This year the forgetting is almost palpable. More and more, the people living here moved to a city without towers. For the past month, at least, recriminations about the idiotic Ground Zero mosque have overshadowed the events of September 11th and crowded out the memory of the people who lost their lives.
On the sidewalk outside the firehouse, Flight 11 at 8:46 and Flight 175 at 9:03 are remembered with moments of silence. The fall of the South Tower at 9:59 and then the North Tower at 10:28 are marked with silence and bagpipes.
Bagpipes. The perfect sound of sadness and longing.
On Wedneday August 11th, I joined about 70 other people and ran from Harlem to Brooklyn with Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run. It was an awesome afternoon.
I wasn’t able to stay for Chris’s book reading at Word in Greenpoint, but the few minutes I got to talk with him confirmed what I’d suspected: When Chris said he was “infected with a spirit of camaraderie and fun” I’m certain he was talking about himself. He’s a genuine, kind and patient person who gave freely of his time and knowledge and who runs for the pure human joy of it. He’s also whip-smart. (and almost as tall as me)
I was really nervous beforehand, not even committing to my Vibram FiveFingers until I was walking out the door. My nerves were misplaced however, this was definitely not a race, and the people running were interesting, supportive and just generally wonderful. The pace was relaxed and comfortable enough that I spent a good deal of time talking to other runners. The group also stopped several times along the way to rest and gather everyone back up. Even though the distance was 3+ miles longer than I’d ever done near-barefoot, my muscles, bones and joints were fine. I did pick up a blister on the ball of my left foot, but nothing that will hamper me in the Bronx Half-Marathon on Sunday.
At the end, A handful of us were sitting with our bare feet in the playground sprinkler on Franklin and Noble. The sun was behind the buildings, and as we talked there was a wonderful, peaceful feeling of accomplishment and community.
My follow-up research to Born to Run turned up bits and pieces of what would become the book scattered around the web, dating all the way back to 2005. These provide an unusual opportunity to see how author Chris McDougall crafted the book over almost five years. Great books often seem effortless, sprung whole from the author’s mind, but the reality of the writer’s craft is much different.
Chris McDougall spent years developing the book’s central stories; traveling to Mexico, meeting Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara, training for and then completing Caballo’s 50 mile race in the Copper Canyons.
I found some of the first steps of his journey in this June 23, 2005 New York Times article, Kick Off Your Shoes and Run Awhile. A year later, a sizeable portion of what would become Chapter 3 of Born to Run first appeared, almost unchanged, in the July/August 2006 issue of Men’s health, titled “The Men who live forever.”
As someone who makes things, I found it fascinating to glimpse how all the elements evolved and to see how years of development and struggle eventually produced such a wonderful book. Some might nitpick and point out discrepencies in the narrative, but discovering these details added another dimension and deepened my enjoyment.
In this interview Chris revealed additional details about the book. The Copper Canyons race took place in 2006 and Chris says he spent the following two and a half years “repeatedly messing up the book.”
In October 2009, Google twice invited Chris to speak as part of their Talks@Google series, first in Mountain View, then in New York City. The talks are about an hour each with some Q&A at the end. He doesn’t repeat much between the two and it’s great to hear some of Born To Run retold in his voice.
More recently, in July 2010, Chris gave a talk at the TEDxPennQuarter conference titled Reinventing Running. Many themes from the Google talks are here too, but reflect several months of refinement and are joined by some new ideas.
During the book’s initial publicity tour Chris appeared on the Daily Show and gave an hour-long interview with Philadelphia Public Radio’s Radio Times. He also took several intrepid reporters for “running” interviews–barefoot. These included the New York Times and ABCNews. There’s a great moment in the ABC interview (at about 2:30) where Chris casually rinses his feet in Central Park’s Bethesda fountain.
Chris often sounds like a big kid who somehow tricked everyone into paying him to talk about running around. In the running interviews, there’s no bravado or machismo in his demeanor, instead there’s an exuberant feeling of joy and of wanting to share that joy with everyone he meets.
The most exciting thing will be not the races so much as the ethos. Go to the Leadville Trail 100 some time, or even better, Caballo’s race with the Tarahumara down in the Copper Canyons. You’ll be infected with a spirit of camaraderie and fun that will change the way you run every mile afterward. I think the ultrarunning approach, if not the races, will come to dominate recreational running.
“Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s just as nuanced as any other activity.” Eric [Orton] told me. “Ask most people and they’ll say, ‘People just run the way they run.’ That’s ridiculous. Does everyone just swim the way they swim?” For every other sport, lessons are fundamental; you don’t go out and start slashing away with a golf club or sliding down a mountain on skis until someone takes you through the steps and teaches you proper form. If not, inefficiency is guaranteed and injury is inevitable.
“Running is the same way.” Eric explained. “Learn it wrong, and you’ll never know how good it can feel.” (page 202-3)
Since reading Born To Run and following up with additional research, I’m running farther, faster and more comfortably than ever. Previously, my best month’s milage was 45 miles. Since March I’ve averaged over 85 miles per month with July topping 100 for the first time. Last year I ran 375 miles. Physically, I’m sure I could go farther, but nothing in the book helps find more hours in the day. I’ve also shaved about a minute off my average mile without really thinking about speed.
I don’t have a coach and haven’t looked at video myself running (yet), but I have become highly focused on improving my mechanics and efficiency. These are some of the ideas I try to keep in my head while running:
Faster leg turnover
soft, quiet landings
pull the feet up off the ground
pull legs back with the butt
feet should be moving backwards before they touch the ground
“If it feels like work, you’re working too hard”
Do I need to eat or drink?
midfoot strike (land on the outside front of the foot, roll towards the big toe)
“release the springs” (try to use the tendon’s natural, zero-cost springiness)
Relax your hands and arms (don’t waste energy)
Also, perhaps especially, Caballo Blanco’s mantra from page 111:
“Think Easy, Light, Smooth and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that for so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one — you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”
It’s still awkward, but I think I’ve felt it a couple times, usually somewhere past 4-6 miles into a run. My pace is faster than I’d have expected, but there it is; a grace and feeling of self-sustained movement and a sort of weightlessness and motion that feels like it could go on forever. Barefoot Ted described it well: “Like a fish slipping into water.”
A big part of adjusting my technique simply had to do with changing shoes. Despite having been previously diagnosed as a heavy over-pronator and clamped into motion-control shoes, it didn’t take long to become a minimal footwear convert. Less shoe gave me a better feel for the ground and increased flexibility across my feet. Read the whole story here: From Asics Kayanos to Nike Frees to Vibram FiveFingers and beyond
Getting past awkward
Ken Mierke is the exercise physiologist Chris trained with in chapter 27 and the creator of the efficiency-focused Evolution Running system.
“When I teach this technique and ask someone how it feels, if they say ‘Great!,’ I go ‘Damn!” That means they didn’t change a thing. The change should be awkward. You should go through a period where you’re no longer good at doing it wrong and not yet good at doing it right. You’re not only adapting your skills, but your tissues; you’re activating muscles that have been dormant most of your life. — Ken Mierke, page 206
The introduction to Ken’s instructional videos are online and are among the most helpful things I’ve found: Part 1 (5:29), Part 2 (4:59), Part 3 (5:02), Part 4 (4:38) and Part 5 (4:23)
The third video especially talks about the zero-cost elastic recoil of the springlike Achilles tendons in our lower legs and how to benefit from it.
On page 205, Ken makes the case for faster cadence to 62-year-old triathlete Alan Melvin:
“Kenyans have superquick foot turnover,” Ken said. “Quick, light leg contractions are more economical than big, forceful ones.”
“I don’t get it,” Alan said. “Don’t I want a longer stride, not a shorter one?”
“Let me ask you this,” Ken replied. “You ever see one of those barefoot guys in a 10k race?”
“Yeah. It’s like they’re running on hot coals.”
“You ever beat one of those barefoot guys?”
Alan reflected. “Good point.”
Upping my cadence might be the most challenging aspect of working on my form. Fast turnover, coupled with trying to pull my feet up off the ground and reducing ground-contact time has definitely affected how far I’m able to run. I’m going faster but my endurance hasn’t come close to catching up yet. When it works it feels great, but I tend to get winded quickly and am having a lot of trouble sustaining the faster cadence across any respectable distance.
Gordon Pirie is never mentioned in Born to Run, but his freely available book, “Running Fast and Injury Free” is worth reading, especially chapter 3, “Injuries, Technique and Shoes.” Gordon Pirie was outspoken with the confidence that he had lived and proven the ideas and techniques wrote about.
Pete Larson at RunBlogger (who also teaches Biology, Physiology and Biomechanics at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire) has posted dozens of excellent slow-motion videos showing various foot-strikes, both barefoot and in assorted footwear.
