I wasn’t expecting “Born to Run” to be one of the best books I’d read so far this year. How could a book about jogging be interesting? I really like reading. I barely tolerate running. It’s not that I don’t like exercise. I just like Doritos and TV more, and running feels like a grind. But, 15 pages into Christopher McDougall’s 2009 debut I was fighting the urge put the book down and lace up my sneakers.
I decided to read on, because the book is so interesting and well-written, but I did go for a run that night. And the next night. And the next. By the time I finished McDougall’s book about barefoot ultra-running, Tarahumara Indian running culture and an American runner-gone-tribal known only as Caballo Blanco, I’d logged in some road miles and was actually enjoying my nightly runs.
McDougall’s latest book, “Natural Born Heroes” explores the benefits of natural movement exercises like parkour over standard gym routines and asks the question: “Why be fit if you’re not useful?” Along the way, McDougall tracks the story of Greek resistance fighters who captured a Nazi general and ferried him across the mountains of Crete while subsisting on a diet of foraged weeds and stored fat-as-energy. Since I have plenty of stored fat, I was intrigued again and days later was participating in a parkour session and swapping out processed foods for natural foods at the grocery store.
And I was feeling better than ever.
I sat down with McDougall at C.R. Lapp’s Family Restaurant in Quarryville, which is 10 miles from his home in Peach Bottom, close enough that he regularly runs to lunch. We talked about running, movies and, well, donkeys.
Mike Andrelczyk: A major theme in your work is that we’ve sort of lost touch things about our bodies that our ancestors understood. Why do you think we’ve lost our way and stopped trusting in our bodies?
Christopher McDougall: That’s a perfect question. And not all of us have lost our way. See this little guy over here (points to a small child fidgeting in his chair). Turn that kid loose and what’s he going to do? He’s going to climb on everything. He’s going to crawl on everything. So kids have it figured out. You take a bunch of kids to the gym and they’re not going to sit on a machine, they are going to turn it into a playground.
Where we went astray is that we basically turned ourselves from wild animals into domestic animals. We put ourselves through the same process we put our livestock through. Which is, like, you have a bunch of deer and they are running wild and you domesticate them into cattle and put them into stalls. We’ve done the same thing with human life.
We structured our lives around nine o’clock to five o’clock. If you’re working nine to five than you’re driving your car from eight to nine and from five to six, which leaves very little left over for other things. So, we have 45 minutes for a workout. So we go to the gym. It’s more convenient than anything else. The gym, just like the running shoe companies, are doing what serves them rather than doing what serves you.
MA: So, I’m guessing you don’t have a gym membership?
CM: Not since I lived in Philly. As soon as I walked in, I felt depressed. All this machinery and mirrors. It’s repetition. If I know what I’m going to do before I’m going to do it, I don’t want to do it.
The gym culture is not designed to make you healthier, but to make them richer. These machines, which isolate a (single) muscle and you do it over and over, it doesn’t help you. It helps them. It puts you in a compartment like a little veal calf and you stay in a little pen and do this thing and then this thing.
So, temperamentally, I don’t like it and then, intellectually, I think it’s not a good idea. I haven’t had a gym membership (in years) and I’m way healthier than I’ve ever been.
MA: What is it about running that is fun for you?
CM: It’s recess. Like someone just rang the bell and said go out and play. I think running with the donkeys has really played into that. You’re out with this animal on a road and the donkey is doing its own thing. It’s pure playtime.
MA: So, yeah, you own three donkeys and decided to train them to participate in these pack burro races that were started by miners during the gold prospecting days. You and your wife, Mika just came back from a burro race in Fairplay, Colorado. What’s it like running with donkeys?
CM: I think the furthest my wife had ever run before was 10 miles, but she ran 15 miles in the Rockies at 12,000 feet. I think the reason why is because we had fun. We could’ve run faster, but I’d rather run slower and have fun than run faster and hate it. A lot of people have trouble with that attitude, like if you’re not running fast than you’re not working. And if it’s not work then why am I doing it?
