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Arthur Menke

Born to Believe

The religion of ultra-marathon running.

Few books about the sport of running (or ostensibly about the sport of running) have attracted as polyglot an audience as Born to Run has. As a publishing phenomenon, Christopher McDougall's boundary-crossing bestseller is a good-news story at a time when the industry is reeling. It is a gripping narrative, offering a bold look at one of the world's most popular exercise activities. It features a dazzling set of characters, vividly rendered by journalist and former war correspondent McDougall. But a key attribute that hasn't been properly appreciated in the ongoing conversation about this book is the author's ability to show how we all, like Daniel, open our windows each day, point toward Jerusalem, bow on our knees, and pray to God—or, in some pilgrims' progress, his proxy.

Spend a lot of time around élite track & field athletes or marathon runners, and you'll quickly recognize similarities between a monastic devotion to the spiritual life and the quest for Olympic gold. In Born to Run, McDougall masterfully interconnects a diverse crew of people who range from world-class distance runners to members of "higher consciousness cults." But the converging quests that these subjects find themselves on are depicted in such a way that they aren't aware of their own search.

On its surface, McDougall's book is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale, an implausible chronicle that carries the reader with maniacal, contagious joy into the isolated world of the Tarahumara, a tribe living frugally in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. The Tarahumara run ultra-long distances with grace and ease, in treacherous conditions. Their North American counterparts would envy the tribe's track record of avoiding the injuries that plague runners in contemporary civilization. And the Tarahumara enjoy this clean bill of health in spite of relying largely on a diet of pinole, chia seeds, and grain alcohol, along with a cultural technology that is centuries behind that of today's Garmin-equipped, ...

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