"Born to Run" Author Christopher McDougall
Appalachian Perspective · September 2011
Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.
The following edited transcipt has been prepared from this Appalachian Perspective episode.
Chancellor Ken Peacock: This year's convocation speaker at Appalachian is Chris McDougall, author of the Best Seller "Born to Run." A Harvard graduate, McDougall was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, and has written award-winning articles for the New York Times magazine, Outside, Men's Journal , Esquire and other publications. He is also an avid runner. In search of answers to his question, "Why does my foot hurt?" McDougall came across the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, and the story that ensued formed the basis of "Born to Run." We'll meet this best-selling author coming up on Appalachian Perspective.
KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is Christopher McDougall, author of this year's summer reading book for Appalachian freshman, "Born to Run." Welcome Christopher, it's great to have you on campus.
Christopher McDougall: I've been having a lot of fun, thank you.
KP: Good. Your comments this morning at the convocation were interesting and inspiring. Before we get into the book and some of your philosophies and all from that and life lessons we can take away from your writing, tell us a little bit about you. Where is home, where did you go to undergraduate school?
CM: I live in a place that actually looks pretty similar to Boone. It's Lancaster County, PA, Amish farm country. If you've ever seen the movie Witness, it was filmed in that same area. Originally I'm from Philadelphia. I was a city kid my entire life. I got a really lucky break. My senior year in high school I was a pretty mediocre basketball player. The crew coach came around recruiting big bodies for the rowing team. He said "You, big log, why don't you try out for the team?" Luckily Ivy League schools are way more interested in big rowers than they are in mediocre basketball players. That got me a crack at Harvard and I think it taught me a lesson from that point on, which is just half the battle is just turning up, show up and hope for the best and good things happen.
KP: What did you study at Harvard?
CM: I was a psychology major for about three months until I realized it involved math. I got the heck out of that and switched over to English and enjoyed that so I graduated with a degree in English.
KP: At some point you became this reporter for the Associated Press. How did that happen and where did you go?
CM: Showing up and hoping for the best. I vagabonded around with a bunch of odd jobs for a bunch of years. I was the head of a program for Soviet refugees in Philly. I taught high school English for a year. I did some freelance writing for local papers. A friend of a friend had a job with the AP in Spain. I went to Spain and applied for a job there and ended up getting hired in Portugal, a country I had never been to, a language I didn't speak, for an agency I'd barely heard of. I got the job. My first day on the job, civil war broke out in Angola, which didn't seem to bother me very much until I realized we cover Angola because it's a former Portuguese colony, which was news to me. Through the height of incompetence in a job, lack of preparation, I ended up being AP's correspondent in Portugal and then later in Africa. It was good, about learning hard and fast on the job and trying to swim and not sink.
KP: Did you just have this determination of "I'm going to do this" because you said you'd never done this kind of thing before and here you are covering a civil war?
CM: Determination is an interesting word. You know, I was in my 20s and it just seemed fun and cool and why not give it a try.
KP: At what point did you first become interested in running? Let's see if I have my facts right, in another article I read, not the book, but another article I read about you that you apparently had done some running, you got discouraged with that because of health issues, you gave it up. I think it said you "threw in your Nikes." And then later came back. What happened in that first phase, and the cortisone shots and all that that went on?
CM: I think like most people, I wasn't a runner. I was just a guy who ate a lot of pizza. I ran only as a punishment for whatever I had done the day before. I think a lot of ASU students are probably doing the same thing I did. You basically run as punishment. That's all I was doing. But I was constantly getting hurt and I couldn't figure out why even though I was running, you know, three or four miles three or four times a week. My heel would hurt, my Achilles, my knee, my back; something was always aching. And I would go and see doctors and they'd look at me and say, "Well, what do you expect? Look at the size of you. You're like Shrek. You're, you know six foot four, 250 pounds. Of course you're hurt. Don't run, buy a bike." But then I heard about the Tarahumara. And I thought, how is it these guys are 60 years old running in these goofy little sandals like the ones I'm wearing today, and they're not getting hurt and their running 150 miles at a time. I'm in like my 20s and 30s and I can't run 5 or 10 miles, and that's what really got the wheels spinning.
KP: And yet you don't like marathons, I understand.
