This year, I decided to train for a half-marathon. I turned forty last month (okay, a few years ago) and that birthday feels significant, even portentous to a lot of us. I know this is true for men and I absolutely know it’s true for women. The four-decade mark seems to be the signal for many of us to commence swilling surprising amounts of red wine, or training for a marathon (sometimes both, which yields mixed results). I would run a full marathon but I am afraid of both my knees making a loud popping and crumbling sound and then I would have to toss them onto that pile of rusted equipment and broken beach umbrellas in my garage.
So now that I have joined the ranks of those not ready to face their mortality, I buy neon shoes and compare performance fabrics and snack on little compressed bars of grainy super food. It’s all good, wholesome, fun and an excuse to take long baths. But if you want to read about the runners who take it to the next level, (I don’t think they bother with baths) I recommend Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so absolutely entranced by the book if I weren’t so interested in running, but I don’t think this book is just for pavement pounders. This story about a community of American ultra runners and the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico is peopled with some of the most likeable, honorable and eccentric folks you could have the pleasure to meet in print or person.
I only recently became aware of ultrunning and at first, it sounded like sheer madness to me; these people routinely lose their toenails! But then, in books, as in life, I am a lover of quirky characters. MacDougall brings together a scruffy array of athletes who run miles (like a hundred miles) through deserts, simply because they can. These people feel most alive when they are nearly dead. They run because, the author argues, that’s what humans are born to do. Make the race long enough and a human will outstrip a horse and leave a cheetah wheezing in the dust. Humans can go longer than our fellow creatures and if we can do it then why not do it? And why don’t more of us do it? Perhaps, MacDougall suggests, we have forgotten the art.
I once heard that it is the passionate pursuit of something you love that transforms you. Though the single-mindedness of the performance athlete sometimes bewilders me, the beauty of a finely-tuned body doing what it does better than most, is a gorgeous sight to behold, or to read about. McDougall writes with good-natured affection for his characters and he introduces us to a passionate – and compassionate – group of people who test the limits of their endurance and feel the powerful bonds of community. At the same time, he martials his case that most of us are running incorrectly and, if we only ran right, we would reunite with the primal runner within and become healthier, wiser and better people.
Misty May-Treanor, three-time Olympic gold medalist, said her father told her to play for everyone who can’t. I like that. I like knowing that right now, an ultra runner is out on a leisurely 30 mile jog, zipping along on tan, striving legs, watching a sunset and breathing the wild air for the rest of us.
For anyone interested in running or in the elusive and remarkable Raramuri/Tarahumara (the running people as they are often called) tribe of Mexico, this book is full of discussion possibilities. It has a ragtag band of pilgrims that you can’t help but enjoy and a compelling plot as well. Chat about it while you run! Book groups spend altogether too much time chugging vino and lolling on couches. We are getting a reputation for having slack backsides. So hit the dusty trail in your lycra with insights at the ready, and don’t make me slap that brie-loaded cracker out of your hand!
*I earned my English degree decades ago and with it, the right to quote Emerson, once I was no longer forced to actually read him. I do likewise with Melville, Thoreau and other well-meaning, but long-winded writers.