Wonderful conversation with NY Times best-selling author Christopher McDougall. Chris is known for such books as Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes. He shares his journey from “not a great teacher” for a year to “falling into” being an AP war correspondent for places like Angola and Rwanda.
We discuss parenting, how he has used his self-diagnosed ADHD to his favor and what a person can do if they want to improve their running right now.
Funny, passionate, smart, and a straight-talking guy from Philly. I loved this conversation.
Listen to the episode here:
- Eastcoast to Island Living [00:01:05]
- Christopher’s Journey [00:05:50]
- Recognizing Your Rhythm [00:13:22]
- Modeling Versus Parenting [00:21:12]
- Living Abroad [00:30:47]
- Unqualified News Correspondent [00:35:23]
- Compassion in War [00:41:01]
- Flexing Writing [00:49:26]
- Born To Run [00:55:12]
- Natural Born Heroes [01:10:51]
Christopher McDougall – Born to Run Author, War Correspondent
Welcome to the show. My guest is Christopher McDougall. He’s a New York Times bestselling author. He has written books like Born to Run, Natural Born Heroes, and Running with Sherman. I personally was excited to talk to Chris. He’s a hard-charging Philly guy and straightforward, but also has a lot of heart. I wanted to cover a lot of territory in this conversation and I feel like we got to tons of it. He was generous not only with his time but also with his genuine thoughts and feelings. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
How are you?
I’m having a great day. How about you?
Great. Are you in Hawaii?
I am. We crisscross each other.
Which island are you on?
How was that for you going from Peach Bottom to Hawaii? You’re a Philly guy, so how was that transition for you?
It was weird. It’s a slow burn for me. We were coming back and forth a lot. My wife grew up here. The first 7 or 8 years we’re together, I had no interest in Hawaii at all. I wasn’t interested in Waikiki resorts. Finally, she lured me over and brought me to Kailua. Once I saw what the neighborhood is like, then I got it. That’s where we are now.
I always joke that Hawaiians are not so dissimilar from East Coast people when you get into it. They love you. They are direct. They have a little bit more playfulness and a sense of humor. People always joke about New York being the place, but I always say Philly is the one with the most hardcore, “I’m going to give you such a hard time, and then you’ll know how much I love you.”
There’s definitely no lack of passion. The difference though here is that it’s identifiable. In Philly, it takes a few years to figure out, “The fact that you’re yelling at me is a good thing.” Here, it’s a normal human response of compassion and welcoming.
I always joke about Laird’s speaking voice. They’re like, “Is he yelling?” I’m like, “No, it’s excitement about everything.”
One thing that I appreciate from back east is that people speak with inflection. They bring energy to the conversation. So many times, I listen to podcasts and things and I feel myself nodding off because of that same, slow, measure. We’re talking and that drives me nuts.
It was like Saturday Night Live Schweddy Balls. Remember the NPR thing with Alec Baldwin?
No, I didn’t see it.
There’s a skit where two women are in a public television show. They’re like, “That tastes so good.” “It’s amazing.” I’m guilty of that. That’s why I married somebody so passionate. I appreciate your time. Laird sends his love. I want to dive right in. I genuinely read your books when they all came out. That part is easy and I’m excited to talk about that and some of the psychology behind it, whether it’s Born to Run or Natural Born Heroes. I love Running with Sherman. Those books have been talked about a lot, but what I’m excited to learn more from you is the psychologies of heroes and things like that.
Maybe we could start a little bit at the beginning because you have had an interesting journey being unexpectedly a war correspondent. You said yourself that you’re a bad teacher, but I’ve had a thought about it after. After watching you, I feel like you would be an incredible college professor because you say it straight and you’ve had a lot of different experience. I feel like that’s something that you would crush. Sitting in a high school place where people don’t care about English, maybe not, but someone who would be interested in writing as a career.
I’m a little bit apprehensive about this interview because I feel like you’re delving into stuff about me that I haven’t examined myself. I’m already defensive a little bit like, “You’re cracking my head open here.”
I always say to athletes or anybody, “You’re the loaded gun. It’s in books but you’re what’s interesting.” I’m always interested in what you’ve learned through your path. It’s what hit me. I was like, “I would definitely go to that guy’s class.” Because your Phillyness is so straight and undeniable. Tell me a little bit about how you grew up and how you decided, “I’m going to teach for a minute.”
It’s a weird thing. I’m at the point in my life where I’m finally starting to backtrack a little bit and trying to find those breadcrumbs back to the past. For most of my life, I was always in a relentless forward motion and charging for the next thing. Now I’m circling back. Now I’m a parent and I’m looking back at my own parents and something they did.
A couple of those things are starting to become obvious to me. The first thing is I forgot about the fact that I was a loner kid. I was a big-time reader. I like to squirrel myself away somewhere and read a lot. I don’t think of myself that way because, in subsequent years, I plunged into full-on ADHD. I don’t know where that transition took place. I was a quiet, bookish, do-my-own-thing kind of kid, and then somewhere around 7th or 8th grade, you couldn’t keep me in a chair and it was always onward.
Are you an only child?
No, there are five of us.
Were you into going into the fantasy of these other worlds? What was it for you? Was it the reading or was it the learning?
