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Christopher McDougall: The Powells.com Interview

Christopher McDougallSometimes the simplest of questions can send us on the most complicated quests. For Christopher McDougall, the question was, "Why does my foot hurt?" The story of his search for an answer is the entertaining and inspiring bestseller Born to Run, which has something for everyone — travel, adventure, history, science, and sport — and includes a whole cast of eccentric characters.

McDougall met with exercise physiologists, evolutionary biologists, and endurance athletes who think nothing of running a hundred miles or more in a day. Ultimately, his search led him into the depths of Mexico's Copper Canyon, where he sought the help of a reclusive runner nicknamed Caballo Blanco ("the White Horse") in the hopes of being introduced to a tribe of super athletes, the Tarahumara. By the end of the book, the Tarahumara are running against American ultramarathoners in a race to end all races.

The Denver Post called Born to Run, "A tale so mind-blowing as to be the stuff of legend.""A tale so mind-blowing as to be the stuff of legend." NPR raved, "McDougall recounts his quest to understand near-superhuman ultrarunners with adrenaline-pumped writing, humor and a distinct voice....he never lets go from his impassioned mantra that humans were born to run." Born to Run has probably been the one book I've recommended more than any other in the last two years, but my recommendation always comes with a warning: If you're not already a runner, you will be after reading this book.

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Shawn Donley: How did you first become aware of the Tarahumara?

Christopher McDougall: Well, like most people, I became involved in long-distance running because I was researching a fugitive, brainwashing sex cult. [Laughter] Literally.

I was down in Mexico researching an article for the New York Times Magazine about Gloria Trevi, who was this fabulously successful Mexican pop singer, and it turned out that on the side she was running a bizarre brainwashing cult. It was while I was in Chihuahua, researching that article, that I first saw a piece in a Mexican magazine about the Tarahumara Indians.

Shawn: Wasn't your first book before Born to Run called Girl Trouble?

McDougall: That's right. That New York Times Magazine article became the genesis of Girl Trouble. But I was down there in Chihuahua, and the funny thing is, in Chihuahua the license plates have this little image of some guy running in a dress. I was asking people, "Who are these guys?" They said, "The Tarahumara." In Chihuahua you hear a lot about the Tarahumara, but nowhere else in the world.

Shawn: You mentioned in the book that Carlos Castaneda, in his book The Teachings of Don Juan, deliberately misidentified the Tarahumara to protect their way of life. Were you ever worried that your book might have some kind of negative effect on their lives?

McDougall: It was definitely a concern, not only of mine, but of Caballo Blanco, "the White Horse," the guy who created the race in the book. His concern was exactly along those lines: Are we intruding in a way that's going to be more harmful than helpful?

But his thinking, which I adopted, is that doing nothing hasn't worked. The Tarahumara are in a dire situation with the encroachment of the drug cartels and illegal loggers, and if something isn't done to make people realize that there's something down there worth protecting, then they could really be jeopardized.

Shawn: What are a few of the things you learned from the Tarahumara?

McDougall: The best lesson was distilled by Caballo Blanco. He was originally just talking about running, but I think it's a worldview that he adopted from the Tarahumara that really pertains to everything. We were running one day, and I was straining to keep up with him, huffing and puffing and flailing. He stopped and said, "You know, the problem with you people..." (By "you people" he meant all of us that didn't live in the canyon.) "The problem with you people is, you're all obsessed with getting fast. You just want to get fast, as fast as you can, and you think that once you get fast, then running will get easy. Well, you've got it backwards. You've got to focus on easy first."

He said, "If easy is all you get, that isn't so bad. Then you focus on getting light, and then smooth. When you have those three things, then you'll be fast." The whole point is that it all boils down to one thing. Live in the present; enjoy the process.

Shawn: It's a great philosophy.

McDougall: Yes, and the Tarahumara are a culture without literacy. They have no outside entertainment. They're only living in the moment. They're not watching TV or reading books or looking ahead to the next day's excitement. They are dealing with what's in front of them.

Shawn: We could all learn from that.

McDougall: Absolutely, yes.

