Thursday, July 23, 2009

Born to Run: the Tarahumara secret

"In the hills of Mexico, a tribe of Indians carries an ancient secret: a diet and fitness regimen that has allowed them to outrun death and disease. We set out to discover how the rest of us can catch up."

Thus starts Christopher McDougall, to share with us the secret he learned from the Tarahumara, in his article published in Men's Health magazine: The Men Who Live Forever. A 7-page introduction to a much deeper dive into this amazing tribe's history and running passion with this 287-page book, published earlier this year (2009): Born To Run - A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

I learnt about the book thanks to a fortuit email from Mike Palmer, an East Bay ultrarunner, email which I found on my BlackBerry at the San Francisco airport, right after flying back from Paris in May. Mike was announcing a book signing session at the Zombie Runner store in Palo Alto. Agnès was picking me at the airport and we stopped by Palo Alto on our way back. Here is what Chris wrote in my copy of the book:
To Jean,
A better runner than I’ll ever be.
I love your blog and your approach to running.
Bon(ne) chance
C. McDougall
With such a nice dedication, my review may be a little biased, but I can assure you that I have No Financial Interest (NFI as we say on forums) in the book. My only interest is in getting more people to learn about our sport… and this is indeed a fabulous book for that!

The book

Let’s start with what it is not. This is not an encyclopedia about the history of ultra running, although it contains the description of a few selected key milestones. This is not exclusively about Christopher’s ultra running experience, unlike Dean Karnazes’ books, although Chris shares some tips about how he re-learned to run. This is not a single story. The book actually contains several intertwined tales:

