Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Vintage)

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‘A Walk in the Woods’ vs. A Walk in the Woods: On Reading as a Substitute for Experience

In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across America and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August — in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments — of which there turned out to be few — I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California — but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow.

That month and a half became one of the fullest periods of my life, with one exhilarating escapade after another: outracing tornadoes in Kansas, nearly freezing to death in Yosemite, close calls with bears in both Sequoia and Glacier National Parks. We hiked and camped and ate our peanut butter. With cheap snapshot cameras, we ran through dozens of rolls of film. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, we forswore bathing, a foul contest of wills. It was all very stupid and perfectly glorious. It was, as they say, a formative experience.

Afterwards, we made a pact to do a similar expedition every year, but outside of a few days in West Virginia in 2001, our oath died on the vine. As I progressed through my 20s, though, I still thought of myself as the same daring moron who once pushed a minivan to 110 on a Montana interstate. My girlfriend and I would go on long drives just to see what we could see; we hiked with the same questing spirit I’d carried on my trip. Once, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, we became covered in deer ticks — and as we scraped them from our shins, laughing in horror beside our car, I had the feeling that, uncomfortable as I was, I remained on the proper track. You can’t get covered in bugs if you don’t enter the woods.

As time went on, I began to read about people who, I flattered myself to think, had a similarly — if more pronounced — searching spirit. There was Percy Fawcett of The Lost City of Z, who rambled through the Amazon as if it were Central Park. And Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan trek was equally noble and misguided. I became a sucker for such narratives, subscribing to Outside magazine for its pieces on doomed hikers and wayward canoeists. Most know Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for the creepy 10-toe running shoes it helped to popularize, but I was more taken by its description of Mexico’s Tarahumara and their daunting mountain races. To write Savage Harvest, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, Carl Hoffman traveled to New Guinea — just as I would have done, I thought as I read. After all, I was pretty intrepid myself.

Except that I wasn’t; not anymore. I was now married to that girlfriend, and had become both a father and an eternally fatigued commuter. Any journey I now took was occurring inside my skull: instead of going on spontaneous road trips, I was reading Charles Portis’s Norwood. Instead of hiking until my feet bled, I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Instead of tearing across Montana, I was reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. I had outsourced the work of outdoor experience to various authors, my risk limited to paper cuts and coffee spills. It had happened slowly, imperceptibly, until the transformation was all but complete. The version of myself who “got out there and did things” had been replaced by a softer, safer, far more boring person.

In short, I was spending too much time reading about interesting people and almost no time being one — an insight that recently hit me with depressing force. I’m not sure what spurred the revelation — perhaps it was the contrast between the solitude of reading and the chaos of what I read. Maybe it struck me that I’d just read two books about people surviving deadly cold (Crazy for the Storm, The Shining) and was, absurdly, preparing to read two more (The Revenant and Alone on the Ice). Whatever it was, I’d become unhealthily comfortable; to quote an old Radiohead song, I was now a pig in a cage on antibiotics — or, less dramatically, a guy in cozy slippers whose vitality had slipped away.

This suspicion was soon confirmed by a family hike — the first my wife and I had been on in years, despite the fact that the woods are a short drive from our house. Though we only walked for two hours or so, and the air was getting cold, the forest quietly filled a need that, in recent years, I had learned to ignore. We marveled at trees that intertwined like rope, gazed at a creek as if it were a national landmark. We inhaled, exhaled, looked for the paint blazes that marked our path. We were again away from everything, and it felt really fucking good.

That was a month and a half ago, and that feeling — the recognition of some innate inner need — hasn’t faded; it now seems to burn within me, steady as a pilot light. I’ve resolved to reclaim myself — my old self, tick-stippled and chased by bears, a person who’d do most anything for the sake of doing it. In a way, it’s already happened; we’ve since gone on another such hike, and we’re planning a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go trip to Tennessee in the spring. Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Caballo Blanco Goes Missing

In Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall talks about the legendary accomplishments of ultrarunner Micah Tue, aka Caballo Blanco, or “the wandering White Horse of Mexico’s Copper Canyons.” Last month, Tue disappeared after embarking on a 12-mile run in Gila National Forest. Distraught, worried, and curious, McDougall set off on a hunt to track him down.

A Year in Reading: Kevin Hartnett

In 2011 a new baby and a new home led to a summer-long reading drought. For the last five years I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read. From May (The White Tiger) to October (1Q84) the log was empty — the longest such stretch in memory. But if this wasn’t a year of quantity it was one of quality.

Not at first, though. My year in reading began with David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which I reviewed for The Christian Science Monitor and, though I didn’t say it there in quite these terms, was, I thought, a nice demonstration of what happens when a writer becomes too in love with his own perceptive powers.

Things got better from there, however, when I read W. Stanley Moss’ Ill Met by Moonlight, which had just been reissued by the Philadelphia publisher Paul Dry Books. It’s a first-person journal account of a daring World War II mission to kidnap the commanding general of Nazi forces on Crete. Moss and his British Special Ops colleague Patty Leigh Fermor pulled it off without so much as a blip in their pulse rates, all the while getting hammered nightly on local wine and consorting with all manner of Cretan misfits. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

My first fiction of the year came on a friend’s recommendation: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Like me, my friend likes good young adult fiction and Octavian Nothing was one of the most unsettling stories about slavery in America I’ve ever read. If I’d picked it up when I was 10, I wouldn’t have slept for weeks afterward and to this day might still be calling it the best book I’ve ever read.

