper Canyons of Mexico, pitting the Tarahumara against some of the biggest names in U.S. ultramarathoning, along with guys known to the world as Caballo Blanco and Barefoot Ted—and all because McDougall was trying to find out why his feet kept getting sore when he ran.

In the beginning, though, he wondered if the original story, a freelance assignment for Runners’ World would ever get off the ground. During his first meeting with the Tarahumara tribesman, he explained, “we sat there for four hours and he said maybe nine words to me.” He left that encounter dejected, but as luck would have it, that’s the moment when he first heard about Caballo Blanco, an American who seemed to be running non-stop through the canyons, and decided to try tracking him down…

“I thought I would learn one or two simple things about a better way to run,” McDougall says of his initial interest in the Tarahumara. “Either they’d have a quick-snap secret or it’d be a genetic factor I wouldn’t be able to replicate.” What he found out was that just about we’ve been told about running, particularly about the “need” for elaborate running shoes designed to “protect” our feet, is wrong. One of the greatest strengths of Born to Run is the way McDougall integrates the historical and scientific information into his immediate journey of discovery, never losing the sense of excitement. “I never anticipated that this story would keep going like it did,” he recalled. “Every time I thought the path was narrowing to a conclusion, it was expanding in new directions.”