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This book is by a man who wouldn't let experts discourage him from long-distance running, in spite of his injuries and his physical build.
Caught at the crossroads of medical warnings and anecdotal evidence of aborted running careers, on one side, and the growing awareness that most mammals and some people manage to run most of their lives without significant injury, Christopher McDougall embarks on a journey to learn to run without injury. His book Born to Run has a dual focus, the smaller emphasis being on his personal journey, the majority of the book on explaining the relationship between the Tarahumara people of Mexico and the larger world of running, including its commercial and technological mis-steps.
The writing style of this book, like my running style, suffers from excesses and omissions that frequently work against its intentions. As one might hope for a running style, the prose in the book improves with time, so that by the middle or so, the prose often reaches that remarkable standard described by George Orwell where it no longer draws attention to itself.
So my caution to potential readers is not to be discouraged by the hyperbole, mixed metaphors, and apparently unnecessary delays during the first fourth of the book. Perhaps those pages suffer from some of the habits of "sports writing," when it engages in a flamboyant style comprised of unlikely comparisons and forced exclamations. There is nothing, however, necessary or universal about sports requiring those writing habits, as several later chapters in Born to Run illustrate.
As McDougall sets out to discover the Tarahumara runners, he is leery of neighboring drug gangs, one of which made "five heads" roll "onto the dance floor of a crowded nightclub" (2). Five people dying and five heads rolling are not identical situations, the latter suffering from Hollywood imagery.
Going to great lengths to describe the Tarahumara as a people who have deliberately avoided the crass commercialism of the West, the author uses the unfortunate comparison of a good looking Tarahumara being "Hollywood handsome." Again, in describing a Tarahumara, the language draws attention away from the man, Arnulfo, to a conglomerate of a cinematic pirate and a robocop: " . . . a thigh-length skirt and a fiery red tunic as billowing as a pirate's blouse. Every time he moved, the muscles in his legs shifted and reformed like molten steel" (27).
In one final example, a young Tarahumara named Marcelino, " . . . looked like the Human Torch . . . he looked as if he'd burst straight out of the Steve Prefontaine poster on the bedroom wall of every high school track star in America" (41).
This kind of prose is the heel striking sort, and if that sounds good, it isn't in light of the book's excellent, short history of the running shoe. In Chapter 25, it traces the history of the shoe over the last forty years, and how the shoe helped hijack the natural ability of humans to run long and to run for fun. Being from Los Alamos, I'm more tolerant of one more grand comparison that summarizes the effect of the shoe industry as McDougall assesses it: "Asics spent three million dollars and eight years--three more than it took the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb--to invent the awe-inspiring Kinsei, a shoe that boasts, 'multi-angled forefoot gel pods,' a 'midfoot thrust enhancer,' and an 'infinitely adaptable heel component that isolates and absorbs impact to reduce pronation and aid in forward propulsion'" (170).
The chapter traces the history of the running shoe in terms primarily of Nike, showing that well-intentioned technologies had serious negative consequences, and that various research continued to question these technologies. Not an expert except concerning my own experience, I was completely taken in by that chapter.
Earlier on, the book achieves a similar cogency after narrating the forays of the Tarahumara into the challenges of the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado. While the Leadville narrative is interesting, it is after that, in Chapter 15, that McDougall--at his best--questions the recent trends in running. Using Coach Vigil, noted running instructor from southern Colorado, as a touchstone for the vision of running as a form of love and joy, the discussion notes that in the 70s, runners such as Frank Shorter made great advances. Soon after, shoes became more developed and endorsements became more lucrative, while long distance running achievements in the western world lagged behind the achievements of their forbearers. While there is likely some counter-evidence that should be sifted through, the book offers a challenging thesis, that there's an inverse relationship between commercialization/civilization and successful long distance running.
It is this realization that began to inform various training approaches, including Chi running and the POSE method, approaches that illustrate an almost spontaneous appearance of thoughtful antidotes to the excesses of heel-striking, jogging, and other inefficient movements (206).