It definitely was not the learning part. If you tell me I’ve got to do something, I am not going to do it. I don’t know what it was. It was just pure storytelling and to this day, that’s what gets me. When I listen to any other person speaking, I’m instantly judging them on how they’re telling the story like, “What kinds of words did you use? What kind of imagery did you use?” No matter what someone’s talking about, I’m analyzing them. Like an Olympic judge holding up scorecards, it’s like, “In that presentation, you said uh too many times.” That’s what it was as a kid.
[bctt tweet=”Be calm, be happy, and chill out.”]
I look back on my parents’ parenting from back then. I would walk to the public library, which is four miles away and spend a whole day there and then come home again. My parents didn’t even know where the hell I was. I’m an 8-year-old at a strip club for all they knew, but it was okay. I’ll go there, take a sack load of books, sit in the backyard, and read.
Why teaching? Are you running a little bit already? Did you run in high school? I know there was a break in there that we’ll get into. Were you running and sporty in high school?
I became sporty by default because I was a big dude. I probably hit over 6’0” when I was still in middle school. I’m 6’4”, over 200 pounds now, so you’re that side. If you look back at the class pictures, there are all these heads, and then suddenly one darts up, that was me. I was a massive dude, so you had to play football. You’re in a Philly neighborhood. You’re a giant kid. Someone’s putting you in pads and you want to dig it.
I started to enjoy basketball and that was it. Philly basketball is the lifeblood of the city. You either play ball or you talk basketball or both. I started playing basketball and I started to dig that. That was my entry into the sport. It was only by luck that I went to school in Downtown Philly and I was playing ball, but to this day, I’m still not a good basketball player. I’ve never mastered the flow. It’s been over 50 years of trying and I’m still a herky-jerky player.
By chance, in Philly, there had been an active rowing program throughout the 1940s and the ‘50s. Grace Kelly’s brother, John Kelly, was a big rower failure in Philly. The school used to be full of competitive crew shells and then they vanished. When I was still in high school, a couple of high schools tried to revive that rowing tradition.
I was a senior in high school hoping that I would get a Division III basketball scholarship somewhere. The new crew coach walks into the gym. He looks at all the heads over 6’0” and all the big guys. He goes, “I’m starting a rowing team. Why don’t you come down and try out?” All the basketball players are like, “No way I’m sitting in a boat on a river.” Two of us said yes and the other guy quit, so it was just me.
I ended up joining the rowing team and we had this fantastic run of luck. I won the national championship that year and I got recruited by a prep school to repeat my senior year. It turns out that the sport I’ve been applying myself to, like a monastic Zen monk for years that got nowhere, was the wrong sport. Once I set my ass in a crew shell, I took off. I’ve got the perfect frame and wiring to be a good rower and never knew it.
Rowing is hard. I’m 6’3”. I grew up in the Caribbean so we didn’t have anything like that, but I always watch rowing and I was drawn to it. I have since met many Olympic rowers. I’m typical size and even in certain ways, petite. These athletes are so powerful, but what I’m so amazed at is the precision of rowing. People don’t understand it’s so precise and difficult.
What’s cool about that though is that it’s so easy to master in a way because it opens your eyes to the fact of all this internal mechanism that we’re not aware of. When you start to get comfortable with rowing, if the coxswain says, “We’re going to shift from 32 strokes a minute to 36,” eight people will simultaneously accelerate perfectly insane. This mental clock that you can calculate in a split second the difference between 32 strokes a minute and 36 and you hit it. I don’t know where it is. I feel like to this day, if you sat me on a rowing machine and said, “Row 25 strokes a minute,” I would hit it within two strokes. It’s cool. It’s a natural ability that’s inside our heads that we never tap into.
You said something important about rhythm. All things have rhythm, relationships, communication, sports. What you’re saying is yes, many people could do it but maybe it was your thing, too. When you said, “I got in a row and I found my thing,” it’s also recognizing that that was your thing. Tuning into those mechanisms and things like that, I don’t think every person can do that. The guy who can move a basketball around and move up and down the floor in that dance so easily thinks, “This is like it for everybody.”
Probably one of the great tragedies of human life is that so many times you become infatuated with the thing that’s not us. Think about body image, too. Here’s a weird thing, I was watching one of the Austin Powers movies that have Beyoncé in it. When Beyoncé is on screen, you’re like, “Holy crap. She’s unbelievable from top to bottom. Everything about her is so amazing.” I suddenly had this revelation, “If I were a woman, I would kill myself. She’s tall, she’s taught, she’s sinuous, she’s gorgeous, and she has an amazing voice. How do you ever live up to that?”
You have two daughters, right?
It’s an interesting thing, I have three daughters. Somebody said to me once, “Men only see what you project.” It’s only us women that are looking through this lens of, “The size of her thighs…” What we’re seeing from someone like Beyoncé is talent and confidence. It’s this thing where you’re like, “That is powerful.” There are a million ways to be attractive.
I had an interesting reminder. I had the women’s Pepperdine volleyball team at my house pool training. I was showing them some stuff because it’s a lot of pounding on the hardwood floors. Here’s seventeen girls and some are 6’4”, 6’3”, many are over 6’0”, different shapes and sizes, dark hair, light hair, dark, light, whatever.