CM: Marathons are fine. My difficulty with what marathons have become is they've turned into this moral imperative where if you start to run then you tell anybody, you're guaranteed to have people saying to you, "Have you run a marathon yet? How fast can you run a marathon? Have you qualified for Boston yet?" There's this moral imperative to run fast and run far. 26 miles is really far. So my difficulty with a marathon is, when you learn how to swim, people aren't saying "Have you qualified for the Olympics? Have you swum the English Channel? How fast can you swim the English Channel?" How do you learn how to swim? You get in the water, you play around, you go off the high dive. It's playful, it's fun and you're not pushed to go too far too fast, and that's what happens with running in a marathon. I think the reason a lot of people get discouraged and get hurt is because they're trying to run 26 miles instead of a mile, half a mile. They're not going out with their friends and enjoying it. They're all about what's the time on their watch, and can they run 26 miles. I think we should pull back from that competitive instinct, pull back from that corporatization of running, and get back to what kids do. Kids don't care if they run one mile or 10 miles, they're out there having a good time. So that's my problem with the marathon. Make it playful and I'm all for it.
KP: So you want to remove the competition from it, still running for yourself but there's not the competitive part to it.
CM: Competition comes later. Competition comes after competence. Nobody who's winning the Boston marathon wakes up and decides I can do the marathon in four months. It's a life time of training to get you to the point where now you can compete to win. My difficulty is that people feel the urge, or the desire, or the need to go fast before they've learned how to run properly. So you know, when you jump of a diving board, you better learn how to dive properly before you start going off the cliffs of Acapulco.
KP: So you gave up running for a while. You just said no more of that? How'd you feel at that point in time? What led you back? I read in the book where you were saying I think it was where you were saying about you looked around and you realized that animals run. Dogs on pavement, kangaroos in the jungle, and that analogy with their feet and then why not humans?
CM: Right. Again, you sometimes get this tunnel vision where what you do in 21st century America, you sort of believe is what everyone has done throughout history. And every once in a while you realize no, it hasn't always been this way. Running shoes are a brand new invention. They've only been around since the 1970s. So what was happening in all those years in all those countries before the invention of the modern running shoe? People were running, how were they possibly doing it? Native Americans were running 50-100 miles at a time. That was the Apache triathlon, was to run 50 miles, engage in hand-to-hand combat, steal a bunch of horses and ride back. That was a day at the office for an Apache. So how is it that they're getting away with that in moccasins and we're told we need to have these cushion, motion-controlling shoes? So then I started looking around at the rest of the animal kingdom and when you put into that perspective, you realize there's only one other animal that wears shoes, and that's because we grab them by the leg and hammer them to their feet. So what makes humans so uniquely fragile that we need these cushioned, motion-controlling running shoes? Now, I'm not saying that you don't need protection, a little bit of protection for your feet-that's good technology. Where we got into trouble was when we started to get into the area of correction, where we try to control what the foot does, and elevate the foot, and support the arch, and the rest of that. No other animal on planet Earth wears these kinds of things, and they seem to do really well. They don't get running injuries and we do. So that's what really got the wheels turning in the first place.
KP: This morning in your convocation address, you talked about this group of people, Climbing Grunts. Tell us about those and tell us what they do and your experience with them.
CM: I'd have to recommend another book, called "The Wild Trees," by Douglas Preston. I came across this book by chance, loved it, and it introduced me to a world I'd never heard of before. These are amateur tree explorers. These are guys, one of the greatest tree explorers in the world is a supermarket manager. But he punches off the clock and he goes into the redwood forest and he's got a little laser sighter, and climbing equipment, and what he's trying to locate is the oldest, biggest, tallest tree on the planet. Some of these trees are like 350 feet tall. The only way you can find out if its 350 feet is if you get up there and drop a tape measure down. I became interested in this world. And what's so fascinating about them is very few of these people actually make a living by this, and the only ones who do are just basically the landscapers, tree toppers. The rest of them are just out there for fun, out there for obsession and passion and enjoyment. And I just love the fact that there are guys out there spending their weekends deep in the forest, risking their lives at the top of the trees just because it's a challenge.
KP: Interesting story, interesting, interesting. Also you said this morning, and I think my quote is correct here, "The more certain something is, the more likely it is to be blown up." And you related that to asking young people, any and all of us, young and more senior in years, I think to know when the time is come for you to speak up. You gave an example and all that. Will you share that again, please?