  • First and foremost, the story of a Hidden Tribe, the Tarahumara, so hidden by necessity in the Copper Canyons in Mexico that very little has been written so far about this group of ultra ultra runners;
  • The story of Caballo Blanco, a unique and intriguing Tarahumara insider;
  • The story of the Leadville 100-mile race and the 1994 edition in particular;
  • Stories about the ultra running legends Ann Trason and Scott Jurek;
  • The story of rising star Jenn Shelton and unorthodox Ted Barefoot;
  • The story of a man, the author, who reconnected with the joy and pleasure of running;
  • The story of the modern running shoe, raising many questions about its pretended benefits as opposed to the pros of running barefoot;
  • The pre-history of running, with scientific discussions about the origin of our ability to run;
  • And more stories and anecdotes about coaching, nutrition, health, training, adventure, Man’s passion for running, and the love and pleasure of running.
What surprised me the most is that, despite the lack of pictures (except for the one on the cover/jacket), Chris’ descriptions are so illustrative and vivid that it is very easy to visualize and relate to every story he is embarking us on. And another fate in my opinion is that Chris remains very nicely focused in his book on running. As a former war correspondent, I am sure he could have chip in a few of his personal anecdotes but he did not. He could have embarked on a dissertation about politics in Mexico around the urbanization of the Copper Canyons or the terrifying development of drug cartels in that region, but he did not. Born To Run is solely about running. For our pleasure.
Beyond the captivating stories, which taught me a lot about the history of running and ultra running, here are the three main personal takeaways of this book:
  1. When it comes to footwear: simpler and lighter is better. The whole chapter 25 on the history of running shoes was a revelation for me who started running seriously only ten years ago, especially the fact that, the less support the foot get while running, the more the foot will get back to its original and natural form, developing for instance muscles to strengthen the arch. I’ve never run barefoot but can’t wait to try. I cant’ wait either for the brand new Brooks Green Silence coming out in February 2010, a sort of response to the Nike Free when it comes to lightness.
  2. A sane diet which, I must admit, I’m not ready to embark on yet but I’m seriously considering, or at least contemplating for now, especially for the healthy properties beyond the running side (less risk of cancer in particular).
  3. And, last but not least, the most important one and the Tarahumara secret, have fun when running. I actually started re-applying this rule during my last arduous long runs, forcing me to laugh when I found the trail tough, reminding me that I run for fun even when I train hard. This secret also reminded me a quote from Lee Jebian, a veteran ultra runner in the Bay Area: “ultra running is too much fun!”
To illustrate the broad content covered by Chris in his book, here are some pages or sections I particularly like:
  1. Page 54: how explorer Rick Fisher and his fiancée, Kitty Williams, discovered the Tarahumara
  2. Chapters 9 and 10: the history of the mythical Leadville 100 race
  3. Page 59: the Western States debut and how it connected with Leadville
  4. Chapter 11: how Ann Trason got into ultra running and remained at the top of it for more than 15 years
  5. Page 88: pacer stories (“A tough pacer can save your race; a sharp one can save your life.”)
  6. Page 90: the discovery of the Tarahumara secret at Leadville by Chlouber and Coach Vigil (“[…] when they hit the dirt ramp, they hit it laughing. Everybody else walks that hill. […] SUCH A SENSE of joy!”)
  7. Page 95: the reference to Emile Zatopek and his supernatural connection with the Tarahumara secret (his love for running and ingenuity with regard to training and pacing)
  8. Page 114: a saying of the Tarahumara Indians that Scott Jurek uses for inspiration: “When you run on the earth and run with the earth, you can run for ever.”
  9. Chapter 19: how Scott Jurek debuted in ultra running (it’s worth knowing for any runner who might have struggled in cross-country or on short distances) and how he got in “the greatest race the world has never seen.”
  10. Page 133: how young, surprising and rising ultra star Jenn Shelton got into the Tarahumara picture (and you need to read until the end to get the full picture!)
  11. Page 145: a mention of the Cascadia mountains which, I assume, the trail shoe designed by Brooks and Scott Jurek have been named after
  12. Page 150: how Barefoot Ted got his ticket into the Greatest Race and how he then connected his own experiments to the Tarahumara ones
  13. Chapter 25: again, the enlightening chapter on running shoes
  14. Page 175: how Alan Webb turned from a “flat-footed frosh” to the fastest American on the mile, thanks to his coach getting him to train bare foot
  15. Page 181: a glimpse at Bowerman’s marketing genius, or machine (Nike’s co-founder)
  16. Page 201: the story of Norwegian sailor Mensen Ernst (what’s cool with ultra is that there is no limit: no matter which limit you can think of in running, there is someone who has or will run further, if not faster. Because we are still relearning how to run and perfecting this natural gift)
  17. Page 202: Eric Orton as an example of what extraordinary things amazing coaches can get out of people
  18. Page 203: Eric’s quote which kind of rephrases the title of Chris’ book: “Everyone is built for running.”
  19. Page 207: Ken Mierke’s quote: “You’ve got enough fat to run to California, so the more you train your body to burn fat instead of sugar, the longer your limited sugar tank is going to last.” (A great advertising quote for VESPA, the all-natural amino acid supplement!)
  20. Page 208: a healthy diet which not only improves running performance but also decreases the risk of cancer (another piece of the Tarahumara Miracle puzzle)
  21. Page 211: Dr Ruth’s diet
  22. Page 213: the summary of the Tarahumara secret applied to Chris’ new life as a runner
  23. Page 222: a scientific comparison of the length of strides between humans and horses (and you have to read the book to know the answer)
  24. Page 223: “everyone is built for running” indeed with all the best attributes for running marathons: “Springy legs, twiggy torsos, sweat glands, hairless skin, vertical bodies that retain less sun heat,” and the list could go on
  25. Page 253: one sentence which summarizes Scott Jurek’s philosophy of running as well as the legendary camaraderie which characterizes ultra running: “The reason we race isn’t much to beat each other, but to be with each other.”
  26. Page 254: Scott Jurek, “the world’s only twenty-first-century Tarahumara.”
  27. Page 273: Scott’s quote to struggling Chris: “I’ve been there, man. I’ve been there a lot. It takes more guts than going fast.” So true...
OK, enough content unveiled, you now need to read and enjoy the whole book. To confirm that you are indeed… “Born To Run!”

