The Barefoot Brahmin: Exclusive Interview With Christopher McDougall
The author of "Born to Run" sheds thoughts on his book, barefoot running and more.
The author of “Born to Run” sheds thoughts on his book, barefoot running and more.
Interview by: Duncan Larkin
There aren’t many running books that make the New York Times Best Seller list. Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” is one of them. A gonzo adventure complete with colorful characters, drug cartels, a secretive indigenous tribe of runners, and one crazy race in the middle of nowhere, “Born to Run” is a hard book to put down.
More important than the edge-of-your-seat adventure, however, is the fire the book has lit with the minimalist runners around the world. “Born to Run” makes a hard sell for barefoot running: shoes, bad; calluses, good. As a response to the book, shoe companies such as Vibram have thrived, and many other big-name brands have responded to the rage by creating their own lines of less-is-more type of footwear. Barefoot running clinics and camps have sprung up all over the place. Shedding your shoes–or running in less of a shoe–it seems, is the new old way to do things.
But is barefoot running really good for everyone?
Competitor.com recently spoke with McDougall, a former AP reporter and war correspondent, to answer this important question as well as others about his book and his own running.
Comptetitor.com: Your book has become an enormous success. It’s made the New York Times Bestseller List and has pretty much started a movement of like-minded barefoot enthusiasts. Are you surprised by its success?
Christopher McDougall: No, because I didn’t start it. I felt like I could see the smoke coming out of the volcano. I was just hoping that I wouldn’t be too late. I felt that the movement and the awareness were growing really quickly. That was the reason for my rush; I knew it was going to happen, whether there was “Born to Run” or not. A lot of people were connecting the dots. They understood that shoes were not the solutions; shoes were probably the problem.
So going with your volcano analogy, do you feel “Born to Run” was the eruption?
Yeah I think so. What this awareness needed was somebody to translate it into everyday language, because you basically have two camps out there: You have the academic researchers and you have the barefoot underground. Unfortunately, the barefoot underground seems goofy. You got Barefoot Ken Bob, Barefoot Ted, and Barefoot Yanni. All these guys are called Barefoot something. So they aren’t taken seriously. And the academic researchers: They’ve been putting things out on a regular basis since the 1970s. Nobody has paid any attention. That was it. All that was needed was for someone to unite those things and put them in a way where people will pay attention.
Not to sound too conspiratorial, but do you think the shoe companies have played a role in stifling the barefoot movement?
I don’t blame the shoe companies, because that is not their responsibility. Their responsibility is to sell products. The responsibility belongs to the authorities in the field: doctors, coaches, running magazines, and reporters. I feel the same way about this as if feel about the mainstream media dropping the ball in terms of reporting around the Iraq War. I feel the responsible parties totally dropped the ball and continue to this day. The resistance to minimalist running comes from exactly the people who should most understand it. It’s the running press, the podiatrists, and the sports medicine doctors. Those groups are the only three groups that are constantly creating a battle where there should be no battle. To this day, Runner’s World has written virtually nothing about my book.
Yeah. I don’t want to be too much of a moaner. And that’s fine. If they don’t want to, they don’t want to, but it makes you wonder. It makes you curious. Any other book out there about running, you’d see it on the cover. You’d see all kinds of attention. But yet, with “Born to Run”, they just ignore it. Every time someone sends me a message, it’s like something from Jeff Galloway reporting that I had a stress fracture. Total lie. Untrue. I called him on it, and he said, “Oh, yeah, one of my employees saw you and heard you had a stress fracture.” It just wasn’t true. Anyway, the people who should be looking into this are the ones who are trying to stay away from it.
You’ve run with the Tarahumara. Any plans to go run with another group of runners in a different part of the world, like East Africa?
I’m working on another book, but it’s not about running. It’s in a similar vein, but it’s not about running. I’m trying to keep that to myself for now until I get some more traction on it.
But would you ever want to do something else with barefoot runners in other indigenous cultures?
I’m not sure—possibly. With the Tarahumara, a lot of different strands were combining with that story. For instance, I wouldn’t just write a book about the Tarahumara. That was not my intention. My original intention was just to do a magazine story for Runner’s World. And what I found out when I was researching that story was that there was a lot more there. There would have to be a lot more there if I was going to do something with another group.
