Ultra-distance running is a marginal affair at best, but Christopher
McDougall has written an ambitious, informative and entertaining book, Born To Run, which threatens, however briefly to bring the pursuit into the mainstream.
A sometime war correspondent for Associated Press in Rwanda, and long-time contributor to upmarket magazines with a taste for the offbeat tale, McDougall went right off the beaten track when he wrote a piece on the elusive Tarahumara people of Mexico’s remote and dangerous Copper Canyons.
Ultra-running is part of the Tarahumara lifestyle, but they see it as anything but a commercial pursuit. In seeking out the Tarahumara and their few American friends, and helping to set up a race between the tribesmen and an extraordinary cast of Gringos, McDougall has expanded the article into an inspired book.
He begins with Caballo Blanco, graduates through the loquacious Barefoot Ted, taking in La Brujita and her boyfriend, Lobo Joven on the way; and ends with the star of the gringo show, ultra-legend, Scott Jurek, who becomes Ventano (Deer) when he takes on the Tarahumara on their home trails.
This is the oldest sort of story in the world, a quest, and the Grail is the Tarahumara, the finding and the beating of them. And McDougall nails the reader in the first line, ‘For days, I’d been searching Mexico’s Sierra Madre for the phantom known as Caballo Blanco…’
Like the trails they (including McDougall) run and race on, there are many diversions in Born To Run. Some are more interesting than others, like the lengthy disquisition, started by Ted, that the ever-more sophisticated (and expensive) running shoe is a conspiracy by Nike et al to ruin our postures and running careers.
But the most extraordinary section is McDougall’s attempt to attribute the ascent of Homo Sapiens over Neanderthal Man (among others) to the former’s capacity for long distance running; which enabled our ancestors to exhaust prey over hours or even days of chase, something the Neanderthal were apparently unable to do. Hence, extinction through starvation!
Even if this thesis is as wide of the mark as the canyons’ edges are from one another, McDougall’s ambition has to be applauded. One regret is that he does not get close enough to any of the Tarahumara, to bring them to life as vividly as the Gringos that accompany him into the canyons.
And if you want to know who won the race, read the book. But ultimately, like most of his characters, McDougall knows that the result is not that important. It’s the journey.
Haruki Murakami has run several ‘ultras’ among his many marathons, but makes no great claim for himself as a runner. And fans of his engrossing and labyrinthine fictions will be disappointed by What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
The title is a tribute to the American writer, Raymond Carver, one of whose short stories is entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver is obviously a hero for Murakami, who has translated him into Japanese. And Murakami has tried to emulate the American’s spare writing style. The result is as banal as a training diary, which is essentially what it is.
There are some passages which raise the level, and self-deprecation is always a way to win over the reader, as when Murakami relates a meeting with 1980s marathon ace, Toshihiko Seko. ‘I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today….”. He stared at me and then, in a voice that made if abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!”.’
But don’t be put off Murakami by this book. Read his fiction, which is terrific in its dissection of the subterranean horror-show which is the Japanese psyche. It is nowhere better excavated and evaluated than in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
You don’t have to speak/read French perfectly to access the latest work of another award-winning writer, Jean Echenoz, who has written a simple yet oblique tale about the great Emil Zátopek; so oblique that the second greatest distance runner in history (after Paavo Nurmi) doesn’t get a family-name check until around three-quarters of the way through the book. Until then, he is known simply as ‘Emile’. The title is equally simple – Courir, the verb ‘to run’, or possibly, ‘running’.
Echenoz is a former winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, and it no insult to say that what Murakami signally fails to do, Echenoz does with style, ie writes a simple endearing story, like Carver, in simple accessible language.