I’m pleased to present below an interview with Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run (review) and the de facto spokesman for the growing barefoot and minimalist running movement. Despite being completely slammed these days with interest in both BtR and barefoot running, Chris let me pick his brain on a few questions, and what follows is our exchange.
Justin Owings (for BirthdayShoes): Something you’ve really focused on in BtR is that, “If you deny your nature, it will erupt in some other, uglier way.” Do you think the predominant culture surrounding running and fitness in the U.S. exhibits a denial of our nature? If distance running is part of the solution, why do you think so many runners are so concerned with PRs, footwear, and getting ever better running gadgetry?
Christopher McDougall (blog): Remember what Dr. Bramble at the Univ of Utah pointed out: we have a machine built to run, and a brain built to conserve fuel at all costs. That’s what our obession with gadgetry and fancy shoes is all about; we’re easy prey for marketing ploys which play on our instinct to make running as safe, and energy-efficient as possible. I came across a very smart comment recently by a runner who pointed out that speed is really equal to knowledge; setting a PR indicates that you’ve learned more about training and avoiding injury. But the problem is, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a smart solution and snake oil.
JO: There’s a general movement afoot towards finding a balance between our biological underpinnings—the ancient DNA that shapes the needs of our mind and body—and our convenient, consumer-driven modern lifestyle*. What do you make of these seemingly related movements? Where do you think it is going, if anywhere?
CM: Lots of people seem to be heading toward the same basic truths from different directions. And the overlap isn’t as coincidental as it seems. I first heard about Erwan Le Corre from Barefoot Ted, who had gotten an email from him the day I arrived to visit Ted in California. Erwan introduced me to Lee Saxby, whom I met while I was in London for a fascia conference. This Friday, Erwan is coming to visit me for a couple of days, and we’re going down to see Dr. Irene Davis, co-author of the Nature barefooting story and now a barefoot runner herself, at her UDel lab. So I think the surge in evolutionarily-sound living is the result of both coincidental shocks of recognition and active cross-pollination.
JO: Do you think the Titans of the Shoe Industry are ignoring the minimalist footwear movement in hopes that it will go away? What do you think the chances are that the barefoot running / minimalist footwear movement can overthrow these giants?
CM: Yup, they ignore it when they can and have outbursts of silly fearmongering when they can’t. I wouldn’t worry about staging an overthrow. A lot of people suspected a long time ago that they were being conned, which is why they’re now quick to grasp the truths of natural running. That’s what the podiatrists and shoe pushers are missing when they grouse about natural running being a “fad” — they don’t get that their failure to help people created a very real need for people to help themselves.
JO: You’ve often mentioned that it took a broken toe for you to finally try barefoot running (and now that is your preferred way to run). Do you think you would have eventually tried barefoot running out but for the broken toe? Why do you think it’s so hard for people to take off their protective shoes (or FiveFingers) and try out barefoot running?
CM: It’s great that people are skeptical. If they jumped right in, they’d be guilty of the same behavior that the shoe companies are counting on: desperately grabbing at any solution without subjecting it to research and logic. Running in bare feet seems nuts, so it’s the sign of a healthy brain for people to resist. Maybe not as long as I did — I dithered for four years. But if I’d been an early adopter, I would have skipped a lot of painful lessons that were worth learning, so once again chaos somehow turned into coherence without any help from me.
JO: Have you found any particularly effective methods of convincing people to ditch their shoes?
CM: When I ran through Central Park with the New York Times’ Roving Runner, I offered every skeptic who approached us 20 bucks if they’d skin off their shoes and give it a try. No takers. Then a woman in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, called me on it, so I’ve learned to keep my mouth and wallet closed and let people figure it out for themselves.
JO: It seems you went through a significant idealogical transformation in Born to Run — one that has perhaps continued since the book went to print. Are there any parts of the book you’d change or ideas you’d put more emphasis on today?
CM: No, I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now. I was still trying to figure out a lot of this stuff on a personal basis while I was writing the book, and hopefully that prevented me from coming across as a foamy-mouthed zealot.
JO: Did you ever expect to be the face of the running revival (generally) and barefooting or minimalist footwear (specifically) movement?
CM: Nah, the face has to be Barefoot Ken Bob. Maybe people get hold of the idea from “Born to Run,” but then they instantly zoom to Ken’s site (runningbarefoot.org), to get the real info and find out what it’s all about.
JO: When you’re not barefoot running, I’ve seen you sporting VFFs such as when you wore KSO Vibrams on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Did Stewart take notice of your feet?
CM: He only noticed them afterwards, backstage. He asked to touch the bottom of my foot and said it felt like a dog’s paw.
JO: Lastly, what’s next for you? Any projects underway or simmering in the back of your mind?
CM: I’m bunkered at home these days, catching up on an avalanche of overdue work. And shoveling snow. And cutting wood. It’s been a bear of a winter.
Thank you, Chris; and I must say, I’m not sure what looks more dangerous in your photo — the ax you wield or your bare feet! In the coming days I hope you get a chance to rest and recuperate.
Additional Chris McDougall Materials:
Chris didn’t mention it, but he’s recently launched a blog at chrismcdougall.com. The site is just a few weeks old, but Chris is already blogging about such things as the link between running speed and intelligence, the release of Lieberman’s research, and the response by some running shoe industry insiders.
In the interview I mention the Authors @ Google presentation — there are actually two of them:
- Christopher McDougall presentation (video) via Authors @ Google (2009.11.24)
- Christopher McDougall presentation (video) via Authors @ Google (2009.10.27)
You can completely geek out on Chris either by catching up on previous posts about him on the blog here or taking a spin around the birthdayshoes wiki entry for Christopher McDougall’s article publishings and coverage.
* Evidence of this movement can be seen in the increased awareness of barefooting, but also in physical fitness movements that reject over-specialization and over-isolation. See Erwan Le Corre‘s MovNat or even CrossFit. Also see John Durant on Colbert. Or take McDougall’s article on the virtually ignored power of fascia (See his follow-up comment on fascia on Matt Metzgar’s fantastic blog). This “human movement” can also be seen on the nutrition front in efforts to mimick the macro-nutrient content and quality of foods eaten by our H-G forbears.