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The Barefoot Brahmin: Exclusive Interview With Christopher McDougall

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published Oct. 14, 2010
  • Updated Feb. 19, 2013 at 8:47 AM UTC

Ok, so let’s take it up to another weight level. What about a guy who is 300 pounds, buys a pair of Five Fingers because he read your book, and decides to train for a trail marathon in them. Should he jump on an exercise bike for a while to lose some weight before he dabbles in Five-Finger marathon training?

Here’s my problem with the way recreational running is today. There is such this moral obligation to achieve and produce, achieve and produce. Why would this guy want to run a marathon? Do you think it’s just an idea that popped into his head? No. Nowadays, when you start running, if you tell anybody, someone will ask you, “Have you run a marathon? How come you haven’t run a marathon? Are you going to run the New York City Marathon?” Imagine you are just starting to learn how to swim. No one is saying to you, “Have you swum the English Channel? When are you going to swim the English Channel? How fast can you swim the English Channel?” Twenty-six miles is really far. And yet, there’s this constant social obligation that this is what you have to do if you are a runner. What I would suggest to the gentleman you brought up is to forget about racing. Forget about it. Just enjoy the running. Really focus on your running form. What’s curious to me—and I felt like I was unique in this regard—is that as I became more and more intrigued by running form, I became less and less interested in races. I don’t race at all anymore. I’m running the New York City Marathon this year only because Dr. Lieberman talked me into it. So back to the big guy in the Five Fingers: First, I’d say, “Take the Five Fingers off.” Go strictly to bare feet. Find out what your foot feels like. Remove any interference between you and the ground. Get good at running technique. Get to the point where 3 miles is easy. Then make 5 miles easy. When you get to the point where a 3-hour run is easy, then start thinking about a marathon.

The very last sentence in your book is a quote from Caballo Blanco, who turned down a North Face sponsorship. In doing so, he said, “Running isn’t about making people buy stuff. Running should be free, man.” Taking that quote into account, it seems like the minimalist movement is kind of about buying stuff. After your book, you have shoe companies coming out with minimalist lines, you have Five Fingers, you have barefoot clinics, and a whole cottage industry creeping up around it all. So you have Caballo and his free-spirited running and then you have capitalism that creeps in and takes advantage of the movement. Do you ever think about that?

Yeah, I do. I get a ton of e-mails all the time from people. It really surprised me when it started to happen. The book was out for a few months, and I’d start to get these messages from people, saying, “Hey, I just finished the book and I went out and bought the shoes and I got the chia!” Who said buy shoes? Where in the book does it say to buy chia? I thought the message in the book was the exact opposite. You don’t need any of this stuff. I don’t have any problems with the classes, or the books, or the shoes. Many of them are excellent products. I did attend ChiRunning and Pose Method clinics. They are excellent. I run in Five Fingers. I run in Barefoot Ted’s Luna Sandals. They are excellent. I also run in a pair of Mizuno Wave Universe racing flats—excellent. I run in the Brooks Mach 11, a spikeless cross-country flat—excellent. These are all excellent products. The problem is that we’ve been conditioned to get the product first and worry about form later. I tell people to focus on form—focus on what you are doing. Then add protection as needed. I don’t have any problem with the product. The problem I have is the people pushing that as the answer. The products aren’t the answer; the products are an addition.

As you describe them in the book, the Tarahumara are an incredibly private and shy tribe of indigenous people who live in a delicate place. Have you ever been concerned that your book is going to convince a ton of barefoot-running American converts to get on a bus bound for the Copper Canyons to take part in running ecotourism and potentially threaten the Tarahumara’s way of life?

That was definitely Caballo’s concern before launching the race. He had given it a lot of serious thought, but the way he looked at it was that there’s no alternative. At this point, their backs were against the wall. The cartels and the logging bandits are dominating the region. It may not be the best solution, but it’s better than no solution. At least it shows people that there’s something down here that’s worth protecting and preserving. One effective safeguard is that it’s really, really hard to get down there. There ain’t no hopping on a bus. You’re going to have to be prepared to bushwhack pretty hard. There has been a natural barrier that’s been pretty good against invaders for about 400 years.

There are a lot of rumors out there about your book being turned into a movie. Apparently, last August, you were in Leadville with Jake Gyllenhaal, who might play you in the film. Can you shed some light on this subject?

You know, there’s stuff going on, but from what I understand about Hollywood, there’s always stuff going on and most of it turns into nothing. All I can say right now is that there are people interested. They are exploring it, but it hasn’t gone beyond the level of exploration. At this point, there is nothing confirmed or set up at all. There is a screenwriter working on a script, but I don’t know where that’s going to go.

So was Jake with you at Leadville?

Yes. He was there sort of checking out the scene. He hadn’t been familiar with ultra running. He came with his brother in law, Peter Sarsgaard. I’ll tell you one thing: those dudes can run. They are very strong runners.

As a war correspondent, you’ve been in several war zones and have undoubtedly been around strange characters in stressful situations. Have you ever been around the types of strange cast of characters you hung out with when you were writing “Born to Run”?

I have to say I have. But I think everyone has. I’m sure everyone knows a Barefoot Ted. Everyone’s been in a bar with a Jenn Shelton. They are not that uncommon. I think the difference was that we were all united, and cut off from anything and everything else. There are tons of Barefoot Ted characters out there, but imagine being on a deserted island with Barefoot Ted. That’s how it was. The six or seven of us were kind of cut adrift while we were down there. And then afterwards, when I decided to write this book, I went back and visited everybody. I went to their homes and spent some time with all of them. I got a chance to see them with their families and homes. I got to really dig into their lives and backstory.

I know you alluded earlier to your next book not having to do with running, but will there ever be a “Born to Run” sequel?

One thing is that I’m really excited about the next book I’m working on now. When I was working on “Born to Run”, I was like, “Oh man, you are never going to have material like this again as long as you live. Now with this next book, I feel like I got it. I’m as excited about the material for this next book as I was about “Born to Run”. I think it’s got all the elements there. It’s got all the action, adventure, science, and characters. That’s where my mind is right now. As a matter of fact, I’m really sort of eager to come off the road for “Born to Run”, because I want to plunge into this 100%.

Out of curiosity, since you’re a Harvard crew guy, does it have anything to do with rowing?

[He laughs.] No. As far as I know, there won’t be an oar in the book.

Finally, whether you like it or not, you are THE barefoot running spokesman. Are you happy with that role?

The funny thing about barefoot running is that it’s all of a similar idea. It’s really to challenge, which is to examine and challenge the limitations that have been put on us. Fear sells. Fear is a fantastically effective marketing tool. The entire running shoe industry is based on fear. If you don’t buy shoes, you’re going to get hurt. If you don’t buy this training book you’re going to get hurt. We’ve been bamboozled by fear. And that’s why I think minimalistic running has surged, because people say, “Hang on a second. All this stuff they told us to buy didn’t work, and we were conned. Now we’re pissed off and we’re not going to do that.” So with the next project I’m working on, it’s in the same vein: it’s looking at some of these limitations and misconceptions that we’ve been burdened with. I hope I can dispel them in that other area as well.

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Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.

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Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a senior editor at Competitor magazine. A cross-country All-American at Stonehill College in 2003, he now coaches the Prado Women's Racing Team in San Diego and was the men's marathon coach for Costa Rica's 2012 Olympic team. His first book, The Official Rock 'n' Roll Guide To Marathon & Half-Marathon Training (VeloPress, 2013) is available in bookstores, running shops and online.

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