I had two surprising (at least to me) reactions to Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: 1) I became a vegetarian, and 2) I learned a valuable lesson about life. I read the book because it discusses the origins of barefooting (running or walking without traditional sneaker cushioning), and because it features the intriguing lifestyle of the Tarahumara (a Native American people known for their long-distance running ability). But the discussion that most resonated with me (and led to my life lesson) was about running itself. McDougall makes the crucial point that we shouldn’t approach running as a painful, dreaded obligation. Instead, we should reinvent it as a fine art to be enjoyed. Like the Tarahumara, we should run for the sheer joy of flying along the earth’s surface.
But how do we make an institution that’s traditionally encouraged masochism “fun”? McDougall’s story of how running evolved as a sport in the United States offers us several hints:
- Go grassroots. In the early days of running, it was something people did for fun. They invented marathons or raced alongside horses, just for the hell of it. Only when running lost its identity as a form of play did it become painful. In recent years the grassroots spirit of the first marathoners has been resurrected in the new ultramarathoners. Ultramarathons — extra-long marathons, often through rough conditions and terrain — may sound like a new form of self-torture, but only athletes who genuinely enjoy running participate.
- Prioritize compassion. While racing would appear to be intrinsically competitive, the most successful marathoners tend to be very compassionate people. They make the time to help and cheer on others, even when they’re trying to win or suffering from exhaustion. These personal connections, instead of getting in the way, give them a boost.
- Play hard. McDougall himself undergoes strenuous training, with incredible results: running marathon distances becomes a walk in the park.
It’s a playbook that can be applied not only to athletic endeavors, but to anything in life that’s become an “obligation”: painful, jaded, and just plain unfun. It might seem like things have to be a certain way, but they don’t. Anything can be similarly transformed into a better experience.
It’s also telling that the ultrarunners who buy into this reinvention are happier and healthier. In fact, while I have yet to begin training, I had to adopt the ideal runner’s diet as described by McDougall. The super-athletic Tarahumara primarily eat “pinto beans, squash, chili peppers, wild greens, pinole, and lots of chia.” In other words, they don’t eat animal products or processed carbs. Similarly, the great ultrarunner Scott Jurek‘s diet consists of “rice burritos, pita stuffed with hummus and Kalamata olives, and home-baked bread smeared with adzuki beans and quinoa spread.” If those menus don’t make you smack your lips in anticipation, consider the facts:
According to Dr. Robert Weinberg, a professor of cancer research at MIT and discoverer of the first tumor-suppressor gene, one in every seven cancer deaths is caused by excess body fat. The math is stark: cut the fat, and cut your cancer risk.
For me, eating this way is another reinvention. I’ve had to go back to the essentials (protein, fiber, calcium, vitamins) and reimagine what constitutes a meal. While I haven’t gone totally vegan, I’m having fun discovering different vegetables and new ways to cook them. I’d never appreciated kale before. Or the Tarahumara staples, which I’ve attempted to experience by cooking pinto beans with poblano peppers and wrapping them up with rice in corn tortillas. It’s not quite the original, but it is really good.
As with running, I’ll also need to exercise compassion and self-discipline to transform vegetarianism into an enjoyable art form. I hope you’ll help me with the former by checking out the recipes I’m cooking on Pinterest. I also hope that these lessons will help us reinvent other “obligations” in new and exciting ways.