Christopher McDougall and me: Born to run, or not?


Weeks after my reintroduction to running my first 5K in 30 some years, I’m getting ready to go out for a little run again. First  I tape up my recalcitrantly inflamed ankle. Next, Ace wrap my torn, aching hamstring. Then the usual stuff:  shorts, shirt, heart rate monitor, cell phone, and I’m ready to go. Turns out that running has only gotten harder, not easier, as my physical therapist and sports medicine doc can attest. So why do I still do it? I admit that most days I’m mystified myself.

If we are, as Christopher McDougall posits, born to run, why is it so hard, or nearly impossible, for most of us? I’m two years late to the party, reading McDougall’s 2010 tome, Born to Run, long after everyone else has already tried and given up on barefoot running and buying Chia pets to make their own chia seed elixir. Yet, I’ve jumped on the bandwagon, convinced that somewhere in this book is the answer to how a middle-aged women with a non-athletic body can somehow be transformed into a modicum of runner. My goal to run two miles twice a week, and a few 5k’s a summer, so far has been mostly insurmountable, and getting farther away each day, as every run I take I swear will be my last.

So I’m trying it again.  Like McDougall, I’ve been to my family doctor, who gently suggested that walking might be a better option, ahem, at my age. I’ve been to the sports medicine doc who told me that as long as I’m unable to hop on my bad ankle, I’ll have no success running on it. My bike guru who had gently discouraged me, now says “I’m surprised you’ve lasted THIS long.” The only bright spot is at  physical therapy, where, I’ve  actually garnered some understanding of my aspirations, and surprisingly, some improvement, including now being able to hop on each foot.

I could try gait analysis, but I’m afraid I’ll end up being the five-foot two version of McDougall’s running monster, as McDougall recounts here, which had me chortling uncontrollably when I first read it:

“Dr. Davis put me on the treadmill…and had me walk, trot and haul ass.. Then I sat in horror as she played back the video. …The guy on the screen was Frankenstein’s monster trying to tango.. I was bobbing around so much, my head was disappearing from the top of the frame. My arms were slashing back and forth like an ump calling  a player safe at the plate, while my size 13s clumped down so heavily it sounded like the video had a bongo back beat…my right foot twisted out, my left knee dipped in, and my back bucked and spasmed so badly that it looked as if someone ought to jam a wallet between my teeth and call for help. How was I even moving forward with all that up-down, side-to-side, fish-on a hook flopping going on?”

McDougall’s quest to run without injury brought him to explore the ways of the Tarahumara, a  tribe of super runners, and the Leadville Trail 100 ultra-marathoners, all of whom run amazing distances year after year, without harm. If those folks can run like that, shouldn’t McDougall and I be able to run our paltry little distances injury free? Unless McDougall’s writings are sheer hyperbole, perhaps I’ll find the answer by the time I finish the book.

Have you read McDougall’s book? What physical achievements have you accomplished, despite the odds tilted against your success?

© Huffygirl 2012

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35 thoughts on “Christopher McDougall and me: Born to run, or not?

  1. I have always been a bike rider and just had one knee replaced and the other one is now givimg me fits so I suppose that one is next.It was so wonderful to be able to ride again,I have not read the book of Mr.McDougal’s but wonder if it would give me motivation.

    • You’ll have to decide for yourself about the book. So far I have found it motivating, yet it also seems to be getting me into trouble. When I read about all the people he cites that are running 100 miles, I think, “well, if they can run 100, I ought to be able to do at least 3 or 5, or why not a half marathon?” Then I end up in physical therapy, while those folks are still out running their 100. So it might be motivating, but use caution that it doesn’t motivate you to go beyond your ability.

      • Thanks for the input.I think I will still get the book,but try to use a little common sense too.I just finished PT about three weeks ago due to a knee replacement and I really want to start getting back in the swing of things.I am going to try to remember that I am not a cyclist but a Nana that likes to ride bike.

  2. Nice post. I read the McDougall book about 4 months ago. It’s incredible how one book can inspire so many people – or maybe McDougall is simply a really good journo – either way & thanks to McDougall my marathon aspirations have now become a means instead of an end.

    I highly recommend gait analysis. I got fitted for a pair of trainers about 6 months ago and after the initial run test with my old trainers was told “I’m amazed you haven’t broken both your ankles already. These trainers are completely inappropriate for your gait and pronation”. Despite CM’s advice to go barefoot and avoid the devil that is running shoe technology – so good that it’s ultimately bad for us – I like wearing running shoes.

    Good luck with your running endeavours.

    • Thanks James. Good luck with your running as well. Sounds like you are meters ahead of me already.

      I am thinking about gait analysis – but I think I will wait a little while and see if I really am able to stick with this first. As far as the barefoot running though – I can’t even wear those barefoot shoes walking around the house. I’ve seen barefoot runners at races and they seem to do okay. But I’ve also know at least one seasoned runner who got a stress fracture when he switched to barefoot running (and I think later gave it up.)

      the one thing I am thinking about trying from CM’s book is the chia seeds – have you tried that one?