CM: You know, it's the hardest thing in the world to go against what everyone tells you. It's not a question of courage, it's a question of conviction. Do you know your rights? And, you know, we like to look back at certain times in our history, like World War II. Everyone likes to think that they were stopping the Nazis. Well, you didn't know what was going on. The only people who were telling you in Germany what was going on were the Nazis. So your entire perspective of the world was being shoved at you by the people who were trying to control your knowledge of what was happening. So to stand up to something like that took a tremendous amount of questioning and skepticism and conviction and courage. What we've seen recently, in our own time, is look what happened in Walsh in the last few years. We were content to let certain people run the subprime mortgage business and the investment and bond business. Why? Because, these are the best and brightest, these are the smartest financial minds in the country. They know what they're doing. Turns out they don't know what they're doing. They blew it up. That's why I think we are at this opportunity in life where anybody who is telling us something, you got to say to them, "Prove it. Prove it." And I was just thinking because of the anniversary of Sept. 11, imagine you're on that fourth plane flying over Pennsylvania and you're getting information from the ground that terrorists are taking over other plans. If there is a more chaotic uncertain moment in your life, it's that moment. All your life, you're always told on an airplane you sit down and you wait until you're told what to do. These people had a life or death split second decision. Are they either going to think for themselves or are they going to do what they were trained to do? And they thought for themselves. It is a talent that can't be taught, but I think it's a behavior that can be practiced. Particularly now, you're at a university, you're learning a lot, but if they keep that little skepticism and any time a professor tells them something, say, "You know, prove it. How do you know this?" In my small area now I came with running shoes, I was brought up to believe these things are the best. You open up any running magazine, you talk to any sports medicine doctor, they always say, "Before you start running, go to a specialty store, be fitted for these specialty shoes." And no one ever said, "Prove it." It turns out there is no proof. I realize what a ridiculous comparison it is between heroes on an airplane and some mouthy journalist talking about running shoes, but I hope that there is some kind of connection there about this idea of looking for proof and questioning what you're told.
KP: Well, I think there certainly is connection there, and in challenging young people and challenging all people to do what you think is right, speaking up for yourself and for your fellow man, mankind. That's an important lesson. I don't know of anything more important that you emphasized this morning to get across to the students at Appalachian State. That was a great point and certainly well delivered.
CM: I guess that is the point of a liberal arts education. It's to learn, it's to question, and find out how we know things.
KP: Well, so you ran for a while, you stopped, you started back. How did you really get to the Tarahumara Indians? How'd you get there and then what'd you learn from that?
CM: Luckily I was stupid enough to not realize that the way a culture remains reclusive is by being really hard to find, and then not really answering questions when they show up. That didn't dawn on me before I went looking for them. I had been in Mexico on another magazine assignment. I was there trying to locate the families of these pop singers who had vanished. It was a true story, a bizarre story. It was while I was researching that story that I heard about this tribe, the Tarahumara Indians. And these guys are 60, 70, 80 years old and running 150-200 miles at a time. And I thought, "How is this possible?" so I wend down into the Copper Canyons to look for them. I was a pretty grueling trip. And then when I actually arrived there and located the Tarahumara Indians, they wouldn't talk to me. They would basically say nothing, which was pretty discouraging. But they did tell me that there was a guy they called the White Horse. They said, "Go find the white horse, go find the (horse) blanco, maybe he'll talk to you." And I went charging off in search of this White Horse guy, thinking maybe it was a joke, just a gag to get me out of there. But the White Horse exists. He is an American who's been living down in the canyons for about 15 years now. And he was trying to get his arms around something more complex than I had even thought of in the first place, because besides running long distances, the Tarahumara are also remarkable because everything we're struggling with in the world, heart disease, crime, violence, warfare, hypertension, they are immune from. They don't suffer from any of those western difficulties. So what he wanted to find out is what is the cause and effect between lack of crime and running long distances, lack of warfare and suicide and running long distances. That's what he was after. So by finding blanco, I got a window into that world. To me, it's been life changing, because in a very simplistic way it gave me back the use of my legs. I'm able to now get out and exercise and have fun, the way I could when I was five years old, and it had been lost to me for more than half my life.
KP: The Tarahumara Indians, are they healthier? What are you finding in their lives that's different than what we may have here in America and some other places?
