The Barefoot Brahmin: Exclusive Interview With Christopher McDougall

The author of “Born to Run” sheds thoughts on his book, barefoot running and more.

Interview by: Duncan Larkin

There aren’t many running books that make the New York Times Best Seller list. Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” is one of them. A gonzo adventure complete with colorful characters, drug cartels, a secretive indigenous tribe of runners, and one crazy race in the middle of nowhere, “Born to Run” is a hard book to put down.

More important than the edge-of-your-seat adventure, however, is the fire the book has lit with the minimalist runners around the world. “Born to Run” makes a hard sell for barefoot running: shoes, bad; calluses, good. As a response to the book, shoe companies such as Vibram have thrived, and many other big-name brands have responded to the rage by creating their own lines of less-is-more type of footwear. Barefoot running clinics and camps have sprung up all over the place. Shedding your shoes–or running in less of a shoe–it seems, is the new old way to do things.

But is barefoot running really good for everyone?

Competitor.com recently spoke with McDougall, a former AP reporter and war correspondent, to answer this important question as well as others about his book and his own running.

Comptetitor.com: Your book has become an enormous success. It’s made the New York Times Bestseller List and has pretty much started a movement of like-minded barefoot enthusiasts. Are you surprised by its success?

Christopher McDougall: No, because I didn’t start it. I felt like I could see the smoke coming out of the volcano. I was just hoping that I wouldn’t be too late. I felt that the movement and the awareness were growing really quickly. That was the reason for my rush; I knew it was going to happen, whether there was “Born to Run” or not. A lot of people were connecting the dots. They understood that shoes were not the solutions; shoes were probably the problem.

So going with your volcano analogy, do you feel “Born to Run” was the eruption?

Yeah I think so. What this awareness needed was somebody to translate it into everyday language, because you basically have two camps out there: You have the academic researchers and you have the barefoot underground. Unfortunately, the barefoot underground seems goofy. You got Barefoot Ken Bob, Barefoot Ted, and Barefoot Yanni. All these guys are called Barefoot something. So they aren’t taken seriously. And the academic researchers: They’ve been putting things out on a regular basis since the 1970s. Nobody has paid any attention. That was it. All that was needed was for someone to unite those things and put them in a way where people will pay attention.

Not to sound too conspiratorial, but do you think the shoe companies have played a role in stifling the barefoot movement?

I don’t blame the shoe companies, because that is not their responsibility. Their responsibility is to sell products. The responsibility belongs to the authorities in the field: doctors, coaches, running magazines, and reporters. I feel the same way about this as if feel about the mainstream media dropping the ball in terms of reporting around the Iraq War. I feel the responsible parties totally dropped the ball and continue to this day. The resistance to minimalist running comes from exactly the people who should most understand it. It’s the running press, the podiatrists, and the sports medicine doctors. Those groups are the only three groups that are constantly creating a battle where there should be no battle. To this day, Runner’s World has written virtually nothing about my book.

Really?

Yeah. I don’t want to be too much of a moaner. And that’s fine. If they don’t want to, they don’t want to, but it makes you wonder. It makes you curious. Any other book out there about running, you’d see it on the cover. You’d see all kinds of attention. But yet, with “Born to Run”, they just ignore it. Every time someone sends me a message, it’s like something from Jeff Galloway reporting that I had a stress fracture. Total lie. Untrue. I called him on it, and he said, “Oh, yeah, one of my employees saw you and heard you had a stress fracture.” It just wasn’t true. Anyway, the people who should be looking into this are the ones who are trying to stay away from it.

You’ve run with the Tarahumara. Any plans to go run with another group of runners in a different part of the world, like East Africa?

I’m working on another book, but it’s not about running. It’s in a similar vein, but it’s not about running. I’m trying to keep that to myself for now until I get some more traction on it.

But would you ever want to do something else with barefoot runners in other indigenous cultures?

I’m not sure—possibly. With the Tarahumara, a lot of different strands were combining with that story. For instance, I wouldn’t just write a book about the Tarahumara. That was not my intention. My original intention was just to do a magazine story for Runner’s World. And what I found out when I was researching that story was that there was a lot more there. There would have to be a lot more there if I was going to do something with another group.

On any given day, I can look out the window of my house at the park across the street and see several 230-pound people running barefoot. I didn’t see that kind of thing before your book came out. With this movement that you’ve started, do you think there will be, say in 10-15 years, some result in terms of lower obesity rates, lower injury rates, or some performance improvement for U.S. runners across the board?

Let’s look at a best-case scenario: Somewhere between 50-80% of all runners are injured every year. Ninety percent of all marathoners are injured every year. That results in millions of people who have to stop running and who want to run. But they can’t, because they’re hurt. Then you factor in all the people who have never tried running, because they’ve been told they are going to get hurt. They hear things like, “Oh it’s so bad for your knees.” I just spoke to a woman today. She’s 47 years old. She just started running. All her friends told her, “Are you crazy? You are going to destroy your knees! You are too old.” So imagine all these millions of people. If you remove all the fear and all the pain that’s been associated with running for our lifetime—again, it is unique to our lifetime. You never read about running associated with fear and pain prior to our lifetime. Go back to folklore and mythology and you’ll see it’s always associated with freedom and vitality. If you remove the fear, you remove the injuries. And that’s millions of people who can now run. These 230-pound guys you were talking about, if they clang down hard on their heels, then absolutely they are going to get hurt. But if they learn how to run really light and gentle, then it’s really exciting to think about what this 230-pound guy may look like in two months. I was that 230-pound guy. In fact, I was a 240-pound guy. The funny thing is that all the stuff they said would happen to me if I ran barefoot is the stuff that happened to me in shoes. None of the stuff that happened to me in shoes happened to me barefoot. I was always getting hurt in shoes and constantly struggling with weight. Now, I don’t wear shoes and I never get injured.

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