The Chronicle

Author McDougall touts benefits of distance running

Christopher McDougall argued that humans are naturally born to run at a speech Monday night.

McDougall, a journalist and author of the bestselling book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” spoke in Reynolds Theater in an event sponsored by Duke University Union. The former foreign correspondent spoke about his experience in Mexico that led to the publication of his book.

While investigating the disappearance of a Mexican pop star, McDougall learned of the Tarahumara, a tribe of indigenous people who retreated to Mexico’s Copper Canyons in the 16th century and had been largely untouched by the rest of the world. The Tarahumara, whose men and women are able to run long distances in sandals and togas well into their fifties, serve as local folk heroes in the communities bordering the canyon, McDougall said.

“What would [our culture] require for humans to be long-distance runners?” McDougall asked. “We would need to have a communal culture... and we would need to have an egalitarian culture,”

In addition to the running aspect of the Tarahumara’s culture, the peaceful nature of their communities has been of interest to social scientists and researchers, McDougall said, adding that the Tarahumara have no known history of crime and domestic violence.

“If a people runs long distances and is off the chart in societal factors, there must be a cause and effect relationship,” he said. “Maybe this was how humans were for most of their existence.”

Some scientists have conducted research that examines long-distance running in humans, and the research suggests that humans are biologically adapted for running long distances, McDougall said.

A study performed by the University of Utah stated that most people start running long distances at age 19 and reach their peak at age 27, after which they progressively slow down until they are running at the same pace they ran at age 19. The study said it takes 45 years for a person to get back to the same speed at which he or she ran at age 19.

“What other sport has geriatrics kicking ass with teenagers?” McDougall said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

He also stated that long-distance running is a sport in which men and women compete at equal strengths.

“Women couldn’t run long distance in the Olympics before the 1980s,” McDougall said. “In a matter of 20 years, Paula Radcliffe is the second fastest person in the world, only about 10 seconds behind a man.”

In a 100-mile race, it is a “coin-toss” between men and women regarding who would win the race, he said, adding that western society, however, has a tendency not to value sports in which women excel.

“We fetishize things that men are good at,” he said. “When women and old people are good at it, people aren’t interested.”

The Tarahumara look at long-distance running as a way of play, McDougall said. A common practice among their children during recess at school is to a play a sport similar to kickball, in which participants run approximately 10 kilometers in less than one hour. This sport, he said, utilizes the abilities of all the people playing, from the fastest to the slowest runners—a component of their culture that is foreign to many Americans.

Sophomore Christian Britto, who runs for the men’s track and field team, said reading McDougall’s book caused him to change his running technique.

“I run on the front of my feet now, but I don’t use the shoes [McDougall uses in the book],” he said.

Senior Emma Anspach, who is a member of DUU’s Speakers and Stage committee, which sponsored the event, said the book inspired her to keep running.

“It’s a different way to look at what people do everyday,” she said. “It takes away the timing aspect.”

Observing the Tarahumara taught McDougall that he must appreciate the world around him, he noted.

“[Life] is all about recess,” he said with a laugh.