When you’re surrounded by powerful or badass women, you get comfortable with knowing there’s a lot of them out there. You’re right, otherwise, you can just torture yourself on all the things that you’re not, like, “I’m not as smart as her. I’m not as talented. I’m not as pretty. My skin is not as nice. My teeth aren’t straight.” It’s tricky. It’s the gauge.
You can produce beautiful books and make a living. You have a great sense of humor and you’re smart. You get graded on that. For women, why is hair shiny? Why do women biologically flip their hair when they’re young? It’s to show that their hair is healthy so they’re good for reproduction. Once we understand all of it, we’ll be like, “I’ll work on what I can control.” I’m 6’3”, 180. A long time ago, I was like, “You’re going to be different.” Like you were saying, you were big and different. That’s everybody.
That’s the thing, too. You mentioned my daughters. That to me is the number one lesson. Let me backtrack a little bit. When our first daughter was born, I remember thinking that the healthiest thing I can do for her is to disappear for twenty years because I feel like everything I’m going to impart is going to be overpowering and all dude. I feel like my wife should be running the show and I should be as much in the background as possible but I have trouble remaining in the background. I want to get into the action and mess things up. I remember thinking, “This is not the best for her.”
The one place where I’ve had the most constructive influence is by letting them know that anything anybody else says, who cares? It’s just noise in the air. Who says that this other person who says they know anything more than you don’t have their own baggage? Even if they do say something, who cares? It’s a momentary noise. I forget all that and move ahead.
I’m watching my two daughters who are four years apart. I feel like the older one is full-on in that flow, doesn’t care, wears what she wants, and barrels through life. The younger one is still coming through the embarrassment tunnel. I’m hopeful that she’d come through the other side with the same armor that her older sister has.
You said something that’s so true. It doesn’t mean there are no women like this, but typically, like in sports, guys can get in a fight and then you see them later and their friends. Women, a lot of times, take things more personal or what have you. I’m an only child, but what I’ve learned from being married for over 25 years is if you have brothers, it’s like, “Who cares?”
That involvement besides cherishing and loving your daughters, like when you’re 14 and some boys are like, “You’re pretty,” you go, “Thanks. I had a guy and he’s at home. He’s been telling me that and he’s told me I’m special. I don’t need to have sex with you to have you tell me I’m pretty.” You give them that power of straight, pure love and cherish, but also teaching them like, “Who cares?” I have a trickier time of that than Laird does.
Sometimes teaching people, whether they’re boys or girls, to screw them, screw it, and do your thing is a great gift any father can give to any of their children. When I talk to children, I think about all the words and I listen. Sometimes Laird would be like, “Come on, give me a break. I’m having a hard time,” and then I’m like, “That’s so much better.” That kind of boom is important because that’s what the world does to you anyway. The world is coming for us. Tell me about after high school.
I remember your original question was asking me about becoming a teacher and I spiraled my brain into so many different directions.
If you say to me, “By nature, I am not an apprehensive person but I’m always looking ahead and strategic,” based on the way I was raised, which was to be on my toes a little bit, the one thing that has consistently put me on my back is being a parent. I have gone to bed at night and said to Laird, “I’m tired. Sometimes I’m feeling like I’m getting none of this right.” Now I’ve done it so long that I’m at a place where I’m like, “This is what it is.” It’s the lessons I’m learning and the ways to do it better. Some of it is unavoidable. I do have friends that seem to be way more in charge and their kids are more compliant. I’m like, “That’s amazing,” but that is not what’s happening in my house.
Don’t you think that it’s about modeling, not parenting? I came from a strict Sicilian Catholic, everything is by the rules kind of thing. When our youngest daughter was 2 or 3 and she’s having a tantrum, I settled her and gave her a timeout, my wife’s looking at me like, “She sees a giant 200-pound monster picking her up and sticking her in a room. She’s terrified.” It clicked in my head. That was the last time we ever punished our kids. My wife was never down with the whole punishment thing anyway.
[bctt tweet=”If you are well equipped to take care of yourself, you don’t need a lot of courage.”]
It clicked in my mind like, “Yeah, right. I never liked it when I was a kid. Why do I think it’s going to work with her?” We never had to do it. What they learn more from my wife than from me was to be calm, be happy, and chill out. That’s the way my wife constantly surrounds them. They’ve adopted in their bloodstream this mentality, “It’s better to be chill and happy than it is to be screaming and yelling. Screaming takes a lot of energy.” By modeling that behavior and living it, the kids picked up on it.
There’s a lot of time where I’m banking on that. My youngest at home is 13. We have a 17-year-old and a 26-year-old, so we have a grown daughter. I always say Laird came with a 4-month-old. There are days where I’m like, “I try to tell the truth. I’m hard working. I treat people with respect. Maybe that’s going to be the thing that works.”
I try to be super calm and be like, “Let me articulate and let me listen and be like, ‘That must be hard.’” I try not to fix things and I’ve listened. There are times where I totally am in the car and something comes out. Usually, it’s entitlement. When I hear entitlement, I will be super direct. My daughter is like, “What’s going on?” I go, “That’s too much now.” An hour later, I think I blew that, but that’s it.
