54 pages 1 hour read

Christopher McDougall

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen is a 2009 work of nonfiction by journalist and author Christopher McDougall. The book tells the story of an underground ultramarathon involving the Tarahumara tribe of the Copper Canyons in Northwestern Mexico. The Tarahumara are renowned for their remarkable injury-free endurance running ability. McDougall was tasked with trekking into the canyons to discover the running and health secrets of the Tarahumara, but he must first find the mysterious American ultrarunner known as Caballo Blanco, who trekked in himself years earlier to live among them. McDougall is a runner, a former war correspondent for the Associated Press, and has written articles for a number of publications on adventure sports. He establishes three primary themes throughout the book: the culture and traditions of the Tarahumara, the evolution of distance running, and the science of running. Born to Run was a national bestseller and winner of a Notable Book Award in 2010. This study guide reflects the first Vintage Books edition.

A note on the text: The book (and this guide) frequently refer to the Tarahumara tribe by a name given to them by conquistadors, and there is some dispute as to whether this is appropriate. Tribal members typically refer to themselves as Rarámuri.


McDougall begins his book explaining that he has been a runner but recently began dealing with excruciating pain in his foot that is supposedly common to most runners. On assignment in Mexico two years later, he learned about an indigenous Mexican tribe in the Copper Canyons known as the Tarahumara, who do not suffer such injuries despite being known for their ability to run unheard of distances even into their old age. The article he was in Mexico to write instead turned into one about this near-mythical tribe of serene, reclusive superathletes. McDougall was told there was one man who could help him, a mysterious American runner known only as Caballo Blanco, the white horse, who had come to the canyons years earlier to live among the Tarahumara.

Heading into the dangerous Copper Canyons, McDougall crosses paths with drug traffickers, learns about Tarahumara culture, and finally tracks down Caballo Blanco. Caballo cautiously agrees to give him some information, which comes in the form of a very long story about one of the only times the Tarahumara left the safety of their home to compete in races in America. In the early-1990s, an American wilderness photographer hatched a plan to assemble an All-Tarahumara track team to compete in the new sport of ultrarunning in America. He took his team to Leadville, Colorado, the highest city in North America and often the coldest, to compete in its notorious 100-mile trail race. Because of cultural misunderstandings and poor planning, the Tarahumara’s first attempt at the Leadville race was unsuccessful, but a new team was assembled and returned the following year, and the year after that, and rewrote the race’s record book both times. When anger and hostility was directed at the Tarahumara because of their brash promoter’s misdeeds after the race, they retreated to their canyons and have stayed there since.

When Caballo wraps up his story, he lets McDougall know that he has a plan of his own and he needs the writer’s help. His plan is to organize an ultra in the Copper Canyons, on the Tarahumara’s home turf, featuring some of the top local runners and some of the best American ultrarunners. McDougall does his part and is able to round up six American runners to make the dangerous trip with him back into the Copper Canyons. Among them is Jenn Shelton, a top East Coast female runner; Barefoot Ted McDonald, an eccentric West Coast runner entirely devoted to barefoot running; and Scott Jurek, the three-time Ultrarunner of the Year Award winner. Before Caballo Blanco’s inaugural race takes shape, McDougall provides some insight into his own training for the event and examines the scientific aspect of the athletic shoe industry and the medical benefits of running barefoot. He also takes a long look at the role running played in human evolution and the scientific proof that humans were indeed born to run.

McDougall arranges for his group of American runners to cross the border together and meet Caballo in Creel, an old mining town on the edge of the canyons. Once in the canyons, the entire group goes for a run together but nearly suffers a tragedy when the two youngest runners get separated and lost with no water. Caballo then guides them further into the canyons the following day to meet some Tarahumara runners in Urique, a tiny village where the race will take place. McDougall’s story culminates with a festive community atmosphere in Urique, where the separate cultures of the Tarahumara, Mexicans, and Americans come together in the spirit of running and competition. Caballo’s dream of his Tarahumara friends once again competing against Americans has become reality.

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By Christopher McDougall