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The solution isn't the newest, most expensive pair of Nikes. Quite the opposite.
"A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems," Harvard University's Dr. Daniel Lieberman is quoted as saying in the book. "Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries."
Liberman's words help answer the question McDougall begins the book with: "How come my foot hurts?" Unsatisfied with his doctor's response—"The human body is not designed for that kind of abuse. Especially not your body"—McDougall embarks on a journey to Mexico's Copper Canyons to learn from the Tarahumara (also called the Rarámuri, or "The Running People"), a tribe known for its remarkable health and athletic ability.
"In Tarahumara Land," McDougall writes, "there was not 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: fifty-five-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides. Their cancer rates were barely detectable."
The Tarahumara's "superhuman serenity" is rivaled only by their propensity to party. McDougall describes one account of a Tarahumara rave during which they got "so blitzed that wives began ripping each others' tops off in a bare-breasted wrestling match...The husbands, meanwhile, gazed on in glassy-eyed paralysis. Cancun at spring break had nothing on the Barrancas [Spanish for canyons] under a harvest moon.
"The Tarahumara would party like this all night, then roust themselves the next morning to face off in a running race"—all wearing hand-made sandals—"that could last not two miles, not two hours, but two full days."
Eventually, after taking both physical and mental cues from the Tarahumara (not to mention personal training from adventure-sports coach Eric Orton), McDougall overcame his nagging injuries. By the end of the book he completes a 50-mile, 12-hour ultra marathon in the sweltering Copper Canyons in 2006.
McDougall, a contributing editor for Men's Health magazine, says working on the book transformed him from an injured and overweight grump into someone who's currently training for marathons in New York and Singapore.
"Simply, it gave me back the use of my legs," he says. "I don't want to over-dramatize it. It wasn't like I hopped out of a wheelchair or something. But for years I've been told that I'm exactly the kind of person who should not be running. And that made sense because I was always getting hurt. And here's the difficulty: If you take an organism and prevent it from doing the activity it's best at, that it's most naturally suited for, then you see the decay that occurs. Take a panda and put it in captivity, or a tiger, or any animal, and they start to have eating disorders and sexual dysfunctions and they can't reproduce and they have mood swings and grouchiness. And that was basically—apart from the sexual dysfunction—me. I was this grouchy, fat pain in the ass."
The most important piece of coaching McDougall received, he says, came from his coach and reflected the approach of the Tarahumara. "If it feels like work," he was told, "you're working too hard."
"The other side of it"
I keep that mantra in mind as I head out for my first solo run since high school. Back then, I had to run two miles in under 14 minutes to qualify for the soccer team, a requirement I found torturous. But this feels different, partly because I just splurged on a pair of the same minimalist running shoes McGovern had worn on our run in the Rattlesnake—Vibram's FiveFingers, which mimic true barefoot running.
McGovern had told me to take it slow. He recommended I run for about five minutes, and then stop or change shoes.
"You'll notice, by default, you won't land on your heel, and that's the beauty of barefoot," he said. "If you're buying into the notion that, biomechanically, you need to run differently, then barefoot is just a tool to get you there. Barefooting isn't the goal. Barefooting helps you maintain the gait that you want to maintain."
By staying off my heel, the idea is that my feet, toes and knees will align, my back will straighten and my hands will rise. I'd no longer pound myself into the ground. McGovern had said barefoot running reminded him of when he was a kid running through hotel hallways, sort of tiptoeing and sprinting at the same time.
I tiptoe out my backdoor and jog to a park only about a quarter-mile away. McGovern's right—the shoes force me to stay on my forefoot and off my heel. And I find myself much more aware of where my feet are landing to avoid any rocks or debris that would hurt my un-calloused, flat feet. It certainly feels more natural than running in sneakers, but, by the time I reach the park, my lower calves are screaming. McGovern wasn't kidding.