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More on “Born to Run” (the book)

March 27, 2010

On February 2nd, I posted an entry that scolded Christopher McDougall for his treatment of injury rates among runners. That entry was supposed to be a lead-in to a more general evaluation of McDougall’s book Born to Run, which I haven’t had time to write until now.

The short version of my review is that I agree with what Dan Zak said in the Washington Post:

A relentless and experienced reporter, McDougall dramatizes situations he did not directly witness, and he does so with an intimacy and an exactness that may irk discerning readers and journalistic purists. “Born to Run” uses every trick of creative nonfiction, a genre in which literary license is an indispensable part of truth-telling. McDougall has arranged and adrenalized his story for maximum narrative impact. Questions crop up about the timing of events and the science behind the drama, but it’s best to keep pace with him and trust that — separate from the narrative drama — we’re actually seeing a glimpse of running’s past and how it may apply to the present and the future.

Like Zak, I think that some of the book’s general themes ring true irrespective of the liberties taken with certain details. In the following passage, for example, McDougall expertly captures the sense that running can feel like the most natural thing in the world — that, indeed, we were born to do it:

Even though I haven’t read The World According to Garp in twenty years, I’ve never forgotten one minor scene, and it ain’t the one you’re thinking of: I keep thinking back to the way Garp used to burst out his door in the middle of the workday for a five-mile run. There’s something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time.

As I came across various questionable details in the book — some minor, some not — I started to wonder whether McDougall is simply a good storyteller who has no understanding of hypotheses, evidence, and biases. I don’t think that’s true, though. The following excerpt, among others, suggests that the author is quite capable of distinguishing speculation from genuine evidence:

Privately, David Carrier knew the Running Man theory had a fatal flaw…. The problem was this: Chasing an animal to death is evolution’s version of the perfect crime. Persistence hunting (as it’s known to anthropologists) leaves behind no forensics — no arrowheads, no spear-nicked deer spines — so how do you build a case that a killing took place when you can’t produce a corpse, a weapon, or a witness? Despite Dr. Bramble’s physiological brilliance and Dr. Lieberman’s fossil expertise, there was no way they could prove that our legs were once lethal weapons if they couldn’t show that someone, somewhere, had actually run an animal to death. You can spout any theory you want about human performance (“We can suspend our own heartbeats! We can bend spoons with our brains!”) but in the end, you can’t make the shift from appealing notion to empirical fact if you don’t come up with the goods.

This is followed by a riveting account of persistence hunting as experienced by Louis Liebenberg of South Africa, who accompanied a tribe of Kalahari bushmen on numerous hunts.

But while McDougall may have some understanding of the scientific method, his book seems oblivious to numerous facts that don’t quite line up with the story he’s trying to tell. This passage from page 79 is as good a place to start as any:

Ultraunning seemed to be an alternative universe where none of planet Earth’s rules applied: women were stronger than men; old men were stronger than youngsters; Stone Age guys in sandals were stronger than everybody.

Let’s consider each of these three claims separately. First, “women were stronger than men.” McDougall mentions examples such as Ann Trason nearly winning the Leadville 100 and the Western States 100, but the bulk of the evidence shows that the best women are not closer to the best men than you’d predict based on their differing speeds in shorter races. Let’s take two of America’s most prestigious ultras, the JFK 50 and the Western States 100, as examples. The women’s course record for JFK is 43 minutes slower than the men’s record, and the closest any woman has come to the male winner in recent years is 38 minutes — Anne Lundblad in 2005, chasing Howard Nippert. At Western States, the women’s record is a full two hours slower than the men’s record, and 2006, when Nikki Kimball finished 69 minutes behind Graham Cooper, is the only recent year where any woman finished in the top three overall. My point is not to diminish the achievements of these or any other women, but simply to note that there’s no great mystery here. The fastest men are faster than the fastest women, just as you’d expect.

How about the statement that “Old men were stronger than youngsters”? There is some truth in this; as runners age, they lose speed more rapidly than endurance, so some major ultramarathons have been won by people in their 40s and 50s, whereas that is rarely seen at major marathons. Skipping ahead to page 239, though, McDougall makes a big deal of the fact that the average 2004 New York City Marathon finish time of 19-year-olds was the same as that of 64-year-olds. How can that be true? Well, among other factors, most of the country’s fast 19-year-olds aren’t running the New York City Marathon because they’re on their college cross-country teams, preparing for conference championships and such. If you held a special marathon limited to 19-year-olds and 64-year-olds, and offered large cash prizes for the top finishers, my money would be on the 19ers.

The statement that “Stone Age guys in sandals were stronger than everybody,” likewise, is not completely wrong but certainly overstated. The accomplishments of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, the “Stone Age guys in sandals,” are impressive. But when McDougall declares, on the basis of the 1993 and 1994 Tarahumara victories at the Leadville 100 (a fairly high-profile race, but not one resembling a world championship), that “The Tarahumara … had proven themselves, indisputably, the greatest ultrarunners on earth” (page 104), he’s going way too far. Can’t we marvel at their strength and spirit without pretending that they have no rivals in the rest of civilization?

