Review of “Born to Run”

Alwyn Lau
7 min readJan 23, 2024

“Running is an absurd past-time upon which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning in the kind of running required to stay on this team, chances are you may be able find meaning in another absurd past-time: Life.” (Bill Bowman’s pep-talk to new runners)

On any given day there are 5–6 books in my reading pipeline. Then sometimes (about once a month) a book comes along which makes me pause everything else and focus on only it. For Jan ’24 that book is Chris McDougall’s infamous Born To Run (Profile Books, 2010) which I’m shy to say I’m probably one of the only 30 people on earth who’ve yet to read.

TLDR: Sports journalist looks for a mysterious gringo living in Mexican mountains and they set up a super-race through the Sierra Madre mountains between an elusive tribe of super-runners and America’s top ultra-runners. In between are loads of stories about the tribe itself (called the Tarahumara), key personalities and champions of ultra-running and, of course, history and ideas on running technique and innovation.

1. Anthropology

The #1 takeaway from this book is the culture and running prowess of the Tarahumara, a tribe in Mexico’s Copper Canyons (in the Sierra Madre mountains) who can run like the win for hundreds of mile over 2–3 days. McDougall may have romanticized/idealised the tribe a bit but even 1/2 of what he wrote is accurate it’s still breath-taking:

“In Tarahumara Land, there was no crime, war, or theft. There was no corruption, obesity, drug addiction, greed, wife-beating, child abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, or carbon emissions. They didn’t get diabetes, or depressed, or even old: 50-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and 80-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides. Their cancer rates were barely detectable. The Tarahumara geniuses had even branched into economics, creating a one-of-a-kind financial system based on booze and random acts of kindness: instead of money, they traded favors and big tubs of corn beer.” (p.15)

The Tarahumara would have wild rave parties (which involved “wives ripping each others’ tops off in bare-breasted wrestling matches, while old men circled around trying to spear their butts with a corncob and their husbands, gazed on in glassy-eyed paralysis”) after which they would run off on a race that would last two days.

Some runners have been reported to run 300 miles which is “12 full marathons, back to back to back, while the sun rose and set and rose again.” Rumour has it one Tarahumara champion once ran 435 miles. #mindblown

I couldn’t help thinking of Matthew 20:16 and Matthew 23:11–12 when McDougall wrote:

“Everything about the Tarahumara seemed backward, taunting, as irritatingly ungraspable as a Zen master’s riddles. The toughest guys were the gentlest; battered legs were the bounciest; the healthiest people had the crappiest diet (then again, the Tarahumara were taking chia seeds, pinole, lemon juice, etc.); the illiterate race was the wisest; the guys working the hardest were having the most fun.” (p.17–18)

The Tarahumara, a tribe of super-runners in the Copper Canyons of Mexico

2. Ultra-Running

If you’re not familiar with ultra-marathons or “races” which last 100 miles or so, this book is the perfect introduction. McDougall tells the story of how Ken Chlouber started the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado ( essentially as a gimmick to draw more tourists in, plus a chapter or two about California’s BadWater Ultramarathon (

I first read about Badwater in David Goggins’ auto-biography. It was at that race where he collapsed at the finish line, lost control of his bowels and started peeing out urine which looked like coffee i.e. the race caused him to suffer kidney failure.

David Goggins at Badwater, 2006

To give you a feel of Badwater, this is from p.146 (note that the book came out in 2010, hence some of the details may have changed):

“Every July, 90 runners from around the world spend up to 60 straight hours running down the sizzling black ribbon of Highway 190, making sure to stay on the white lines so the soles of their running shoes don’t melt. At mile 17, they’ll pass Furnace Creek, site of the hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States (134 degrees). From there, it only gets worse: they still have to climb three mountains and deal with hallucinations, rebellious stomachs, and at least one long night of running in the dark before they reach the finish.” (p.146)

Hallucinations? Yes.

“One ultrarunner kept screaming and leaping into the woods whenever he saw a flashlight, convinced it was an oncoming train. One runner enjoyed the company of a smokin’ young hottie in a silver bikini who Rollerbladed by his side for miles across Death Valley until, to his regret, she dissolved into heat shimmers. 6 out of 20 Badwater runners reported hallucinations that year (2005), including one who saw rotting corpses along the road and “mutant mice monsters” crawling over the asphalt. One pacer got a little freaked out after she saw her runner stare into space for a while and then tell the empty air, “I know you’re not real.” (p.102)

In fact, I gotta say the entire book felt a bit hallucinatory as well. I mean, think about those distances and the kinds of physical endurance required to SURVIVE the circuit let alone win them in record times.

I also found it amazing that ultra-marathoners do not run for money; I mean, there IS NO prize money. It’s just a belt or a sash or a souvenir or something. According to McDougall (I can’t find the page where he said it exactly but I’ve no doubt he believes it), ultra-running mirrors the Tarahumara way of running. This was the flash of insight which came to Joe Vigil, the elite running coach who wanted to find out the secret of the Tarahumara which he claims is that “they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation.” (p.108).

Comparing the Tarahumara with Emil Zatopek (“whose love of life shone through every moment”), Vigil insists there’s some kind of connection “between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding.” (p.114)

The Tarahumara didn’t run in order to prove themselves better than each other, neither were they doing it for medals, honour or cash. They were just running because that was life and they loved it. “The reason (the Tarahumara) race isn’t so much to BEAT each other, but to BE WITH each other” (p.299)

Yes, there was competition but is always subordinated to community. Which is also a philosophy lived and embraced by one of the US’ top ultra-runners, Scott Jurek. This guy wins practically all the ultra-marathons he’s run but each time he finishes he won’t just walk off, he’ll sit at the finish line to cheer every other runner coming in. What a dude!

3. Amazing Runners

This book has very inspiring stories of some famous runners (all of whom are new to me) like Ann Trason (14x winner of the Western States Endurance Run, Emil Zatopek (triple Olympic gold medalist and one of the more joyful and carefree runners in Olympic history until he chose to spend his life cleaning toilets than run for the USSR), Scott Jurek (of course) and Barefoot Ted whose story of discovering bare-foot running is also what catapulted this book to fame.

Emil Zapotek, 3x Olympic gold medallist

Bare-foot running has something to do with how the foot automatically adapts to the surface when it runs and how modern sports shoes, by over-protecting or “imprisoning” our feet, causes us not only to lose our adaptive abilities but lead to more injuries. There’s even a fascinating section on how a greater number of foot injuries was correlated with higher costs in running shoes.

Also, you read of ppl like Caballo Blanco. This dude fought in illegal fights for a living, won some marathons then dropped off the face of civilisation to live in the Copper Canyons. Practically his final great act was organising the race between the Tarahumara and a team of runners headed by Jurek (which is the finale and driving force of this book).

Even if you’re not into running, this is a good read. But if you’re into running (esp long distance) I’d suggest it’d be criminal not to read this at least once (or 3x) in your life.



Alwyn Lau

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.