Pic courtesy chrismcdougall.com

Pic courtesy chrismcdougall.com

A mini war of words erupted on our running group recently. The subject was Chris McDougall.

I had shared this Jun 2009 McDougall article and highlighted the following quote which I found most interesting.

Tony Krupicka, one of the greatest young ultra-runners, has worn the same pair of crappy, cross-country flats for the past six years.

Interesting, because I’ve been running barefoot (or using 4mm sandals) for 14 months now. I’m always intrigued when I read about elite runners who have incorporated barefoot running into their regimen (Scott Jurek) or when they (like Trupicka above) aren’t following the “shoes shalt be run for a maximum of [xxx] miles” dictum.

The first skeptical reply from a friend was on the lines of “That quote pertaining to Krupicka might require some examination because, you know, McD has a habit of..” A reply from another friend was a lot more direct and stinging rebuke of McDougal’s ‘brand’ of anecdotal journalism. Their comments (and my replies) warrant inclusion here — assuming they’re cool with it.

My two friends’ reactions (who btw are very fast marathoners with PBs of 3:09 and 3:29) reminded me of two anti-McD articles I had read in the past.

Exhibit A (more a rant than a critique) is this piece by Dr. Rajat Chautan (a Delhi-based ultra-runner, coach and sports doctor). Relevant extract below (emphasis is mine).

Then came along a book, ‘Born to Run’, which in a very short span had a cult following. It’s written by Christopher McDougall, a master storyteller who has won a lot of journalistic awards. Basically, the dude can write, but running, how well does he actually know running? He has used his writing skills to convince all the converts who now swear by that book and him, that he is the actual son of god, oops, running. You are required to follow him and his ways, else you are headed straight to hell. [Exhibit A]

There are several aspects to RC’s article that warrant a response and maybe I will get around to it someday. For now, let me just say that “how well does he actually know running” gives away his plot.

He might be surprised to learn that there’s at least one barefoot runner who did the switch without reading Born to Run – me! Practically all my runner friends (and scores of non-runners on my social graph) have read it but I haven’t. No good reason except that my reading is at an all-time low these past five years.

I did read his NYTimes article (Nov 2011) which, I reckon, might be a super-abridged version with some of his recent finds thrown in.

Exhibit B is this article from Alex Hutchinson (elite distance runner, post-doctoral physicist, and columnist at large). It’s a fairly systematic critique of McD’s article – especially about his assertion on the “one true way” to run. He disagrees and explains cogently why. What makes Hutchinson angry are these 4 sentences from McD.

I was a broken-down, middle-aged, ex-runner when I arrived. Nine months later, I was transformed. After getting rid of my cushioned shoes and adopting the Tarahumaras’ whisper-soft stride, I was able to join them for a 50-mile race through the canyons. I haven’t lost a day of running to injury since.

Hutchinson’s allusion to “will dig up my notes” and not updating the post seemed odd but I must have read Hutchinson’s article before Nov 8, 2011, Today, after I re(read) the article, I saw the Nov 8 edit – McD pointing out errors in Hutchinson’s post and the latter’s response. Looks like a stalemate from my vantage point.

Hutchinson ends the post on a conciliatory note: As I said in the initial post, I think McDougall has a great story to tell that has resonated with a lot people. That story is strong enough on its own merits; it doesn’t need to be made better than it already is. He also gets intellectual honesty points for responding to a reader with if 100-up isn’t the perfect, what is? in which he comes out and says this (emphasis is his).

Now, what Justin’s looking for isn’t a fix for a particular problem; he’s looking for a way to build the ideal stride from the ground up. And for that, maybe the 100-up is as good a place to start as any. I don’t have another exercise that I think is a “better” way to start developing a perfect stride, because I’m skeptical of the value of this perfect stride. In a sense, I’m just like Walter George in that I’m captive to my own experience and development. The way I learned to run was by heading out the door and trying it, then gradually adjusting along the way based on what felt good. That’s also how most of the people I know learned to run. Would we have been better if we’d been taught the “right” way to run right from the start? It’s possible.

Did the blog title say something about purchase funnel? Coming right to it – yes I am.

Three stages of purchase funnel – awareness, purchase intent, and conversion. Are you with me?

The biggest value of Chris McDougall’s book, his narrative and whole range of articles and speaking engagements operate in the awareness stage of course. By awareness I mean proprioception awareness (pun definitely intended).

Running marathons (plural) is not an impulse decision. Sure – people will read McD’s book and articles and some of them might get ‘barefoot religion’. But the vast majority of the unwashed amateur marathoners (and I’m including myself in that category ) won’t do the switch overnight. They’ll look around to see if “people like them” are doing it, read about the other voices advocating/practicing it and try it… when the time is right for them. In my case, the right time was at the start of a new running season. My final trigger (more an affirmation) was listening to Barefoot Ted’s talk at Auroville (Feb 2012).

No story on McDougall would be complete without a quick browse of this page on his website. My favorite bit is how he ends it:

But ultimately, the debate isn’t about Bare Soles vs. Shoes. It’s about learning to run gently. Master that, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please.