Chris McDougall: I Never Meant To Start A Barefoot-Running Fad

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In 2009, Chris McDougall published Born to Run, an account of his adventures in the remote canyons of Mexico. From his travelogue was birthed an industry-shifting movement that re-examined everything once accepted as gospel truth about running shoes.


One of the uglier fruits of that movement: the Vibram FiveFingers shoe, a foot condom that enjoyed a brief, inexplicable vogue thanks to the minimalist-shoe fad. On Tuesday, Vibram agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company had made false and unsubstantiated claims about the shoe's health benefits. Now seemed like as good a time as any to chat with the man whose book sparked a movement.


On His Book

"It was to me this great adventure.

"Whenever you watch Rocky or anything else, running's always the awful thing you have to do in order to get the thing you want. It's the most popular sport in the world and there really isn't a good story out there, and Chariots of Fire is a fucking snore. I thought, anybody that pulls this off, does a half-decent job, people should like it.


"But then it spiraled into something else, because I started digging into history and physiology and anthropology, and just finding more and more stuff that really amplified this idea that not only is running fun, but there's a reason why it's fun. Anything that is to our evolutionary advantage, we should be rewarded for. It should feel good."

On Close Calls

"I was hoping for some kind of popular response. What I wasn't anticipating was minimalist and barefoot running. That chapter on running shoes? [Chapter 25, an examination of running shoes' claims of injury prevention] I was really on the fence as to whether to keep it in. I was on the verge of chopping it out, because it seemed to me to be the driest part of the book."


On Manifestos And Horseshit

"People refer to it as a 'barefoot manifesto.' It's not that at all. It's not that I'm championing bare feet; it's just that I'm questioning running shoes—because really the burden of proof is on the running shoe.


"Nobody asks you to pre-purchase your feet. They come factory-installed. The big thing that needs to be justified is why we are buying this line of bullshit from the running shoe companies and from the running press, which are telling you stuff like, 'First go to your specialty running store, where your gait will be assessed. There's a particular type of shoe for your individual needs.'

"It's just complete horseshit. It's complete make-believe. Yet we all buy it. When you start looking at the scientific evidence, you realize there is none.


"I'm really not saying, 'Go barefoot.' What I'm saying is, what is the evidence to back up this scientific claim that you need special shoes in order to do something that your species has been superb at for two million years?"

On Being A Running Industry Troll

"It's important every once in a while to step back and challenge what's going on. In this case, I don't really blame the running shoe companies. Capitalism is based on the idea that people buy shit they don't need. But it's the responsibility of people who know better to question what's being sold."


On Confirmed Hunches

"I was writing Born to Run from the standpoint of questioning, rather than declaring. What has happened since then is, I feel like any doubts I had have been fully answered.


"I'm a big guy, the lowest common denominator. Six-foot five, north of 200 pounds, and with a long history of running injuries. So I feel like if anybody can change their running technique for the better—and show that it works—it's me.

"When I started to focus on form, my problems just disappeared.

On Shoes Versus Running Form

"Well, it's like anything else. You start with a behavior, and then you add things afterward. If you change your running form and you run lightly, easily, smoothly, then you can wear whatever you like.


"But I can't think of any other activity where you're told to strap something onto your body to change your physical motion, and you're going to be better when you do. Nobody shooting a jump shot says it's better to have a sling on."

On Bad Fitness Ideas

"I've been experimenting with parkour."

On Fathering A Movement

"The reason why Born to Run resonated is I think that a lot of people were already suspecting that they were being sold a bill of goods with this whole shoe thing.


"When the book came out, there was this snap of recognition: 'Oh, yeah. Of course. That's what I was thinking.'"

[Photo: AP Images]