Born to Run: Chris McDougall’s journey

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.

When asked where he saw ultra-running in 10 years, Chris’s answer reflected his personal joy that colored so much of Born To Run:

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.

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