Book Review : Born to Run


tl;dr : Born to Run is a story about the “secrets” of a Mexican tribe known for being world-class ultra runners. The main “secret” to world-class running is to truly love it. Interleaved thru the main story line is information on the history, diet, industry, and medical aspects of ultra running.

Born to Run

Born to Run is a true story about the author’s adventures into the highly secluded Mexican Copper Canyons to learn about an Indian tribe of “super athletes” called the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara were legendary for their ability to run straight for days at a time, in sandals, on a primitive, vegetarian diet.

While the primary story is about the Tarahumara, Born to Run weaves in rather fascinating stories about the evolution, fundamentals, science, diet, and commercialization of ultra running. The story begins with the author, Scott McDougall, a casual athlete, trying to find a cure for his foot injuries and pain caused by running. He visits multiple American doctors who recommend drug treatments, expensive equipment, and eventually to quit running and take up biking. He didn’t quit, but he listened to the doctors. He bought expensive equipment, took cortizone shots and medication, but nothing worked.

After reading an article about the Tarahumara, he became curious. He wanted to find out how the Tarahumara could run for days while he, with Western culture’s best doctors, medicine, and equipment, could not. Runner’s World magazine, where he worked, allowed him to research and travel to Mexico to find the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara lived deep in the Mexican Copper Canyon mountains – a place surrounded by drug lords, gangs, and crime. He met locals along the way who helped him navigate the tough terrain to eventually meet the Tarahumara.

The Tarahumara are a very hidden, peaceful, healthy, tribe. They eat a very low protein, healthy diet which includes a corn and chia-rich paste called pinole. They enjoyed running games and would literally run together for days at a time. They wore very minimalist homemade sandals which allowed them to keep a natural stride while protecting their feet from the mountainous terrain.

A central figure in the story is Caballo Blanco (“White Horse”). Caballo is an American who met the Tarahumara by crewing for them in the 1992 Leadville 100 race. He liked them so much, he went down to Mexico to live with them. He’s portrayed as sort of a mythical figure who roams around sort of nomadic in Mexico running and living a carefree, simple lifestyle. Caballo’s dream was to hold a race between the Tarahumara and a hand picked group of US ultra marathoners. He admired Scott Jurek, who agreed to race. Jurek was interested since that was his life’s goal : compete and beat the best in the world. Caballo invited Jurek because he had the “right spirit” (not driven by money, like Karnazes and others).

Besices Jurek, Caballo invited a few other ultra athletes to race. Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett – 21 year old couple tearing up the East Coast ultra races ran w/ Jurek and the Tarahumara in Caballo’s race as did “Barefoot Ted” – Vibram’s first endorsed athlete.

He also invited McDougall, who trained for and eventually raced with the other athletes. He went from a hurt weekender to an ultra runner by going back to tribal practices and learning running fundamentals. He ran with proper form and equipment, ate a primitive diet, and was able to finish the 50 mile race.

The majority of the book involved Caballo’s race, which took place in 2004. The training and preparation the author put into the race, the logistics and personalities of the athletes in the race, and finally the race itself was the main story line carried throughout the book. Interleaved throughout the story were truly great background stories of distance running – some of the main points I’ve highlighted below. These various aspects are applicable to everyone and the advice is fantastic. The main conclusion is rather predictable – the best runners in the world are those who do it because they love it. Like anything in life, passion drives success. The same goes for distance running. After passion comes diet and fundamentals.

Born to Run convincingly links the American diet to disease, stress, obesity (and thus diabetes), and other painfully horrible medical conditions. This book advocates for and shows how a primitive, “tribal” diet high in fruits and vegetables, low in protein is proven to power ultra running success.

The book offers up a brief look at the corruption Bill Bowerman and Nike caused the running community. Bill invented and sold a running style that required his shoes. By claiming that reaching your feet out further, you could lengthen your stride and thus speed up. The problem is lengthening your stride will cause you to land on your heel – an unnatural, painful, and injury causing form. Bill sold this style because it required cushioned shoes – Nike shoes. The book describes Nike’s influence and links the slowing of American distance runners to the time Nike entered the market. Interestingly, after Bowerman died, Nike launched a minimalist line called Nike Free – to attempt to capitalize on the growing number of “minimalist” athletes who were fed up with cushioned shoes.

Born to Run struck a good balance between the story of the Tarahumara, elite athletes and general background information on distance running. It gave me motivation to clean up my stride and diet, which alone is worth the price of the book. I can’t highly recommend it, but I think it makes for an easy to read casual book endurance athletes or aspiring 5k’ers will enjoy.

