You only have to read his books to see what we mean – writing of larger-than-life heroes constantly prevailing over insurmountable challenges. His first book, Born to Run, was a global runaway smash-hit, describing the heroic tales of the mysterious running tribe of Mexico, the Turrahumara.
His second, the recently released Natural Born Heroes, tells the tale of a group of war heroes on the island of Crete who almost singlehandedly won World War II. There is no doubt that McDougall is as incredible a storyteller on paper as he is in person. In our revealing, almost cathartic, chat, he is bruisingly honest – a refreshing trait. We end our discussion on Matthew McConaughey’s involvement in the soon-to-be adapted Born to Run movie – perhaps Hollywood is a fitting next chapter to McDougall’s heroic life story.
We interview unique and interesting people from around the world, who are changing the way we see the world, and I definitely think your philosophy on life and the books you’ve written are exactly that. Maybe you can give us a bit of an idea about your background and what that’s like; the environment you work in.
It’s funny, the area where I live is a very rural, remote area in Pennsylvania. All my neighbours are Amish Mennonite or farmers, literally all the properties either side are Amish Mennonite. Most of the time, day by day, I wont see anybody who has read a book of any kind in years. There was a period where my family went away for 3 weeks and the only person I spoke to was my Amish neighbour and the mailman – that was the only physical human contact. So, every once in a while I come out into the real world and I think, “Oh my God, people are sitting there reading ‘Born to Run’ and talking about it.” Ordinarily, in my normal life, books are never part of the conversation.
Living in a rural environment, you mention the Amish Mennonite, are you stimulated by isolation, is that where you feel like you’re most inspired?
I’m not sure about inspiration; I’m not sure when that turns on or turns off, it’s sort of always there. It’s curiosity more than inspiration. The whole idea of this book came around because I was researching Born to Run. I read something about Crete in the New York Times, and I thought it was kind of interesting so I circled it and went back to it. I think mostly it’s just a mixture of curiosity and just trying to pursue it.
So, maybe we can just go back to before the books came out – 2009, I think, is when Born to Run came out – I was really fascinated to learn that you trained as a foreign correspondent and you worked for AP (Associate Press) and covered wars in Rwanda and in Angola – such an unbelievably stark contrast to your current life or maybe not, maybe there are some parallels. Are there parallels working in that kind of environment and what do you think you learned from it?
The important thing about hard news training is that you learn to be quick; to get information quickly, process it and develop a logical sequence. So, I think the training is fundamental. It’s funny, I’m seeing a lot of online journalists are getting really good at what AP journalists were specialists in, which is sort of quickly assessing the situation, processing it, putting it back out. It’s important for book writing because it helps you gather your research; you hear about something, you learn how to sneak around and get as many contacts as you can. You persist in finding ways.
In that immediate, threatening zone, in those environments you were working in – incredibly precarious environments – you must have taken something from that into your writing; the mindset of fear and not knowing the future. Now you’re talking about these primitive environments in your books, and primitive cultures, etc, that perhaps have to live in the same way. Have you used what you learned covering those wars to channel that, has learning about people who live in those precarious environments helped you in understanding people?
Two things. The first: a combat situation is all about , “What the hell is going on…” You pursue the unknown and try to make sense of it. Secondly: it really forces you to dial down on the facts and really focus on the individual people, because the big picture is chaotic, confusing and you see very little of it. What you do see is the person right in front of you, and I think that’s what influenced my books; I’m not focusing on a giant spectacle, I’m trying to focus on one or two people and make a little story. Those stories then reveal a bigger picture.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this documentary called ‘Desert Runners’? It’s about this group of amateur runners who do this special race where where they try and cover the whole world, they do something like 250km over each terrain. One of the things that struck me about these people, that seemed almost suicidal – one guy died in the race – is that they’re pushing themselves to the absolute limit. They almost seemed scared of ageing, scared of dying, they were in this mindset that they have to do something before they reach the end of their life, and they had to do this superhuman thing. Do you find that these people who defy the odds, sometimes physically, like Scott Jurek, is it just that they love running so much that they can’t explain it or is there something larger there that they love about it, that you can explain?
I think there’s two different phenomenon at work: one is the love of movement. The second is that with every activity or occupation you have people who feel a compulsion to take it beyond the next level. Take someone like Scott Jurek or this guy named Marshall Ulrich, Marshall keeps telling me he’s done with big challenges, and then every year he’ll start something new. Lisa Smith, same thing. She keeps telling me she’s devoting her life to her husband and her kids, and then she runs back and forth across america in 60 days or something crazy. I think the thing is, you begin with this physical pleasure of running, but then you lift your head and you look around and realise this is your moment to do something and all I can do is this. It’s not so much that Scott Jurek loves running, it’s that he’s a very good runner and he wants to be noteworthy and accomplish something – if he were a painter he would be doing that, if he were a juggler he’d be doing that. But, it’s a combination of the vocation and the need for distinction.