On any given day, I can look out the window of my house at the park across the street and see several 230-pound people running barefoot. I didn’t see that kind of thing before your book came out. With this movement that you’ve started, do you think there will be, say in 10-15 years, some result in terms of lower obesity rates, lower injury rates, or some performance improvement for U.S. runners across the board?
Let’s look at a best-case scenario: Somewhere between 50-80% of all runners are injured every year. Ninety percent of all marathoners are injured every year. That results in millions of people who have to stop running and who want to run. But they can’t, because they’re hurt. Then you factor in all the people who have never tried running, because they’ve been told they are going to get hurt. They hear things like, “Oh it’s so bad for your knees.” I just spoke to a woman today. She’s 47 years old. She just started running. All her friends told her, “Are you crazy? You are going to destroy your knees! You are too old.” So imagine all these millions of people. If you remove all the fear and all the pain that’s been associated with running for our lifetime—again, it is unique to our lifetime. You never read about running associated with fear and pain prior to our lifetime. Go back to folklore and mythology and you’ll see it’s always associated with freedom and vitality. If you remove the fear, you remove the injuries. And that’s millions of people who can now run. These 230-pound guys you were talking about, if they clang down hard on their heels, then absolutely they are going to get hurt. But if they learn how to run really light and gentle, then it’s really exciting to think about what this 230-pound guy may look like in two months. I was that 230-pound guy. In fact, I was a 240-pound guy. The funny thing is that all the stuff they said would happen to me if I ran barefoot is the stuff that happened to me in shoes. None of the stuff that happened to me in shoes happened to me barefoot. I was always getting hurt in shoes and constantly struggling with weight. Now, I don’t wear shoes and I never get injured.
Ok, so let’s take it up to another weight level. What about a guy who is 300 pounds, buys a pair of Five Fingers because he read your book, and decides to train for a trail marathon in them. Should he jump on an exercise bike for a while to lose some weight before he dabbles in Five-Finger marathon training?
Here’s my problem with the way recreational running is today. There is such this moral obligation to achieve and produce, achieve and produce. Why would this guy want to run a marathon? Do you think it’s just an idea that popped into his head? No. Nowadays, when you start running, if you tell anybody, someone will ask you, “Have you run a marathon? How come you haven’t run a marathon? Are you going to run the New York City Marathon?” Imagine you are just starting to learn how to swim. No one is saying to you, “Have you swum the English Channel? When are you going to swim the English Channel? How fast can you swim the English Channel?” Twenty-six miles is really far. And yet, there’s this constant social obligation that this is what you have to do if you are a runner. What I would suggest to the gentleman you brought up is to forget about racing. Forget about it. Just enjoy the running. Really focus on your running form. What’s curious to me—and I felt like I was unique in this regard—is that as I became more and more intrigued by running form, I became less and less interested in races. I don’t race at all anymore. I’m running the New York City Marathon this year only because Dr. Lieberman talked me into it. So back to the big guy in the Five Fingers: First, I’d say, “Take the Five Fingers off.” Go strictly to bare feet. Find out what your foot feels like. Remove any interference between you and the ground. Get good at running technique. Get to the point where 3 miles is easy. Then make 5 miles easy. When you get to the point where a 3-hour run is easy, then start thinking about a marathon.
The very last sentence in your book is a quote from Caballo Blanco, who turned down a North Face sponsorship. In doing so, he said, “Running isn’t about making people buy stuff. Running should be free, man.” Taking that quote into account, it seems like the minimalist movement is kind of about buying stuff. After your book, you have shoe companies coming out with minimalist lines, you have Five Fingers, you have barefoot clinics, and a whole cottage industry creeping up around it all. So you have Caballo and his free-spirited running and then you have capitalism that creeps in and takes advantage of the movement. Do you ever think about that?
Yeah, I do. I get a ton of e-mails all the time from people. It really surprised me when it started to happen. The book was out for a few months, and I’d start to get these messages from people, saying, “Hey, I just finished the book and I went out and bought the shoes and I got the chia!” Who said buy shoes? Where in the book does it say to buy chia? I thought the message in the book was the exact opposite. You don’t need any of this stuff. I don’t have any problems with the classes, or the books, or the shoes. Many of them are excellent products. I did attend ChiRunning and Pose Method clinics. They are excellent. I run in Five Fingers. I run in Barefoot Ted’s Luna Sandals. They are excellent. I also run in a pair of Mizuno Wave Universe racing flats—excellent. I run in the Brooks Mach 11, a spikeless cross-country flat—excellent. These are all excellent products. The problem is that we’ve been conditioned to get the product first and worry about form later. I tell people to focus on form—focus on what you are doing. Then add protection as needed. I don’t have any problem with the product. The problem I have is the people pushing that as the answer. The products aren’t the answer; the products are an addition.