(The donkeys) need to be trained because it’s not necessarily the donkey’s idea of what to do that afternoon. How to work the chemistry (between the donkeys) was the real breakthrough. So, the little one, Matilda, is kind of the leader, but she’s not the best runner. So, she’ll lead them and the other two will follow and then Flower, who’s a better runner, will take over. And then Sherman doesn’t like to be too far away. So you actually have to figure out how to maneuver them.
Donkeys are desert animals. They’re kind of like camels. They need very little water. They need very little food. They can go forever. They’re very patient and easy to work with.
MA: Is this your next book?
CM: Yeah. I’m interested in animal-human partnerships. For most of human existence, we had dogs by our side, we rode horses. And in the past 100 years we just stopped. Now we’re realizing we need therapy dogs. We need household pets. We’re trying to reawaken this partnership, but we don’t really know how. Maybe we missed out on something. That’s what I’m looking at: What did we lose when we stopped hanging out with animals so much?
MA: Do you approach writing a book like running a marathon?
CM: Totally. I think the reason why people hate running a lot of times is because they are always thinking of the finish line. They want to get to the finish line as soon as they can. The really good experienced runners realize that you focus on one mile at a time. Focus on this one moment in time. I think writing books is the same way. Forget about what’s going to happen at the end. What am I writing about right now and make it lively and then move on to the next thing.
It actually almost perfectly parallels. When I do a book, I’ll take a big piece of poster board and just like smash it up into a grid and it’ll be about 25-30 blocks. It’s funny how much it parallels an actual marathon. A marathon is 26 miles. I have 25-30 blocks and I think “OK, here is where I start and here is where it’s going to end.” I know what the first chapter is going to be. I know what the end is going to be. And then I have a list of other stuff I want to write about.
So with “Born to Run” it was like “OK, I know it’s going to start with Caballo. I know it’s going to end with the race. I want to write about running shoes, so that’s going to be in there. Anatomy is in there. Physiology is in there. Leadville is in there. So, you figure out where in this grid these things go. Then you focus on one block at a time. You break it down to 2,000 word segments and go from there.
MA: Is a movie adaptation of “Born to Run” coming out?
CM: They’re still working on “Born to Run.” They’ve got an actor. They’ve got a script.
MA: Is Matthew McConaughey playing you?
CM: No, he’s playing Caballo Blanco. So, they’ve got him. They’re just trying to settle on a director. Hopefully, once they get that settled, they’ll be off to the races.
MA: Are you excited?
CM: I’m sure it will be great when it happens, but I feel like movies come and go. It might sound snobby and I don’t mean it that way, but everybody gets so hyped about movies, but the books, to me, are the things that really endure.
MA: Do you think they’ll break the two-hour marathon?
CM: I don’t care about that stuff at all. I don’t give a shit about the Olympics. The competitive aspect of athletics bores me and I feel almost discredits me as an authority on athleticism – like if you don’t compete you’re not trying. That’s missing the point. Anytime things become competitive, they become commercial and once they become commercial, they’re fucked. Look at the cheating scandals. Everybody’s cheating. Because there is money involved.
The two-hour marathon, there’s a lot of money involved (so) someone is gonna cheat. Whoever does it first cheated. That’s my guess.
There are three great running clubs which I love: Vellah Springah, which are Amish dudes; Lancaster Road Runners, because they are basically a tailgate club masquerading as a running club; and Fishtown Beer Runners. There’s a great documentary called “Beer Runners.” There’s a guy in Philly, David April, who was going through this crisis in his life and he wasn’t a runner, but one day he was so desperate for a beer that he ran to the bar. And right before he went into the bar he was like “I feel better already.” Then he went in and drank his face off.
So, he and a buddy started to run to different bars around Philly. They created this club and it became this movement of misfits. They realized, “Hey, we can raise some money doing this.” So, they’ll get the bar to give a portion of the proceeds to a charity. It became this great community. But the key word is community not competition. That’s what, to me, real athleticism is all about. It’s about bringing someone else along.
Visit chrismcdougall.com for more information and to order copies of “Born to Run” and “Natural Born Heroes.”
Want to read about more outdoor adventures?
Jumping into Parkour: A look at Lancaster’s parkour scene
Foraging for wild food
Exploring Shank’s Mare
Learn to play disc golf at Lancaster’s Buchmiller Park