One last note: it is really cool to get to know these super athletes better, from some of their struggles to their better known accomplishments. This is another treat of ultrarunning: these amazing athletes are very approachable and you can even run with them! At least we have that over the sports which get so much coverage in the medias such as basketball, golf, baseball, soccer... Yet, we want more people to know about our sport, an ultra paradox...
Other relevant links and sources of pictures to complement Chris' vivid text:
  1. What Can The Tarahumara Indians Tell Us About The Importance Of Running Long Distances? (Fitness SpotLight)
  2. Caballo Blanco's home page
  3. A portrait of Jenn Shelton (
  4. Chris' original article on the Tarahumara secret in Men's Health magazine: The Men Who Live Forever
  5. Dietary cholesterol and the plasma lipids and lipoproteins in the Tarahumara Indians: a people habituated to a low cholesterol diet after weaning (pdf)
  6. The food and nutrient intakes of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico (pdf)
  7. The Wikipedia page on the Tarahumaras

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chaîne des Puys: orienteering training

After Tuesday's maritime marathon in Noirmoutier, this Friday's ultra marathon was totally different: elevation, mountain views, rain, wind, grassy or rocky trails. I did not run with a camera, so the coverage will be short but one graph summarizes well the difficulty of the course, mostly uphill (6,400 feet / 2,100 m overall cumulative elevation).Two other pictures also illustrate the run: one taken at the start (see the cloudy sky) and one at the finish.From dry to cold and completely soaked...With only on Snicker bar and one pack of GU gel, the 350 calories did not come close to the 2,800 calories spent during this long run, per SportTracks’ estimate. After 5 hours in bad weather, I arrived completely depleted in Manson, to visit Agnès' cousins in their family vacation home. I was welcomed by Pierre whom I begged to bring me some food before I could get inside to take a shower and warm up near the fire. The thermometer went over 90F yesterday, but below 50F today; what a difference this makes, not to mention gusty wins, rain and hail! Pierre even served me a glass of wine, from Burgundy: the French way!Rain was on and off in the morning but I got caught in a hail storm at the top of Puy de Dôme where I stopped for 30 minutes hoping the storm would pass. As the weather was not improving, I plunged in the steep Chemin des Mûletiers, despite the heavy rain and gusty winds.

Overall I covered 29 miles (47 kilometers) across most of the “Puys”, this chain of lava domes and cinder cones. Much more compact than the one in Oregon, with summits a few miles or less than a mile from each other. A great place to run with many trails and amazing views to hundreds miles away in all directions. My run would have been a marathon if I did not get lost two times despite the very detailed map that Henri gave me in the morning. This says long on my limited experience with orienteering and why I appreciate so much the abundant ribbons and markings on our Californian trail races...

I included a few names of the 48 dormant volcanoes over the map below and here is the list of villages and other special points of my trek through the Chaîne des Puys. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

  1. Banzat
  2. Les Mauvaises
  3. Malauzat
  4. La Chaume
  5. Argnat
  6. Chanat-la-Mouteyre
  7. La Mouteyre
  8. Chanat-la-Mouteyre (oops, again!)
  9. Puy des Goules
  10. Grotte du Sarcoui
  11. Puy Pariou
  12. Puy de Dôme
  13. Col de Ceyssat
  14. Croix Espinasse
  15. Laschamp
  16. D767A (instead of D767, adding 2.5 miles…)
  17. Chapelle St Aubin
  18. Manson

I like to share about my runs in Europe, hoping my reports come useful to people on the go looking at some directions and running course ideas. However, I expect this one to be of limited use because of the point to point nature of it, from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere else, I mean unlikely places for tourists to visit. That said, the ascent to the summit of Puy de Dôme is a famous stage of the Tour de France, and very much worth the climb by foot too if you ever visit Clermont-Ferrand, the Michelin Capital.

