It’s been 13 years since Chris McDougall turned the running world on its head with his writing of Born to Run, a seminal ode to minimalist running style that became a New York Times bestselling book and, for a moment, greatly reshaped the entire running industry.
In what seems like a lifetime ago, McDougal was the pied piper of barefoot-style running. No, he wasn’t ever about actually running barefoot — because he recognized early on that was largely impractical and painful, especially for those living in a modern mostly paved world — but instead about running in minimalist, “barely there” footwear that allowed a runner to move with natural running form that could, in theory, reduce overuse injuries and enhanced performance.
Even now, as McDougall’s Born to Run 2 is about to be released on December 6, the influence of the original book is still reverberating in the running industry in the way of advanced running shoes that are lighter, more energetic and built from a function-first design ethos.
But in the interim between his running books, as McDougall was hard at work at both preaching the gospel of minimalist running and working on numerous other writing projects—including Natural Born Heroes (2015) and Running with Sherman (2019)—the running world moved on, even though McDougall did not and apparently never will.
The Born to Run Revolution
When it was published in 2009, Born to Run served as the cannon blast that would become the rallying call for a running revolution centered on minimalist shoe design, the quest for optimal running form and, to some extent, a spartan lifestyle that embraced doing what was practical over doing what was comfortable.
There had been plenty of counterculture insurgents on a path to running revolt already—everyone from Pose Method founder Dr. Nicholas S. Romanov, Chi Running guru Danny Dreyer, Newton Running cofounder Danny Abshire, Harvard anthropology professor Daniel Lieberman and even those behind Nike’s barefoot-style line of Free shoes and Vibram’s odd-but-interesting FiveFingers toe shoes. Plus, there were dozens of professional physiologists, biomechanists, running coaches and athletes assailing the poor design of early 2000s shoes as a leading contributor to extraordinarily high injury rates among both novice and avid runners.
But it was McDougall’s epic tale about mysterious ultrarunning adventurer Caballo Blanco (a.k.a. Micah True) running with the native Rarámuri tribe (a.k.a. the Tarahumara people) wearing sandals fashioned out of old tires in Mexico’s Copper Canyons that really ignited the rebellion.
Almost overnight, a huge throng quietly fell in line and joined the fray—lifelong runners seeking a new inspiration, new runners seeking a new path in life, injured runners seeking rehabilitative guidance, hobby joggers seeking inclusion and, yes, even large corporate running shoe brands seeking a new stream of revenue—either because they truly believed in the empirical science or the poetic beauty behind the movement or just because it was the latest fad that seemed to be here for good and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
But even as the echoes of those original canon blasts were still audible in the distance and McDougall was on an extended book tour connecting with a passionate band of merry pranksters, the revolution fizzled out as the vast majority of the ever-impressionable running world quickly joined the next revolution centered on new and improved midsole materials that were more shock-absorbing and responsive—not to mention divinely cushy—than traditional foams of the past.
The beginning of the end came quickly as Hoka famously launched its oversized cushioning that and Adidas introduced its hyper-bouncy Boost midsole foam. Just about the time True suffered an untimely fatal heart incident while returning from his latest trip to the Copper Canyons to organize the 50K race he created to benefit the impoverished Rarámuri people, runners were already galloping to a different beat.
Whereas wafer-thin “barely there” shoes briefly defined the zeitgeist of the revolution, running shoes that more resembled Oreo Double Stuf sandwich cookies—and the feel-good sensations that could be felt in every stride—immediately became the icon of a new maximalist movement that quickly and forever left minimalism in its wake. For a while runners wanted to understand minimalism, but with soft cushioning there was nothing to explain. It just felt good.
The dramatic shift wasn’t lost on McDougall, who nonetheless has continued to wave the revolutionary flag for minimalist footwear and better running form. He understands human nature veers toward comfort, fashion and fads, but, he argues, it shouldn’t overlook scientific studies or eliminate the quest for better running form—no matter if that’s for injury prevention, performance enhancement or an earnest desire just to improve.
“Let’s just agree there are better ways to run and there are ways to get there,” he said recently. “Every run doesn’t have to be a lesson in perfection. I tend to get all militant about it, but I think there are ways to make this experience so much more pleasurable. Unfortunately, I just think so many people have said, ‘Oh well, we’re just going to follow the trends and forget everything else.’”