So, I think it’s not from their love of running; it’s welding their love of running with this human desire some people have to feel they are better or beyond anyone else. There’s the guy who’s going to work all night on his investment banking and not leave, there’s the guy who’s going to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning to work on his novel. That’s what it’s all about.
Tapping into your passion?
I think it’s beyond passion. It’s like these ultra-endurance events. I wonder about them myself.
Because you’ve done a few?
I’ve done a few, but mostly as research. That extreme level of discomfort doesn’t appeal to me, it’s not something I look to reproduce often. If I run for three hours I think, “Okay, I get the point, ready to do something else.”
What would you say is the architecture of our modern human condition, is there something that has weakened us mentally? You talk a lot about the physical condition, but what about the mental condition which is absolutely as important?
Isolation, over reliance on independence, feeling that we are fragmented and solitary. I think it’s the weakness that beats all other weaknesses. You walk down the street and everyone’s head is down. From that, so many ailments grow. You hear this all the time, “everyone’s special”, “everyone’s unique”. No they’re not, we’re not unique or special at all. We are 99.99% identical in our genes, yet we love to insist that we’re unique and special and all on our own, independent, doing our own thing. Unfortunately, for me, that’s a disastrous notion, for a couple reasons. Firstly, we stop connecting. We stop looking to other people. To be observing and perceptive and noticing other people is a fundamental survival skill. In terms of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our heads were up and we were observing our surroundings and looking at the landscape. The one thing humans are really good at is collaborating; communicating. The internet is the basic human desire; to get information and share it. That’s what we’ve done our entire history. Yet, at the same time, we have this disastrous social notion that we are all individual social beings. When you’re no longer tapped into that kinship, that social network, all you’re taking care of is your immediate needs. Immediate needs aren’t very good for you either; your immediate needs are to just sit back, relax, and have coffee. The more we turn inward, the more we think only of taking care of ourselves in this moment.
I would almost label you a sociologist – an observer of the human condition.
It’s funny, I hadn’t thought of that.
The reason I say that is because in both of your books you find these characters who do these incredible things, and what I find is that you look at the nooks and crannies of culture; any anomalies that might arise. I think it’s fascinating how you find such intricate stories and you follow them and weave them so well – these behaviours that teach us so much about what we can achieve.
It’s funny, when you said ‘sociologist’, I never thought of that at all. I think the reason is that I started at the other end; there’s always one story that I hear about, about a specific person, and I always think, “What’s up with that, what’s he up to?” Particularly if you do something extraordinary, “Why can they do it while nobody else can?” With Born to Run, I saw a picture of a guy in sandals and a skirt.
Where did you see that picture?
This was in a travel magazine in Mexico, I was down there on an assignment in Chihuahua. I was in a hotel lobby and I was waiting for a guy who was going to be a guide and was going to help me with finding interviews. I was looking through a magazine and there was some dude running down a mountain – I still remember the picture really vividly – running down the mountain wearing a dress and sandals. The caption said he was a fifty-five year old Tarahumaran Indian and he had won a 100 mile race in Colorado, and I was like, “bull-fuckin’-shit”, “There’s no way 55 year olds are winning any races, nobody can run 100 miles and what’s the deal with those sandals?” That was it, so I was really intrigued. So when the guide showed up I asked him, who’s this guy? He said, “Oh yeah, the Tarahumara. They’re indigenous to this region of Chihuahua.” I had never heard of these guys. How had I never heard of them… I was actually writing for Runners’ World magazine at the time, how had I not heard of a guy who could run a hundred miles in sandals? So it’s not as though I had a sociological interest in this indigenous culture, I had a particular interest in one guy.
You must have felt like you’d hit the jackpot though?
No, I assumed that there was some kind of hormonal difference between this guy and us, it could be proved by some genetic basis – why is that kid so good at basketball? Because he’s 7ft 5, he has a biological difference and that explains it. So, I thought I’ll find the tribe of mutant super-runners and be done with it. What I found was that there was nothing mutant or special about them at all. So, if he could do it, I could do it, and so could anybody else. The trick then became, how do you explain it? If he’s normal, what’s the skill? That’s how things began to snowball – there’s a skill here, how do I learn it?
Do you feel like there’s a lot of pressure to follow up on such an incredible book? What was it like for the first couple of years? After 2009, such accolades were bestowed and so much critical acclaim about the book. It was like 6 degrees of separation for everyone, passing this book to one another. What was it like to experience that?