Shawn: Your book introduces us to this bunch of eccentric characters. Caballo Blanco is one in particular, but also Jenn Shelton, Billy Bonehead, and Barefoot Ted, to name a few. Have you stayed in touch with any of them?

McDougall: All of them. It's funny, because they've become like this family of people that feel a strong attachment to each other. Yet now I look back and realize that Caballo Blanco was never all that easy to get along with in the first place.

And nothing's changed. I got a pissed-off email from him this morning. And when I say Ted is a barrage of sound? He called the other day, and I made the mistake of saying, "How're you doing, Ted?" The next thing I know, he's off to the races with a 30-minute monologue. Then I got a wonderful email from Scott Jurek. He was in Hawaii, where Billy Bonehead's living now. The two of them are running around the volcanic craters and sending me these gorgeous pictures of them bombing down the side of the mountain.

Shawn: Scott seems like a really good guy. He seems like he gives back a lot to the community.

McDougall: Scott is so good, you forget how good he is until you meet him. You think, "Damn, he's just a good guy." I saw him recently in Boulder. His girlfriend was helping set up a charity fundraiser for a nonprofit. It's a huge amount of effort and energy and personal attachment that Scott poured into this thing, and it's got nothing to do with him, you know? But he was going to make it a success. He really gives a lot of himself.

Shawn: Has the book's success changed some of these people's lives?

McDougall: I don't think it has dramatically, because these are people that always had their own path in life that they were following. I think what brought them all down to the canyon in the first place was a singular way of life. If normal mainstream society couldn't knock them off their path, then some goofy book isn't going to change that. That's basically what they're all doing. Scott's still out there running ultras. Billy's still wandering. Jenn's still wandering.

Shawn: In many ways, Born to Run feels like it's three or even four books instead of just one. How were you able to include so much material and still make it so enjoyable to read?

McDougall: The book ended up coming in a year late, and it's for exactly that reason, because it was really hard for me to figure out how to combine these elements. Any one element was always in danger of overwhelming the other three or four, because, you're right, it is like four different stories. I'm trying to tell the history of the Tarahumara, the adventure of this race, the back story of ultrarunning, and the anatomy and physiology of human endurance runners.I'm trying to tell the history of the Tarahumara, the adventure of this race, the back story of ultrarunning, and the anatomy and physiology of human endurance runners. Each one of those things had its own cast of characters and its own timelines.

Shawn: Each one of them could have been a book.

McDougall: Totally. That's actually what happened. I started off trying to tell a story in different ways. Not to put myself in the same category as Faulkner at all, but have you ever read his description of how he wrote The Sound and the Fury? He kept trying to tell the same story and failing, so he just tried a different way through different characters' eyes. That's basically what I did with this book.

Shawn: The Kurosawa approach, maybe.

McDougall: Yes, exactly. I get the armies out there on the battlefield and let them have at it.

Shawn: One of my favorite chapters is the one where you discuss persistence hunting, the traditional practice of humans running down antelope and other game through sheer endurance. Is there anywhere in the world where this practice still exists?

McDougall: Yes, in Botswana, and the Kalahari Bushmen still do persistence hunts to this day. But there may only be about six of them that are still doing it. This is a fascinating bit of folklore, because it's really pivotal to the running man's theory of evolution that Dr. Bramble and Dr. Lieberman were working on. The idea is that the only natural advantage we had in the primitive world was our ability to run long distances. But the difficulty is, if we had that advantage 200 years ago, we should still have it today. Therefore, how is it that nobody seems to be able to do this?

All folklore and mythology on the planet has stories about humans running animals to death. But there's no physical evidence that it ever happened. When it was discovered that the Kalahari Bushmen were still doing it, that became a living proof that the theory was valid.

Shawn: Several of my non-running friends have taken up the sport after reading Born to Run. Do you hear from many readers who were inspired?

McDougall: It would number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Every day I open up the email box to dozens of messages. It's bizarre, the people you hear from. You know Rick Rubin, the great music producer?

Shawn: Yes.

McDougall: He worked with The Beastie Boys...

Shawn: He was never a small guy.

McDougall: He is now.

Shawn: Wow.