After working for nearly two years on Born to Run 2 with longtime coach and coconspirator Eric Orton, he has a clear idea of why multitudes of runners were drawn to soft, cushy shoes. But that wasn’t a detractor in getting his book ready for the world. If anything, it was an inspiration. And that was evident when I visited with each of them as they mingled with fans and followers at a pre-launch party at Denver’s Berkeley Park Running Company.
“We don’t eat everything we’re supposed to eat all the time because we want to eat foods that are delicious and bring us joy and that are different than what we ate the day before, and running shoes are the same way,” McDougall says. “If your feet are really sensitive and you put on a different shoe, you have the pleasure of experiencing that difference. We all really enjoy that sensual pleasure, but where we are led astray is that we keep accepting whatever fatty meal is put in front of us as the thing we want instead of evaluating if that’s what is really needed.”
Born to Run 2
What McDougall and Orton offer up in Born to Run 2 is somewhat of a how-to guide full of practical information for new and novice runners who might have missed the first revolution. But it’s also a renewed call to action of the original sentiments behind Born to Run and an invitation for any curious, pragmatic, lapsed or broken-down runners to start anew with an opportunity for physical, mental and/or emotional rejuvenation.
In the new book, they’ve blended really good storytelling with loads of practical information to cover a wide variety of situations, challenges and dilemmas that all runners face or are curious about. It covers everything from running form and running shoes to optimal nutrition for a runner’s lifestyle, how to get more joy out of running and even how to run with your dog. It’s smartly written, colorfully illustrated and definitely worth a read for anyone inspired by the original book or curious about making changes in their approach to running.
When McDougall talks about the new book, he speaks with a light tone of excitement, partially from the good experience he and Orton had going through the collaborative process but also because he knows it will be an opportunity once again to connect with runners who are on an exploratory path to something different, something better. But as a professional journalist, he’s always been a realistic and a skeptic, so he’s not expecting the new book to have the same profound impact as the original.
“Do people really want to be told what to do?” he asks rhetorically. “Do they want to be led toward change? Or is it more than just, ‘I want to go out and enjoy my 45 minutes a day and I’ll deal with their problems when they show up. I’m not going to worry about it now.’ I don’t know the answer to that. But at the end of the day, you have to be happy knowing you did the best you could. You wouldn’t write an article or a book if you knew the outcome. You write it to spread the message and then see what the reactions are that come from it.”
The new book isn’t as much of an indictment of the running shoe industry as the first, but it does come with heavy-handed suggestions about what kinds of shoes runners should be wearing. McDougall famously embraced FiveFingers and Luna Sandals back in the day and has since run in a variety of brands ranging from VivoBarefoot to Altra. Next spring, Xero Shoes will launch new versions of its Zelen and Mesa Trail shoes with Born to Run logos.
“I don’t even blame the brands. They’re in the business of selling products. That’s their job, that’s their mission,” McDougall says. “They’re not in the job of educating people or taking them to school. The big disappointment to me is the people who I feel should know better because I don’t understand why they don’t.”
McDougall admits he hasn’t returned to the Copper Canyons since the initial trips that connected him with the cast of characters—including True, Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, Billy “Bonehead” Barnett, Barefoot Ted and Arnulfo Quimare—who became the star characters of Born to Run. But it seems like he might have a latent urge to go back. Not to promote his new book, but just to re-immerse with the movement.
The original 50K race that True developed has morphed into several events organized by a variety of people. Mike Miller, one of the original followers of the “Mas Loco” tribe that took to True’s minimalist dogma, has re-envisioned a weeklong event that will include hiking, exploring, connecting with locals and old friends alike, and an experiential and inclusive race that has no time cutoffs, and McDougall is intrigued enough to consider being a part of it.
“I can’t say from a distance that it’s a bad thing,” McDougall says. “You’re highlighting the culture. You’re pumping money into a neglected area. You’re getting people excited about training for a unique experience. So maybe it’s a good thing, but at the same time maybe the throwback to what Caballo originally intended is taking place somewhere else at a different time.
“I kind of wonder whether Born to Run’s day has come and gone,” he adds without remorse. “I’m curious to see if there is still an interest in it or if it’s more about nostalgia. We’ll see which way the pendulum swings. But I think what we’re pushing is not an easy message, and that is that you have to learn first and buy second. I think with the first go-round was that people tended to buy first and maybe I’ll learn after that.”