[I added a slight bit of background, quite shocking really, about the Tarahumara’s life expectancy and child-birth techniques.]

Tavia recently began her review of “Once A Runner,” “What does it mean that the proclaimed ‘best novel ever written about running’ (Runner’s World said it, and others have implied it) is in fact an average novel?”

The running blogosphere recently has been in a tizzy about Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.” It’s supposed to be the alpha and omega of running books/stories. It’s not.

The book has three themes.

The “Hidden Tribe” of the subtitle is the Tarahumara Indian tribe in Mexico. These are the “Running People” who run for the joy of it and are endowed with compassion and kindness and innocence but who have always fared badly when they encounter outsiders, be they Cortez, Mexican drug cartels, or an American who exploited some of them for an ultramarathon in the U.S.

Second are a group of American ultramarathoners who will venture into the Tarahumara’s land for the “big race” at the book’s end. There’s Scott Jurek, one of the top, if not the top, ultramarathoners and Jenn Shelton and her companion Billy Barnett, a couple of surfer-types. There’s a guy known as “Barefoot Ted” for his disdain for footwear.

Bridging the two groups is the American Caballo Blanco (“White HorseCowboy[edited/corrected per Brandon]), whose identity is revealed only at the end.

The third theme consists of two stand-alone pieces, which proved to be the interesting part of the book, which I’ll get to shortly.

The problem I had with the book is that I had far more interest in the fictional Quenton Cassidy of “Once A Runner” (or the fictional Emma Caldridge of “Running from the Devil“) than I had in any of the characters, save perhaps McDougall himself, in “Born to Run.” The Tarahumara are two-dimensional. They are generous people, many of whom run. What else? How do they live? How does the woman in the restaurant pay for the propane burners that are kept going non-stop during the big pre-race scene?

I happen to be finishing Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. That comprehensive book traces the development of man across the millennia. That’s “development” in terms of the complex societies in which we exist. The notion that these throw-back people are somehow superior to us city-dwellers is troubling. Indeed, if I had fallen down there and done to my elbow what I did, I probably wouldn’t have two functional arms now, unless I somehow got to one of those city hospitals.

Worse are the ultramarathoners. They are, I guess, supposed to be colorful. I found them annoying, none more so than the two kids. So far as I can tell, ultramarathoners run long distances. The thrill is in the completion. Fine. But just because the passion that they and I share involves the frequent placement of one foot in front of the other doesn’t mean I care about their sport. It may be purer, but it is of no interest to me.

The saving grace of the book is those two stand-alone chapters. In the first, there’s a discussion about, essentially, how Nike destroyed running by making ever more complex shoes that prevent the foot from doing what nature intended it to do. I don’t disagree with this. I think the best shoe is the cheapest, by which I mean the one with the fewest bells and whistles. Indeed, this was a topic on Monday’s podcast. And Cowboy Hazel has embarked, in part because of “Born to Run,” on a test of the Nike Free, the best-known minamalist shoe. So that’s a nice read.
Second and more interesting is the chapter on evolution and how man came to run and use running as a means of surviving. [Diversion: similarly, a new book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” by Richard Wrangham is out that addresses the importance of cooking, yes, cooking, on human development, including as a means for allowing us to spend time thinking instead of searching for food. It’s on hold for me at the library. This belies the assertion in a rather unpleasant episode of a running podcast that humans are not made to eat meat since it points to the difference between raw and cooked meat.]

It’s nice to know that we are, as the Boss put it, “Born to Run.” It’s also nice to know that we have advanced from the point of using that running to catch our dinners (not by outsprinting but by outlasting them) so that we can try to race things like 5Ks or marathons.

But the über-theme of this book is that the Tarahumara are superior to those who are not of that tribe and that ultramarathoners are superior to those who are not of that tribe. They’re not.

Then there’s Kenny Moore’s “Best Efforts.” I just received my copy; I’ve read it before. It consists almost entirely of pieces Moore — he was fourth in the 1972 Olympic Marathon — wrote for Sports Illustrated and the first, “The Long Blue Line” alone is worth every penny of the $14.95 price. I read that piece in SI when it first appeared and I remember it still. And Moore will inscribe it to you.

[Edited to add (Oct. 3): Matt pointed out that the Tarahumara life expectancy is 45 years. I checked on that and came upon the following from 1996, a Lehigh term paper entitled “Running Feet“:

    The Tarahumara are not very hygienic to even modern day indigenous standards. They are not very cleanly and the washing of their clothes is usually either an annual or semiannual tradition. The Tarahumara have no regular sleeping habits and simply go to sleep whenever and wherever they are tired and feel that they need rest. The practice of childbirth is also distinct to the Tarahumara. When a woman feels that it is about time for her to deliver the baby she will go off by herself into the wilderness, brace herself between two small trees and attempts to have the baby safely. There is a very high infant mortality rate among the Tarahumara. This fact is counterbalanced by the fact that there is also a very high birth rate. The average Tarahumara woman gives birth to about ten babies hoping that three or four will survive into adulthood. Adulthood is usually short for the Tarahumara with the average life expectancy being forty-five (Lutz 50). These factors are believed to help the Tarahumara survive as a race.

Also, TK just reviewed it. She comes to a different conclusion but also lists a number of other reviewers.]