02 January 2010

Born to Run, Part I

Few books have left a profound and lasting influence on my life. If I were to list those that have, and place them on a shelf in my library effectively dubbed "Life Changers," it would seem that the curator would be suffering from a severe case of attention deficit—if you believe in ADD (but that is a topic for another post)—and/or multi-personality disorder. Among the few that I would list as having left an indelible impact are The Little Engine That Could, Moby Dick, Morton Feldman Says, The Giving Tree and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I can now certainly add Christopher McDougall's book, Born to Run to that short list.

When I was doing my course work for my PhD, a composition professor of mine once asked "can you think about all the musical compositions that you like, from different historical eras, that represent disparate musical vocabularies [a la Josquin des Prez to Radiohead] that you think work—for whatever reason—and find similarities between these?" I think the question he was was really asking is 'Why do you like what you like?' There are chord progressions in Handel that remind me of Jamaroqui. The descending chromatic figure (passacaglia) in "Dido's Lament" from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas and the one in  Radiohead's Exit Music (For A Film), are both filled with a barren, austere, gut-wrenching sense of loss I find honest and sincere. Coincidentally, the latter was heavily inspired by Frédéric Chopin's Prelude No. 4 in E MinorStill, that does not really explain what I like about the music. It only explains that I like two different pieces that share a common musical parameter, the passacaglia: a bass line that continually pervades the entire fabric of the composition; think Freddy Mercury and David Bowie's Under Pressure (or the later bastardized Vanilla Ice rip off Ice Ice Baby.

Now, If I think what I like about all my favorite aforementioned texts, it is that there are some deep philosophical, and moral questions at work. Every one of the texts, from The Little Engine That Could to Born to Run are more than stories. Much more. They examine life, question objectivity, and make us vulnerable in ways that leave us to confront  our own transgressions. 

Look, I am not one for hero-worship, or discussing something using glowing , or panegyric rhetoric in order to convince anyone to read a book. Well, that is not entirely true. When I feel passionate about something, I usually pester the hell out of everyone I know before they read, eat, drink, participate in something that I think is wonderful, and I want them to experience for themselves. Pushy? A tad, perhaps. I blame it on my Italian upbringing.  I am a first generation Italian-American and grew up in a family where my  mother was always feeding every friend who came over to the house, despite the fact many times we were returning to my house at dinner time  just after having eaten a bucket of chicken wings, and a large pizza.

McDougall's writing, walks the incredibly magical line of being both incredibly entertaining and unbelievably informative—not surprising considering he served as a war correspondent for the Associated Press.  He writes in an unassuming, humble way, using  both common-man colloquialisms and an Ivy League caliber vocabulary to a share a story one of the most unique underground cultures that I have ever read about—the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. But the book does not start and end there. Along the way, McDougall takes you on a journey that investigates the genesis of  "running shoes" in America by Bill Bowerman, Pat Knight and the Nike machine and the ultrarunning phenomenon. 

Ironically, about a year ago, I got into a pretty heated debate with my nephew Nicholas—a 26 year old climber who like me, documents his psychosis for all to scrutinize—about the relatively "fringe" trend of barefoot running that has been cropping up since around 2002. He argued that running with running shoes with arch support, 'shocks,' pronation support, and all the other bells and whistles are actually causing injury from weakening the foot and causing human beings to run heel to toe, instead of the way that nature intended—from the fleshy part of the ball of our feet. His evidence? Watch your kids run outside without shoes during the summer. Do they run on their heels or on the balls of their feet?  McDougall brings some other inconvenient truths to light as well. One that we all know. I don't recall where I read it now, but "In order for an object to retain currency, [it]—the commodity in question—must remain current." Ah, yes, corporate greed again. And yet, we the masses go out in droves to purchase bottled water, and expensive running shoes. Odd. My take in part deux.

Coming Up: Born to Run, Part II

Review: Timex Ironman Race Trainer Kit with Heart Monitor

Happy Training Friends!

1 comment:

Fred (aka ace) said...

Yeah, I read (listened to) Born to Run on the plane to Arizona. And I used some of the things I learned during the race.

I worked at a running specialty store here in Austin for almost 10 years. One of the things I took from that experience was the more expensive the shoe the worse it was for you. I kept seeing people who only wore racing flats for training and racing were never injured. Over the years, I too adopted a less is more philosophy.

I think Born to Run is one of those books that has so much to offer in the way of looking at running as really the glue that allowed civilization to grow and thrive. As the author says, running may actually be what not only once started humankind, but it may also be what ultimately saves it.