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Christopher McDougall: From Barefoot Running to Heroic Play

In Natural Born Heroes, barefoot running evangelist Christopher McDougall looks to Cretan Resistance fighters in World War II for clues to a very different approach to fitness.

by Hilltromper staff

May 20, 2015—The thesis to Christopher McDougall's new book Natural Born Heroes is uttered about two-thirds of the way through by an iconoclastic and extremely fit Frenchman running an unusual training camp in the Brazilian rainforest. Erwan Le Corre's method of attaining physical fitness involves running (barefoot, of course), jumping off boulders, pole-vaulting, balancing on tree limbs, tossing bowling ball-sized rocks—playing, really. There isn't a Nautilus machine or a barbell in sight. He says: "Being fit isn't about being able to lift a steel bar or finish an Ironman. It's about rediscovering our biological nature and releasing the wild human animal inside."

In this followup to the wildly popular Born to Run, McDougall, a former Associated Press reporter, spins a historical yarn through a book crammed with trivia, anecdotes, asides and enthused endorsements of unconventional secrets to physical prowess. You can feel the adrenaline and hyperactivity in his prose. But the book is really about approaching fitness in a new way—not as a task to be undertaken but as a lifelong game to be played taking cues from our history as animals. He looks to the legendary Resistance fighters of World War II Crete—small, wiry guys who could run all night from village to village over unwelcoming terrain on meager fare—for modern inspiration. He comes to Santa Cruz courtesy Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, May 27, leading a 3-mile fun run early in the day and reading from his new book at 7pm. (Buy tickets here.)

First, the historical yarn: Germany invaded the Mediterranean island of Crete in the spring of 1941 and encountered its first civilian resistance of the war. The Cretans fought back with whatever they had, and the Germans, though victorious, had to keep a sizable occupying army in place to keep the island suppressed. In 1944, a band of Cretan Resistance fighters working with a specially trained team of British agents kidnapped a German general and, in doing so, handed the Germans a stinging humiliation.

Now, those anecdotes, asides and rhapsodies: the book is jammed with them. McDougall's writing is fun to read and his enthusiasm infectious, though he routinely goes over the top when making connections between his Cretan guerrillas and his theories about fitness. Did the Cretan fighters really master the art of relying on their fascia rather than muscle? Did the heroes of ancient history really learn to "use their own body fat for fuel instead of relying on bursts of sugar"? Well, kinda hard to tell. Nevertheless, McDougall brings up a number of really interesting theories about movement and physicality that will interest anyone who is tired of feeling leaden and weary at the end of the day.

One of the most interest theories is about the role of fascia, that body-spanning membrane that carries great elastic strength. Says one fascia expert, "Jumping, bouncing, skipping—it's all free energy that comes from fascia, not muscle." Fascia is the reason, McDougall writes, that we can throw things: because our bodies are built like a "compound bow" with fascia crisscrossing our bodies, connecting left foot to right hip to left shoulder. Freerunning—the basis of Parkour—is all about using the fascia rather than brute muscular strength. It's an "ancient, elastic gait." It's the movement at play in the "Natural Method" taught by the very fit Frenchman living in Brazil as he leads his band of followers through a challenging course using boulders, trees, sticks, rocks: whatever is at hand.

McDougall is similarly fascinated with the idea of limiting the diet in such a way as to force the body to burn its own fat, a familiar idea in the age of Atkins and Paleo diets. This he achieves during a two-week experiment with the Maffetone Method that allows no fruit, grain, beans or soy and only whole-fat dairy. Then all workouts are limited to the fat-burning zone of heart rate speed (180 minus your age, more or less). McDougall reports that it pays off after some initial discomfort (feeling like he had the flu), allowing him to shed pounds but also tap into a rich source of energy when he needed it during harder workouts. As for the efficacy and respectability of low-intensity workouts, McDougall reports that the Dutch national speed skating team used low-intensity workouts in the runup to the 2014 Winter Olympics and completely dominated the Games.

It's hard not to get excited about the ideas in this book. If McDougall bounces from character to character and point to point like a Parkour practitioner, who cares? Maybe we could all use a little more mental elasticity and bounce.

NATURAL BORN HEROES: How A Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall. Knopf, 2015. $26.95.

CHRISTOPHER MCDOUGALL reads from Natural Born Heroes on Wednesday, May 27 at 7pm at Peace United Church, 900 High St, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $29.30 and include two seats at the reading and a copy of Natural Born Heroes. Ticketholders will also be entered in a raffle to win a $75 gift certificate at a local running store.

Purchase tickets to Christopher McDougall at BookshopSantaCruz.com. As a bonus, he'll lead a 3-mile fun run earlier that day for ticketholders.

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