“Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance” by Christopher McDougall

My son and I are currently making our way through the collected works of Roger Hargreaves. The greatest of his novels is unquestionably Mr Silly. In this parable of the 2016 US election, our hero enters the Nonsense Cup, awarded to the person who has the silliest idea of the year. Entrants include a square apple and a teapot that pours onto itself. Mr Silly beats them all by painting the trees of Nonsenseland (where the trees are of course red) green.

Natural Born Heroes would have been odds-on favourite for winning the Nonsense Cup. It tells the story of Second World War resistance heroes on Crete who kidnapped a Nazi general, interwoven with present-day anecdotes about the sport of parkour, ‘natural movement’ and nutrition. Christopher “Born to Run” McDougall clearly had two different books he wanted to write, but neither was quite fully formed…and judging by the cover illustration his publisher was probably desperate that it be another running book, not a history book about Greeks and eccentric Englishmen. Inspired by the Percy Jackson series of children’s books (yes really), he decided to mash them together, drawing links between the urban free-runners he encounters in Paris, London and Pennsylvania, and how the heroes of mythological and wartime Greece proved to be such impressive warriors.

On the positive side, the story of how British spy Patrick Leigh Fermor and his band of Cretan partisans successfully bogged down the Nazi war machine is a true adventure story, full of spies, derring-do and colourful characters. To train the agents of the Special Operations Executive, whose role was to go behind enemy lines and cause trouble for the Nazis, the British high command recruited the two toughest policemen from the world’s most dangerous city: Shanghai. These cops fought dirty, and taught their students how to knock out an enemy using just a box of matches, then kick him in the groin for good measure. On Crete, their students would mastermind one of the greatest feats of espionage of the war, kidnapping General Heinrich Kreipe near his residence and smuggling him off the island. When the Nazis discovered his abandoned car the next day, they found some Cadbury chocolate wrappers, Player’s cigarettes and an Agatha Christie novel littered around it, just in case the Germans needed a clue as to the nationality of the cheeky kidnappers.

McDougall thinks that combining this narrative with present-day accounts of people rediscovering the “lost” arts of fitness, athleticism and nutrition is a successful way of telling something profound about the nature of heroism, but unfortunately for me it was a real failure. Part of the problem is that so much of his story is incredibly tenuous, based on the smallest of evidence, and some of it is outright cobblers. Take this little gem: “When England was rebuilding after the Great War, [Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] was its guide”. Really? England rebuilt itself after 1918 based on the values of ancient Greek literature? McDougall has clearly never seen Peaky Blinders, or even Downton Abbey for that matter. England after the war was a country filled with violent and traumatised demobbed men, militant trade unions urging a general strike, and a wildly unequal class system. He bases this sweeping statement on a single quote by Narnia author and Oxford professor C. S. Lewis, who was in any event actually talking about England after 1945.

Later, when McDougall used the phrase “tough London borough of Westminster” I threw the book across the room. It’s one of the richest parts of the city.

And then there’s the dangerous, pseudo-scientific aspect to the book. Born to Run was a rollicking romp through the world of ultrarunning, exploring the amazing endurance feats of the Tarahumara people and popularising the exhaustion-hunting theory of why human beings run. It’s an easy, gripping read, and McDougall’s evangelism for running without shoes almost single-handedly started the current barefoot running boom.

Reading Natural Born Heroes, I couldn’t help thinking “here we go again”. Deploying his trademark brand of infectious certainty, McDougall has got a new fitness lifestyle to sell his readers: High Fat Low Carb (HFLC), aka the Paleo or Banting diet. In McDougall’s account, the sports nutritionists have been getting it wrong for years, and carbohydrates are actually a terrible fuel for endurance sport, being both completely inefficient and a source of health and injury woes. Instead, we should be training our body to burn its fat reserves, which is a much more natural fuel source. He cites several examples of elite runners who switched to a fat-based diet and saw colossal improvements in their performance. In a link to his history of the heroes of Crete, he is quick to point out that the traditional Cretan diet involves lots of fat and limited carbohydrates.

Why “dangerous”? McDougall writes in such an accessible style that it is easy to forget he is not a scientist, and that the scientists he does cite do not necessarily reflect mainstream opinion. Many people injure themselves making ill-advised shifts to running barefoot without proper training. Equally, many people may be setting themselves up for health problems if they switch to a HFLC diet without proper consideration. In some people, the diet seems to lead to insulin and ‘bad’ cholesterol issues, not to mention reduced performance.

My own view about both barefoot running and HFLC is that we are all individuals, and what works for one person’s body may not work for another. I also think there are a lot of separate issues being confused in McDougall’s book. Many of the people mentioned as HFLC converts in the book will have seen benefits simply by switching from bad eating habits to thinking more proactively about their diet. It’s noticeable the author himself says he previously would eat pizza and cheesesteaks, but lost the cravings for that kind of junk once he switched to HFLC. Have you ever seen a cheesesteak? It’s a crime against food.

The other thing that makes me very suspicious about movements such as HFLC and barefoot running is that they often come hand in hand with someone wanting to sell you something. With barefoot running it was Vibram Fivefingers – the nonsensical concept of shoes for barefoot runners. With HFLC there is a whole industry of cookbooks and fat-crammed ‘natural’ food products. But perhaps the thing that truly offends me is the Bulletproof range, spearheaded by Bulletproof coffee, mentioned briefly in Natural Born Heroes as the secret potion that helped the LA Lakers NBA team turbo-charge their basketball skills. Bulletproof coffee, sold online and in London hipster coffee shops, is highly expensive gourmet coffee. With a big knob of butter in it.

As Roger Hargreaves might say: how silly.

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One thought on ““Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance” by Christopher McDougall

  1. […] the rest of us for our foolish high-carb eating, trainer-wearing ways. Both Running Free and Natural Born Heroes annoyed me for the same reason. As he later admits, Cregan-Reid is not someone who enjoys races and […]

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