While this book could have become perhaps another method book--which might not be a bad thing, given that the expository chapters such as 15 and 25 are so good--it chose to remain a narrative. And it is the last quarter of the book that ties together so many loose ends, bringing a handful of ultramarathoners to Mexico to join the Tarahumara (also known as the Rarámuri) for a rigorous run through the Mexican canyons, competitive but not commercial, a run most likely forgotten except for the memorializing effort provided by this book.
last updated: 2011/03/29
When I reviewed Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, I ignored two major characters in his book that have belatedly come into my field of vision. One is Caballo Blanco, also known as Micah True. He plays a large role in McDougall's book, and has now passed on to what might be hoped to be longer trails and wider canyons, having died this year.
The other character is Scott Jurek, who is—as was Caballo Blanco—a resident of Boulder, Colorado. It was in Boulder that I heard Scott speak after a local fun run, and shortly after that I read his book, surprised that I had not taken more notice of him in McDougall's book.
Eat & Run is a book I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in either long-distance running or stories of tough beginnings leading to real successes later in life.
The book would also would be of interest to any vegan, particularly one who wanted a response for critics who think a balanced, high-protein, high-energy vegan diet is impractical. Scott has given the lie to such thinking, proving time after time that he is able to maintain his stamina and speed over long distances covering tortuous terrain. Skimming his "Ultramarathon Race History" at the end of the book, I see pages of runs that range between 50k and 160k, punctuated by the U.S. record for a 24-hour distance of 267k (165.7 miles) in 2010.
The last feat, being a test of the mental capacity to resist boredom as well as the physical capacity to keep moving, might make one question the psychology of the runner, which is something Scott himself does in various ways through the book. Whatever the motivations for running are, it is toward the end of the book that he takes a journey through trails in the Grand Canyon to once again find the joy that gets lost along the professional way (a liability in any sport, probably).
Outside of some necessary biographical chapters, each chapter follows a simple structure. It narrates an especially memorable or educational ultra marathon. The chapters usually conclude with a few paragraphs of carefully selected running tips, followed by one of his favorite vegan recipes. This structure makes the book eminently readable and, at the same time, helpful to the novice runner or vegan (or both).
The books appears to maintain quite an honest account of Scott's career. The following examples assured me of this fidelity:
his difficulties as the son of a harsh and stubborn father
his friendship with Dusty, who may be at times faithful, inspiring, and also irritatingly crass
accusations of Scott's failure to make wise decisions when he was pacing Brian Morrison in the 2006 Western States 100
the loss of his first wife who told him frankly that he wasn't funny and he wasn't interesting (193)
the recognition of greater runners: "The greatest Spartathlon champion was—and probably always will be—home-grown. Twenty-six-year-old Yiannis Kouros . . ." whose award for the Spartathlon was withheld for several days because of suspicions he could have arrived with such an early finish only by cheating
This book is inspirational, in that it shows that sometimes pain is something to be greeted and endured. It might not convert the reader to ultramarathons nor to veganism. It isn't attempting either. But it can help the amateur runner push a little harder on the next run or the pescatarian add a few more vegetables to the next meal.
last updated: 2012/09/28
This book portrays one man in North Carolina whose consciousness is split between enjoying nature through immersion and reforming society through example and precept. Reflecting on the man's family, including his unaccepting father, his supportive mother, and his disciplinarian grandfather, the author suggests how much easier it is for a man to leave civilization than to leave his family's influence. True to its title ("Last" and "American"), the book provides a historical dimension, fitting Eustace Conway into a lineage of true American men, including Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Lewis, and Clark. The historical lines suggest that the traits that make for this American man are also traits that lead to frustration and alienation. Or is it the reverse?.
As I read, I wished the narrator of The Last American Man could have remained distinct from the character she was describing. Increasingly, though, the two merge, making the narration colloquial and clichéd. Referring to Eustace's search for food while on a long hike, she concludes a paragraph with the statement that he was "starving to death." He certainly wasn't, although he might have felt that way. He might, elsewhere, have used words such as "bullshit" and "goddam," but there was nothing to indicate why the narrator relies on the same language, although she does. About half way through the book, I decided to declare a moratorium on referring to people "hanging around" or two people "sticking together." Perhaps I've been reading too many 19th century writings lately, but, for whatever reason, I expected a narration that drew less attention to itself and its own kinship to the culture being described.
