born to run : learning from the raramuri

Recently I read Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run.  Definitely a good, and very thought-provoking book. 

My favorite thing about the book is the focus on how one taps their inner joy when running.  It’s not about speed or competition.  It’s about going out there, and getting inside of yourself to draw things out that you’d never dreamed possible.  Time and time again McDougall cites anecdotes of this – either in himself as a runner recovering from some chronic injuries, in the culture of the Raramuri, more widely known as the Tarahumara people of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, in "Caballo Blanco", the mysterious American who lives among the Tarahumara, or in American ultra-running legend Scott Jurek.

There are many powerful metaphors to be drawn from the spirit of this book, and from running.  Life presents challenges to us much like the Copper Canyon.  We can respond to them with fear, or by allowing the terrain to limit us – hills that are too steep, scorching weather.  Or we can go out and scale the hills a bit and explore.  The Tarahumara are not superhuman, although from the standpoint of our increasingly sedentary culture they seem that way.  They’ve simply adapted to their surroundings nicely.  They don’t wear fancy, expensive running shoes or gear – they wear sandals, sometimes made from recycled tires.  They eat a diet largely of corn, fortifying themselves from a bag of milled corn, sometimes mixed with water as they run, for days.

They grow up playing a game called Rarajipari (this is one of several different spelling I found while researching this).  The players run a set of laps, kicking a rubber ball and then racing to kick it again.  The game can go on for a period of days, with the mileage varying according to the capabilities of the competitors.

McDougall talks about the tangible energy present during these games, with the village turning out to cheer them on, even as they run along the trails through the night.  Running is woven into the fabric of the community.  It’s the way many people go from point to point in the Copper Canyon.  He talk about how they’ve eschewed attempts outsiders have made to incorporate them into the trial running establishment – witness the segments on the Leadville 100 in the book.  According to the author, the Raramuri know themselves and want to preserve their culture and identity enough to opt out of things like this.

While reading the book, I recalled an Eastside Runner’s meeting during which Scott Jurek shared his experiences with the Raramuri.  If you’ve never had a chance to meet him, Scott is a bright spirit whether running or not.  I’d seen him during a couple of races (well ahead of me, and always smiling), but listening to him articulate the Copper Canyon experience was great.  And reading a more detailed account of the trip three and a half years later was even better.

There are a bunch of other interesting aspects of the book I’ll try to come back to in future posts – the physiological basis behind the title (how humans have evolved as endurance beings), and  also the assertions made about running shoes being bad for you.  For now, let’s stay with the inner spirit of the runner.

Read the book – would be interesting in hearing other people’s thoughts about it.


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