Chris McDougall responds


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[UPDATE: After a few further e-mails, it’s become clear that Chris misspoke in his original interview with me, and said he’d been struggling with plantar fasciitis for “two years” when he meant to say “two months.” This certainly makes a difference in my general sense of the extent to which it was misleading to write that he hadn’t lost a day of running to injury since then.]

I got an e-mail from Chris McDougall earlier today, asking that I correct what he sees as the errors in my post from a few days ago. Here’s his account of my errors:

there are several mistakes in your post about me. i’ve told the story of my bout with PF publically and often, as in the outside magazine interview below. your version is incorrect.

1/  i wasn’t “felled” by PF. in fact, i never missed a day of running because of it.during that period, i ran with many sources, including amby burfoot, matt carpenter, scott jurek, tony kupricka, david horton — all of them tough runners, most of the runs on hard trails.

2/ I didn’t have it for two years; it bothered me for a few months.

3/ i wasn’t ‘stressed out’ about it because the publication date was nearing; on the contrary, i was still researching and writing. i considered it a formative learning experience, which is why i’ve spoken and written about it many times.

4/ my training in 2006 was vastly greater than 2010/2011. in 2006, i hit 100 miles a week, including two 50-mile runs and several weeks of high altitude in leadville. last year, i averaged maybe 30 miles a week. i was traveling nearly non-stop, squeezing in whatever workouts i could manage.

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of our interview in 2009:

Imagine the situation I’m in. Because two years ago, I start researching this book. And the whole purpose of the book, premise of the book is that I’ve discovered the secret of lifelong injury-free running. And in the middle of writing the book, I come down with this ailment. And I can’t shake it. And I’m thinking, you know, I’m about to go out and promote a book. And I got this stinking injury. And I spent two years [UPDATE: Chris misspoke and meant to say “two months”] trying to get rid of it.

His points number 2 and 3 are directly contradicted by that quote. Obviously I’m not inside his head (or his foot), so I don’t know which version is more accurate. But I think my original blog entry was a fair account of what he told me.

As for point number 1, I’m happy to believe him if he says he hasn’t missed a day of running due to injury since then. And I never said he did. But I certainly felt (and still feel) that the impression left by writing “I haven’t lost a day of running to injury since” is at odds with the fact that, during that period, he travelled (again, according to his 2009 interview with me) to see “doctors in Germany, in London, in Detroit, in Indianapolis, in California… all kinds of different people” in unsuccessful attempts to get rid of the injury. If that’s not being “felled” by an injury, I don’t know what is.

Finally, I’m not sure why he’s calling point number 4 an “error.” He suggested that his improvement from 2006 to 2010/2011 could be explained by his use of the 100-up. I suggested that an alternate (and in my opinion more likely) explanation was that he had four years of consistent running behind him, instead of one year of high mileage. Running is cumulative, and many runners experience episodes like this. Obviously I’m just speculating, as is he himself.

Ultimately, I’m disappointed by this exchange. 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.

11 Replies to “Chris McDougall responds”

  1. Chris appears to be a guy who likes to jump on a good bandwagon and then take over as the driver. It is hard to fault his enthusiasm as I am a bandwagon jumper myself, however as a “newbie” runner I have learned that with every new training element I have added I was able to reap great benefits from it. Speed work, hills, tempos all seemed to be the missing element that brought me to a new level of running fitness. Veteran runners know this I am sure chuckle to themselves when a “newbie” arrives on he scene setting PR after PR extolling the virtues of their training system/diet/philosophy as though they wrote the book on “How To Run” or in this case “Born to Run”.

  2. Actually, he says at the beginning of the quote that he’s been working on the book for two years, then he says he comes down with the ailment “in the middle” of writing, so the two years/two months thing is probably a slip of the tongue. And he can certainly be battling with PF and still be running. Many runners, foolishly, run through injury. I am with you on the cumulative training point though.

  3. I’m also confused on point 4 when the NY Times piece says It’s the “best, not the fastest”, but then he conflates here in and in the piece as a way to run faster. And sure, running drills help with speed, that’s why running programs do them. What’s muddy to me is the form that he seems to be describing looks pretty different from top distance runners, particularly the action of the back leg. I’m sure there is more than one way to run faster, but that seems to be different than what he’s saying, and it seems to be different from what a bunch of amazing marathoners are doing.

  4. At NYC marathon there was a guy dressed as Montezuma in a feather headdress and barefeet! I saw him carried off in a stretcher halfway. I hope more people run because of McDougall but find his book a dizzying array of entertaining and often maddening rhetoric deployed to beguile, browbeat, dumbfound, dazzle, confuse, mislead, overwhelm, and generally subdue the reader into throwing out their shoes and believing him.

  5. @EJ: …”as a “newbie” runner I have learned that with every new training element I have added I was able to reap great benefits from it. Speed work, hills, tempos all seemed to be the missing element that brought me to a new level of running fitness.”

    Hilarious, and spot on! If you’re baking a cake, the “secret” ingredient that’s crucial to success is whichever one you’re missing. 🙂 And once you’ve added that ingredient, adding twice as much doesn’t make it twice as good.

    @Aaron: “…the NY Times piece says It’s the “best, not the fastest”, but then he conflates here in and in the piece as a way to run faster.”

    Also spot on. My assumption when I read the piece was that the “best but not necessarily fastest” caveat was added during the fact-checking process, when the magazine’s fact-checkers couldn’t find any evidence to support the claim that this particular way of running makes you faster. But that’s just a guess.

    @Steve: There is only one true way. All doubters will suffer from Montezuma’s Revenge.

  6. McDougall’s goal in all of this is to cash in on book sales and speaking/writing opportunities. Once you acknowledge that truth, then his methods make sense. It’s not science … it’s marketing.

    That’s not to say that barefoot running is a bad thing, quite the contrary. Ultimately, everyone has to find the solution that works for them. Contrary to McDougall’s assertion, there is no RIGHT way. If you’re interested in barefoot running, educate yourself and give it a try, but one should never just fall in line behind some guru touting the next big thing because of a few pie-in-the-sky anecdotes.

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