In spite of this objection, I recall some events are told quite well, including a series of failed relationships that Eustace had embarked upon, each obtaining about a paragraph to trace the rising and falling action (Valerie, Mandy, Marcia, Dale, Jenny, Amy, Tonya, and Carla) (140-143). Eustace's relationships with his two brothers and one sister are described memorably, showing that the siblings are both interested in and—at the same time—unable to be close to Eustace (236-239). Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that some of the best narration involves the relational side of Eustace's life, because that is the side where the narrator was forced to keep her distance from her subject, the side that Eustace had not mastered and for which Eustace could not begin to provide an adequate explanation.
last updated: 2012/12/30
Published in 2006, this book re-tells the story of the Uruguayan rugby team (The Old Christians' team) who, along with friends and family, crashed above 11,000 feet in the Andes on October 13, 1972. It's a re-telling of the incident that was narrated in the book Alive (1974). It attempts to correct some of the impressions as they were recorded in the earlier book, but, to a greater extent, provides an internal, subjective view of the incident (from the viewpoint of Nando Parrado, who led the expedition across a 17,000 high peak down to a valley in Chile).
The title's "Miracle" (El Milagro) was supplied by the popular way of referring to the incident, and not by the author, who remains ambivalent concerning the role of God or the supernatural in his survival. Any adherence to divine providence (exhibited by several of the other survivors) is challenged, in the author's mind, by the lack of providential protection for his mother and younger sister. What he learns in full from the experience is that, on one hand, death is the common denominator of everyone's existence, while love is the divisor that separates a meaningless life from a meaningful one. This message was conveyed to him by a fellow victim of the crash, an agnostic socialist who died, but who died with a confidence in love that carried the author through the rest of his life.
The book is written wonderfully well. I grew cold in my bed as I read it and actually turned up the heat in my room while Nando, Roberto, and I descended from the summit (over 15,000 feet), toward civilization, covering a distance of over 44 miles, several of which required rest stops every few feet. Nando Parrado himself writes and speaks publicly, so it's unclear (to me) the role Vince Rause had in co-authoring the book, but I suspect the faultless grammar and succinct style are a result of him. (Rause, from the US, also co-authored the book Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (2001), whose subject matter experts were medical doctors.)
I fully recommend this book if you, like a Shakespearean character in a tragi-comedy, want to come close—at least mentally—to death, but do not want to die.
last updated: 2016/04/11
Only a note on this book. By the author of Doctor on Everest (2000), this newer book extends Dr. Kamler's unique viewpoint as a medically trained, physically able adventurer to several other climates and terrains (including desert, jungle, and ocean).
The technique of the book is to begin narrating a harrowing experience (sometimes the author's) and to analyze the factors of survival at work from a medical point of view. One can learn how the bends occur underwater, as well as how pulmonary edema occurs at high altitude (to name a few maladies).
At times mental laziness caused me to breeze past the anatomical discussions, although they dip no further into technical details than a non-medical reader like myself could follow. My interest was more on the situations themselves—the things movies are made of.
One element that grew tiresome to me, although it probably would be unnoticed by many readers, is the recurrent reliance on "natural selection." While I do not care to explicate the patterns—and feel no need to persuade others of these—it struck me that "natural selection" explained everything and was explained by everything. Particular mechanisms and physical attributes gave evidence to the role of natural selection, and the theory of natural selection explained why those mechanisms were either present or not present in a particular instance. My quarrel is not with the theory but with its exclusiveness. The book allots some room for mysticism (life-giving chants and inexplicable alternative medicines), but one imagines that if more were known, these, too, could be fitted into the naturalistic thesis. Perhaps this is all one should expect these days. But the recurrence seemed ultimately dogmatic and didn't allow for a universe with a creative intelligence guiding at least some of its development.
last updated: 2009/01/17
About the titles: as the "Author's Note" (ix-x) explains in greater detail, the initial title, Racing the Antelope, was changed because of not one, but two other books published at nearly the same time, each also bearing a form of "run" and "antelope" in the title. The likelihood of confusion was too great.