I gotta’ tell you, I was immune to both those phenomenon. It was weird because the book came out unnoticed; it wasn’t renewed, there was no media attention at all, I was the one out there pushing it. I had cases of it in the back of my car. If I knew there was a race somewhere, I would call the organisers and ask if I could bring some books down and give a little talk – I was selling the book out of the back of my car. Pennsylvania is pretty central, so I could drive to New York, New Jersey, DC, Baltimore. So, a couple times a week, I would drive to an event somewhere and sell books. That’s how it went for a while, driving all over the place.
You had a publisher at that point?
Yeah. Publishers are pretty clueless about how to market books. They’re pretty terrible. U.S publishers do the same thing for every book, no matter what kind of book it is. So, I went to 8 cities on a book tour, very small audiences, and that was it. The book came out in May, by the end of May the promotional aspect as far as my publisher was concerned was over. So, I started to do it on my own over the summer. So, when the book started to gather some attention, I thought it was only going to last a week, so I kept pushing and pushing. Then, when it was done, I was back in farm country and I was hearing nothing. I was pretty invisible online; I wasn’t on Twitter or Facebook. So, I was immune to any of this stuff. Then, 6 months later I go on a book tour and I’m like, “Shit, there’s 500 people here, I’m used to 5 people”. So, it really wasn’t part of my life at all, and then there was a frenzied period of events and then nothing at all. It kind of surprises me when people still come up to me and say they’ve read it, it hasn’t died down.
You talk about the fascia and the low-heart-rate training and the Parkour and our modern diets. I get the impression that you’re quite reticent of modern culture…
It’s fucking up a lot of things and here’s why: yesterday I went for a run with a local running group, Run Dem Crew, and the guy who runs it had been in the music industry for 25 years, he said that he has never met as many crooks in the music industry as he has in running, I was like, “Woah, what are you talking about..?” It’s a simple pleasurable thing, and so many people are trying to cash-in on it. That to me is exactly the modern world; so many people trying to cash-in on shit. When you try to cash-in, you almost always spoil the thing you’re trying to sell. It’s like diet and nutrition, it’s all about taking something we figured out a long time ago, and finding out how we can make money out of it; we can process it, we can make it cheaper, we package it, we add shit to it… What we’re selling is worse than the thing we started with.
But, we’re living longer?
We’re not living longer; we’re just not dying sooner. There’s a big difference. Our infant mortality rate has dropped, so we’re keeping babies alive. As far as longevity of life, not very much longer. What we’ve done is kept infants alive longer, which raises the average mortality rate. More of us are surviving infancy. We’ve eradicated the environmental threats, and illnesses, but we’re way less healthy than we were, physically – the obesity rate has gone through the roof and there are so many ailments attached to obesity.
The philosophy you espouse in your books is of primal and intuitive greatness and athleticism, I know that you say that we all have the ability to tap into that. People do these incredible amounts of exercise, but then they eat shit, or they drink alcohol and they’re smashing their bodies against the wall. It’s not their fault, because they’re being told all of these contradicting things – it’s no wonder there are mental health issues.
Take a human and put them in the desert or the jungle, how are they going to survive? They’re not. We’re not prepared for that at all, yet that’s what we evolved to do. We evolved to survive on our own two feet, out in the wilderness. A thousand years ago, almost everyone around would have been prepared for that challenge. Today, almost none of us are. I’m not saying that you have to be Bear Grylls, but physically you have to be prepared and there are several different ways: we have changed our diet from a slow fat-burning diet to a fast sugar-burning diet. Most of us are constantly on a sugar-cycle and constantly replenishing our calories – not just sugar, but things that have sugar qualities; breads, rice, pastas, fruit juices; anything with a high glycemic content which burns very quickly. You have a choice; you can eat something that burns slowly and gives you calories throughout the day, or you can eat something immediately gratifying and burns fast. Almost all of us are on that fast-burning sugar content diet. In the wilderness, that’s a terrible strategy, because you don’t know when the next meal is going to come along. So you need a slow-burning meal. We’ve changed our diet in a disastrously terrible way, yet in a very profitable way. If you’re a food company, do you want somebody eating properly once a day or eating fifteen times a day?
In Natural Born Heroes, there are so many threads and amazing characters. How did you research the book and was there one specific episode that really made you feel you were onto something here?
Yeah, there are a few actually. The initial galvanising moment was when I heard about this story from Crete, where this band of resistance fighters decided to kidnap the Commanding General – it had never been done in modern military history. How on earth do you kidnap a General on an island where there’s nowhere to go? I didn’t know exactly what the skill was, but this is a place in Greece where the art of the hero still goes on and it’s still an art. You train for it, and it’s the training that pays off. So, you have these people who don’t realise they have these abilities, but if you put them in an environment where they can be trained, then ‘bam’, they become superhuman.
