When Books about Running Teach You More than How to Run

I’ve recently been going through audiobooks that deal with running (in one way or another). Per usual, I have been listening to these during my jogs outside and cardio sessions at the gym (“running while listening to people talking about running” seems like something that should qualify you for bonus  miles or something). A few books have stood out: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen(Christopher McDougall); Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike (Phil Knight); and Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (Scott Jurek).

McDougall’s Born to Run

What got me started on this binge-listening of running-related books was McDougall’s work (not to be confused with the title of the popular Bruce Springsteen album and eponymous song–the album cover is this post’s featured image, which I found on  Wikipedia but can’t get the url link to work). Perhaps because I’m feeling a bit lazy, I’m going to lean on Wikipedia a bit for the summary of McDougall’s book. So, this story prominently features a group of Native Americans, the Tarahumara, who live in rather isolated communities in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. McDougall’s goal is to figure out the reasons for why this group of people—without the “benefit” of hi-tech gear and “modern” training and treatment—possesses the ability to run– and run fast–for long distances without severe pain or nagging injuries. And many Tarahumara are capable of doing this well past what people would probably consider middle age. In the process of telling this story, which includes a running showdown between a group of Tarahumara and a selection of decorated American ultra marathoners (Scott Jurek, discussed below, is one of American ultra runners), the author makes the argument that modern cushioned shoes play a major role in a whole host of running-related injuries. To support this conclusion, which is pretty convincing I think, McDougall picks the brains of several experts in the field of running science (or biomechanics or whatever you call it). In addition to advocating for the importance of proper running technique, the author looks into the idea of  barefoot running or “natural running” (i.e. running in thin shoes with minimal cushioning, which allows the individual to use a more “natural” stride–and less shock and stress to the joints. This “natural” stride has the foot hitting the running surface toward the forefront instead of the heel). You can see the sandals that the Tarahumara favor in the image below (I feel like I have socks that are thicker than these things!)

huaraches-1024x682Image courtesy of (Romain Urbina,“Running with the Tarahumara,”http://naturalrunningcenter.com/2013/07/12/running-tarahumara/).

This argument leads to a broader theory: the endurance running hypothesis. This theory asserts that “being able to run for extended lengths of time is an adapted trait, most likely for obtaining food, and was the catalyst that forced Homo erectus to evolve from its apelike ancestors. Over time, the survival of the swift-footed [definitely not speaking about me here] shaped the anatomy of modern humans, giving us a body that is difficult to explain absent a marathoning past.” (http://seedmagazine.com/content/print/the_running_man_revisited/).

Basically, the Tarahumara, Christopher McDougall, Chris Evert, Bruce Willis and Bruce Springsteen…all were “Born to Run.” In any case, remember, whatever shoes you lace up (or maybe you don’t wear anything to lace up) and however far you go, proper form is something that you should definitely keep in mind.

Coincidently, I listened to McDougall’s book before Knight’s memoir, and, of course, McDougall points a finger (which one he uses is up to you to decide) at Nike for having significantly contributed to the surge of running injuries in the United States since the 1970s (it should be noted that Nike and other large companies do make models of footwear with natural-running specs). Onward to the next text!

Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog

I think you’d be hard pressed to find an American (or even a citizen of most other countries) who has not heard of Nike or wouldn’t recognize the iconic Swoosh. Instead of summarizing this book, I’m just going to offer a few thoughts.

  • Knight’s nickname is “Buck.”
  • The Swoosh was designed to reflect a feeling of motion; this logo was created by Portland State undergraduate Carolyn Davidson.
  • Nike was founded as Blue Ribbon Sports, so named in a spur-of-the-moment choice as a fresh-faced Knight–only in his mid-20s–faced representatives from Japanese shoe company Onitzuka Tiger (you’d now recognize this company as ASICS). Initially serving as a West Coast distributor for the Japanese organization, Blue Ribbon was for a time headquartered in Knight’s parents’ house.
  • “Buck” Knight is quite a bit older than I thought. He’s like 80! Come to think of it, Nike is quite a bit older than I thought, too. Knight, along with co-founder Bill Bowerman (Knight’s coach while he ran track for the University of Oregon), established Blue Ribbon Sports at the start of 1964. As the relationship with Onitzuka Tiger broke down, Blue Ribbon Sports morphed into Nike (and adopted the iconic logo) in 1971.
  • As a kid, I associated Nike primarily with professional basketball (and I just HAD to have that $140 pair of black Air Max Uptempos to up my “game.” Keep in mind  I was too young and not that great at basketball–I was far from the best player on my Junior Hornets team–to need any equipment remotely near that price point).  Hey, look at this late-January 1996 ad from the the Courier, a newspaper from Waterloo, I.A.! There’s the Uptempos–though not in the all-black version I required–in the middle of the photo). I’ll have to head on over to Warehouse Shoes for some “Fresh Air.” Hopefully I’m not too late!