That’s your trigger. My trigger is fear. I’m afraid. That drives me crazy. If someone says, “I’m afraid,” I go, “I don’t care if you’re afraid. Of course, you’re afraid.” It’s a weird trigger. It’s the instant way to aggravate me if my wife or one of the girls says, “I’m afraid.” I instantly turn into a werewolf and want to insist that they do the thing. You’re looking at me like I’m crazy.
I’m trying to think if that’s the protectiveness in you or the problem-solving person that’s like, “We’re going to fix their fear thing.” Ultimately, what I have found or experienced is a lot of times, if Laird’s aggravated by something like that, it’s because he cares so deeply. For example, in your book, Natural Born Heroes, “To be a true warrior, one must be compassionate.” It’s this idea of hyper-masculine trait, like, “We’re going to fix that. You’re going to get in there and you’re going to go through it. I don’t want you to be afraid.” I see that. When my girls are suffering, Laird’s like, “Come on.” He gets so intense because he cares so deeply. Also, what’s the solution? It’s not like, “Let me tell you my feelings.” They’re like, “No, let’s solve it.”
I remember that sensation. It bothered me when that phrase, F your feelings, came out because I thought previously, that was a good thing to tell people. Now that I see other people saying it in an abusive manner, I can’t sign on with that anymore because now it’s been used to bully people. “I feel that way, too.” I don’t care what your feelings are. The question is what are you going to do about it?
In societies and cultures, it’s like, “Yes, we have a situation. What is the solution?” It’s an important trait but when you’re a dad and a husband and you’ve been with your wife a long time, you start to soften those edges, you finesse, and you learn to be like, “Yes. Okay.”
One time, we’re doing this long swim. Do you know Flat Island here off of Kailua?
She’d never swam at the Flat Island before. She wanted to do it. We’re swimming out and I’m behind her because she’s not comfortable in open water. We’re swimming along and we’re almost there. I feel like I can almost stretch and touch the island. She says, “We got to turn back. I’m tired.” I go, “We’re right there. We’re on dry land. You can rest on dry land.” She’s like, “No, we got to turn back. I’m really tired.”
We turned around and we swam back to shore. She’s like, “I started thinking about sharks but I didn’t want to tell you.” She didn’t want to tell me because she knew my reaction would have been like, “There are no sharks.” She was feeling afraid and she knew I had zero tolerance for that, so she had to come up with another excuse, which is reassuring that she knows me so well but it’s depressing that she understands that I got such a low threshold for fear.
We do learn how to communicate. Nobody wants to talk about sharks when they’re in the open ocean just so you know. I’ve been out surfing with Laird and I never say anything, but it would feel sharky to me. We get in the boat and I’d be like, “I felt sharky.” He’s like, “I got a sharky vibe, too.” I get that.
This was not that though. This was not her not wanting to mention it in the water. It’s that she was all in her mind. It was the apprehension of swimming further from land and she was comfortable with it, and it started to well up these fears of the unknown. She knew that if she said the word fear to me, then I would have berated her and been an asshole.
Was the expectation for you to be academic and then, “You’re out on your own,” so you thought, “I’ll pick something that’s easy that I know I can do.”
No. This probably explains it a lot. My parents were the first in their families to go to college. My grandparents on both sides were immigrants from Scotland and Italy. They were discouraged from going to college, so why would you do that exactly? Why don’t you just work legit and get a job? I remember when I got a rowing scholarship to Harvard, my grandfather was like, “It’s four years. Why don’t you just paint houses? I was painting houses to make money. Painting is great. Join the union and you’re all set for life.” He thought rowing at Harvard was a ridiculous waste of time when you could devote four years to putting paint on a house.
What happened with my dad was he wanted to go to college and his parents kicked him out of the house, so what do you want to go, you pay for it yourself. He joined the Marines, got on the GI Bill, put himself through college in the GI Bill, and then had a wife and three kids when he was going to law school at night. Still to this day, I remember I was five years old when he passed the bar exam. I didn’t know what a bar exam was.
I vividly recall the scene in my parents’ house when he passed the bar exam. It was shock and awe. It was like he’s just been made president. This is the hugest change in our family’s future that could happen. This guy who was working as a telephone lineman by day and going to law school at night is now a lawyer. A lawyer had these connotations of absolute respect and power. That was the background I came from. It’s like, “If you become a lawyer, you are a god. You are Thor, god of thunder.” The expectation was at some point, I’m going to become a lawyer.
I could put it off like, “I’m going to do that but not yet. Right now, I’m reading stories, I’m playing ball, I’m rowing, and then I get out of college and I need to get a job.” I was an English major so I would teach English. I tried that for a year. The thing was I had such disciplinary problems in high school that going back voluntarily was a huge tactical error.
I didn’t like it when I had to go, so I tried it for a year. I was a terrible teacher. I didn’t want to grade tests. I didn’t want to make tests. I didn’t want to be there. I did it for a year but didn’t like it. It wasn’t a good fit then. I took the money that I got paid during the summer and started traveling around Europe backpacked around. I’m like, “This is for me, a constant world of uncertainty.” When you show up in a new country, you don’t speak the language. You don’t know anybody. It’s constant. For an ADHD personality, it’s awesome because there’s something new everywhere you look.
