Tag Archives: Born to Run

“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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“Why We Run: A Natural History” by Bernd Heinrich

If I took one thing away from this book, it was this: Pacing a marathon is like making love to a beautiful tree frog. These amphibians stage contests of sustained mating shouts, and those males who can croak all night have the best chance of ending up with Mrs Frog. But many of them stuff it up. Males who are trying to get noticed in the frog chorus often give longer, more attention-grabbing calls. Yet such calls are much more costly in energy terms, and frogs who overdo them typically run out of stamina, hit the wall due to glycogen depletion, and fail to last the night. The steady-paced frogs, standing together, hand-in-hand, have the best chance of winning the mating ultramarathon.

This is a gloriously unique book. Bernd Heinrich is world-class biologist and ultramarathoner, and a man who really wants you to share his love for dung beetles. Heinrich draws on lessons from the animal kingdom to explain the different ways in which nature tackles the challenges posed by endurance activity. By studying phenomena such as the aerobic capacity of antelopes, the cooling strategies of insects, and the migration activities of birds – arguably the greatest ultramarathoners in the world – he illuminates what happens to our bodies when we run, and why humans have evolved to become such superb distance runners.

The tree frogs and lizards get it in the neck in this book though. Just about every experiment into these animals’ VO2 max seems to culminate in the unfortunate subjects getting blitzed up in a blender so their levels of lactic acid can be measured. You should never accept a smoothie off this man.

Heinrich is an entertainingly self-aware nutcase, and the book is structured around his quest in 1981 to win the American 100k championship on his first attempt at the distance. Training with virtually no knowledge of sports science, Heinrich retreated to a cabin in the New Hampshire woods and experimented on himself, using his understanding of animals to test out ideas about diet, pacing and training.

From the bee kingdom, he noticed that flight endurance is almost entirely down to the amount of carbohydrate in a bee’s stomach, in the form of concentrated nectar. An abortive long-run experiment with a quart of honey (hello bushes!) made Heinrich look for other sources with the right mixture of carbohydrate and water. There was one obvious candidate: beer. Admirably casting common sense to the wind in the name of science, he tried drinking a 12oz bottle midway through a 20-mile run. The result? A negative split! Clearly beer is the ultimate running fuel.

Except of course, it isn’t. Those of us who aren’t mad professors living alone in a cabin in the woods can quickly foresee what happens when he tries this in a long race. The plan? One beer every 4 miles. The result? Nausea and a DNF.

Throughout the book there are all sorts of interesting asides and gems of information for the non-biologist. Why do chickens have both white and dark meat? Their legs contain myoglobin, a muscle protein that removes oxygen from the blood and makes it available to the metabolic system. This red meat in the legs is full of slow-twitch oxygen-demanding fibres that assist with endurance. The white meat in the breasts, on the other hand, is rich in the fast-twitch fibres necessary for swift, explosive power, such as bursting into flight in a flurry of feathers when danger approaches. This mixture of white and dark is the reason why chickens can’t fly very far, but can run on the ground forever. By contrast, long-distance fliers, such as geese, have very dark breast meat to assist their wing muscles in flight.

Those who have read Born to Run will be familiar with some of Heinrich’s central findings about how humans have evolved to run long distances, primarily because Christopher McDougall lifted them wholesale from this book. If there is one game-changing development in the history of human evolution, it is our ability to sweat profusely. No other animal can perspire in buckets like a human. This was not just useful so that we could sell Global Hypercolour t-shirts to one another, but also so that we could keep cool when hunting on the African plains. Our non-sweating quarry, by contrast, would slowly overheat as we chased it over many miles. Endurance hunting – chasing antelopes to exhaustion – allowed us to eat meat in abundance, which in turn (so the theory goes) allowed our brains to develop more quickly through access to more protein.

As the author points out, other animals have cooling strategies too, and there was nothing inevitable about the development of sweating. Had we been aerial creatures, we might have followed the example of bees, and regularly vomited over ourselves to keep cool (this justifies my behaviour on a particularly steamy night outside Hussein’s Kebab Van c.1999). Or if we had been carrion birds prone to perching in one spot, such as vultures, we could have developed the party-piece of defecating all over our legs (this does not justify my baby son’s actions yesterday morning). Demonstrating that Germans do indeed have a sense of humour, Heinrich concludes that “anyone who has ever been running hard on a sweltering day will be able to identify with such behaviour”.

Heinrich’s main point in Why We Run is entirely absent from Born to Run though. In his view, endurance hunting and ultrarunning are both manifestations of an evolutionary quirk unique to humans: the pursuit of long-term goals and dreams. Chasing animals to exhaustion takes a very long time, and requires the sort of internal vision that finds the chase itself rewarding, but also allows us to keep the prize/prey in our minds, even when it is out of sight and smell. In Heinrich’s view, “We are psychologically evolved to pursue long-range goals, because through millions of years that is what we on average had to do in order to eat.” Only humans have the mindset to undertake such long-term activities without an immediate reward, and it arguably benefits us in other aspects of life too, such as agriculture and collective government. When we train for months on end to run long distance races, we are experiencing a “substitute chase”, taking ourselves back to those early days when what we wanted most in life was a sweet, tasty antelope. Nowadays, of course, we always have the option of putting it in a blender at the end.