CM: I've thought a lot about what makes them different, and I think essentially they are just doing what we humans have done for most of our existence, which is move first, feed second. We are movement creatures. If you take any animal out of the wild and you put it into a zoo, what happens? It has mood disorders and eating problems, sexual disfunctions. You get a very moody panda bear in there, it doesn't want to reproduce. You take the panda out of the cage and stick it back in the jungle, it's going to thrive and survive. I think that's what happened to us as humans. We have very physical, movement oriented bodies, yet we have a brain that is devoted to conserving energy at all cost. Unfortunately, at this point in our existence, the brain is winning the battle. We've found fantastic ways to never move our bodies at all, and the body is suffering. You look at the Tarahumara and other cultures which are still moving, the whole day becomes oriented around moving the body, which means that you're eating falls into place. If you're going to go for a 20 mile run, you're not eating a pound and a half of pasta for lunch. You're sleeping better, you're more relaxed, you're stress is down, you're doing it as a community. Essentially, I think they're just living the way the human animal has always really been created to live.
KP: Barefoot? Do you run barefoot yourself?
CM: I do, I do, and I never thought I would. When I was researching the book, the only barefoot runner I knew was Barefoot Ted, who, if you've read the book you know the guy drinks his own urine. I pretty much end my character summary right there. I never thought I'd follow in his footsteps, but I've found over time that the question is not about what you're wearing on your foot, it's what you're doing with your foot. The best way to learn how to run properly is take the shoe off. Same way if you want to learn how to juggle something, take the glove off. Get that sensory input. Remove the blindfold. Taking the shoe off is like taking off your blindfold.
KP: In addition to the running, which would certainly strengthen heart and cardiac health there, what other things health-wise did you learn from this tribe of super humans?
CM: That's the thing about it is, that you can sort of see the connection between lack of heart disease and running, I get that part. But I didn't get the social benefits. And what I started to realize is that if this is what we are uniquely capable of doing, running long distances, then many other things are true as well. You can't run long distances and try to run another animal to death for food, unless the whole group is out there together, collaboratively. And what you start to find is that maybe by restoring that natural function, we start to get other benefits as well: psychological, social, governmental.
KP: What about their health habits, their eating habits? What can you say that is something you learned that's a good thing to do?
CM: I just want the experience: we're down at the bottom of the canyons, and we've been out there for a week at that point. I was pretty dehydrated and hungry, and we just discovered that we're going to have to hike back up out of this gigantic canyon and go looking for this White Horse guy. I was feeling pretty trashed, I didn't think I could make it. And this guy named Angel says, "Hang on a second, I got something for you." And he scoops up this cup and says, "Here have a drink of this," and I said "Yeah right." It looked like fish eggs in a cup. He said, "No, you'll like it. It's (KLDJL)." And the name rang a bell. There was an explorer from the 1800s named Karl Lubholtz who'd been down in the Bopper Canyons with the Tarahumara, and he had written about this stuff called esquiate. He said, "I was down at the bottom of a mountain and I was exhausted. A Tarahumara woman gave me esquiate and suddenly a new energy flooded through my veins." And I thought, "All right, it was good enough for him, I'll try it." I did drink it and I don't know if it was psychosomatic or if it was actually physiological but I started to feel much better and went up the mountain with no difficulty. So, what is that drink? It is chia, chia seeds. Chia used to be one of the big cash crops of the Americas. The Mexican state of Chiapas is named after chia, it's the Mayan word for power. If you have a chia pet, you are one step away from having chia seeds. Little black seeds. I prefer to soak them in water, and they sort of gel up. But you can eat them in any form at all. Nurtitionally, they are incredibly calorically dense. I can't tell if the boost I'm feeling is from the chia seeds or from the Haagan Daas I ate two hours before that. But nevertheless, I do feel a physical boost from these seeds.
KP: I started trying that. I don't put it in water like that, but I try it on cereal in the mornings. As we talked while ago off camera, I don't really know if that's what's making a difference, but psychologically, psychologically or physical, it really does make a difference. It's not just scooped up like you said in water. Was this mixture in water?
CM: Yes, they were soaked in water. One thing about chia seeds is they will soak up to 10 times their weight in water. They really do look like fish egg. It's a really healthy way to both get nutrition and to rehydrate.
KP: So the tribe itself that you learned from, from eating things, eating habits, and from running. You know, I had taken the name of the book and sort of said, "This tribe born to run." But am I hearing you say it's more than that, that all of us in the human race, that we're sort of born to run?
