Not Oprah’s Book Club: Born to Run

I’m not a runner. Never really have been. I played basketball and lacrosse in high school, did cartwheels on the soccer field as a kid, and yes, had one very sad season as a hurdler on the junior high track team (oh, poor 7th grade Courtney and those long, bird-like legs). But I’ve never had any desire to run a marathon or anything like that.
Which is why I’m utterly shocked that I liked Born to Run so much. First and foremost, it’s an extremely well-written piece of nonfiction. Christopher McDougall does a masterful job of telling a real tale as if it were a novel, interspersed with scientific and historical tangents that are largely riveting. That’s why it’s not just a book for runners, but anyone interested in physiology (did you know that running shoes are actually terrible for our feet?), anthropology (our ancestors most likely ran animals to death rather than actually hunting them!), and cultural preservation (there is a tribe of folks in Mexico who run the equivalent of ultra-marathons, drink lots o’ beer, and want nothing to do with modern technology).
On the feminist tip, there are some really interesting gender dynamics. One of the most celebrated ultra-marathoners in history is a woman, as is a central character in the book’s unfolding action. It’s also fairly evident that ancient women were just as adept in long distance running, designed to exhaust animals until they literally keeled over and died, perfect for dinner. Experts even believe some of these women ran miles with babies strapped to them.
I’m telling you, this book will blow your mind a bit. It might even make you want to run barefoot in the park.

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11 Comments

  1. kahri
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    This is one I’ll have to read, if only to learn on what evidence the “ancient peoples did it this way…” argument is based.

  2. nestra
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Kahri, I’ll answer that one for you if you don’t mind a spoiler — our big butts. Yep, we have the most developed gluteal muscles in the animal kingdom, which lets us run long, long distances. Many animals can beat us over short distances, but not many of them can run all day like humans can.

  3. jellyleelips
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Yes! I am always grateful for evidence that hunter-gatherers chased animals for weeks and tired them out, or chased them into a river, or picked the weakest one out of the pack. As much as this makes sense, the evo psych crowd would have us believe that men were slaughtering giant tigers and mastodons with their manly manliness while women were at home gathering pink flowers. Loves it.

  4. cherie
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I’m an ultrarunner and I love this book. It is amazing.
    In the ultrarunning community, the vast majority of ultrarunners are men — I’ve run some races where I was the only woman, or one of the only women (small races, yes). A lot of the times, only 30% or less of the participants are women.
    BUT — women tend to have a higher completion rate than men. Women can withstand pain better than men. There have been ultras that women have won — overall, beating all the women AND all the men!

  5. anon
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Actually, it’s seriously fascinating stuff. Every year there is a marathon where human race horses. Guess what? Almost every year the humans win.
    I am a somewhat hardcore runner and this stuff always tickles me to learn about. This is also why running is one of the most equitable sports between the sexes. The men’s world record for the marathon is 2:04 and the women’s record is 2:15. While that is a pretty big difference as it relates to elite atheletes, think about it in ancient times. Most men and women would have just run together rather than have the man beat the women by 11 minutes, you know?
    HUmans can be out-sprinted in pretty much every distance, but the long, slow jog? It’s what our bodies were made for. Everything from the springy arches of our feet to our big butts to our ability to sweat and keep ourselves cool. We are evolved to exhaust and kill our prey after chasing them for hours.

  6. ekpe
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    i wonder how humans would chase an animal in submission. wouldn’t it have to be open plains so the human could keep an eye on the animal for miles. and wouldn’t something else get in the way, like having to eat in that time span or another predator getting the human. sounds fishy, but i’ll get the book

  7. Sloppy Sandwich
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    There is no scientific consensus that ancient humans ran their prey to death or that running shoes are bad for your feet.
    At best, running prey to exhaustion would only have worked for animals that run well and can only run away from you – deer and similar animals on the hoof. Other strategies were necessary for small mammals (rabbits, squirrels) and large ones (buffalo, mammoths, mastodons). Strategies involving more slings and arrows and spears than running.
    And the thing about running shoes being bad for your feet, that’s just BS. Some people do well with them and some not. I’ve run a couple of 50 mile ultramarathons, and modern running shoes work great for me. You should have look at some of the ultramarathon web sites and see all the crazy stuff people do to take care of their feet: coating them with vaseline or olive oil, using powders or other concoctions. No socks, two pairs of socks, double-layered socks, toe socks. Some people even swear by covering the entire sole of the feet/toes with duct tape.
    The anti running shoe argument also has, to me, a distasteful exoticizing of the other aspect to it. “Ahh, the wisdom of you ancient peoples and your primitive shoes.” The native central american Tarahumara runners use sandals made from tires. The driving factor behind using such shoes is, yes, poverty. This is not to say that they wouldn’t select similarly minimal footwear if given the choice, but they didn’t try a pair of nikes and find them lacking and use tires instead, it’s just all that is available to them. The middle class to wealthy american and european advocates of minimal footwear aren’t using sandals made from tires, they’re using footwear made from modern materials. They might not be heavily cushioned nike airs, but they cost about as much.

  8. AgnesScottie
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wI-9RJi0Qo
    They have really amazing tracking skills, and they just follow them doggedly, so that the animal never has time to really rest.

  9. Alex Catgirl
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Running shoes don’t hurt your feet(much), that’s a myth that’s perpetuated by the “barefoot technology” back-to-nature community.
    The problem is that humans are not designed to run on hard surfaces, I run medium distances,on concrete mostly.
    What injures runners over time is the heel-strike toe-push off, it’s a natural walking, not running motion AND the body’s response to the impact stress of the foot slamming onto a surface that doesn’t give… If bodies didn’t compensate runners would damage their joints and muscles.
    Even modern grassy parks are far from ideal, the grass is kept short, allowing the earth to dry out and become hard, not a very good shock absorber.
    The foot motions/placement in beach volleyball are more natural, as the courts are preped. I can dig myself above my ankles in light, airy sand. That surface is more conducive to using the mid foot and toes more as there is something to “grab” on to, and I’m not worried about breaking them.

  10. anon
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    There is plenty of evidence we ran our prey to exhaustion. The whole weapons/hunting tools thing is relatively new to human kind.
    Humans have made tools for thousands of years but we’ve been around as a species or something close to our species for millions.
    I am with you on the running shoes thing tho. Considering neanderthals and pre-historic humans had a life expectancy of probably 20 some years…their feet didn’t hurt like ours did because they were still pretty new, young feet when they died!

  11. nestra
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Also, the highly engineered stability shoes should only be used by a small percentage of runners. The runner with an average pronation who forces herself into a corrective shoe (and it is sometimes hard to find shoes that aren’t designed to correct all of the many problems that casual runners are lead to believe they have) can be forcing a stride problem which can lead to injury.
    Best shoes I ever ran in were $19 Riedells. The only problem was that they had quality control issues. A new pair was as like to cut your foot up because of sharp edge on the seam as to be comfortable.

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