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“Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner” by Dean Karnazes

You’re supposed to be a bit snobbish about Dean Karnazes. According to ‘Born to Run’ and sites such as LetsRun.com (other running forums are available), ‘real’ ultra-runners see him as too self-promoting, too keen to blow his own trumpet about his achievements, many of which are not unique.

His critics argue that he doesn’t even enter proper races anymore, taking on self-declared ‘challenges’ instead, such as running 50 marathons in 50 days across 50 states, or seeing how many miles he could run in 3 days non-stop (300). They suggest he’s not a proper racer, but instead is just very good at marketing himself, something the purists say is against the low-key ethos of the sport.

Well balls to that. I’d rather spend 300 pages in Dean’s wacky life than Scott ‘Eat and Run’ Jurek’s. And it certainly is a weird life. He didn’t start running properly as an adult until his 30th birthday, when he got tanked up on cervezas and decided to run 30 miles. In the middle of the night. In tennis shoes.

‘Ultramarathon Man’ describes his subsequent journey into running, his training for ultras such as the Western States 100, and the logistical problems of getting pizza delivered to you in the middle of a midnight run. Some of the best sections discuss his attempts at Badwater, a 135-mile race so hot that participants’ shoes can melt mid-run. When he first attempted it, Karnazes collapsed halfway through, and narrowly avoided being revived in a coffin of ice water. The following year he came back and won the event. After that he decided to become the first man to run to the South Pole. And so on.

All of this might sound like a nauseating list of one man’s superhuman achievements, but Karnazes is affable company and happy to talk about the times when things go wrong, such as the time he chundered all over his new company car following a 50-mile race. It’s quite refreshing to read a running book where the narrator doesn’t have much in the way of internal demons – he just really likes going for a run.

He might not compete much anymore, but then he is 50. There is also some evidence that he actually IS superhuman – as mentioned in a Guardian profile last year, tests have shown that he never reaches his lactate threshold, and therefore can run without ever getting muscle fatigue. Plus (full disclosure here) I met him at the NYC marathon last year and he was a very nice man indeed.

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“Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness” by Scott Jurek

It won’t take a reader of this book long to realise that Scott Jurek is not a normal person. Or a normal runner, for that matter. Jurek is one of the greatest ultramarathon runners of all time, having won umpteen races of 100miles+, including the suicidal-sounding Death Valley Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles in temperatures of 40 degrees plus?!) and the Spartathlon in Greece (152 miles). This is a man who can unleash 7-minute mile-ing at the 90-mile mark of a race. And all this while living on a strict vegan diet.

Having become famous off the back of “Born to Run”, Scott has clearly been encouraged to cash in on his fame. Part memoir, part race report, part training guide, part recipe book – “Eat and Run” is a curious mix, but an enjoyable tour through Jurek’s life nevertheless.

The memoir takes you through Scott’s tough early upbringing in Minnesota, his difficult relationship with his dad and his love for his MS-suffering mum. We learn about his cross-country skiing schooldays, and his first forays into long-distance running. He gets married, takes up veganism and conquers the ultramarathon world. After a while, the unanswered questions start stacking up:

– What has happened to his brother and sister? They’re not even mentioned when their mother dies.

– Why does he fall out with his best friend towards the end of the book? Scott makes it sound like he’s somewhat baffled by it, but you get the feeling there’s more to it than that.

– And how on earth does Scott hold down ANY kind of personal relationship doing the kind of training he has to do? I struggle to maintain run/work/life balance when training for a mere marathon. What was his first wife doing for all those years?

Scott’s an amiable presence throughout the book, but the questions like the ones above mean you can’t help getting the impression that sometimes he can be a bit of a…well…dick. There’s a comment later in the book about overtaking a fellow runner suffering from hypernatremia that had me gasping at its callousness.

It’s the discussions about food and veganism where the book really comes into its own. (Disclaimer: I’m not a vegan, although I would call myself a ‘friend of vegetarianism’. I’ve been a pescatarian at times in my life, and often do fortnightly vegetarian streaks…although pork and pork accessories always lure me back). Jurek is a passionate vegan, and highlights how a runner can function perfectly well on a plant-based diet. I have to say, it does seems to involve a lot of beans, which makes me fear for his fellow down-wind runners. And what the hell is “nutritional yeast”? I’m sure I’ve got that growing in my trainers.

He claims it has made him healthier, faster, and quicker to recover, and I believe him. However, it seems to be almost as much of a full-time vocation as ultramarathon running. He mills his own flour, travels miles to health-food markets, and involves a lot of experimentation. I really enjoyed reading these sections, as he talks about his successes (the joy of discovering avocados) and failures (a flask of olive oil does not make for good in-run hydration). And I loved his (serious) reason for giving up a short-lived attempt at a raw food diet (it was taking too long to chew).

So while I don’t think Jurek’s diet is for me, there are certainly things we can all take away from his thoughts on food. His recipes for chocolate adzuki bars and smokey refried beans are already on my “to cook” list.

Overall, this is a breezy, thought-provoking read, and Jurek will inspire you in one way or another. I can’t help thinking the man has a dark or selfish side that gets glossed over, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

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