A friend recently sent me a link to "40 free (or cheap) things you can do in San Diego". I clicked on the link yesterday and found a few interesting things to do. One recommendation was to attend book-signings at the Warwick's Book Store in La Jolla. After clicking over to their site, I found out that Christopher McDougall (author of Born to Run) was speaking today. I read his book back in February, and it was excellent, so I decided to go listen to him speak.
The author was on assignment on a different story when he saw an article on the winner of the Leadville 100 endurance race. The accompanying picture showed a 52 year old man running in what appeared to be sandles made with soles of old tires. He dropped what he was working on to find out more about the story. It lead him to the reclusive Tarahumara tribe in Mexico who have the uncanny ability to run hundreds of miles, and display a serenity that leads you to believe that this is what we were born to do.
Upon discovery of these 'natural' runners, the author seeks to understand their secret from both the natives themselves, and scientists who have been studying human evolution and history to explain how our makeup sets us apart from other animals when it comes to covering great distances. One of the major factors that set us apart is our ability to dissipate heat through sweat. Early hunters likely survived by running animals to exhaustion and death.
The Tarhumara run on very minimalist sandles, and during his research the author encounters a few runners who believe running completely barefoot helps runners to avoid injury. This is the topic that has garnered the most press coverage and controversy. It has helped start a growing trend toward running in less structured shoes, if not going completely barefoot. The author himself used to be frustrated with a list of injuries, but going barefoot has allowed him to run again.
The story leads up to a 50 mile race that includes both the Tarahumara as well as some American ultra-runners. The blend of narrative, history and science make for an interesting read. And it turns out the author is a pretty good speaker as well. Tonight he expanded on the topics covered in the book, and interestingly didn't touch on barefoot running until the last couple of minutes. However, during the question and answer period, barefoot running was once again a hot topic.
One major lesson beyond all the history and science of running began with that first photo of the Leadville 100 winner. The author spoke with a running coach that saw the eventual winner at about the 60 mile mark. He was standing at the top of an embankment which punished the already weary runners. When the author asked about the Tarahumara runner, he was looking for information on the runner's style, gait and form. But all the running coach kept saying was, "you should have seen the smile on his face".
Beyond all the arguments about science and running with or without shoes, the Tarahumara have a way of looking at running as fun. It is probably no coincidence that they also experience much lower rates of disease and depression than most any other society. Toward the end of the author's presentation, he said his hope was that after all the barefoot-running debates die down, that people will look closer at the joy of running displayed by the Tarahumara. That could be the real lesson of the story.