McDougall: Apparently the guy has literally shrunk himself in half. I haven't met Rick Rubin; I've never seen him. But his doctor told me that he got this ecstatic email from Rubin, who'd read Born to Run and got a pair of Vibram FiveFingers and started running. The doctor said Rubin's shed like 170 pounds.

Shawn: That's great.

McDougall: What's really gratifying is I keep hearing echoes of my same story over and over. People say, "For a year I just wanted to run a little bit, and I was always getting hurt. My doctor said I shouldn't be running. Then I took my shoes off, and I was running fine. And now I'm running 10 miles a day."

Shawn: Because of your book, barefoot running and the use of minimalist footwear have really boomed in popularity. Were you surprised that the book would have such a dramatic effect on the running community?

McDougall: Yes. It's funny, because that was one chapter I was really close to cutting out of the book. When I finally finished work on the draft, my editor emailed me and said, "Okay, it's really good, we're set to go. You've just got to lose 30 pages." I said, "Which 30 pages?" He said, "Any 30 pages. It's just a little too long."

I looked around, wondering, Where can I lose 30 pages of ugly fat here? I looked at that chapter about running shoes and thought, You know, everybody knows this stuff already. I may as well just cut this out. When you're immersed in that world of researching running shoes and minimalist running, you talk to so many barefoot runners, and you read so much information that you get this mentality of Everyone must already know this stuff. So, that actually came as a surprise to me to discover that, in reality, very few people knew this stuff. It was still brand new.

Shawn: That's the chapter people talk about the most.

McDougall: It's dominated everything else, and in some ways I think, Thank God, I didn't cut it out. On the other hand, I hope that it's not dwarfing the other passages in the book, in particular the notion that running is a natural heritage that we have and that it can be really fun and joyful. That's ultimately the message I'm hoping people take away.

Shawn: In the chapter that you just spoke about, you claim that the running-shoe industry is actually responsible for many of our running injuries. Were you ever worried that this huge multibillion-dollar industry might try to put a stop to the book?

McDougall: I was hoping they would.

Shawn: That'd be good publicity.

McDougall: Absolutely. Once, Dr. Lieberman was speaking to a professor at Harvard Law School, and the professor said, "You know, if there's ever a class action lawsuit against the shoe companies, you're going to be a witness."the professor said, "You know, if there's ever a class action lawsuit against the shoe companies, you're going to be a witness." And Lieberman asked me if I was concerned about this.

I hope they file a lawsuit, because then they've got to open their books. They've got to say what they knew and when they knew it. The fact of the matter is, it's this ugly secret. There's no evidence that running shoes do anything to prevent injuries, and there's growing evidence that they may actually contribute to injuries. That's the thing that's been hidden in plain sight for a long time.

Shawn: It's like Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed for running shoes.

McDougall: A much clumsier version of it, yes.

Shawn: The book has taken on a life of its own. There are all these fan sites, and Naked Running tours. Born to Run was even used as a question on Jeopardy. How has all of this changed your life in the last 10 years?

McDougall: At this moment, I'm looking out the window at my chickens, and at a pile of firewood that hasn't been cut yet... [Laughter] And the lawn that needs to be mowed. You know, it hasn't changed a whole lot. In daily life, it hasn't changed much of anything for me. The one major difference, I think, is that it's put me in a position of being an authority on a topic that I'm not an authority on.

Now I'm getting questions from people asking for medical advice or asking, "What shoes should I wear to work?" For example, one guy talked to me at a book signing, and he had an interesting story. His leg had almost been amputated and had been surgically reattached when he was younger. He wanted to run an ultramarathon and asked me if I thought it was medically advisable for him. I'm like, "God! You're talking to a freelance journalist!" you know? [Laughter]

Shawn: Do you still run, or have some of your foot problems returned?

McDougall: Oh, no. Not at all. I haven't had a problem with a running injury in years. I run just about every day and basically whatever distance I feel like. It's really been miraculous the way you get the use of your legs back. I always looked at running as this sort of hazardous, treacherous activity that people can get away with for awhile but ultimately we got hurt. That mentality has completely vanished. I don't even think about running injuries anymore.

