Born to Run? Maybe. Love to Run? Yes.

It occurred to me a month ago, while on a short practice run before the 5.3k I planned to run a few days later, that I’ve been running for over a year now. If you had asked me just two years ago if I’d ever envisioned myself as a runner, you’d first get a loud and incredulous laugh and then an emphatic no. For as long as I can remember (before this past year), I’ve hated running. As a child, I stuck to sports that involved little to no running, like softball and volleyball. I absolutely loathed the “fun runs” that our high school P.E. teacher required us to suffer through—for a grade no less!—and no matter how many people talked about that “epic runner’s high” that comes after  pounding the pavement, I could never fathom why anybody would want to put themselves through such misery.

I still deeply hated running when I first heard Christopher McDougall talking on the radio during the long drive between Kansas and my parents’ house in 2009. Deep in the middle of Bible thumping territory, where your selection of radio stations narrows to painfully hopeful Christian music, angry preachers delivering hell fire and damnation, and twangy country ballads, I stumbled upon McDougall talking about his now famous book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. I was quickly enveloped in the interview as McDougall described the never-ending list of running injuries that had permanently placed him on the DL list and his amazing journey to discover both the secret of running and the most legendary runners in the world: the Tarahumara Indians. I looked out over the miles of road slipping below my tires, but what I saw before me were the bare feet of the Tarahumara shuffling over the jagged trails of the Copper Canyons, McDougall and his motley crew of superathletes jouncing over dirt roads in a beat up Mexican bus, and the shoe-clad feet of the superathletes lined toe-to-bare toe with the Tarahumara before the epic 50-mile race that serves as the book’s climax.

When I finally sat down this spring to read McDougall’s full account of the ultramarathon that took place between the Tarahumara and his team of world-renowned super runners, the experience was much different than I anticipated. Now a runner myself, I expected to love every page, to be fully convinced and riveted by every magical word. Instead, I found myself alternately enthralled and turned off by McDougall’s story, my reactions as severe and extreme as the Copper Canyons where most of the book is set. In a sentence, Born to Run is a love letter to running riddled with medical studies, running history, and personal anecdotes. Although the tale McDougall weaves is a compelling one, his sometimes movie-esque writing style and inclination for cliff hangers often had me wondering about the authenticity of the book’s happenings. By the time I finished the book, I found that everything I’d read could be safely filed into two categories: things I’d like to believe  and things I know to be absolutely true.

Things I’d Like to Believe

In this first category is a theme that McDougall touches on frequently throughout the book: running makes us better people. While describing the life and career of Joe Vigil, an Olympic running coach, McDougall writes about this philosophy, one which he obviously shares.

“Vigil couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept telling him that there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to loverunning. The engineering was certainly the same: both depending on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding…. Perhaps all our troubles—all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.” 

After reading that, who wouldn’t want to take up running, right? Throughout the book, McDougall uses various case studies and tribal histories to illustrate that we are born-to-be runners trapped in a modern, mostly sedentary culture. While the science is interesting enough, I was never fully convinced by its folklore-like nature or the way that McDougall substitutes hodged podged information for solid facts. I personally found one of McDougall’s subthemes to be far more realistic and believable: running promotes emotional intelligence. Although that exact phrase never appears on the page, it’s a theme that McDougall alludes to over and over again. He tells stories of numerous super athletes who somehow manage to do the undo-able—run hundreds of miles in deadly heat or finish marathons while consuming nothing but beer and pizza along the way, for example—and after each account, he returns to the same theory.

