Review: Born to Run

Posted: October 3, 2015 in Consciousness, Culture, Idealism, Writing
Tags: , ,

I picked up and read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (2009), which achieved immense popularity after publication but only came into view for me quite recently. I can’t help but to project onto the book or draw from it considerable resonance with themes I have been developing on this blog over the years. By my reading, the book is fundamentally about resolving the mind-body disconnect commonplace in modern, post-industrial society. (The author may not see it that way at all.) The point of entry is the conflict between what our bodies are evolved to do — running long distances in persistent hunts (which I blogged about here) — and what modern medicine insists is highly destructive to the body if not impossible, namely, ultrarunning. However, running is merely the context in which the larger goal to reconnect mind-body occurs. One might even say that the mechanics of our bodies make running something elemental, undeniable, so a natural bridge. Though we (post-)moderns have often lost touch with the sense of our bodies as our selves, locating identity instead in the brain/mind, runners sometimes regain that connection, albeit temporarily, and in the case of the Tarahumara people from the Copper Canyons of Mexico, a people characterized by their running ability, they may never have lost the connection.

If you don’t recognize the notion of mind-body duality, you’re hardly alone. My contention for some years now is that we live too much in our heads and mental noise is increasingly drowning out what the body supplies in day-to-day life with respect to self-knowledge, contentment, and serenity. Think of the Zen of the cat. There may be spiritual aspect, too, but that lies beyond my sensibilities and does not seem to be within the scope of the book, either. Sensitive folks, or sometimes those who have simply been left behind by the incessant struggle of getting and having, may reach toward an unknown horizon in search of something otherwise fulfilling; running is a natural candidate. McDougall tells what amounts to an underground history of the second and third incarnations of U.S. running crazes, not unlike cyclical religious and political awakenings and reawakenings. One can argue whether such fads are part of our deep culture (if often feels that way), responsive to social turmoil, or merely more surface noise. There is nothing conspiratorial about it, but McDougall revels in the lost secrets and unheeded goings-on that constitute the subculture of ultrarunning. Runners’ athletic prowess is hard not to admire, but their compulsive pursuit often feels more than a little unhinged, not at all Zen.

The author employs a whole bag of writerly tricks to engage the reader, as though he distrusts his own subject matter and must resort to storytelling clichés to keep readers teased and entrained. Irritatingly, he starts one story but smash cuts to other tangential stories repeatedly within the larger structure. The stories all tie together, but the thread is interrupted so often that I felt my chain being yanked, which ejected me from the flow to contemplate the seams and joints within the narrative. That style probably works for dull readers, much like the TV news constantly strings viewers from segment to segment with rapid-fire disorientation and discontinuity mixed with flashes of what news is about to be reported, but first … this (typically, a word from sponsors). The best aspect of McDougall’s many diversions from the main story arc are what amount to detective stories behind body mechanics, running shoe design, persistence hunting, etc. Although they suggest we have arrived at a final understanding of such topics, handily turning conventional wisdom on its head in most cases, I rather suspect that further refinements are inevitable, especially if the real story is mind-body rather than running.

Most of the people profiled in the book suffer from mild to severe character distortion (by modern, post-industrial standards). Perhaps it’s exactly those who abandon or rebel against the dominant paradigm who are redeemed by what they (re)discover beyond. More than a couple of them are just assholes, though. Having done a little additional Internet research on some of the characters, it’s difficult to decide whether ultrarunning is indeed for them redemption or merely the fruitless chasing of lost souls. The unifying character (besides the author), Caballo Blanco or Micah True, died while running wilderness trails, though his autopsy revealed he died from heart disease. Others achieved of a mixture of notoriety and infamy both before and after the publication of the book. McDougall appears to have become a running guru and inspirational speaker, with numerous YouTube videos promoting his books and findings.

In summary, I’m glad to have read the book. Its potboiler style aside, the book has fascinating content and fairly good storytelling. The denouement felt a little incomplete, but then, many detours from the main story were left hanging, so finishing with a 50-mile race in the Copper Canyons may be as good a finale as anything. Being a (lousy) endurance athlete myself, I was encouraged to learn that there is still some opportunity for me to improve my athletic ability. According to the book, the human body doesn’t have to slow down appreciably until the middle 60s. So I’m encouraged that, unlike the steep drop-off in participation in the late fifties typical of endurance athletes, I can keep going a while longer. However, I am seeking elsewhere for mind-body connection.

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