Last Sunday I finished reading Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. I absolutely tore through this book. The first day alone I read 150 pages. Realizing that I would be finished far too quickly, I slowed down, forced myself to go to sleep when all I wanted to do was keep reading. McDougall’s background is as a journalist for several health and fitness magazines. In the past, I’ve found that former journalists often write some of the most compelling non-fiction (Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar, for example). Because journalists are accustomed to putting in as much story, character, and information into defined parameters as possible, there was never a boring part of this book.
The crux of the story is that McDougall, an oft-injured runner, is looking for a way to keep running without the injuries. He learns of a tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara, who not only run ultadistance for fun, they do so into advanced old age, barefoot, and without injury. He ventures out to discover their secret. Along the way, he meets a displaced American living among them in a remote area of Mexico who, though moderately crazy, is on to something – an ultramarathon involving the top Tarahumara runners pitted against top-flight American ultra runners. The rest of the book interweaves the history of the Tarahumara, the history of running, evolutionary theory, philosophy, and insight into why and how we run. There are unforgettable characters, tales of endurance nearly unimaginable and filled with enough facts and trivia to keep me earmarking things to research for weeks. I won’t delve into too many more details, because you should be going out and buying a copy for yourself. However, there is one thing everyone should take away from this book that I can tell you – if you’re not smiling at the end of a run, you’re doing something wrong.
The other night I also watched Without Limits, starring Billy Crudup, Monica Potter, and Donald Sutherland. Following my graduation from high school and my discovery of 5K’s, this was one of my favorite movies, though I haven’t watched it since I was probably 19. It is the story of Steve Prefontaine, the American running phenom from the 1970’s who died prematurely at age 24 without fulfilling the potential he not only seemed destined for, but that he was willing himself toward. This is one of two films about Prefontaine that came out within one year of each other in the late 90’s. The other is simply called Prefontaine starring Jared Leto, which came out the previous year. Of the two films, Without Limits is by far the better of the two films, although because it followed in the shadow of Prefontaine, was not as well received.
Overall, this is a really fun film. Billy Crudup does an excellent job of hitting the cavalier arrogance, professionalism, and immaturity of Prefontaine. If those sound like they clash a bit, they should. Though Prefontaine was a world class runner, he was still young, and often acted that way. The running scenes are well filmed (you can tell Crudup lost a significant amount of weight to play the plucky runner) and the story line is a well paced narrative of Prefontaine’s life and career. The one thing I was struck by the most is how immature the film even feels. There is often childish dialogue and plot points that seem divergent. And here is the worst part, because Pre is such a legend, we know an immense amount about his life and personality; at times the writers chose to make him weaker mentally than he was in life. Perhaps this was to make him more of a tangible person. However, it is precisely Prefontaine’s youth that is his hamartia and makes him the compelling figure he is. If you’re looking for a film to psych you up for a 5K in the morning, I would suggest Without Limits.
As a side note, there is still a poster in my room that poses the question “Where are all the rock star runners?” that I put up when I was in high school featuring Prefontaine winning his last race at Hayward Field the day he died. My high school girlfriend also took a piece of our deteriorating track and put this Prefontaine quote on it “You have to wonder at times what you’re doing out there. Over the years, I’ve given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.” I also had a collection of 1970’s style running shoes and trainers that I recently (and somewhat foolishly) got rid of. At Marathon Sports in Brookline, there are a number of posters featuring Pre. There is something about Prefontaine that continues to inspire. Perhaps this is more of a lasting legacy than any Olympic medal or world record could ever prove.
Yesterday I finally did it! I went to Marathon Sports and purchased Vibram Bikilas – the road running specific FiveFingers. Even though it was rainy, muggy, misty, humid, miserable yesterday, I couldn’t wait to take them out for a spin. Holding out for the weather to clear a bit, I went to the gym. While I was there, it felt like there was some hope for it clearing, but on the walk back, the rain started up again. After eating and doing some laundry, the itch was too much. I coerced a friend into running with me, met up with them, and took off for the Muddy River/Comm Ave loop. These shoes are awesome! I have ridiculously sensitive feet, which you think would mean I would prefer shoes with more padding. But, that’s not the case. I like to feel the road, the trail, the track, whatever running surface I’m on. I’ve always preferred to run without socks, much to the detriment of my shoes and their, hmm…aroma. For a long time I only exclusively wore Converse All-Stars and, more recently, Sperry Topsiders. These are shoes with minimal padding. In the summer, I’ve always preferred to be barefoot. So, it seems me and minimalist shoes have been on a collision course for a while. The first thing I noticed was how similarly these felt to my sprinting spikes from high school and college – ultra-light and form fitting. Once I started running, I noticed immediately how quickly I was moving my feet. Barefoot, or in this case, near barefoot, running forces you to a front or mid-foot strike, which is very different than heel striking with normal shoes. I noticed that my gait is somewhat smaller, but my fleet feet make up for that. I also noticed that I’ve been inadvertently rolling my right foot to the side. I quickly corrected that, as it cannot be a good way to run. My friend and I did about four miles at a pretty quick clip and the rain held off. Towards the end of the run, the former cross country runner I was with started his kick, and being competitive, I had to match it. So, we ended at a near-full sprint, which I feel these shoes were tailor made made for. The more miles I log in them, the more I’ll let you know how my feet adapt and respond.
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