Next stops of our own Tour de France: Lyon to pick Max at the airport after his two-week stay in Salamanca, Spain, then Annecy to visit Agnès’ parents and Chamonix where we stay for a week and where I hope to run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) course over two days (weather permitting). Talk to you from the Alps, if and when I get close to a wifi hot spot!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile: another marathon

There is an official marathon in Noirmoutier, le Marathon de l'Epine. An interesting one, one during which you need to outrun the sea to get to the finish. Noirmoutier is an island with two links: one bridge and one submersible levee called Le Gois. The marathon finishes in Noirmoutier and you need to be fast enough to get on the island before the sea covers Le Gois! Or you are disqualified...This Tuesday, on Bastille Day, I stayed on the island for a tour of the North part. Not the official Noirmoutier marathon route. Our friends have a vacation house in Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile, near the harbor. From there, I followed the bike path most of the way, counter-clockwise. See my Picasa album for pictures of the beaches, woods, windmills, churches, harbors, horses, salt evaporation ponds, ...The only trick from a navigational standpoint is not to miss the entrance of the beach of Luzéronde after going through L’Herbaudière at the North West end of the island. I did miss it and ended up getting lost into the Marais la Violence before finding a way to get back on the beach through the Bois de Luzéronde.
After La Pointe du Devin on the West side, I also missed l’Allée Forestière and ended up at La Pointe de la Loire, a wonderful 270-degree view on the Atlantic Ocean but a dead-end for all traffic.
Apart from these two “extras” which provided additional sightseeing opportunities, the bike path is quite easy to follow. My tour ended up righ on 26.2 miles on my Garmin GPS. Although most of the bike path is shared with cars, there are many bikers in the summer making the car drivers attentive and careful. That said, I did not see any other runner during my 4-hour tour, making this run my very own and private marathon. Hope others will follow this path though, this is indeed a very nice and quiet environment to put some miles in while enjoying nature and a variety of views on each side of the island.
Our previous stop was in Granville, the land of my family on Mom's side, where I did a short run but spent more time on the sea, including a very nice trip to the nearby Chausey islands.
Our next stop will be in the center of France: Crozant where I spent most of my holidays when I was a kid, and Clermont-Ferrand for 36 hours. With all these miles around France, I have very limited and spotty connectivity hence my missing of last weekend's weekly post. Talk to you later form beautiful France, then (below is La Granvillaise, the Bisquine from Granville, in the harbor of Granville, with Notre-Dame church in the background)!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cupertino's Blackberry: a farm in the city

After last week's 100-mile race on the Western States trail, it felt good to stay in town and enjoy a long and festive weekend in Cupertino (for the ones who don't have time to read the text below, feel free to jump to my Picasa album!).

This Saturday morning I joined 20 or so of my fellow club mates of Cupertino's Stevens Creek Striders running club, for our weekly run and group meeting at Stevens Creek Park at 8:30 am. It was an opportunity to thank them for volunteering at Last Chance, the aid station at mile 43 of the Western States Endurance Run. When I served as the Captain of the aid station 5 years ago, we were happy when getting 30 volunteers up there. This year, 50 motivated souls showed up, which provided plenty of very personalized and attentionate support to runners thoughout the day (the station sees about 350 runners from 11:30 am to 5 pm). They were not all from the Striders, but also from our friend clubs: the San Jose Fit, and PARC from Palo Alto. Our President, Peter, will soon post his pictures of last weekend on the website; in the meantime, here is the group one:
On my way back home (15 easy miles this morning), I ran by McClellan Ranch and remembered it was the grand opening of Blackberry Farm today. I made a detour by the renovated place, on the brand new paved trail, and got the program for the rest of the day. Just in time to get a shower and come back for the festivities. I am a big user of the nearby trails so I was happy to take part of this additional dedication, three weeks after the ones down the Stevens Creek, in Mountain View (check the link for my other blog post and photo coverage).

What a nice way for Cupertino to celebrate Independence Day, by inviting all its citizens to such a joyful celebration, including a free (and delicious!) barbeque and drink for all. Before we could get in the long line for the buffet, we listened to several speeches about the history of the area, the background of this renovation project, from the early visionaries to all the people who made it happen. Overall, everybody highlighted the uniqueness of this project and how Cupertino manages to remain connected to its original natural roots. Cupertino has only been established since 1955 and is taking sustainable development very seriously. Like many other inhabitants, I originally picked this city of the Bay Area for its exceptional school district (we initially came for two years, from France, in 1998, and wanted the best public schools for our boys); but this connection to the environment and this social responsibility formed additional reasons for us to settle here (we moved to three places in 11 years, all in Cupertino!).
While I was photgraphing the old ads on the benches, I met a very nice couple who was touched by the historical references to Cupertino's past. They moved to Cupertino 50 years ago, after living in San Francisco then Mountain View. Of course they acknowledged all the changes which happened to this city which grew from a few hundreds to 50,000 people in 50 years, but they were happy to see a nice respect for the past in this project. Like Mark Linder, Director of Parks and Recreation, City of Cupertino, concluded: "I am happy to give you back the Old and New Blackberry Farm!" In addition to selected names who have been instrumental to this project, all the speakers also noted the social responsibility of the Cupertino residents who voted for a "self-tax" to support this project. Way to go Cupertino!