There are TONS of other running technique videos online, some of which are just patently awful. (“strike with your heel then roll off?! Gah!!) As an alternate or supplement to the ideas in the Evolution Running videos, I found Pose Running to have more of a direct approach to efficient mechanics which I prefer over the more holistic and metaphysical Chi Running.
It can seem at times while researching all of this, that everyone must know about it by now. Every running-focused blogger read the book months before I did and online community discussions about the book are all well established. But looking around the last race or anytime I run when other people are out, it’s clear that not enough people do know about this. So many people are bouncing along, pounding the ground in enormous shoes and grimacing in pain — the ideas behind more efficient, natural running and minimal footwear obviously have a ways to go.
Born to Run is a true story and as such, the characters in the book are real people. This post is a sort of a Google-ey “Where are they now?” for many of those who played a part in the book.
Chris has been happily bouncing around the country promoting Born to Run. He’s got an affable goofiness and seems genuinely filled with joy when he talks about his journey in writing the book.
As an aside, I loved how in the book Chris set Caballo Blanco and Barefoot Ted as the Yin and Yang of natural running.
Eric was one of Chris’s trainers from Chapter 27. He leads the online running community Running With Eric. The site has instructional videos and many well-informed discussions. Eric’s personal training and coaching business is at Train with Eric.
Dennis Bramble and David R. Carrier Dr. Bramble and David R Carrier are professors of Biology at the University of Utah. Dr. Carrier’s research is focused on the interrelationship of animal movement and evolution. Dr. Bramble has recently been focused on human evolution and our human capacity for physical endurance.
Dr. Lieberman is a Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University where he leads the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab. Together with co-author Dennis Bramble, he has published a number of scientific papers, the latest has been frequently cited as contributing to a scientific foundation for barefoot running. Since his 2010 paper was published, he’s become something of a “science rockstar,” including being dubbed The Barefoot Professor in a video by the Journal Nature.
Billy’s living in Hawaii, here’s his personal blog.
Norawas De Rarámuri (Friends of the Tarahumara)
This is a non-profit created to support the Rarámuri culture.
Several other people from the book are online, but I chose not to link them out of respect for their apparent desire to keep their private lives private. If someone mentioned in the book isn’t here, it’s because I guessed they wouldn’t have wanted to be here. (If that’s you and I’m wrong, let me know)
I also wanted to comment on an unintentionally poetic edit made to the book’s cover photo. In Louis Escobar’s original image, Billy “bonehead” Barnett is standing next to a seated Caballo Blanco. Somewhere along the book’s journey to print, Caballo was photoshopped out, vanishing, perhaps appropriately, into the sky above the Barrancas del Cobre. Barefoot Ted posted the original photo.
“Everyone is built for running.” — Eric Orton, page 203.
What a fantastic book. The night I first picked it up intending to read a couple chapters ended with me forcing myself to stop and go to bed after tearing through half the book. Months later, I still haven’t stopped thinking about it. There’s plenty here even if you have no interest in running, and I wholeheartedly recommend reading it.
My first introduction to Born to Run and the nascent (now ascendent) barefoot running movement was this October, 2009 New York Times video and blog entry, The Roving Runner Goes Barefoot. A few months later, after repeatedly seeing the book mentioned around the web, I finally decided I might as well read it too.
This was towards the beginning of the year when, after about three years of running regularly, I decided to start taking running a little more seriously. In addition to reading the book, I also joined New York Road Runners, applied for the 2010 NY Marathon (didn’t get in) and have more than doubled my average weekly miles.
Like many others, I found the book to be profoundly inspirational, bordering on life-changing, and I ended up with a lot to say. This post is sort of the introduction to a series of posts directly or indirectly inspired by Born to Run. As they’re finished I’ll be linking them here.
The book is filled with quotable passages, but this from chapter 27 (page 213) really stuck with me because it mirrors my own experience:
“Because I was eating lighter and hadn’t been laid up once by injury, I was able to run more; because I was running more, I was sleeping great, feeling relaxed, and watching my resting heart rate drop. My personality had even changed: The grouchiness and temper I’d considered part of my Irish-Italian DNA had ebbed so much that my wife remarked, “Hey if this comes from ultrarunning, I’ll tie your shoes for you.” I knew that aerobic exercise was a powerful antidepressant, but I hadn’t realized it could be so profoundly mood stabilizing and–I had to use the word–meditative.” (page 212)
The ideas and stories in Born to Run have inspired me to run farther and much more often. As a result, I’m feeling great, physically and emotionally and genuinely enjoying all of it.