Shawn: Do you run barefoot, or do you run in some kind of minimalist footwear?

McDougall: It strictly depends on the weather. My approach to footwear is like my approach to clothing. It's just sort of "apply as necessary." If it's, say, 45 degrees and I'm running on streets or a nice trail, I'll go barefoot. If it's going to be a rocky trail, I'll stick on a pair of sandals, the FiveFingers, or some minimal shoe. You choose your shoes as appropriate.

Shawn: Your kids must love running around barefoot with their dad.

McDougall: Oh, yes, exactly. The funny thing is that if you give kids a chance, they'll never wear shoes. Our local school did a Race for Education, where we had to run laps around the soccer field. My daughter and I were running barefoot. The other kids are looking at us and saying, "Are you allowed to do that?" "Sure!" Next thing you know, you see a pile of shoes getting bigger and bigger on the edge of the infield. Everyone was kicking their shoes off.

Shawn: That's great. I hate wearing shoes. I remember crying when my mom put them on my feet.

McDougall: There's this mentality that you must wear shoes, and people just never question it.

Shawn: In his book, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, Haruki Murakami discusses many of the similarities between running and writing. They're both solitary pursuits, and ultimately, for most writers and runners, you're competing against yourself more than others. Do you feel that running has helped you as a writer?

McDougall: Without running, there would have been no Born to Run. The irony was that when I started to amass the research, I got into this gigantic mountain of stuff — the anthropology, the history, and first-person narratives — and then I sat down and tried to write it. It was so overwhelming that I sat for hours and hours at the desk and spent fewer and fewer hours outside. It got to the point where I was barely running at all. The writing got worse and worse, and I became grouchier and more frantic and despairing.

And at one point, I thought, You know something? I'm just going to step away from this keyboard for a couple hours every day — no matter what! That's what turned everything around. The 180 occurred once I started to run regularly. It just cleared my thinking. It got to the point where I knew when I got to a roadblock in the writing, if I got out the door and went for a run I was going to come back with the answers.

So, it's basically changed everything. I don't think I could concentrate and create anything if I wasn't getting out the door for an hour or two hours every day.

Shawn: It seems to be stimulating. The process of getting away and out there and moving generates ideas.

McDougall: There are a couple of things about that. I was speaking to one anthropologist, who said, "We evolved as prey. We're used to bigger things devouring us. We're hardwired to survey our landscape every few minutes." You know, you can't stare at a screen constantly because it will start to make you feel anxious. You need to get up and look around at your surroundings. That's part of it. I feel like the stress release comes from the fact that you're actually happier out there in your environment and that brings you some peace of mind.

But, secondly, I think if we evolved as long distance runners, then we should be hardwired to enjoy it. I think that kind of physical reward really pays off.

Shawn: I've heard rumors that there may be a Born to Run movie in the works. Is that true?

McDougall: I think I'll really believe it's true when I've seen it for the fifth time. But where it stands now is I got this surprise phone call from Peter Sarsgaard, whose brother-in-law is Jake Gyllenhaal. They're both great actors in their own right. They asked me to meet them in Leadville, Colorado, last August because they wanted to check out the race and do some research on ultrarunning.

Where it stands now is Peter is slotted to direct the movie, and he's got a script in hand, and we'll see where it goes from there.

Shawn: Who's going to play you in the movie? Depp? [Laughter]

McDougall: I'm hoping that he will. I'm holding out for Will Smith. [Laughter] I don't know. It's the kind of thing where you can play fantasy baseball and cast anybody in any role. But at this point, I don't know anything about who could be playing anybody.

Shawn: Jon Krakauer is from Oregon originally. After a couple of successful adventure books, he shifted gears completely and wrote Under the Banner of Heaven, a book about Mormon fundamentalism. What about you? What's next on your agenda?

McDougall: When I finished this book, I had this feeling of What to do now? You are never going to get material like this again. That was your one great story.

Shawn: Once in a lifetime stuff.

McDougall: But I came across something else that I'm really fired up about. What I'm most excited about is that not only is it a good adventure story, but it has the same potential for exploring history, physiology, and psychology that Born to Run has. That's basically what I'm working on now. The second I drop the curtain on this book tour in May, I'm heading over to Europe to begin research on that.