    • I checked into getting a gait analysis today – my running shoes store offers a free one once a week. A group assembles, then each runner takes turns running while they video tape; then they analyze each runner’s gait. Sounds silly, but I don’t want to run out there with all the experienced runners who will see how slow and awkward I am. I may have to spring for the individual session.

      • In my experience, everybody looks like a fool on a treadmill and runners are the least judgemental and most supportive of all the recreational sports (I guess because it is usually us against the world).

        But I understand your trepidation. In the UK, there are a number of small chains such as Sweatshop and RunnersNeed who offer free individual gait analysis. I would like to think there is an equivalent chain on your side of the pond.

        When you have it done, let me know how it goes – and what you get!!

  3. I’m afraid i don’t believe we are born to run. A couple million years ago maybe but I think our bodies are now so far removed from the original that we only risk damage and pain in old age. I think we get more benefit from a good walk – but then I’m a lazy girl 😉

  4. Good for you! Once I got more into biking, I stopped running. Then had knee issues in June and was told I needed to do more cross-training. So am trying to do a short run once a week, but really can’t get back into it. Best part about it, short and quick workout unlike a bike ride or yoga class. Good luck!

    • Lisa, I remember being very impressed last year when I read about your triathlon. You make it sound like a breeze – just swim, bike, run after not doing it before, no problem. So I’m sure you’ll get back to the run, probably better than I’ll ever be.

      This week I’m trying running more frequently, but only a mile at a time, and with my ankle taped AND wrapped. Will see how that works out.

  5. Doing Earthwatch this year was a physical achievement! The ground undulated with almost every step. I don’t think there were two flat places together on any of the ground. I really did come back feeling much more physically fit.

  6. After an ATV accident, my ACL was in such disrepair that the surgeon suggested that rather than replace and rehab, it should be completely removed. He said that without an ACL, I might not be able to jog, ski or play tennis….or other like things that involve lots of forward/backward motion of my knee. I have done all those things. Much slower and more carefully and for shorter periods of time, but I can still do them in some fashion and that makes me happy. But I spend more and more time on my bicycle and swimming and yoga, because those things seem to soothe this old body. Good luck.

    • Thanks Bella. I’m impressed that you can do any of those things without an ACL, and not get other problems with your knee. You must be in amazing shape. I think you are right about the bicycling, swimming and Yoga. I don’t like water, but I do find the cycling the easiest to recover from. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. In my late 20s I was jogging 3 miles per day five or six days per week after many many years of sedentary living. I stopped in my 30s simply because I felt I was too busy with other things and have spent all five years of my 40s wishing I could get going again. No injuries, no health problems other than a few extra pounds, just not enough ambition I guess. Someday!

    • Sounds like you are just about ready to talk yourself into it again Elizabeth. Seriously, if I could run 3 miles 5-6 days a week, without problems, I don’t think there is any time constraint that would hold me back. If you lived near me I’d be cajoling you to run with me – maybe I could learn something from you, and having a partner might help get you back out there. I hope you get back to it when you’re ready, or to something else that works for you. Good luck and thanks for sharing your story.

  8. Better you than me Donna!!! I did do a 5K once in my life when living in Ireland. I made it through, but ended up very sick after and had to call the doc to the house. Turns out he had actually been at the race to help when needed. He said I was dehydrated and would be better the next day, but to rest til then. I was proud of myself for finishing 🙂

  9. Don’t give up on the running just yet. I read Born to Run too, bought Vibram Five Fingers, and began very, very slowly in them. Usual niggles, but they all went away in time. A year and a half later, I can run 4k in them, but the real joy is my usual injuries have all gone away. I can run 16km painfree in more minimalist running shoes. I did a video analysis recently on a treadmill. In my Teva’s, I was perfectly aligned. In my more corrective running shoes, I needed a more corrective version! Your body will teach you if you go slowly enough.

    • I hope you are right Patricia. From looking at your blog, I see you’ve become quite the impressive runner. I don’t care what kind of shoes I wear, as long as they work.

      • Thanks for your comment. My only aim is to run injury-free – I know exactly what you mean. I was meant to have hip surgery about a year ago for a labral tear in my hip, and this has fixed it all. Best wishes for your running.

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  13. Nice post. Just read the book. I have been struggling to run for about 3 years. Swollen ankle and sore hip keep coming back but I keep trying even though I run slower than some people walk……

    • Hang in there Corinna. I’m battling an old ankle injury too. I had to stop running for a while to do a round of physical therapy. Now I’m back running but found I have to limit to 2 miles twice a week. I started out running very slowly too – almost as slow as some people walk. But in about 5 months I’ve shaved 1 to 1 1/2 minutes off my mile without even trying to go faster – just getting a little better cardio-wise. I haven’t finished the book yet – probably will some time next week. Thanks for stopping by.

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