Key Takeaways


  • Runners do it for love – there is no money in the sport. They (probably) don’t dope since they don’t have any fame or money.
  • The Tarahumara secret was they “loved to run”.
  • Jurek’s tip : “You can’t hate The Beast (fatigue, pain); the only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher and geneticist will tell you, is to love it.”
  • “You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running” – Jack Kirk, 96 year old ultra marathoner.
  • “If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four hour run, you ain’t getting them”


  • Low protien, high carb diet. The more primitive the better. Makes you realize just how bad the American diet has become.
  • Jurek eats a very low protien, vegetarian diet. Lots of nutrients in low calorie meals that settle quick in the stomach.


  • The surge for minimalist running started around 1997.
  • Running technique tips : straight back, short steps, on your toes, “easy, light, smooth, fast”
  • Barefoot running, minimalist shoes are the real deal. Bashes Nike, Bowerman.

Joe Vigil (legendary coach) running tips:

  • Practice abundance by giving back.
  • Improve personal relationships.
  • Show integrity to your value system. (You have to become a strong person before you become a strong runner.)
  • Run like a kindergartner. Feet land under your body and they push back.
  • Kenyans have super quick foot turnover. Short, quick strides are more economical than long, powerful ones.
  • Run like you’re running on hot coals.
  • “Nearly all runners do their slow runs too fast and fast runs too slow.”
  • Teach your body to use fat by staying under the aerobic threshold.

Evolution of Running

  • Evolution : early tribes hunted by running. Humans were slower than animals, but much longer endurance. McDougall makes the case that humans were “Born to Run” and attempts to prove it by human body characteristics and early hunting.
  • Living a happy, peaceful, life like the Tarahumara is what Western cultures strive for. Western cultures value materialism and self-centeredness which prevent them from achieving that lifestyle.

Corporate Influence

  • American running : “Overpronation” and other running jargon didn’t exist in the 70’s, before Nike and the shoe companies. Americans in the 70’s were fast. A handful of people ran 2:12 marathons. 20 years later, nobody did. The Kenyans didn’t get faster, Americans got slower. In the 80’s, when cash and shoe companies entered into the mix, we slowed down. The fun was replaced with money.
  • Bill Bowerman started advocating a new kind of running style that required his shoes. He asked “what if you stepped beyond your center of gravity to lengthen your stride”. Thus – you needed his shoes. Completely wrong advice, but he marketed it well.
  • Bowerman created a market for his product, then created the product.
  • The real test that heel landing is incorrect is if you run without shoes. It will hurt to land on your heel. Bowerman’s advice was actually hurting people.
  • Bowerman’s mentor, Arthur Lydiard, advocated a barefoot running style. After Bowerman died in 2002, they asked Arthur for advice. He advocated a barefoot style. Nike researched barefoot running cultures and created “Nike Free” with the slogan “Run Barefoot”.
  • So Nike created an artifical market for running shoes based on Bowerman’s scientifically incorrect theory that thick soled shoes reduce injury, then after 30 years realizes they were wrong, created Nike Free.
  • Nike held a practice of discontinuing shoes periodically and bringing them back a few years later. Why? Money. To motivate people into buying multiple pairs of shoes at a time before their favorite model was discontinued.


  • Dr. Daniel Lieberman, anthropologist at Harvard “Many running injuries are caused by our feat being weak. Before Nike in 1972, people ran in thin soled shoes and had a much lower incidence of knee injuries”.
  • He claims that if running shoes didn’t exist, more people would run and less would die of illness due to being sedentary. * There is no evidence that running shoes prevent injury.
  • Astronauts, when returning to earth, return with weak bones / muscles, have depression, atrophy, all because they haven’t moved their muscles in days. Humans need to run for survival.
  • The American diet is truly killing people. Diets high in fruits and vegetables (little meat) severely reduces cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other American diet related diseases.

“Painful Truths”

  1. The best running shoes are the worst. Runners wearing top of the line shoes are 123% more likely to get injured than those in cheap shoes. – Univerity of Bern (Switzerland)
  2. Feet like a good beating Impact is actually lightest when you don’t have cushioned shoes.
  3. Humans were designed to run without shoes. Our feet were designed with an arch – which gets stronger under stress. “Putting your feet in shoes is like putting them in a plaster cast” Kenyans have very elasticity in their feet.

Scott Jurek

  • He has a true spirit and passion for running, not attention or stardom. He is the real deal.
  • Scott believed the reason he raced wasn’t to beat people, but be with them.
  • “It’s easy to get outside yourself when you’re thinking about someon else” – great advice to keep yourself motivated on a long run.
  • After being beat by Arnulfo (the fastest Tarahumara runner) in Caballo’s race, he bowed to him. Classy.


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