Shawn: I think that all those qualities you just mentioned are the reasons Born to Run resonated with so many people. It was a little bit of history, a little bit of science, a little bit of adventure, a little bit of travel. If your next book is along those lines, I think it'll be a hit.

McDougall: I hope so. That's what got me excited. That's where the great adventure books were. I mean, if you read The Perfect Storm, there isn't a whole lot about the storm. There's a lot about sea rescue in there. The same thing happened with Into Thin Air. I don't really care much about mountaineering, but I cared about the processes and the history of it.

These books that can bring you the entire universe in one story are really rare, and really great, and that's what I'm shooting for.

Shawn: Speaking of Into Thin Air, because of that book, high-altitude mountaineering really boomed in popularity and because of your book, ultramarathoning has boomed in popularity. Is it something that you think will continue to grow?

McDougall: All-terrain trail running started to boom well before Born to Run and what was cool about it was — even if it's the only thing you look at in the book — is that running always booms in some sort of eras of national crisis. Of the three times we've seen running booms in the U.S., the first one was during the Depression. The next one was during the 1970s, which was one of the most traumatic periods in our history. And the last running boom began one year after 9/11. That's when trail running became the fastest growing outdoor activity in the country.

I think what's been happening is just that. I think we are hardwired to fall back on our greatest natural ability when things look a little bit dire. I mean, what do you do when you're scared? You run.

But, also, what we do when we feel stress is to want to relieve it by running around, by playing. So, I think that's what's been happening. I don't think I started a lot of this. I think that I got really lucky and caught the wave as it was cresting, as it was ready to take off.

Shawn: Yes, the timing was perfect.

McDougall: Lucky. But it's the same thing with barefoot running. I think that there are a lot of people out there that had the same dissatisfaction with the sales pitch of running shoes. People sort of suspected, "There's something fishy about this." So, it wasn't like I created the idea of barefoot running, just that I think that I was there at the time when lots of people were starting to question it.

Shawn: It's always been on the fringes of the running community, but it seems now to have entered the mainstream. You see these Vibram FiveFingers everywhere now.

McDougall: It's crazy how that took off. I never had seen a pair of those, or even heard of them. I was down at the Copper Canyons and there were people wearing barefoot tennis shoes and people wearing these things. I remember looking at them, thinking, Those are the goofiest things I've ever seen in my life.

Shawn: Now you wish you'd have bought stock in the company.

McDougall: Privately held, unfortunately.

Shawn: Do you have any favorite running or adventure books you'd like to recommend to our readers?

McDougall: Do you know Bone Games?

Shawn: I don't.

McDougall: I've got it on my shelf. This book was jaw-dropping to me when I read it, and now I've probably given out about 15 copies. I gave it to Scott, and Billy, and Jenn. Now whenever I see Scott, he's always quoting from it. It's by Rob Schultheis, and the full title is Bone Games: Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen, and the Search for Transcendence.

I'm in the middle of it right now; there's probably like 75 pages earmarked with notes on it. It's really fantastic. It's purely Outside magazine sort of stuff. It's a great adventure story with a ton of science in it.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe,...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. Bone Games: Extreme Sports,... Used Trade Paper $8.95
  3. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  4. The Perfect Storm: A True Story of... Used Trade Paper $3.50
  5. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story...
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  6. What I Talk about When I Talk about...
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  7. The Sound and the Fury: The...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  8. Teachings of Don Juan : a Yaqui Way...
    Used Trade Paper $10.00
  9. Girl Trouble: The True Saga of... Used Hardcover $7.95

2 Responses to "Christopher McDougall: The Powells.com Interview"

    LexDeNovo April 27th, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Dynamite interview with astute follow-up questions. Clearly, the interviewer was listening to the answers McDougall was offering. Now, to buy the book!

    wmv player November 11th, 2011 at 6:08 am

    i liked this post very much! and i like to think that not everything is so bad as it seems... i was reading and thinking that there many different dab for human being periods and i liked the way in he was talking about it! im going to buy the book!

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