Is it Portugal or Spain where were you?
At first, it was Spain. What happened was I taught a year in high school, hated it, got paid that summer, went to Europe, backpacked around, got to Spain, and liked it. Maybe because of my family’s Italian roots, Spanish didn’t seem that foreign to me. I hunkered down there and started getting a job. This is before you needed a work visa. I started to learn Spanish by ear and liked it. I was there for almost three years.
I am curious about your grandpa’s reaction to your dad becoming an attorney.
That was the one thing that was okay. He was a butcher and he wouldn’t put any money in the bank so he kept buying properties, all these row houses in South Philly. Wherever he made money as a butcher, he turned around and buy a row house. His 401(k) plan was buying row homes in South Philly. He had closing things and documents so he was always working with lawyers. All of a sudden, now we got one in the family. Someone reeled up like a bushel full of cash. A lawyer is the one thing you can mention to my grandfather and he would respect them.
Were your parents a little bit concerned about you when you’re bopping around Europe?
A little bit. The whole not-becoming-a-lawyer-immediately thing bothered them up until about a few years ago. I remember being at my mother’s 75th birthday party and a friend of the family pulled me aside. He said, “A lot of people go to law school later in life. There’s no reason why you can’t go now.” I’m looking at him and I’m like, “They got this from my parents.”
Because you’re some kind of contractor.
What they would see is some dude wearing My Therapist Has Whiskers t-shirt and rarely wearing shoes. They’re like, “How long is this going to last? At some point, the bombs going to fall out. This guy needs a real career.”
You fake an interview in Spain and find yourself quickly in Lisbon. That’s ballsy. Is that your ability to think, “I’ll land on my feet and I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
It’s a couple of things. I’m at the point in my life where I stopped patting myself on the back of how awesome I am and started to realize, “The rails were well greased for you in advance.” You go through a lot of your life thinking that only due to the power of your own awesomeness have you succeeded. I’m like, “No. You had hardworking parents that were up to your butt nonstop. You are a massive dude that could pull an oar.” If you picked the oar out of my hand, there’s no Ivy League school. I went to a school that I happen to be a rowing coach. All these things made each step.
Second thing is that the fact that I am a dude, I can walk into a situation and I don’t have to be afraid that someone’s going to try and get in my pants, that they’re going to manipulate. There’s a lot of being a big guy in the world that you don’t think about. Until you have other women around you, you realize, “I wouldn’t want my daughter walk into that room that I was able to walk into without a blink.”
Part of it is that sense of, there’s not much bad that’s going to happen to a big guy in the world. You can talk to people, go into strange neighborhoods, go to strange countries, and you’re going to be okay. I had that going for me. The second thing was I liked situations that I don’t know what’s going on because it gets the synapses firing. I want to be able to think on my feet. I want to be able to BS and see where it’s going to go.
I had that problem as a writer where once I’ve got the thing figured out in my head, how I’m going to write it, I’m no longer interested in writing it anymore because now it’s boring. I know what the ending is now, why bother reading it? That was it. I like getting into job interviews where I’m not qualified to see if I can pull it off.
[bctt tweet=”Anything anybody else says, who cares? It’s just noise in the air.”]
You became a head of a bureau. From what I understand, within a short period, you’ve packed a bag and off and reporting on wars.
What happened was I had worked in Madrid for about three years and was loving it. I was teaching English. I was a scene shifter for a theatre company, which is pushing backgrounds back and forth. It was great. I’m going to play it for free. I’m teaching a little bit of English and I got enough money to get by because you didn’t need much to live in Madrid back then.
One morning, I had this class where I was teaching in a bank in the morning. I was meeting this British guy. We were teaching a couple of bank officials English from 7:00 till 9:00. Every morning, this guy would walk in with his massive mug of coffee and it was unusual in Spain, where most people have a little beaker of espresso. Nobody walks around with a big cup full of coffee.
After a couple of weeks, I realized that wasn’t coffee. This dude was self-medicating sixteen ounces of brandy every day. I remember looking at him thinking, “I don’t want to wake up someday and be that guy.” I tried to find another job. I knew a guy who knew a guy who’s working for The Associated Press as a news correspondent. I leaned on him like, “Is there any way you can give me an interview?”
I got this interview for a job that I’m completely unqualified for. I’d never worked as a news correspondent. I was an English major. I could write okay. I have a feeling that the bureau chief in the Madrid bureau was like me the other way around. She was also like, “What’s a ridiculous challenge?” Here’s a guy trying to BS his way in and here’s the bureau chief like, “Let’s see what happens when we hire this idiot. Can I turn him into a news correspondent?” We’re both looking for a weird challenge and this unholy alliance ended with me getting the job.
The bad thing was I’ve never been more intimidated by a human being other than my mother in my life. I look back at this woman, Susan Linnee, who was unafraid to get up in my grill and let me have it. I’m a big dude off the street, but her thing was all about either doing it right or she was going to make sure you knew how wrong you were. It was great training. I still remember this sensation of cold sweat trickling down my back of Susan looking over my shoulder.