About the author: Bernd Heinrich loves both animals and running, being qualified, by training and certification, to write about the two together. A few decisions as he reached adulthood hint at the kind of person he became (disciplined, courageous, and independent). He distinguished himself from his father (an entomologist) by choosing to be, instead, a zoologist who studies beetles (15). The fact that such a marginal difference is recalled by Bernd as a fairly radical step suggests how rigid his father's thinking was. His notable rebellion against his father occurred around that time when—against his father's advice—Bernd enlisted as a paratrooper for the Vietnam War (a fate he never experienced). Born in 1940, he earned his Ph.D. two years before the Olympic marathon was won by Frank Shorter (whom he references several times in the book), placing Bernd in that generation of long-distance American runners who celebrated long-distance running before the activity became more fashionable, as it is today. The only endorsement Bernd ever sought or received was from Ocean Spray, as a result of his reliance on cranberry juice during his 100 kilometer run.
About the book: this book is written by a scientist for readers who care about nature, non-technical science, and running. Being a zoologist, the author has both an eye for nature and a technical vocabulary for describing it. His writing will most easily engage those who are already intimate with the world of insects, birds, and various mammals, as is illustrated by this passage, which culminates with a poetic jingle: "Tiger beetles stay in sunshine to maintain a high body temperature by basking, and if they are hot enough they may fly instead of run . . . . The wood pigeons coo, a jay screams raucously, a raven croaks. The chaffinches and the chiffchaffs sing" (32).
His chapter "Ultramarathoners of the Sky," lucidly describes the flight patterns of birds who migrate annually from the Arctic nearly to Antarctica and back. Even readers with no interest in running could easily be absorbed by the astonishing feats and survival mechanisms this chapter reveals.
So also is the case with his description of how camels manage to prolong their travel in the desert with minimal water in maximal heat. In "The Camel's Keys to Ultraendurance," we find one asset is their ability to urinate saltier fluid than can humans, thus not requiring as much water to eliminate toxic byproducts. Another aid for camels is their hump, which provides concentrated food (not water), and life-saving shade, much as the human head, with its hair, helps protect humans.
Most chapters provide a mixture of a bit of Bernd's running biography combined with longer segments of natural description, inferences, and analogies. By the end of the book, every major element of running, including respiration, metabolism, fast and slow twitch muscles, stride, gait, temperature regulation, and motivation, is analyzed relative to the way other animals successfully manage one or more of these elements.
Along the way, Bernd weaves some of these anatomical observations together into an evolutionary biological hypothesis of why humans are well suited for both short and long distance running. The short distances can of course be explained as a defense mechanism against predators. These distances require the fast twitch muscles powered anaerobically. The long distance running—given the running habits of other animals that might have been the motivation behind the run—is explained best as a predatory habit of humans, one that allows man to outlast faster animals with the result of ultimately killing and eating them. A long distance race is, to Bernd, a modern hunting expedition, the prey being the finish line, which grows more valuable the longer the race and/or the faster the pace, relative to the individual runner.
The discussion of diet emphasizes, among other things, the merits of meat as a food for long distance running, one paragraph concluding, "And the more I ran, the more I craved greasy pork chops" (209). Meat is presented as both a source of calories and a source of many other nutrients, including fats, minerals, and vitamins. Bernd does admit, "This is not to say that we absolutely need meat. We can also get the same nutrients from vegetable sources or pills, but proper eating then takes much greater effort" (209). This effort has been realized and documented since the publication of Why We Run with Scott Jurek's Eat and Run. It may be with some relief that the scientist in Bernd forced the omnivore in Bernd to make this concession to vegetarianism.
The book culminates with the 100 kilometer race in Chicago (1981), Bernd's antelope. That race is hinted at from the beginning of the book, when, during a 50 kilometer race, the author passes the "then-current U.S. National 100-kilometer record holder" (ix). Upon passing him, the author wondered "if, just possibly, I had the potential to race well at long distances." Not only does he run well at long distances, but he writes well about those runs. The final chapter, "The Race," is worth waiting for. It substantiates, at least in part, the meditations and musings about the animal kingdom that precede it. And it provides a few philosophical reflections. At one point in the run, Bernd writes,
I'm still passing people on successive loops who are miles behind me in the race. Bystanders can't tell who is up front from who is way back in the pack. Just as in real life. (257)
Finally, he is elated by one thing, an expectation that looks back to the recent death of his friend with cancer and ahead to this own inescapable mortality, "This will end soon" (258).
Bernd Heinrich and Scott Jurek share on culinary experiment in common: they have both relied on olive oil as a primary food source during a long run (and they both have determined to never do that again).
