A Conversation with 'Born to Run' Author Chris McDougall

Chris McDougall
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Chris McDougall, author of the international bestseller Born to Run _is coming to Philadelphia on April 23 to host a fun run and stage show event for his new book, _Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance. In 2009, McDougall became a household name in the running community with the release of  Born to Run, which has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide and will soon become a feature film starring Matthew McConaughey. But what many runners and endurance junkies might not know is that McDougall is just as Philadelphian as Rocky Balboa and cheesesteaks.

McDougall was born in Upper Darby, PA, and attended high school at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. After graduating from Harvard and working overseas reporting for the Associated Press, McDougall moved back to Philly with his family in order to focus on his own writing. He currently resides 90 minutes west of Philadelphia in Lancaster, PA, where he sees more horse-and-buggies than cars during his Sunday long runs. We recently sat down to discuss Chris’ favorite places to run in the City of Brotherly Love and his new book.

Where is your favorite place to run in Philadelphia?

What I really liked was beyond Kelly Drive. My favorite run actually was to go above Girard Avenue through Strawberry Mansion and over the Strawberry Mansion Bridge into Fairmount Park...behind Belmont Plateau. That was awesome because Strawberry Mansion is one of these undiscovered treasures. It’s this cool park with all of these mansions and nobody is there.

Where do you like to run in Lancaster?

We’re at the extreme southern end of Lancaster, so it’s all farms down here. I can walk out the door, turn in a circle with my eyes closed, pick a direction and go, and I can be on dirt roads for hours. On a Sunday, I used to time it and say, “Let’s see how long I can go without seeing a car.” Once I went two hours without seeing a car. Lots of horse-and-buggies, but no cars.

Do you run any local races? What is your favorite?

The one race I love is the Conestoga 10 Miler. It's just a slop fest. It’s a crazy, gnarly course that’s pure, old-school, fat-ass. The only aid station is a bunch of bikers—Harley ridin’ motorcycle club guys. They stomp out to the halfway point in the woods and stand there with Dixie cups of water. It’s just got that real ’70s, beginning-of-the-running-boom feel about it. It’s a throwback to what was so fun in the first place, and you understand why there was a running boom.

You are widely credited for getting the barefoot running movement off the ground. How do you feel about the trend towards maximalism in running shoes lately?

It’s just kind of sad that the message is constantly about the new toy. The whole idea behind barefoot running is to learn the skill. So learn the skill, and choose whatever footwear you want. But what you keep getting pitched over and over again by running magazines and shoemakers is about the toy, and not the skill. It’s like golfers constantly buying different putters and drivers thinking somehow the different club is going to make them a better golfer and it’s not—it’s learning the skill.

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Natural Born Heroes tells the story of a Cretan shepherd who becomes an endurance warrior to help fight the Germans when they invaded Greece during World War II. How did you find the inspiration for this story?

As I was researching Born to Run I kept coming across these references to a guy called the Cretan Runner. I realized it didn’t apply to Born to Run, so I kind of back-burnered it. Later on I went back researching through who this person was, and I started getting that feeling of giddiness again, like “Wow, here’s another amazing story with real potential for examining all these...lost arts." Natural Born Heroes is an adventure story that...brings up these lost arts that can really benefit us.

What was your experience like in Greece while you were doing research for the book? Do you have any favorite moments from your trip?

The goal was to recreate the route that these resistance fighters followed when they were abducting the commanding German general. It was a really difficult route to recreate. I went over [to Greece] twice to do that, which was amazing—to be in this vast Greek backcountry, climbing mountains in places people hadn’t been to since the war.

My favorite unbelievable moment was when we were in this tiny little villa, and by villa I mean like five houses and a tavern. We were searching for a guy that we heard was still there, who had been one of the kidnappers (of the German general). And as we were talking, someone says, “Oh, you’re looking for Mr. George Pattakos. Well, he’s right here.” And there he was. And that was shocking. He was in his early 90s, and looking good, too. He would spend his days sitting in the sun and in the tavern, having a cigarette and a coffee. Kind of a South Philly life, isn’t it?

How has your fitness regime changed since writing Natural Born Heroes?

What has changed is this idea of randomizing [my] movements. We become such specialists, and we may mess around with cross-training, but basically, we are one thing. We are runners, we are swimmers, we go to the gym, but we just don’t randomize. And that’s what I’ve worked hard on in the past couple of years—all-around fitness. One thing I did was take a giant climbing rope and throw it on a tree right outside my office. A couple times a day I’ll go out and climb the rope and come back inside. Something like that, just reminds yourself that to be able to get your body off the ground is a very useful and lost skill.

What was your first thought when Matthew McConaughey signed on to star in the Born to Run movie as Caballo Blanco?

[laughs] It’s unprintable! [laughs] My first thought was, anything involving Matthew McConaughey is awesome, that’s great! Then my second thought was, he’s actually right on the money, man. That is so perfect. Have you seen [McConaughey] in True Detective? That is Caballo.

You’re hosting a fun run and stage show in Philly on April 23 during your book tour—can you tell me more about it and how people can get involved?

It’s gonna be really fun! What I’m trying to do for these events is bring as many people from the book as I can with me, so that you’re not just having someone read a book to you, but you’re actually learning stuff and seeing the people from the book in action. Kind of like one of the kids’ pop-up books. We’re also doing a fun run beforehand, and this time around, we’ll be layering in more skills.

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Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance will be released on April 14.  The Natural Born Heroes fun run and stage show will be held at the Penn Museum in West Philadelphia on April 23, starting at 5 p.m.. More information about the event can be found on Chris McDougall’s website.

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