  • A final noteworthy point–and this links to Jurek’s book, which I listened to after finishing Knight’s memoir–is how society, at least in the U.S., has come to view running as a reasonable, even fun, form of exercise. Listening to these books back-to-back, you can almost see the growing societal acceptance of running over the decades. Knight (late 1950s-early 1907s, perhaps?) discusses how he and his running buddies and college friends were mocked and harassed as they jogged along highways and through city streets. He notes that passersby hurled insults from cars and aimed beer and soda cans at the back of his head (LOL, WUT?; I hope someone will get this reference).

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 8.55.09 AM

Jurek’s Eat and Run

Yet, for Jurek–let’s say from the 1990s to the present–running seems to be much more accepted as something that normal, perfectly reasonable people do as part of a health and fitness routine. What really surprised me is that, compared to people like Knight–whose distances appear reasonable to me as I sit here in 2018– ultra marathoners like Jurek (“ultra marathon” being a broad category that encompasses anything beyond the familiar marathon distance of 26.2 miles) are viewed less skeptically and looked as less as freaks than was the case for Knight. Jurek and his fellow ultra marathoners run CRAZY long distances, and it just astonishes me.

I finished Jurek’s eight-and-a-half-hour book in about 5 days, which is probably faster than I’ve ever gotten through an audiobook previously. I am fascinated by the ultra marathon life, and it’s astonishing to think that people, and not just super athletes born and bred in labs à la Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, can do these types of races. Just to confirm, though, I won’t be running 100 miles on a trail in California (Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run), up and down the mountains in Colorado (Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run), 150 miles in Greece (Spartathalon), 135 miles through an oven in Arizona (Badwater 135-Mile Ultramarathon), or just 50 miles (tongue-in-cheeck) in and around Leadville, CO (part of the Leadville race series) in one go any time soon.

Jurek, like other endurance athletes such as triathlete Rich Roll (Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. This is also an excellent “read.”  Roll recounts his journey to completely transform himself, mid-life, from a seemingly hopeless alcoholic and food addict to a healthier, happier, and more mindful individual), place a premium on community and self-awareness. Running, swimming, or biking long distances is doubtless a solitary endeavor–and I’ve found that the hardest struggle is often the one with yourself–but it’s noteworthy how much these people depend on friends, family, training buddies, and even total strangers to get through tough stretches.

One thing that stands out to me as I reflect on Jurek’s books is that he REALLY enjoys good food. Though some may scoff that a vegan and/or vegetarian diet is full of things that taste like under-seasoned cardboard, Jurek’s story tells a different tale. And the recipes that he discusses toward the end of Eat and Run (had I known that the last half hour or so was JUST the narrator reading recipes, I probably would have not relied on this for a thirty minute cardio session) sound absolutely delicious. His mom, who worked for a time as a cook on a local cable network, brought Jurek into the kitchen at a young age, and his own interest in preparing food stuck with him thereafter.

Whether you are an ultramarathoner, a school bus driver, a brain surgeon, or a folk singer, I think that that you can apply certain information from Jurek, McDougall and Roll to your own life in order to live healthier, happier, and more intelligently. For your convenience, and for the sake of bringing this post to an end before it approaches War and Peace length, I present the following tips.

Mr. Non-Qualified Teacher’s (that’s me!) Summary of Key Points

  1. Community and connection: Everyone needs a support system (friends, family, etc.), and having a strong one in place is critical. And I mean a support system that is truly a support system, not an assortment of random social media “friends” and followers, a work companion with questionable morals, or a relative who is judgmental and shallow. Everyone needs people who genuinely love and appreciate them and with whom they can share sadness, anger, pain, happiness, and, for me at least, the same dumb jokes over and over and over.
  2. Good, nutritious food: Putting good food in your body is good for your body. Full stop. This is painfully obvious, but it bears repeating. I’m not going to dictate what exactly you should eat, but, in my case, taking in a lot of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins seems to give me more energy, a clearer mind, and a healthier body. My food preparation isn’t really complicated, either (I have a degree in history for heaven’s sake!), and I’ve generally been eating the same way and about the same assortment of foods for the last 10 years or so.
  3. Physical activity: The first part of McDougall’s title pretty much gets to the heart of this: Born to Run. Okay, I’m not saying everyone should or has to run. What I am saying is that you, as a homo sapien, need to make sure you stay physically active and are getting enough exercise. I’m not going to go into this again, but “exercise” is a flexible term that most people should be able to incorporate into their lives during the week. You’ll notice I didn’t say it would be easy to find time or get a routine started, but, once you do find something that works for you and that you ENJOY, you’ll be glad you did.
  4. Self-awareness and mindfulness: When your really think on this one, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Try not reaching for your phone to do some unimportant reading or “research” during a dull moment. I’m not saying you having to go meditate on a mountain in Tibet or travel to some mindfulness retreat on a secluded island. All I’m saying is to take more time for thinking, quiet self-reflection, and mentally scanning your body to get a sense of how you are doing. There are many benefits to practicing mindfulness, and I hear that it can help you think more clearly, manage stress better, and, more generally, have better emotional health.








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