Having shared trails and sidewalks with Scott Jurek for the last decade or so, I know him fairly well, and McDougall’s (flattering) portrait of him is largely consistent with my impressions. But is Jurek really one of America’s most reclusive ultrarunners, as McDougall claims on page 133? No way. Reclusive people don’t maintain official websites with their contact information, and they certainly don’t host trail running camps open to the public. McDougall also says that getting to the Copper Canyon Marathon (in the Tarahumara’s homelands) was so risky that “No elite runner would take the risk; it wasn’t just career suicide, it was suicide suicide.” I don’t really believe that either. Jurek may be a free spirit, but he’s not the kind of guy who’d risk his life for a race. Furthermore, to make the Tarahumara-vs.-Jurek race seem as monumental as possible, McDougall presents Jurek as “virtually unbeatable” (page 125). That was basically true for 100- to 150-mile races between 1999 and 2008; the showdown with the Tarahumara, however, was only 50 miles, a distance at which Jurek loses as frequently as he wins, in part because he uses these “shorter” races as tune-ups for the really long ones.

Jurek is not the only ultramarathoner portrayed with less-than-perfect accuracy by McDougall. As a group, he says that ultrarunners “don’t get hurt and never seem to burn out” (page 190), but I can think of many examples to the contrary. I’m also skeptical when McDougall says that a Norwegian sailor named Mensen Ernst ran from Paris to Moscow in 14 days in 1832, averaging 130 miles a day, and then ran from Constantinople to Calcutta in two months, averaging 90 miles a day (page 201). I don’t know what source McDougall relied upon for this information, but he should know better than to accept these numbers unquestioningly, since they would be far superior to the world records of Yiannis Kouros, the greatest multiday runner of the modern era.

Finally, there is McDougall’s deep-seated distrust of the running shoe industry. He says that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot” (page 168). He supplies a quote by Dr. Dan Lieberman linking running shoes to knee injuries but cites no peer-reviewed scientific studies to support this grandiose accusation. A more mainstream perspective, provided by Dr. William L. Jungers in a “news & views” piece for Nature, is that “There is no hard proof that running in shoes, especially hi-tech or PCECH (pronation control, elevated cushioned heel) versions, causes injuries.”

I could go on and on, but I think my general concern is clear. Misleading statements like those above make me wonder about McDougall’s reporting on topics that I don’t know anything about, like the Tarahumara people themselves. Although the Tarahumara are apparently a fascinating and admirable people, I’m not sure I can fully trust McDougall’s descriptions of them. Is it true that the Tarahumara get outrageously drunk at parties (page 15), yet have no problems with addiction or crime (page 14)? Perhaps — or perhaps that’s yet another exaggeration.

I admit to being fussier than most people in expecting a high level of factual precision. But for those who think that near-perfect accuracy is incompatible with entertainment value, I give you The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb. This story of the quest for a sub-4-minute mile is told marvelously but with careful attention to detail. All quoted conversations are from previously published sources or Bascomb’s own interviews, and the extensive bibliography makes clear the meticulousness of his research. Born to Run is a good book, but The Perfect Mile is better.

8 comments

  1. Well said, Greg! Thanks for posting this. Not sure it will have any affect on the sheeple, but glad to see the critique written down.


  2. I think most knowledgeable runners understand those points. At least I hope so. I questioned things (portrayals, facts) while reading the book, but still loved it. A crackin' good yarn. Beyond that, I see the book as a bible of sorts to convert the unitiated who won't question the validity of his accounts. But maybe since Frey people are more lenient.


  3. great write up greg! someone tells me to read this book pretty much daily. like you i know a lot of the characters in it and have heard it's positively overstated and overdone. i liked this so much i tweeted it!http://twitter.com/theMattHart


  4. Good points. However, I don't take offense at any one of Chris' 'errors' or exaggerations. The book is getting more people to not only think about running again but to actually get up and try it than most every other book, by my observation. That's huge. I wouldn't say that the end justifies the means, but when the means is so transformative and as damn enjoyable as reading Born to Run is…Really appreciate hearing more "real" information, though, from folks like you on the inside. Thanks again for sharing!


  5. Well written Greg. Sure, I enjoyed Born to Run, but it's no Perfect Mile. Bascomb's book is engaging AND accurate and the prose is much more refined. I tirelessly recommend it to anyone who will listen.


  6. Great write up Greg!… but still a very entertaining book. I listened to the audio version while on some long runs and really enjoyed it.I remember questioning some of the points you bring up when I heard them myself, particularly men vs. women, 19 vs 64, and the guy running for weeks for 100's a mile a day.


  7. […] Just as Born to Run questioned (in its entertaining but overblown way) whether we should trust shoe companies to tell us what our footwear needs are, this book […]


  8. […] follow it, so I rated my past critiques of Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes, Born to Run (part 1; part 2) by Christopher McDougall, “Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners” […]



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