After Octavian I turned to another gut-wrenching political novel: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, about caste inequality in modern India. In the mid-2000s I spent a year in India and left taken by the country’s kaleidoscopic culture and effusive spirituality. I knew, even then, that those views were caricature, and that they ignored or rationalized the pervasive human suffering I’d seen while traveling. But it wasn’t until reading Adiga’s novel that I gave up that rosy view altogether. After finishing the book I passed it to my wife, making The White Tiger the first book we’d read more or less together since Pride and Prejudice back at the end of George W. Bush’s first term.

White Tiger was not the most widely shared book in my family this year, though. That honor goes to Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. My neighbor gave it to me, I passed it to my brother, who passed it to my sister-in-law who passed it our brother-in-law who, as far as I know, still has it. For months we debated the merits of bare-foot running and the perniciousness of the modern sneaker industry. When we all ran a 10K in Maine over the Fourth of July, my sister-in-law brought chia seeds, mail-ordered special from the Internet.

In the end, though, 2011 was the Year of Murakami. For three breathless weeks in October I read 1Q84. Following on months of transition and many sleepless newborn nights, Murakami’s rare, strange story gave me back my human shape.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

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Staff Pick: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Since I became a mother four months ago, my method of choosing reading material has changed.  Firstly, the book in question must be what John Gardner called profluent; that is, readable, one page pushing me to the next and the next, until, in a rush, I’m finished.  A book that I can’t put down is a book that I’ll want to read even if I haven’t slept, even if my nipples are sore and my hair is matted with throw-up.  (Motherhood and college aren’t that different, you see.)  Because I’m severely sleep-deprived, the prose of said book can’t be too dense.  I need to understand what’s happening, okay?   Lastly, the book can’t be too heavy.  I don’t mean this figuratively, I mean that the book must be light enough to read with one hand, as I will need the other one to hold my son as he nurses.  He nurses a lot.  I tried to read The Art of Fielding and my wrist almost broke.

This is how I started reading smart crime novels.  First I went on a Tana French tear, and then I ate up Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, which added Mississippi and snakes to its tale of dead bodies and a misunderstood outcast. These were well-written, completely manageable Mom Books.  I re-read The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, which, with its snap-shot scenes and meandering plot, didn’t have profluence so much as a poetic realism that kept me in its clutches.

And then I decided to try some nonfiction.  I’d recently given up reality television (er, most of it) after Rachel Zoe said “literally” for the zillionth time, and I thought reading a true story would scratch the itch of confessionals, cat fights, and the shock that the drama is all too real.

I chose Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen because it was a Word Bookstore Favorite at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival.  I didn’t attend the festival, but the store listed it in their e-newsletter as the book “that can change your life.” (I see now that the key word is “can”–not “will.”  Oh those cagey booksellers!)  Since I’d been considering getting back into running, I figured it might help motivate me.

Let me get this out of the way: I hate running.  I did it a few times a week for about six months before I got pregnant, and I was happy to stop.  I never enjoyed it: it hurt, it was boring, and I always worried about getting a sunburn.  I much prefer exercise that requires learning a routine; if there’s a mirror to admire and curse myself as I do so, all the better.  However, I liked the idea of reading about running.   A well-written depiction of physical exertion is supremely satisfying; it’s like watching The Biggest Loser, bowl of ice cream in hand.

Born to Run is about a tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara who run incredibly long distances with grins on their faces and nary an injury.  Like all good nonfiction, though, it’s about far more.  The book seems to simultaneously dilate and contract–its scope becomes bigger as it focuses on smaller, personal stories.  As it progresses it folds in more and more information and background: we’re looking for a cadaverous-looking white man who runs with the Indians, known as  Caballo Blanco; we’re discovering the lifestyle, diet and outlook of the Tarahumara; we’re learning the biographies of some of the best ultra-marathoners in the world, such as the keyed up and loquacious Barefoot Ted, who, you guessed it, runs without shoes; we’re meeting scientists who might have figured out why we run in the first place; we’re celebrating the beauty and insanity of the human race.  By the last fifty pages I couldn’t wait to go to a dinner party to share some of these amazing stories and facts.  Everything I said to my husband began with: “Did you know…” My brain was aglow.

I also liked McDougall’s own role in the book.  At the story’s opening he’s a casual jogger with a bum foot, and at the end he’s competing in a Tarahumara race.  Much of his struggle reminded me of novel-writing.  His trainer tells him, “Just beat the course.  No one else, just the course,” and that advice helps him reach the finish line.  These are also wise words for anyone who’s mired in the first (or tenth) draft of a book: put away thoughts of the larger literary world, its capricious machinations, its fellow writers, and focus on the writing itself.  And, most importantly, don’t forget to smile.  McDougall argues that the runner who approaches the act with joy, and who faces the world at large with that same open heart, is better runner.  I’d say the same applies to the writer.  It’s no coincidence that Anton Chekhov considered compassion a requirement of fiction writing.

The fact that I haven’t yet returned to running is no fault of this book. I will. I promise.  When I do, I will keep my gait and posture in mind, and I will approach the challenge as a child would–that is, like it’s not a challenge at all.

Until then, I’d rather be reading.

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