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mundane adventures in running

Review: Natural Born Heroes

When I heard that Christopher McDougall had written a new book, I immediately became excited. His last one, the opus, the bible, Born to Run was a meandering journey of inspiration through the world of ultra running. Born to Run was part sports journalism, part physiology, part pop anthropology, part biography, but overall a horribly compelling and inspirational homage to running as a natural and essential part of the human experience.

Without reading any reviews, or talking to anyone who had read it, I started to form an impression of what Natural Born Heroes was about from reading McDougall’s facebook status updates. There was lots about parkour, Cretan resistance fighters, brave heroes. So the impression I formed was: this book is all over the place, what is it actually going to be about?

I was intrigued. I am a cheapskate, and tend not to buy hardback books, but this time I couldn’t wait for the paperback. I bought a copy from Waterstones in Piccadily (from and effete bookish looking fellow who looked down his nose at me) and immediately started to plough through it.

While Born to Run was pretty jerky in its narrative, jumping from topic to topic, Natural Born Heroes is downright erratic. The supporting narrative is a Boy’s Own Second World War romp. A band of brave misfits come together to pull off the improbable heist that decided the course of the second world war. In telling this story, McDougall lurches through a thousand different subject areas. There’s some stuff about a primary school teacher fighting a knife wielding maniac, then a diversion into the neglected importance of fascia in fitnees, lots of parkour, props for the natural movement movement, diet advice which is pretty much like Taubes. It does loosely hang together, but only loosely. In fairness, McDougall is aware of this, and actually admits towards the end that when he started writing the book he was undecided as to whether he should focus on the Cretan resistance or natural movement.

I read Born to Run without being especially critical. I’d had already watched a lot of Liebermann videos on youtube and was running barefoot all the time. Born to run was a justification for what I was doing anyway. With Natural Born Heroes I was a bit more resistant. For me, parkour is not an easy sell. While there are, undoubtedly, lots of parkour people who are amazing (the chase scene in Casino Royale for example), I think most of them live in France. Here, in London, parkour tends to be about badly dressed twenty something geeks looking at walls, running towards them, bailing out, then looking at the wall for another five minutes, running, bailing and repeating ad nauseum. I have seldom seen anyone in London do anything good parkour wise. I also can’t help but think of the Vic and Bob Freerunners sketch.

Then there’s the reference to parkour as a way to help combat social exclusion for teenagers. McDougall describes a project in Westminster which teaches young people parkour to give them a sense of discipline and worth, to give them focus, to help them get back on track. I am all for this, kind of project, but when McDougall talks about the high crime rates in Westminster, the problems with violent crime, with gangs and guns and knives, he’s talking about a different city to the one I live in. Westminster has nasty areas, and has problems with crime like any other inner city area, and there is social exclusion (to the point that I’m sure the parkour initiative would have been very valuable for the people enrolled on it), but to paint it as being a Dickensian hotbed of destitution just doesn’t work. Parliament’s in Westminster, as is Covent Garden, Hyde Park, St. James’ Park, Bedford square. It’s rich, beautiful and increasingly non residential as the only people who can afford to buy flats there leave those flats empty for most of the year. Crime is lower than in other parts of London, and social exclusion is the exception, not the rule.

grosvenor crescent

Grosvenor Crescent: a typical street in Westminster

McDougall’s characterisation of Westminster was a bit of a red flag for me: it made me sceptical of the rest of the book. I found myself taking some of it with hefty pinches of salt. While I’d taken Born to Run very seriously, Natural Born Heroes just seemed a bit… silly. I found that I had to sense check what he’d written. A good example is McDougall’s writing about Daniel Kish, who because of his profound blindness, uses echolocation (yup, like bats) to get around, and can ride mountain bikes off road by clicking and listening. Checking up on it, the story is true, and Kish is an utterly amazing man… but when you watch what he does it doesn’t quite match up with McDougal’s account, for example McDougal doesn’t mention that Kish still has to use a white stick to get around. I found that I had to suspend judgement a little, and just go with the flow. Relaxing, and enjoying the book for what it is really improved my experience of reading it. I just accept that McDougall’s job is to talk stuff up, to sensationalise it, to get people inspired, and if I just let him do his job, I’ll get more out of it. Who cares if he exaggerates a little, or if his narrative is a little forced in parts? The book is a wonderful romp, with lovely, occasionally beautiful ideas, and is written in an excited passionate way which should appeal to even the most jaded reader. Who cares if it’s not always exactly, strictly true?

I don’t think Natural Born Heroes will change my behaviour quite as much as Born to Run, but there are a few things I will take from it.

First, Maffetone. McDougal explores using fat as fuel for endurance exercise. I keep coming across references to this, and I think it’s probably something I should try. The idea that you should burn fat not carbs on long runs makes perfect sense to me, and I would love to train my body to do it. I am carb obsessive and find it hard to envisage a life without bagels, but I am committed to trying a few weeks no carb and see what it does for my long runs.

Second, the natural movement stuff. McDougal talks about how we tend to be too focussed, too monomaniacal in the way we exercise, that we end up becoming such good runners we’re not fit for anything else, especially not for the natural things human being should be able to do, like sprint, carry unconscious buddies, jump off cliffs, vault over trees. This was a bit of an epiphany for me. I often find myself so knackered from long runs that I can’t sprint after my kids playing in the park. I’m crap at climbing. I can’t vault over a fence. So I’ve vowed to keep up the swimming and to try and exercise in a more holistic way. There are monkey bars, hurdles, steps set out for fit freaks in one of my local parks. I’ll give it a go.

Third, I want to go to Crete next summer. The history bits of the book are really very interesting. What the cretan resistance achieved was amazing. The characters are fascinating and I want to see firsthand some of the places described in the book. Oh, and I’ve been reading lots of Greek myths to the children, and I think they might quite like to see the palace at Konossus.

So in summation, this book is wonderful, far fetched and compelling. Parts of this review might sound critical but I absolutely, 100% recommend reading this book and taking it for what it is: inspirational, slightly over the top, popular journalism for people who love exercise, endurance and adventure.

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One comment on “Review: Natural Born Heroes

  1. chazza
    28/09/2015

    Drifted off in the middle… I too have mixed feelings about monomania (did you spot the link) and instead of aiming for running exhaustion which is only sustainable alternate days, I’m going for a more easy going routine which I can do every day.

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