He’s the most famous as the author of the-book-every-runner-worth-their-salt-has-read-even-if-it’s-passe-to-now-admit-it: Christopher McDougall, the man behind and featured in the classic run novel ‘Born To Run‘. Travelling to New Zealand for the New Zealand Festival Writers Week being held in Wellington in March (from the 12th), the writer chatted to Trail Run Mag about his new book Natural Born Heroes, his approach to running and its growth in popularity around the world.
Casting though across your running-related writing, can you talk to the different reasons you have found within others (‘others’ being your subjects of study) as to why they run?
Think about how weird a spectacle it would be if an alien life form could look down from space and see tens of thousands of humans gathering in cities all over the world to run 26 miles in a giant pack. No other creature acts that way — you don’t see thousands of leopards getting together for a four-hour recreational jog. To me, that speaks to our ancestral roots as long-distance runners. No matter what day-to-day reason we give for getting out for a run, I’m convinced the motivation for all of us is the same: running is our native legacy, our first natural superpower, and some internal instinct never lets us forget.
How and why do you think endurance running can ‘touch’ the average person’s life in a meaningful way?
All you have to do is go for one short run and you’ll have your answer. Who ever came back from a run and didn’t feel better — physically and emotionally? I once asked Anton Krupicka why he runs 200+ miles a week, and he said, “I never came back from a run and thought, ‘Well, THAT was a bad idea.’”
Reading your books, the characters (including yourself) all remain ‘forces of nature’ – that is, they all exhibit in various ways strong personalities, hence the fire and chase for life-inspiration through running – but how does (or could) someone not as full of passion and persistence find their way to a running life?
It’s just playtime. The most addicted runners I know get out there every day because it’s FUN. Focus on fun and you can’t go wrong.
Running technique is everything when it comes to maintaining a running life. True or false and why?
Yes, just like in every other human activity, the secret to doing something for a long time is learning how to do it right. Imagine you belly-flopped every time you tried to dive into the pool. Sooner or later you’d get sick of it and give up. Now imagine someone corrected your form and taught you a graceful, pain-less swan dive. You’d want to keep diving forever. Same thing with the way you hit the ground while running.
As a sweeping generalisation, I tend to find that runners are readers – what part do you think literature (high and low) has played in reinvigorating an interest in running?
For a long time, the running bookshelf was pretty slim. All you had were how-to books of generally useless or obvious advice. There still aren’t many really good adventure books about running out there. Adharanand Finn is just about the only writer who’s doing something interesting, and of course there’s always Dean Karnazes’ classic, “Ultramarathon Man.” Otherwise, I think the renewed interest in running is coming from the shift into trail and ultra-racing, which gets people out into the woods and brings a new sense of playfulness to the sport.
Born To Run was published a while back now – how have you seen the dynamic in the ‘trail/nature/adventure/endurance running’ scene(s) change since then?
Yes, there’s been a huge surge in trailrunning, which I think speaks to an embracing of our ancestral roots as hunting-pack animals.
I recently wrote an editorial in Trail Run Mag, where I stated that technique kept me in trail running and that I was on a mission to die on my feet, of old age, while running through the wilderness. What are your thoughts on the notion of it being possible to run until you drop, be that in your 80s, 90s or older?
I saw Tarahumara geriatrics in their eighties and nineties cruising up switchbacks in the thinnest of sandals. If I’m still moving that way at their age, I’ll be happy. I think it’s all about consistency — do a little every day, and you’ll still be going late in life.
In your latest book, Natural Born Heroes, you travel to Crete to investigate endurance feats of a very different nature to those you covered in Born To Run – can you contrast the lessons you took away from Crete as opposed to those from the Tarahumara?
Really, it’s all the same lesson: as humans, we have far more latent strength and endurance than we realize. Once we remember how to release it, we’re ALL capable of remarkable feats.
What has your journey been since Born To Run reached its crescendo of popularity (and must-read status) among the running crowd, in terms of your life journey but also your personal running journey?
I’ve become a lot more like Barefoot Ted, who only runs for fun. I once asked him how on earth he could run a 24-hour Leadville Trail 100 on only 25 miles of training per week, and he said, ‘Because most people are busy practicing pain. I practice PLEASURE. All my runs are enjoyable, so I’m always ready to run more.” That’s become my motto.
A thematic in your latest book is about ‘unlikely types’ becoming heroes by undertaking physically demanding journeys, and also the ability of an individual to find a ‘hero’ within – “The art of the hero is the art of natural movement.” – what lessons have you gleaned about how ordinary folk can go about finding their hero within?
The first step is to forget about competition and focus on skills. We tend to get all worked up about instant achievement — we all want to get faster and stronger immediately — but I’ve learned that the best way to really access our greatest talents is to forget about instant results and instead focus on the slow process of mastering skills.
How can an Ordinary Joe runner start the journey towards awakening their fascia profunda?
Take off your shoes. Learn how your foot wants to move naturally, without all that cushioning and motion-control gunk in the way, and go from there.
In Natural Born Heroes touch on nutrition and a return to the ancient fatty-meat, low-carb diet which sustained our ancestors until agriculture came to the fore? How do you answer critics crying ‘another fad diet on repeat’ and what does it matter to runners?
It’s not a fad if it’s been around for 2 million years. Humans have thrived on a high fat diet since the dawn of time. The true fad are the white flour/processed sugar which have only been prevalent for the relative blink of an eye.
If I could only give one piece of advice to a runner, it would be… Focus on fun.
My most treasured experience while running was… Pacing Barefoot Ted over the last four hours of his Leadville Trail 100. We had a fantastic party in the woods, and I grew to appreciate him more than ever.
The worst mistake I ever made on a run outing was… I get lost ALL THE TIME, but I’m not sure I’d call that a mistake. More like regular blessings in disguise.
A place I have always wanted to run but am yet to get to is…Auckland, where Lydiard created the entire sport of recreational running, and Percy Cerutty’s old Stotan camps in Australia.
My next big run adventure is…Getting lost all over Wellington when I’m there for the NZ Festival’s Writers Week. I expect to spend half my time wandering happily around with no idea where I’m going.
Postscript: Christopher McDougall is a guest at the New Zealand Festival Writers Week in Wellington in March. He will discuss extraordinary feats of endurance with journalist Rachel Smalley on 10 March, and the true limits of human potential with four-time world champion adventure racer, Nathan Fa’avae, ultramarathoner, Lisa Tamati, and record-breaking Masters runner, Roger Robinson, on 12 March. See festival.co.nz/writersweek for details.
McDougall will also be leading free fun runs open to runners of all abilities on 9, 10 and 12 March. See meetup.com/WellingtonRunningMeetup for start times and meeting points.
GIVEAWAY: We have TWO Writers Week Bookmark Passes (worth $200 each) to giveaway to Trail Run Mag readers. The Bookmark Pass gives you 15 tickets to Writers Week sessions at the Embassy, BATS and Circa theatres, with 40 events to choose from. Bookmark Passes may also be used to secure multiple tickets to a single event; so why not experience Christopher McDougall’s events with your running group?
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