What does that look like? You get the call or they say, “Can you come to my office?”
In a newsroom, it’s public. A newsroom layout is a bunch of desks around each other and there are only six of us working in AP. What she did was she trained in AP Madrid, so she was boss at both Spain and Portugal. What she was looking for was a replacement for the head of the Portuguese bureau. It’s only a two-person bureau. She trained me in her newsroom in Madrid. There are six desks right next to each other and she had her own office.
I will be out in the main bullpen working on a story and Susan was like, “Send me that story in fifteen minutes.” After sixteen minutes, she’d be out standing over my shoulder right behind me looking at my screen. I feel her there as I’m trying to finish this thing. She’s like, “Just send it.” You’re panicking and you can’t think anymore. You send it and then she comes back, tells you everything you did wrong, and everyone’s watching. The other five correspondents are like, “McDougall effed up again.”
She grooms you and then ships you out.
She trained me up and then put me on a train to Lisbon. I walked into this two-person office and I always call the head guy, cannibal. Susan hired him because he looked like the lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals. The cannibal had left and he had been deployed in Bosnia. There’s a part-time person and I was to do full-time person. I walked into the office and the part-time person goes, “Thank God you’re here,” because I’ve been on a train for the past twelve hours. “Civil War just broke out in Angola.” I’m like, “That’s too bad. What do we care?” She’s like, “We cover Angola.” I’m like, “Why? It’s a former Portuguese colony. I didn’t even know this and let alone the fact I was going to cover it.” A week later, I was on a flight down to Angola to cover a war in a country I could not have found on a map to save my life.
You see this everywhere. You talked about Afghanistan in Natural Born Heroes like, “I’ll take you in and my job is to protect you.” In Hawaii, they have Hanai, to adopt. You were in Africa where people didn’t have much but you had a situation where people looked after you.
It’s a more natural thing than we think about, Gabby, this sense of compassion. I went into this job as a war correspondent with this Indiana Jones macho attitude. I was quickly humbled because when you’re in a foreign country where there’s a lot of risk around you, you better keep your eyes open and keep your mouth shut or you’re going to get in trouble quick. You rely on people helping you all the time. Particularly in this situation, what I’ve done was I jumped on a Doctors Without Borders helicopter into a town that was surrounded by rebel forces, and then the helicopter left without me so I was stuck in this town with no way to get the word out that I was here and nowhere to stay. People took me in and kept me in their homes for the next 4 or 5 days until the helicopter came back.
It opened my eyes to this thing. Most of the time, with all this conflict going on and all this news out of Washington, you think that this is the whole world and it’s not. It’s just this little district on the East Coast. The rest of us are trying to make lunch and make sure that our kids aren’t forking out. We’re just trying to live our lives. When you get that person-to-person connection, that’s when people start to see each other. Not through the eyes of what’s happening in Washington or Kabul, or what’s happening across your own living room.
This is an important time to be reminded of that. In the world, energetically, people think, “Everyone is scared of each other. If you don’t believe everything I believe, you’re against me.” That has become so powerful that you’re saying something. All you have to do is go to a grocery store. All you have to do is say, “Good morning. How are you today.” You will have someone wherever they’re from who is like, “Great. I’m good. How are you?” “Good.” It’s not that hard. It’s important.
We lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for twenty years. We had few neighbors and the one I saw the most was an old guy named Sam Metzler. He’s a 78-year-old farmer. He lives near us and he would drive back and forth on his tractor in front of our property seven times a day. Every time he went by, he’d greet me like he hadn’t seen me in a year. This is the seventh time I’ve seen him since breakfast and he’s always waving and yelling.
We agreed on nothing. We were so diametrically opposed. He was a nearly 80-year-old Mennonite farmer and I’m a guy from Philly. Whenever he stops the tractor, I’d say, “Sam, how are you doing?” He’s like, “I’m not having a good day.” “What’s the problem?” “We went up to the school with a bunch of our Bibles and they wouldn’t let us in the school, yet they let the lesbians in. They have a club there for lesbians and we can’t come in with our Bibles.” I’m like, “Of course not, Sam because you are a religion.” We’d get into it, we’d argue like crazy, and off we go. We agree on absolutely nothing. I was like, “Sam, you couldn’t find a gay person if you wanted to. Why do you care?” That was it. It’s a simplistic solution for the world’s problems. Sam and I could argue, yet genuinely love each other. How’s it so hard?
I have a friend who’s a quantum physicist. I say, “Can you even believe in religion?” He goes, “My religion is empathy because I do believe if we can visit and connect, we’re always going to be able to find a common ground.” I was like, “That makes a lot of sense.” You were doing that for quite a while and it started to make you sad.
I’m covering Angola back and forth for over three years and then the massacres broke out in Rwanda. Because I’ve been working in Africa a lot at that point, they shifted me over from West Africa over to East Africa to go in with the Tutsi rebels. The Tutsi rebels were coming in from Uganda to try to stop the massacres. I was able to embed with them and come across the Uganda border.
At the front of the events, as we’re going town to town chasing out the militias and driving them into Congo, the first few days, you’re like, “What is going on here?” This is unlike any combat situation we’d ever seen because the number of casualties was insane. You come into the most complex situations and you’ll see a few dozen dead combatants. We’re coming to the villages and finding hundreds of people, which was bad enough.
