I picked up this book on the recommendation of my friend and massage therapist who is an avid runner. I am as far removed from an avid runner as Starbucks is from good coffee, yet I love a good book on any subject and this one hit all the best seller lists. And it’s a hell of a story. Any of the subplots could have been a book in their own right, and the overarching story pertains to the Tarahumara tribe from Mexico who live in the remotest depths of an unreachable canyon and who run ultramarathons for fun in homemade sandals, and the westerner who finds themselves on the fringes of their society.
As the author says the book arose out of pain. Specifically the pain of running. Barely qualified as a runner, he managed to amass an impressive array of injuries in a very short time, and conventional wisdom told him to get used to it – our bodies are not meant to run, and injuries are inevitable. Statistics bear this out – anywhere from 60-85% of runners incur some sort of injury each year, which seems statistically far more dangerous than riding a motorcycle without a helmet or pissing off a bear in the woods.
Yet there are people who engage in ultrarunning with stunning regularity, running distances that far outpace something as puny as a marathon over terrain so challenging that there shouldn’t be a way for the human body to survive, like the Leadville 100 or Badwater. Something along the lines of running for 15-30 hours straight, fording rivers, climbing mountains, at alpine altitude or inside a furnace, for no money or glory other than the exhiliration of testing every limit of human endurance.
And of course, there is the linchpin to the story – the Tarahumara, or the Running People who run ultramarathons for fun, in sandals, en masse, fueled by beer, corn and occasionally chia seeds, as well as enjoying great health and serenity. Brought out of the jungle by an ambitious photographer to race in the Leadville 100, against a legendary female ultramarathoner Ann Trason, they wiped the competition with a smile on their face – once they figured out what the point was, and in the media hoopla that followed decided that this is too loud and crazy, never to return.
Written in an exhuberant, whopping style, the book is full of hyperbole and bold language, underscoring each of author’s sweeping assertions. The description of the Leadville race is taut with tension and far more exciting than you’d think, a grand adventure full of suspence and sheer admiration for the incredible feats that occurred. After this race, one needs a break and the book delivers, easing the pace with segments on anthropology, paleontology, and some larger than life characters in present time.
For there was a man, whom we briefly meet at the very beginning, who had a dream. And his dream was to run a race with the Tarahumara that he adopted, and the kindred spirits he admired across the continent. The man who acquired the nickname of Caballo Blanco (White Horse), once was a full fledged member of the rather unhealthy society we are all a part of, and chose to leave it all behind to build a stone hut deep in the jungle near the Tarahumara and run crazy distances exploring his new terrain. He felt a desire to meet and race with the ultra legend Scott Jurek, whose incredible athletic accomplishments are only eclipsed by his kindness and grace as a human being.
Slowly and improbably, a motley crew of ultra runners amassed – people whose personalities are larger than life, at least as captured by the author. A young couple, whose zest for life, legendary partying and recuperative skills I can only deeply envy, Barefoot Ted – the man who inspired the Vibram Five Fingers shoe craze, Erik the running coach who rebuilt the author’s running form from the ground up in order to be able to participate, and Luis the photographer. Getting in one piece to the edge of the Copper Canyon on a hope and a prayer, they take over the small mountain town, joined by the Tarahumara runners wishing to pit themselves against Scott Jurek – The Deer as he’s christened.
And a joyful race, a celebration of running for its own sake happens. Over an inspired fifty miles of gorgeous but forbidding terrain, the runners have an epic race, the kind of thing that seems to have serendipity guiding it, and an ending full of hope. It’s an inspired book, and leads one to like and believe in people again, something that’s easy to forget in daily life sometimes. And photos of which are posted on the author’s website to my deep delight. Looks like the race became an annual event with most runners returning for a celebratory rematch.
Of course no book is perfect, and this one opens up some tantalizing questions. You can tell that the science on running, and barefoot running is far from complete. And if everyone is born to run, then why is it that most people who do still injure themselves, despite great form, shoes or no shoes, and all sorts of terrain? Including many of the runners in the book and my massage therapist who recently tore his calf muscle. Googling some of the larger than life characters is fascinating and mysterious as well, Ann Trason is done with ultra running due to injuries, and although still active in the sport will likely never run an ultra again. (Although her Leadville record from the books’ race is still unbeaten).
Most of the principals in the book have very little to say about it. You can find glimpses of quotes on the internet that Ann Trason has been angry at her portrayal in the book, and Jenn Shelton is said to have pointed out that the book omits Tarahumara poverty while romanticising a way of life that is dissappearing like sand in an hourglass. (Her and partner donated their race winnings to the native racers). But few of them have published interviews online offering a candid opinion about the story, and we all know how people can have a vastly different perception of the same event.
And of course there is the undercurrent that the way of life and isolation the Tarahumara have enjoyed for hundreds of years is disappearing, and there truly IS no place remote enough for an indigenous people to hide from the onslaught of our world. Nope the book does not focus on it, but reading between the lines and more Googling quickly leads to the same sad feeling you get while reading about the disappearing tigers or gorillas. We as a species are no good at sharing the planet and frankly we have encroached enough on their traditional way of life that it’s probably too late. Now it’s becoming a vicious circle of education? poverty? get everyone a television? and that’s too big of a topic for a book review post. Although there is a non-profit run by Caballo now.
None of this takes away from the wonderfulness, epic-ness and joie de vivre of the book itself though, which has earned a spot on my bookshelf and got the author a sure buyer of his future books. I won’t lie and say it inspired me to run, it didn’t, but the joy of moving your body is infectious, and my workouts have had a lightness and zest to them that only genuine inspiration can bring.