As you describe them in the book, the Tarahumara are an incredibly private and shy tribe of indigenous people who live in a delicate place. Have you ever been concerned that your book is going to convince a ton of barefoot-running American converts to get on a bus bound for the Copper Canyons to take part in running ecotourism and potentially threaten the Tarahumara’s way of life?
That was definitely Caballo’s concern before launching the race. He had given it a lot of serious thought, but the way he looked at it was that there’s no alternative. At this point, their backs were against the wall. The cartels and the logging bandits are dominating the region. It may not be the best solution, but it’s better than no solution. At least it shows people that there’s something down here that’s worth protecting and preserving. One effective safeguard is that it’s really, really hard to get down there. There ain’t no hopping on a bus. You’re going to have to be prepared to bushwhack pretty hard. There has been a natural barrier that’s been pretty good against invaders for about 400 years.
There are a lot of rumors out there about your book being turned into a movie. Apparently, last August, you were in Leadville with Jake Gyllenhaal, who might play you in the film. Can you shed some light on this subject?
You know, there’s stuff going on, but from what I understand about Hollywood, there’s always stuff going on and most of it turns into nothing. All I can say right now is that there are people interested. They are exploring it, but it hasn’t gone beyond the level of exploration. At this point, there is nothing confirmed or set up at all. There is a screenwriter working on a script, but I don’t know where that’s going to go.
So was Jake with you at Leadville?
Yes. He was there sort of checking out the scene. He hadn’t been familiar with ultra running. He came with his brother in law, Peter Sarsgaard. I’ll tell you one thing: those dudes can run. They are very strong runners.
As a war correspondent, you’ve been in several war zones and have undoubtedly been around strange characters in stressful situations. Have you ever been around the types of strange cast of characters you hung out with when you were writing “Born to Run”?
I have to say I have. But I think everyone has. I’m sure everyone knows a Barefoot Ted. Everyone’s been in a bar with a Jenn Shelton. They are not that uncommon. I think the difference was that we were all united, and cut off from anything and everything else. There are tons of Barefoot Ted characters out there, but imagine being on a deserted island with Barefoot Ted. That’s how it was. The six or seven of us were kind of cut adrift while we were down there. And then afterwards, when I decided to write this book, I went back and visited everybody. I went to their homes and spent some time with all of them. I got a chance to see them with their families and homes. I got to really dig into their lives and backstory.
I know you alluded earlier to your next book not having to do with running, but will there ever be a “Born to Run” sequel?
One thing is that I’m really excited about the next book I’m working on now. When I was working on “Born to Run”, I was like, “Oh man, you are never going to have material like this again as long as you live. Now with this next book, I feel like I got it. I’m as excited about the material for this next book as I was about “Born to Run”. I think it’s got all the elements there. It’s got all the action, adventure, science, and characters. That’s where my mind is right now. As a matter of fact, I’m really sort of eager to come off the road for “Born to Run”, because I want to plunge into this 100%.
Out of curiosity, since you’re a Harvard crew guy, does it have anything to do with rowing?
[He laughs.] No. As far as I know, there won’t be an oar in the book.
Finally, whether you like it or not, you are THE barefoot running spokesman. Are you happy with that role?
The funny thing about barefoot running is that it’s all of a similar idea. It’s really to challenge, which is to examine and challenge the limitations that have been put on us. Fear sells. Fear is a fantastically effective marketing tool. The entire running shoe industry is based on fear. If you don’t buy shoes, you’re going to get hurt. If you don’t buy this training book you’re going to get hurt. We’ve been bamboozled by fear. And that’s why I think minimalistic running has surged, because people say, “Hang on a second. All this stuff they told us to buy didn’t work, and we were conned. Now we’re pissed off and we’re not going to do that.” So with the next project I’m working on, it’s in the same vein: it’s looking at some of these limitations and misconceptions that we’ve been burdened with. I hope I can dispel them in that other area as well.
Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.