What got me was when you see kids that are killed, it shakes you up because you don’t understand that capacity to kill another human. I remember thinking at the time, “Isn’t this an automatic shutoff valve? When you hear a kid who’s afraid, doesn’t it instinctively make you stop whatever you’re doing?” What shook me up was realizing, “There’s a whole different set of rules going on here that I wasn’t aware of. There are people who act this way. I need to get out of here a little bit.”
We all go through things and we think, “This is going to help me keep perspective on everything.” Do you think you were able to go through all of that and keep some of those heavy, serious, real lessons when you’re in traffic in Honolulu this many years later? Does that keep you informed? Does all of that still stay with you in how you respond to the world and some of the time, it’s annoyances?
I’m not sure. I feel like I haven’t taken a lot of that on board but it’s more for my wife who grew up here, who’s got an Aloha attitude. For me, it was a negative thing. I started to have this deep-seated feeling that this could all end in a heartbeat. Today, it’s a morbid thing. I keep talking about it. I keep reminding my wife what the insurance policy is. If I go out for a paddle on the Outrigger, it’s probably a one-way trip. It’s a weird note. Now I joke about it, but back then, it was a dark feeling like, “Life is like that.” It made me harsher, a little bit more bullheaded, and more aggressive about getting what I wanted. It took a bunch of years to diffuse that and let it subside.
A lot of times when people are in those concentrated intense situations, everybody responds so differently. How did you meet your wife?
That was a real gift. After a bunch of years of working in Africa, a couple of things happen. One was I feel like I need to be not there for a while. I could have just stayed in Lisbon in Portugal, which is a chill place. It’s probably like the Hawaii of Europe, great coast, but not places like Nazaré. It’s chill, it’s fun, and it’s a vibrant place.
What happened was you start to tap out on what you can accomplish after a number of years because nobody cares in America what’s happening in Portugal. I’ve picked up all this information I can write about, but I only have a couple of news paragraphs every once in a while. I thought, “What am I going to do with all of this knowledge and skill I’ve been building up in the past 3 or 4 years?” I thought, “I need to move back to the US and start doing magazines, stories, and books. I need to write longer and be able to flex the skill I’ve been working on.”
English major or not, did you figure out a way to develop that craft of writing? It’s your way, your voice, your style, and all of these things. Were you like, “I’m going to spend some energy in developing this craft.” How did you come to that? Because it’s a craft ultimately.
There are a few things at work. Susan was hugely instrumental in this because once I got into a job that I couldn’t do, I was a bad news correspondent for quite a while. She actually was going to fire me. After my initial battle in Angola, I came back home. I got the job and I was covering a war in Angola doing a half-ass job of it. I got rotated back to Portugal because it was Christmas time and the part-time person was leaving, so I had to go back to come into Portugal bureau.
One day that I’m there, a plane crashes in Southern Portugal and suddenly, I was covering a plane crash. Susan was back for Christmas break in the United States and some plane crashed over my head. Usually, two of the biggest stories a correspondent will cover are a plane crash and a war. I had both of them in the first three months.
When Susan came back from Christmas break, as she came to Lisbon, she said, “I was planning to fire you because you were so half-assed in Angola but you come to the plane crash and you’re good, so I’m going to give you another chance.” I’m like, “Thanks.” She kept me on board. What I discovered was the mistake I’ve been making was trying to copy what other people were doing. I was trying to write new stories like everybody else’s new stories. I was constantly second-guessing. I was both myself and Susan looking over my shoulder. I couldn’t write.
One day, after the near firing, I was in the office and I came across a little story in Portugal about a woman who had gotten arrested because she had impersonated an army general for twenty years. Somehow, she had dressed herself up like a military general and somehow got married impersonating a male general. She was pulling down an army retirement fund and all his army benefits. Her wife accidentally discovered that she was not a dude but a woman.
I read this news story and I’m like, “This is bananas.” I wrote it up the way I wanted to write it up thinking, “There’s no way the AP is ever going to put this on The Wire,” but just for fun. I send it off to Susan and in two seconds, the phone rings, and I’m like, “She’s going to rip my head off.” She’s like, “Finally, you don’t suck.” I’m like, “If there’s ever an award I’d get, I want that finally, you don’t suck award from Susan Linnee.” It was a weird, funny story, but it’s tight and quick and she liked it.
It opened my eyes like, “I’d stop trying to imitate and try to do it my way.” That’s when I started to like it. It’s like going from basketball to rowing. I want to be a basketball player but I was never good. Put me in a crew shell and suddenly, it makes sense. That’s the way I started to write. The way I write today is the way I wrote that story about the general. It’s the way that feels natural to me. I thought, “I can expand this into longer things. I can have more fun and tell better stories.”
You head back to Philly and you start doing magazine articles. You were covering a story on a sex cult, punk Mexican rock star leader, which led you to Born to Run ultimately. I am interested in the idea of a hero and the hero within us. Talking about Born to Run, you changed how everybody ran, first of all. Now everyone’s barefoot. When you went there, why did you think that was a story about a tribe that could run and run? Was it a reminder that we’ve gotten so far from something we’ve done so naturally?
