Five Years Later: The Legacy of ‘Born to Run’

"Born to Run" has had quite a profound impact on the running world. Illustration: Matt Collins.

Chris McDougall’s “Born to Run” was published five years ago this spring.

Journalist Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” hit bookstore shelves five years ago Monday—on May 5, 2009. Its impact on the running world has been considerable. Here’s a quick glance at a few of the ways it influenced the running world and some additional developments that have happened in the past couple of years.

1. The Book. McDougall’s 304-page autobiographical account of running almost-barefoot with the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico has sold more than a half million copies worldwide and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than four years. Although it contains some hyperbole, the book has earned its keep (and rave reviews) because McDougall’s vivid story-telling, compelling character development and in-depth reporting appeal to everyone from new runners and veteran ultrarunners to non-runners and couch potatoes alike. For runners, it’s on a must-read list of books that also includes, among others, “Once a Runner” by John L. Parker, “Running With the Buffaloes” by Chris Lear, “The Silence of the Great Distance” by Frank Murphy and “Bowerman and The Men of Oregon” by Kenny Moore.

2. The Legend of Caballo Blanco. Micah True became a cult figure known as “Caballo Blanco,” a simple man who years ago without any fanfare befriended the impoverished Tarahumara (a.k.a. Raramuri) people of Mexico and for 10 years organized a race to help support them. Sadly, the 58-year-old reluctant celebrity died during a trail run in New Mexico in the spring of 2012 after leaving his winter home in the Copper Canyon region of Mexico for his summer home in the foothills of Boulder, Colo. But his free-spirited legacy, his race and the worldwide attention on the Tarahumara endure.

3. Minimalist Shoes. The book was one of the primary catalysts for the minimalist running shoe revolution that helped spur brands to develop lighter, lower-to-the-ground shoes using less material. While some would argue that “barely there” shoes led many runners to run with insufficient cushioning and protection under their feet, there’s no question the paradigm shift helped runners rethink about how much (and how little) they really need in a shoe. It also spurred running shoe manufacturers to build lighter models across all categories, you could make the argument, eventually helped maximalist shoes explode based on the idea that not every runner is able to run in minimalist shoes and, instead, actually want more cushioning.

RELATED: 5 Questions With Chris McDougall

4. Running Form. McDougall’s indictment of the running shoe industry also helped further the natural running form movement, which has led to runners realizing that it’s not only shoes that help them run better but good mechanics and dynamic strength too. Five years later, though, there’s no clear-cut answer about what kind of gait is best or if runners should even try to change their form. The end result is that more runners are running more efficiently in lighter shoes than a decade ago, if only because shoes are lighter, built with less material and have a lower heel-toe slope. It’s not that faster and longtime runners, experienced coaches and some leading-edge medical professional weren’t already practicing and preaching good form, it’s just that the message didn’t reach the masses until after “Born to Run” came out.

5. Other Books. Numerous books have been written about running form, minimalist shoes, barefoot running or the spiritual essence of running since “Born to Run” hit bookstores, including “Anatomy for Runners” (Jay Dicharry), “Tread Lightly” (Bill Katovsky and Dr. Peter Larson), “Chi Marathon” by Danny Dreyer, “Eat & Run” (Scott Jurek), and “Natural Running” (Danny Abshire). The latest good one worth a read is “The Cool Impossible,” by trainer/coach Eric Orton, who was instrumental in teaching McDougall how to run better and become more fit. This summer, “Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning” will hit bookstores, while “Unbreakable Runner: Unleash the Power of Strength and Conditioning for a Lifetime of Running Strong” from Cross-Fit Endurance founder Brian MacKenzie will debut in October.

RELATED: Are We Really Born To Run?

6. The Movie? The movie adaptation of “Born to Run” appears to be stuck in Hollywood. Originally, reports said actor/director Peter Sarsgaard would be directing the movie adaptation of “Born to Run” and Jake Gylenhaal, his brother-in-law, was expected to play a lead role. An IMDB.com report later said the movie would be produced by the husband-wife team of Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, who have individually and jointly been tied to many blockbuster productions from Steven Spielberg and Lucasfilm. However, McDougall said in 2013 a major shake-up occurred . A new script was expected to be completed last year, and a new director was supposed to be unveiled last summer, but the movie is still listed as being “in development” on film industry websites. As of this week, the new script writer is Marshall Lewy while the producers are Michael Glassman, Deborah Jelin Newmyer and Tim Perell, who each have a variety of lower-profile movie credits on their resumes.

7. Ultrarunning Growth. Although still a small part of the running world, ultrarunning has grown considerably since McDougall first ventured to Mexico in 2006. According to one report published by Ultrarunning magazine, ultra-distance race finishes in the U.S. have gone from about 25,000 in 2007 to more than 70,000 in 2013. That pales in comparison to marathons (about 540,000 in 2013) and half marathons (about 2 million in 2013), but ultrarunning is growing at a much faster rate and its stars (Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, Kilian Jornet, Krissy Moehl, Darcy Africa and others) have attracted considerable attention. And because most ultra-distance runs have smaller race fields—either by design or because of trail permits—more races are selling out sooner. The book embellished many ultrarunning stars and participants, including Jurek and Jenn Shelton, as well as numerous “Mas Loco” runners who True said were “crazy” enough to run his race.

RELATED: Growth Is Good, But Growing Pains Hurt Trail Running

8. Ultra Caballo Blanco. Speaking of his race, on March 2, 715 athletes representing 15 countries—including more than 400 Raramuri runners—started the 12th annual Ultra Caballo Blanco, a 50-mile race and celebration of “running free” among all cultures of running people. True started the race to help ensure nutritional sustenance to both the physical and cultural survival of the Raramuri people. For each loop completed, runners receive vouchers for maize, beans, rice, flour and non-GMO seed corn. (Non-local runners donate their portions back to the locals.) Blankets and food are also given to Raramuri runners and their families who come down for the race. Miguel Lara Viniegras, a local Raramuri runner, won this year’s race in 6:39:16. The 13th annual Ultra Caballo Blanco 50-mile race and celebration is scheduled for March 1, 2015.

9. Born to Run Ultramarathon. Following True’s “Run Free” theme, photographer Luis Escobar is hosting his fourth annual Born to Run Ultramarathon event on May 17-18. After gaining access to an 8,000-acre ranch in Los Olivos, Calif., four years ago, Escobar, who was a friend of True, decided to create an intimate social event where people could get together, camp, sing, share some beers and run—a lot. The event has grown from 75 people to a projected 500 participants for this year. This year several Raramuri runners will take part in the race thanks to online fundraising efforts.

RELATED: Caballo Blanco’s Legacy Lives On

10. Urique To Batopilas Trail. Through the collaborative efforts of nonprofits and international volunteers, a historic 14-mile trail from Urique to Batopilas in Mexico’s Copper Canyons is about to re-open. The route, part of True’s original Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon (renamed the Ultra Maratón Caballo Blanco after his death in 2012), was plagued by bandits and overgrown vegetation for the past several years. But with the help of Norawas de Raramuri, (“Friends of the Running People”), the U.S. non-profit organization True helped create in 2009, and local resident Prospero Torres, the original trail is being revived with the hope of creating a world-class route for international adventurers and re-opening a vital link for locals between the canyons of Urique and Batopilas. Norawas supports Raramuri participation in local and international foot races by providing maize, non-GMO seed corn and cash awards for participating Raramuri runners, men and women alike. (Watch this short video of the new portion of the trail.)

11. Run Free. But if there is anything to be remembered from all of this notoriety, good will and/or media attention, it’s the two simple words that continued to drive True: “Run Free!”

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