My copy of Why We Run was a gift from Dee, of Dee's Coffee Company, Puerto Vallarta.
last updated: 2013/01/29
This is a story by a woman who was raised without a reliable father, who, at the age of twenty-two, lost her mother to cancer, who compensated for the lack of a father's love through promiscuity, who destroyed an outwardly good marriage through acts of adultery, who became involved in heroin use, who had an abortion without apparent grief, and who attempted to break away from these darker elements of life by hiking over eleven hundred miles. The miles lie along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
Both the life that the author had lived and the trail that she hiked were difficult. The interest in the book lies in the authenticity it achieves. The prose infrequently seems masterful, but it never sinks below being clear and serviceable.
One of the finest statements of the book occurs toward the end, where Cheryl writes, "I had arrived. I'd done it. It seemed like such a small thing and such a tremendous thing at once . . . " (309). The antecedent for "it" is the completion of her long hike, but "it" could also apply to the writing of the book.
Wild lacks the humor and elegance of Bill Bryson's 1998 A Walk in the Woods, about his adventure on the Appalachian Trail, but Wild also lacks the meanness of Bryson's book, which pokes fun at others about as frequently as he and his hiking partner decide to take a break from the trail. The tone of Wild is anything but judgemental, and this humility may endear readers to the book.
While the book is a story about Cheryl's salvation, it rarely touches on anything transcendental. There are some prayers that could be as easily construed as curses, and there are a few encounters with new age mysticism that is neither affirmed nor discredited. But on the whole, the form of salvation offered depends on subjecting oneself to the right types of pain and enduring that pain until new pleasures arise.
To those interested in the Pacific Crest Trail, quite a few anecdotes are offered. Certain parts of the trail, as well as some jeep roads leading one off the snowy parts of the trail, are described in detail. The year during which Cheryl hiked the trail, 1995, was a year during which accumulated snow shut down the High Sierras for all but the hardiest of hikers. Not only did she bypass the most snowy parts, but she had always planned to start the trail north of the Mexican border and to end it at the Washington border. There is no pretense, ever, about hiking the entire trail, "A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long" (4).
The author echoes many other through hikers of America's long trails in noting that natural beauty along with any philosophical reflection frequently fades next to thoughts about either the next grocery store miles up the trail or the immediate pain of taking the next step. For Cheryl, it was often the thought of the next bottle of Snapple that both distracted her from her environment and encouraged her to endure it. Apparently, she carried a backpack that was disproportionately heavy for her body, heavier than any other pack encountered on the trail, and ultimately addressed by her as "Monster." Her feet suffered unusual pain, perhaps a result of the weight she carried and the fit of her boots, which, incidentally, REI replaced in the middle of her journey (and in one size larger, at her request).
A memorable piece of dialogue occurs when she is hitchhiking back toward the trail and is interviewed on the side of the highway by a journalist. He is interviewing hobos, he says, and insists on interviewing her although she insists more and more vehemently that she is not a hobo. At the end of the comical interview, he hands her a "Standard-issue hobo care package," (181) which contains a can of beer and some snacks. "'But I'm not a hobo,' I echoed for the last time, with less fervor than I had before, afraid he'd finally believe me and take the standard-issue hobo care package away."
The ultimate pain behind Cheryl's drive to hike the Pacific Crest Trail was the death of her mother, at age forty-five. Toward the end of the hike, her mother's birth date arrives, and, along with it, an internal psychodrama, during which the daughter finally accuses the (highly devoted) mother of her failings. This passage is well written, convincing, and makes the end of the book more credible. While the end of the hike is perfectly credible (she sits down at an ice cream store in Cascade Locks, Oregon, and eats a chocolate-vanilla twist cone), the end of the book projects life changes that implicitly arose from the long hike, but which cannot be attributed to the narration of the hike itself. These auspicious changes include a marriage and family that strongly contrast with Cheryl's previous life style. But they are credible, not only because she confronted her conflict and grief toward her mother, but also because over fifteen years transpired between the time she hiked the trail and published the story of the hike. This retrospectivity lends her the luxury of authority: she can tell us not what she hoped would unfold, but what unfolded in the years to follow. And there is no reason for the reader to doubt that she gives a reliable outline of the trajectory her life has taken.
last updated: 2012/11/14
Created 2008/06/07, Last updated 2013/01/29©
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