Born to Run: A Q+A with Best-Selling Author Chris McDougall
Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” hit bookstore shelves four years ago last week, and, quite frankly, the impact on the running world has been considerable. McDougall’s 304-page autobiographical account of running almost-barefoot with the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico has sold more than a half million copies worldwide and has remained on the New York Times best seller list for more than 200 consecutive weeks. (As of May 9, it was No. 21 on the non-fiction paperback list.) We caught up with him recently to talk about the forthcoming “Born to Run” movie and his next book, both of which are due out in 2014.
“Born to Run” has been on the best-seller list since it came out. Are you still amazed at its success?
I always envisioned it as running’s answer to “White Men Can’t Jump” or “The Perfect Storm” … I never anticipated it would be what it is. I kind of found myself in the middle of this really great adventure story, strictly by accident, while on this trail with Scott Jurek and Barefoot Ted and these two guys from Virginia Beach, and it sort of turned into something. You know it’s a great adventure when you’re sort of half-wishing you weren’t there. And that’s exactly what it was like. I felt like I was in over my head. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s either going to be really great or really awful. And that’s what I wanted to convey in the book.
Did you anticipate it having as much impact on the running world—especially running shoe sales and trends—as it has?
As far as the other aspects, it wasn’t until I got home and started to research some other topics that I really understood the serious challenges to running shoe science—or lack of science—but I didn’t know that when I went down there. And I didn’t really understand the depths of the anthropological research that were going on. Or how a lot of these different strands—from Joe Vigil to Emil Zatopek to Percy Cerutty—how all these people and concepts intertwined. I didn’t even see it until the later stages as having that kind of universal impact. I just saw it as having a very cool, fun adventure story.
For different people, it’s a different book. Some people think it’s an anthropology book with annoying runner stories mixed in. Other people think it’s a great adventure story with the annoying science mixed in.
What’s your current take on the running shoe revolution?
I think there are a lot of people examining what kind of footwear they run in, but I’m not convinced there are a lot of people examining the way they run. And that is one thing I’m kind of concerned about—that, as usual, the retail conversation has dwarfed the education conversation. I hear a ton about footwear and very, very little about the concrete ways to change your form, and it should be the other way around.
I wrote that piece about “100-Up” because I had experienced it firsthand. I went to a barefoot running festival on Governor’s Island in New York City. There were hundreds of barefoot runners. These are the people who were self-identified as barefoot runners, and it was really alarming to see how many of them hadn’t changed a thing in their transition to barefoot running. They just bought the shoes. And so I asked the question, “If they can’t do, what’s going wrong?” And I think a big part of the problem was that it’s very difficult to translate movement into language.
So after all of the stories, books, videos and running shop discussions about improving your running form, why aren’t more people becoming better runners?
It’s easier to buy the shoes, it’s more fun to buy the shoes. And you also have conflicting motivations. Honestly, people can do one of two things: you can qualify for Boston or you can spend the same three months mastering your form. But to try to do both, you’re going to lose at both. I think people don’t want to hear that. There’s an achievement-oriented mentality that says “I’m not going to back off from my mileage, I’m not going to slow down. I’m just going to keep hammering away. If I can do a couple of drills and toe some toe crunches, that’s about as far as I’m going to go.”
We’re sort of rah-rah, performance-oriented in this country. It’s not really doing it for yourselves, it’s doing it to show off. Maybe I’m being too critical, but honestly I don’t see much support out there. It’s all about “Run Your Fastest 5K” and “Qualify for Boston” in the magazines; it’s achieve, achieve, achieve, instead of throttling back and learning really good form, and take satisfaction from the skill and not necessarily from the outcome.
The other thing is that there have been a lot of self-made experts out there, so it’s difficult for runners to understand what they need to do. I can’t believe people are giving advice that doesn’t mean anything. It’s just not right. A lot of people have zoomed in and become instant experts about how to transition and how to learn, and they’re not giving good advice. And that’s discouraging. I think it’s an interesting question and a difficult question.
What’s happening with the movie adaptation? Is Peter Sarsgaard still involved?
Well, we’ve done a major shaking out of the sheets and a new production company has taken over. It’s very high-powered and ambitious. Peter’s no longer involved. That was one of the obstacles. He had a much different concept of what it should be, and it just wasn’t flying. We have a new draft of the screenplay. It’s about getting back to the roots of what the book is all about and what the story is all about. In the next couple of weeks, we should have some new developments there. We’re hoping to have this thing in progress in the next few months. It would be nice to have it out by next summer. That’s kind of the plan as of now.
What’s your next book about?
I’m working on a new book and hoping to finish it in the next couple of months and also hoping to have it out in 2014. I’m looking at World War II resistance fighters and trying to understand how, physically, they were able to carry out these superhuman feats. These guys were not trained super-commandos. These were just average people, who, at the snap of a finger, were suddenly launched behind enemy lines, where they pretty much lived on a starvation diet and had to fight the most lethal war machine in human history with rocks. And they were astonishingly successful. If you were to drop an Olympic athlete behind enemy lines, they would die. They would not be able to get the calories, the nutrition, the shelter to survive. Yet these common people were able to tap into something and learn something very fast that they were able to turn to their advantage.
For more about Christopher McDougall, go to his website.