For lunch, I joined Patrick Kwok whom I know from Church (Saint Joseph of Cupertino) and assembly member, Paul Fong. I told them about my love of the trails and thanked them for their critical support of these renovation projects. (Patrick Kwok on the left in this picture and Paul Fong in the background.)
In addition to offering the food, the City had contracted a great band, The Groove Kings (, who covered a variety of songs and got quite a few people moving, in the shade of the huge trees.
I stopped by the booths of the few partner associations which provide invaluable support to the restoration and maintenance of the Stevens Creek and the associated trail which I enjoy so much for training.
  1. Of course the Friends of the Stevens Creek Trail, whom I covered in my June post (and please consider joining me for their Trailblazer 5 or 10K run the last weekend of September);
  2. The City of Cupertino working on the Stevens Creek Restoration Park Project, with a short term goal of continuing the trail down to Stevens Creek Boulevard (after that it will take 4 cities and a lot of financial suport to find a solution to connect the trail to the existing Stevens Creek Trail in Mountain View: Cupertino, Los Altos, Sunnyvale, Mountain View);
  3. The Cupertino Historical Society and Museum;
  4. The SPCWC (Stevens and Permanente Creeks Watershed Council) who is actively looking to recruit volunteers to conduct its water quality monitoring, habitat restoration, macroinvertebrate study and streamkeepers programs.
I am so grateful to benefit from such an ecosystem, right in my backyard, and thankful to all the volunteers who dedicate their time to not only maintain the delicate balance with the surrounding habitat, but make the extra effort to actually restore it to its original state, as much as it is possible in this urbanized environment. Like Bob Power, Executive Director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, said: "rare are the cities which, like Cupertino, have the chance to still have water running through its original creeks." The original settlers who stopped by the area and gave their name to the creeks and today's main roads would certainly be astonished at how the city is now developed but, if they would visit the renovated Blackberry Farm, they would not be completely lost. We can all be proud of that, the ability to find the right balance between a most advanced economical environment and our past natural and agriculture roots: the bridge between the Valley of Heart's Delight and the Silicon Valley...
Although no details were provided in the speeches, I'm sure the Rotary club of Cupertino played a strong role in making this restoration project possible, providing financial support and engaging the community, starting with children. As usual (my father has been a Rotarian has is life in France), discretion but efficiency!

Tonight I'm going to a party organized by a Strider, another Cupertino resident, whose house oversees all the Bay so we can look at all the fireworks at once! Enjoy the rest of your celebration of Independence Day (or your weekend for the non American readers)!

Again, see my Picasa photo album for more pictures of today's celebration but, in the meantime, here is a quick overview of the celebration.

Cupertino Mayor, Hon. Orrin Mahoney, giving a nice address covering both the Independence Day and the Grand Blackberry Farm Re-Opening. I thought he did a very nice job of giving credit to previous City officials. I am always concerned about politics having short term views and it is nice to see such multi-term projects coming to light, another nice demonstration of social responsibility!When you enter the farm, you will go through a small plaza around the wind mill, with half dozen wood benches. Each has two copies of old ads for local fruits produces on its sides. Unlike the famous French Fries and French Vanilla, among many other irrelevant uses of the French adjective, maybe these prunes were actually from France originally! ;-)
The Stevens Creek running through Blackberry Farm:
The Chefs of the day, serving hundreds of Cupertino residents:
Let's rock'n roll!
A long line for the BBQ, but the food was worth the wait!