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked…. Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

As a new runner—after a year of steady practice, I’ve finally allowed myself the title—I’d like to believe that running cultivates a tolerance for pain and an unfailing physical and emotional endurance unseen in non-runners. Running certainly helped me endure my last painful months in Ecuador, where my running story coincidentally began. Despite the altitude and my constant inability to really catch my breath, I didn’t find it to be so miserable anymore. But then again, I knew a little bit more about misery by then. Other runners and writers have certainly ascribed to this idea, too. As Haruki Murakami so elegantly states in his running-themed memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Of course, McDougall’s most controversial claims center around his now infamous assertions that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot.”  The author makes a solid and believable case for the benefits of barefoot running. It’s not hard to imagine that major shoe companies would exploit runners by peddling overly-fabricated shoes that actually exacerbate running injuries rather than prevent them. However, McDougall’s sardonic tone paired with the large scale barefoot running movement that was born after the book’s release—a movement that undoubtedly generated a significant sum of money for multiple big name shoe companies—does seem a bit suspect. Unfortunately, those claims along with the hodge podge science I mentioned earlier left me with the nagging suspicion that McDougall’s love for running may not have been his only motivation for writing the book.

Things I Know to Be True

Even as I dismissed some of the author’s more extreme claims, I found myself deeply identifying with the few nuggets of truth gleaming amid the exaggerated facts and heavy-handed cliff hangers. Throughout the book, running is portrayed as an ethereal, peaceful, and even sensuous act.  My favorite description of running comes from one of the female super athletes who describes the feeling she experiences while running as something akin to a romance: 

“But yeah, Ann insisted, running was romantic; and no, of course her friends didn’t get it because they’d never broken through. For them, running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans: get on the scale, get depressed, get your headphones on, and get it over with. But you can’t muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it. Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving. And once you break through to that soft, half-levitating flow, that’s when the moonlight and champagne show up: ‘You have to be in tune with your body, and know when you can push it and when to back off,’ Ann would explain. You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing; be aware of how much sweat is beading on your back; make sure you treat yourself to cool water and salty snack and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel. What could be more sensual than paying exquisite attention to your own body?” 

Before this book, romantic isn’t the word I would’ve used to describe running, but I, too, have been lulled into that “cradle-rocking rhythm,” so comfortable that your mind wanders to another place and you barely even realize that you’re moving.  When I run, I find myself in a place void of stress and worry, to-do lists and rushed dinner preparations, corporate criticisms and pressures. For me, running is almost like meditating. As another featured super athlete explains:

“’When I’m out on a long run…the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It’s just time and the movement and the motion. That’s what I love—just being a barbarian, running through the woods.’”

Running has gotten me through painful breakups, debilitating pre-interview nervousness, post bad-work-day frustrations, and relentless culture shock anxiety. Even when I fall out of my running routine for a few days (or weeks, let’s be real), I always come back to it, because running quiets down all the extraneous noise in my life and allows me to think about nothing but my own body, the way I feel right in that moment, and the deep calm that comes with just breathing in and out.

Perhaps the brightest nugget of truth is this: “Ask nothing from your running, and you’ll get more than you ever imagined!”

I started running during my last five months in Ecuador. Not to take on the prestigious title of runner, but to train for my four day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which I had planned to do with my sister in late August. I figured: What better way to prepare for hiking at altitude than to run at altitude? For five months before our expedition, I ran in Loja’s various parks and the city soccer stadium, sometimes passing others—like the Loja police recruits—but, more often, watching others pass me—usually aspiring Olympic speedwalkers. (It’s true. I couldn’t make this up.) I wasn’t running for those size 6 jeans or to improve my already abysmal mile time. I was simply hoping to shield myself against altitude sickness and that paralyzing feeling of desperation that comes when you are in the middle of nowhere and feel like you just can’t take one more step. I had no expectations for my running other than to simply go out and do it, even if that meant taking walking breaks between sprints.  Five months later, I spent four glorious days on the Inca Trail with my sister, and neither of us got altitude sickness. 

To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I continued running even after moving back home to the States. It was still humid and miserable in early September, but my love for running somehow grew and grew. As McDougall said, I asked nothing from my running, and yet I got so much in return: an outlet for stress, patience with myself and others, self-discipline that I never knew I had, the ability to let go of my perfectionism and be proud of both my long and small runs, and more than anything, joy in simply stretching my legs and pushing forward.

For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t, one or the other. I always keep that inner image with me as I write.

—Haruki Marukami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running