For every human enterprise there is that book: the one that captures, methodically or by luck, the vitality of a living subculture in the kind of iconic still shot destined for immortality. Christopher McDougal’s Born To Run is such a book. But whatever kind of book you think it is (based on its bestselling success), it probably isn’t that. Born To Run is, to use one of its own favorite words, a bricolage: a hodgepodge of anecdote, travelogue, biography, sermon and science-backed discourse assembled to give McDougal’s pet theories and prescribed practices the traction of something road-worthy and dependable for now and for all time. Departing stylistically from former running bestsellers, Born To Run’s chapters read with the sweep and formlessness of a picaresque novel. The work seems more akin to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road than to any of the sports-writing reads to which we might be tempted to compare it. Its pages brim with surly characters (all the more colorful for being real) playing loose and reckless with social mores while mocking conformist running wisdom. One senses that its runners run not so much for the sake of sport as from hermetically-sealed hometowns, damning diagnoses, and the chafing fetters of convention. If these features fail to square with our profile of an elite athlete, probably it is our profile that needs adjusting. Whatever private existential demons are driving McDougal’s transient characters on from invisible city to invisible city, they seem to agree on one thing: “[they] ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”; instead they’ll run far and wide and with aboriginal abandon. Rendered in Gonzo journalistic prose, McDougal’s characters are equal parts Fear And Loathing and Chariots of Fire. With McDougal’s book, the “running bum” rounds into form for our classifying intellect and rubbernecking amusement. Now the question is, will he shake off his hang-over and finish—even win—the race? The hang-over is no less a trophy than his first-place medal; later he’ll call attention to each with equal braggadocio.
In chapters where McDougal leaves off recounting the antics of his ragtag cast (of which he’s self-consciously the least talented member), it’s to wax primitive, to soliloquize about poverty diets, minimalist footwear, altruism, playfulness, and our Space Oddesey-esque evolutionary journey from walkers to the finest endurance runners on the planet. He asks us to accept as living proof his literary diorama of a small band of pre-industrial Mexican natives known to the world as the Tarahumara, the running people. The Tarahumara, it turns out, are McDougal’s kind of rebels: they are great guzzlers of corn beer, happy to clear the training calendars they don’t keep for the wild, licentious multi-day raves they do keep. When they are not fuelling up on pinole, chia seeds and tortillas, they crave gringo cigarettes and Coca-Colas, and will warm to the tourist who comes bearing them. Still, when it comes to running, the Tarahumara don’t just excel, they excel wearing sandals and skirts and being more oblivious to concepts like training cycles, tempo runs, VO2 max and electrolyte balance as your 5-year old son or daughter. Running comes so naturally to the Tarahumara that if no foreigner had ever told them they were running, they wouldn’t know it. The Tarahumara, preserved for centuries from the modern world in the amber of a nearly inaccessible and forbidding canyon land, the Copper Canyons of The Sierra Madre, are (now that they are becoming known through books such as Born To Run) like a recruiting poster that Nature tacked to a wall where loiterers have been reported to gather. Ironically, their message for modern man, homo technicus, interpreted by the likes of McDougal and his peers, is “Be all that you can be.” So much for our advertised progress.
What begins as a casual recognition of resemblances between McDougal’s and Kerouac’s styles becomes, by mid book, a growing conviction that the author, in channeling his Beat-writer muse, is doing something more sublime than just plying a provocative writing style to sell copies. It’s about then that we learn that one of Born To Run’s characters, the party girl ultra-runner known as “Brujita,” is in fact a big Kerouac fan. Just as there are said to be no coincidences in life, it seems there are none in Born To Run. If it reads like Kerouac, there’s got to be a reason. But we’d be wrong to look to McDougal to give it. We’d be wrong to think that he can give it. Like the runners who get lost in Born to Run’s shadowy Copper Canyons—and they all, including McDougal, seem to get lost at times—we’re left to find our own way out of the conceptual arroyos into which the book casts a slanting light.
In the old Beat standard, On The Road, Kerouac’s first-person narrator is a kind of pilgrim moving through geo-spiritual space. Deliverance is a geographical horizon that always recedes from his grasp. It isn’t in Denver and the people he meets in Denver. It isn’t in San Francisco. Surely it’s in the next city, as Kerouac’s protagonist ricochets eastward. Zen too has its path, its pilgrim and its goal; and monks who walk great distances from monastery to monastery in search of the master who’ll ignite in them the spark of enlightenment. As runners, we’re used to negotiating a kind of fitness-spiritual space. We chase deliverance now in this marathon program, now in that method aimed at straightening some feature of our crooked form. This summer we’ll finally run without injury. This fall, in this city, we’ll be in shape to run our PR marathon. This will be the year when, at long last, we’ll qualify for Boston. We follow, for years and for decades, scores of plans, often contradictory, like the fingers that pointed the Conquistadors on to hundreds of false El Dorados, the imaginary cities of gold that endlessly diverted them. This is the receding horizon to which we runners are susceptible to being drawn. The space we seek is the one in which some master alchemist finally teaches us the trick to transforming our dirt into gold. Try to find it in the Copper Canyons. It isn’t there. In the lessons of the Tarahumara: Not there. In Born To Run: Again, no. As fine as these things are, the gold just isn’t there. As anyone who’s ever seen the film The Treasure of The Sierra Madre knows, it isn’t anywhere if we haven’t got it in us already (which of course we do, and must discover the fact in sequels of our own directing). And when we don’t find the gold where we thought we’d find it, there’s only one thing to do: keep moving. From Kerouac to McDougal to you and me, we are all on the road.