The best running book ever?

A review of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. By Christopher McDougall. 287 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, 2009. $24.95.

Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen is about so many things. It starts with the writer’s quest to beat a maddening series of running injuries, joins with anthropologists and evolutionary biologists in tracking down the primordial roots of man’s unique capacity for ultra endurance running, cites a great deal of scientific evidence supporting the theory that barefoot running is superior to and the antidote for space-age, over-teched running shoe syndrome, explains why the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico are the world’s purest runners, and a culminates with a rip-roaring virtually secret 50-mile match race between ultra legend Scott Jurek and selected U.S. ultra runners and the best of the Tarahumara runners in the rugged hills of Copper Canyon arranged by a mysterious, shadowy but pure-hearted man known as Caballo Blanco.

If anyone seeking a technical manual for running faster with easy-on-the-mind bullet points and perfectly digestible chapter summaries and spreadsheet-style workout plans is still reading by accident, stop now. This is a complex but riveting tale told by a master storyteller that aims for the heart, perfectly mixes complex science and physiology with amazingly wild-but-true characters and endless laughs.

About 50 pages into my first reading, I thought this must be a roman a clef written by a running nut who had channeled the best of Jack Kerouac, Carlos Castaneda, Tom Wolfe, and Tom Robbins, with touches of Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez thrown in. But when I checked the names and dates and records of the people in the book, and McDougall’s background as a regular contributor to Men’s Health who’s written for Esquire, the New York Times Magazine and Outside, I had to acknowledge this stunning screed was a work of non-fiction crafted by a writer of considerable passion and skills.

OK, so the last paragraph was a tiny bit over the top. But swept away by this great story, it’s a perfectly natural reaction to the way this book makes these events come alive.

Along the way, swept up by his desperate love of running, McDougall dives into the scientific and evolutionary nitty gritty of what led the first humans to run. About two million years ago, skinny, hairless Homo erectus evolved parallel with the much more muscular, powerful and adapted to extremes of weather Neanderthal. Aided by sweat glands and a nuchal ligament that anchored the skull and kept the head still while running, our ancestors had a new weapon – the ability not to outrun but to outlast far faster game with something anthropologists call persistence hunting, whereby our ancestors ran for hours and tracked down game with less adaptive endurance skills. In the process, Homo erectus also prevailed in the long run over the eventually extinct Neanderthal.

McDougall brings this scientific material to life with true-life characters like Louis Liebenberg of Noordhoek, South Africa, a student of applied mathematics who had a theory that running was the quality that unlocked all the higher qualities like language, art and science that made us human -- and who ran with Bushmen in the Kalahari on daylong persistence hunts. Plus David Carrier, a student of evolutionary biology under professor Dennis Bramble at the University of Utah, who tested out some of the same theories on long runs hunting antelope in the Wasatch Mountains.

In his quest to conquer injury and fulfill his love of running, McDougall also introduces his readers to an all-star cast of mainly outlier running theorists, physiologists and coaches such as legends like Arthur Lydiard and Joe Vigil who find various facets of primordial runners methods superior to roday's space age tech and highly cushioned shoes.

But science aside, this is a story about runners with soul. The spunky heroine of this tale is then 21-year-old University of North Carolina dropout Jenn “Mookie” Shelton who set the ultrarunning world on fire with record setting wins in her first ultra, a 17:34 second place overall at the Old Dominion 100-mile run, and a blazing 14:57 at the Rocky Raccoon 100. Shelton is soul runner whose Buddhist inclinations disdained the predicatble nature of a regular marathon. She was the girl who might have sprung full blown from the head of a running Tom Robbins, decorated with a vampire bat tattoo on her arm, who likes to race with a recording of Beat poet Alan Ginsberg reading his epic “Howl” omn her iPod, who loved margaritas and veggie burgers, and was banned from rugby parties as “too wild.” Jenn and boyfriend Billy “Bonehead” Barnett met when they were both lifeguards in Virginia Beach and who both loved surfing, Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and the poetry of Charles Bukowski.

Equal heroes from wildly different cultures are multiple Western States winner and Badwater Champion Scott Jurek and local Tarahumara running legend Arnulfo. While Jurek came from modern Western society, he clearly shares more spiritual qualities with the humble Tarahumara as evidenced by his preference to engage in an unknown event for free than to hawk his book on Letterman and rack up appearance fees at corporate outings. Arnulfo, shy and noble, runs with a spirit of camaraderie and community in traditional Tarahumara garb of bright cotton shirt, a loose skirt and and sandals.

But the magical character who draws all these disparate characters together in an unlikely bridging of cultures in these remote canyons is El Caballo, the White Horse. As the story goes, the reader finds that Caballo is a rugged Anglo took up boxing for money to pay for college at Humboldt State where he studied eastern religions and Native American studies. He left a budding boxing and kickboxing career for long distance running. When he encountered the Tarahumara at the Leadville 100 Trail Race, he decided to follow them back to their Copper Canyon home and follow their ways.