CM: There's been this anthropological mystery for a long time, which is how did our heads get so big, how did our brains get so big? Our brains soak up like 30 percent of our caloric energy goes straight to the brain. Here's the problem; 2 million years ago you had early humans with no projectile weapons. So, if they were actually going to get enough caloric energy, they had to be killing other animals. But if we didn't have weapons, how are we killing these animals? We weren't chasing them, bashing them with a rock. What were we doing? The evolutionary theory is hwat we were doing is what's known as persistence hunting. You go out on a hot day with a bunchof your buddies, you pick out an antelope, and you chase that antelope until it runs into heat exhaustion. We are uniquely advantaged in the fact that, like you and I more than most people, are free of hair. By this absence of hair, we don't have fur and pelt, so we vent heat by perspiration. Most animals vent heat by respiration. So there comes a certain point where they can either get in oxygen or cool off, but they can't do both at the same time. We can, and that gives us an advantage. So, there is a bery strong anthropological theory that for most of our existence the only natural advantage we had in the wild, we're not strong, we're not fast, we can't swim very well, the one thing we can do that no other creature can do is run really far on a really hot day.
KP: Very interesting. Do you, the born to run, and I like that discussion and that point, the people that we talk to sometimes say "I can't run, I'm clumsy, one foot doesn't get in front of the other." You don't know whether that's an excuse or whether there's something real to that. From, your experience, what about that? What about people that say, "I can't do that, I'm not wired that way"?
CM: I'd say, "Lowest common denominator." I've had sports medicine doctors look me in the face and say "Why are you doing this? You are not meant to run. Look at the size of you. You should not be running. The impact is bad for human bodies, especially when they're that size." If anybody was professionally judged to be not able to run, it was me. I was perfectly happy hearing that because I didn't particularly want to do it either. It's like being told you can't be punched in the face anymore, fine. But what I found is, if you change the perspective, if you learn how to run properly, which you can do by just jogging in your bare feet, and secondly if you remove all the pressure. Don't try to run a marathon, don't try to run fast, just go as far and as fast as you feel like, then it becomes pleasurable again.
KP: After, you know you're back in the running mood now, you've written the book, traveling around doing speaking engagements about it, how has your life changed, from a person that was a reporter for the Associated Press, now a best-selling author, you know, you blew the top off all the rankings in terms of that, with the New York Times best seller list for months. How has life changed?
CM: You know, not that much to be honest. Yesterday morning before I came here, I was mowing the lawn and putting an addition on the chicken house, so it's basically the same stuff I was doing before. I'm not sure how to package this into advice for anybody else, but a long time ago I decided I really liked living this way and researching things and writing about them, and I've been able to sort of pursue that ever since. The one big difference is that I do have this advantage now, where if I've got something I'm interested in I can now actually get people to return my phone calls and that's been super cool. Dan Lieberman at Harvard, professor of anthropology there, it's still amazing. I can pick up the phone and call him and he'll call me right back, and we'll talk about stuff, and that's great. As I become more intersested in this I can find more people to talk to about it.
KP: So it has had some life adjusting experiences. You live on a farm? When you mention chicken addition, and do you farm?
CM: Not really, I mean goof-ball hobby farming. I live next to real farmers, and if I say I farm they'll run me out of town. We have chickens, ducks, turkeys, things like that. I was a city kid my entire life, and about 10 years ago we started to look out in the country, and we found this place surrounded by Amish farmers. That's been an adventure on its own. When I was working on the book, I was spending a lot of time by myself working in the back of the house. Amish farmers often will need a ride someplace and they can't drive themselves. Any farmer that needed a ride I was like, "I'll go!" Anything not to work anymore. I found myself immersed in this new world. As I was writing about one world, I was also living another one, and it's just been cool. I really like it out there a lot. It makes me think that maybe there is something to this, we are of the earth, and getting back to it is just a calming and rewarding way to be.
KP: What's next in your life? Is there another book being thought about?
CM: When I was working on born to run, one of the difficulties of writing it was I thought, "YOU are never going to have a story like this again. You blow this, pal, you've ruined your only opportunity." But since then I've come across another story, another narrative, and another bit of anthropology that locks in with it that I think is as good as this. I'm pretty heavily involved in this now, so heavily involved I'm actually 4 months overdue on the deadline already, so I'm working on that. And I'm hoping it can broaden the discussion beyond running into lots of other forms of movement and exercise, so that's what I'm focused on next.
KP: Well, thank you very much and thank you for being a guest on Appalachian Perspective. But more importantly thank you for being a part of Appalachian State today and for a couple of days here. It means a lot to have you on campus.
CM: I'll come back here anytime. I'm having a really good time. Thank you.
KP: Great, well we're honored to have you here. We'll be behind you, we'll be watching for the next book that's a secret title you've told us. We look forward and hope to get you back on campus.
CM: Thank you.
- Christopher McDougall - Official website.