Understanding the gravity of this whole story, it was an enormous task, how did you manage to put all of these moving parts together?
The same way I would if I was on a news story; you find someone who guides you on each part of the journey. For the kidnapping story, it was a long process of word-of-mouth, until I finally located these two brothers. Actually, I’m seeing them tomorrow. One of them, Chris White, he’s in Oxford. He’s a social worker, deals with troubled kids. But, in his spare time he researched and knows everything about Crete. To me, everything, particularly fitness, boils down to one question that no one asks themselves: is it useful? And that’s the main point of natural movement, to be useful.
“You hear this all the time, “everyone’s special”, “everyone’s unique”. No they’re not, we’re not unique or special at all.”
Fear is such an interesting trait; I thought about your story a lot, and you talk about how they kidnapped this German General. One guy managed to slaughter six million people, and no one in the whole world was able to do anything, no one out of hundreds of millions of people was able to infiltrate such a dark web of evil. You found this one story, but I’m wondering how we replicate this?
I’m totally fixated on that comparison, because I’ve never thought about it before; why didn’t someone go after the other guy? I think that’s what Quentin Tarantino was going after with Inglorious Bastards.
Knowing that they’re making a movie out of your book, Born to Run, is a huge validation. I’m interested to know about where that is right now, have you spoken to Matthew McConaughey about his role?
It’s rich in irony because usually movies are done by outsiders who want to cash-in on it and ruin it. This has been the opposite; this is true believers who love the book, and that has been slowing things down. Everyone involved has some personal attachment to the story, and so it’s been running on so slowly because they want to make this precious perfect flower. So where things are now is there are these top-shelf team of producers like, Lorenzo di Bonaventura – these are all A-list producers – you’ve got a ton of money behind it, you’ve got McConaughey onboard, so you hire A-list screenwriters and these guys have been holding things up for years. Everyone’s waiting for them to turn in the script and they’ve been so precious about it that everything’s frozen. So, that’s where things are now.
Have you talked to McConaughey about it?
No, I’ve had no contact with him at all. The previous incarnation was going to be with Peter Sarsgaard and Jake Gyllenhaal.
“We’ve changed our diet in a disastrously terrible way, yet in a very profitable way. If you’re a food company, do you want somebody eating properly once a day or eating fifteen times a day?”
I saw that. I heard Peter Sarsgaard is a big runner?
He wasn’t prior to Born to Run. He was on the set of Green Lantern, having a cigarette, and he was reading Born to Run, and he put his cigarette out and was like, “I have to change my life”. That was another manifestation of this thing; to him the story was life-changing. He, Jake Gyllenhaal and I went camping to discuss the book.
What was that like? That’s a whole interview in and of itself.
I’ll tell you a quick story about it, because it’s pretty funny: I got a call from the producer saying, “Hey, Peter is really interested in directing and he wants to get together with you and Jake” – because they’re brother-in-laws; Peter is married to Maggie Gyllenhaal – “So he wants to get together with you and Jake in Leadville, Colorado, to watch the Leadville Trail 100 Ultra-marathon. So, you guys all camp out and watch the race.” So, we meet up in Leadville, this tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and the only that’s happening this weekend is that race; thousands of runners show up for this race with their families. So, Jake shows up with the full beard, the shades, the hat down, hoping not to be noticed. But, no one’s going to notice him anyway, because all these runners are focused on is the race.
After a day or two he realised nobody gives a shit, so the hats off, the glasses are off. He’s walking around having a great time; nobody’s bothering him at all. In fact, it was the opposite, people kept coming up to me and asking me to sign their books. It was pretty funny, around here he was anonymous. So, on the day of the race, Jake and I are just hanging out – most decent guy in the world; so generous, kind, very aware that he’s got to work hard so that people don’t think he’s a dick, he couldn’t have been more gracious to anybody – day of the race, he and I are standing on the course and runners are coming by, and he says, “God, I love this place, I want to come here every year; no one’s bothering me, there’s no pictures”. As he’s saying this, these two people look and do a double-take and they grab a camera out of their bag. They come walking up real quickly and he’s like, “Oh, spoke too soon.” They walk up and they handed a camera to Jake and they say, “Would you take a picture of us with Chris?”
Oh wow, amazing. So, I am worried they’ll change the movie to a Tarahumara falling in love, like Pocahontas…?
I’ve seen the first half of the script though, and it’s actually pretty true to the story. I think that’s why it’s taking so long. The problem with that is, you can’t take 400 pages and make it 90 pages.
So, when’s it going to come out?
Still waiting for the script…
THE INSIGHT: I guess we’ll call it time there. Thanks so much for talking with us, Christopher.
Natural Born Heroes is out now through Profile Books.