It’s all the piece, I applied for the AP job because I didn’t know if I could do it. I like things where I don’t know what the answer is. With Born to Run, it was this question of like, “How can I always get hurt if these guys don’t get hurt?” It was a genuine mystery that I didn’t know what the conclusion was. When I was a kid, my favorite stories were Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I love them. I looked because I didn’t know, like, “Who the hell murdered the guy?” I don’t know. That was it. To this day, I like stories about where I can’t predict what the outcome is going to be. Running with Sherman’s on a piece, too. Natural Born Heroes is the same thing, like, “How the heck did these guys pull this off?” If I don’t know the answer to that question, then I’m motivated to try and find it out.
That book, Born to Run, what it feels like from the outside is that changed your whole life.
In a lot of ways.
How did you meet your wife? Because I love a Philly guy and a local girl.
Here’s the deal. To me, this is talking about life-changing experiences. I didn’t tell you part of the story. Part of the reason why I love Lisbon wasn’t only to further my career, but because I was dating a girl who had a fiancé back in London and she couldn’t decide between the two of us. When she was trying to figure that out, I started dating her best friend as well, which I felt was justified since she had a fiancé and then the friend was on board with it. The friend had one rule, which is, “Just tell me the truth. I understand you’re trying to resolve things with our friend, but don’t lie to me.” I said, “Yeah, that’s easy enough,” until I did.
I snuck off one weekend to visit the first one and didn’t tell the second one. The second one found out and lost her cool as she should have. I thought, “Just like Africa, this is a situation I need to remove myself from.” That’s why I moved back to Philly to get out of that situation and to also start magazine writing.
When you were in Lisbon, did you eat those little flat almonds, those little cakes that they make?
If people go to Portugal, they have to have those. It’s almost like Basque cake when you go to the Basque region or Biarritz.
Portugal is so underrated for its pastries. They are insanely good. Like malasadas, that’s a Portuguese product. I started dating a bartender, which as a dude, if you can date a bartender, that is a badge of achievement because bartenders are constantly fending off idiots like me. I’m dating a bartender and my best friend came to visit. We’re in the bar and I’m like, “What do you think? I’m dating Julie.” He’s like, “I’ve been meaning to tell you this for years. She’s crazy. You always date crazy and you can’t tell the difference. You got this whole Italian thing going on. If someone’s passionate, you think they’re cool and emotional, but they’re not.”
[bctt tweet=”What The Hero’s Journey is all about is the opening up of the inner eye, the broadening of the self.”]
He started to list every girl that he knew that I hated and he’s like, “Crazy, crazy, crazy. I don’t know the bartender, but I’m willing to bet, not sane.” It was so insulting and rude. I’m like, “What a horrible thing to tell somebody,” and then I’m like, “He’s got a point.” Suddenly, it’s like the Sixth Sense movie. I’m like, “I see the pattern here,” and that was it. It was on the heels of that that I met Mika. She was also working with The Associated Press and they had just rotated her from Honolulu to the mainland for a nine-month stint. They like to bring people from the far-flung bureaus onto the mainland for some close-to-home training before they send them back.
I was still so stung by the fact that I had been in so many bad relationships and I hadn’t seen it. Then when I met her, I was determined to not mess it up. I did the opposite of all my natural impulses. I would avoid her, try not to talk to her, and keep my distance because I know if I open my mouth, I would come on like gangbusters. I didn’t trust myself around a not-crazy woman, so I’m hiding everything that was real about me and it worked. Here’s the real thing, she was semi-engaged with a dude at the time and my impulse would have been to undermine that guy, talk crap about him, and insult him behind his back. Instead, I kept my distance. I’m starting to take on board this thing of not trying to grab what you want might be the way to get what you want.
What is it in you that you think she was like, “That’s my guy.”
I wish she was here to answer that question because I’m not sure I have the right answer, but I’ll take a guess on her behalf. If I met her anytime earlier in my life, it would have been a, “No way.” I have gotten to the point where I was starting to throttle back and be a little bit less demanding. She’s a super attractive, athletic, vivacious person. She’s been straight arming dudes her entire life. I was finally at the point where I wasn’t coming on strong and maybe that was it. I don’t know her previous dude. I haven’t met him but it’s striking that he’s that kind of guy, too, a not controlling, not pushy guy. The fact that we shared things and I was giving her space, that was it.
You took a girl from Hawaii and she lived with you for over twenty years, which was supposed to be a short period of time. What is it that you have learned? I’m always interested because my perspective now about marriage and relationships after more than 25 years is different than what I went in. What are you surprised in yourself that you have learned and also willingly changed going through it?
Our nicknames for each other are nervous and reckless. Her thing is like, “I’m not sure.” I’m like, “Come on, let’s just do it.” That’s a good combination though. She has that natural inclination to want to plunge into things and try them. To have a 6’4” wingman is a cool thing to have, particularly someone who’s a Big O cheerleader. I hope she would sign off on this as well, but I’m there saying, “You can do it. You’re going to be awesome at this.”
With the burrow racing, when we take in these donkeys, Mika was not a runner, she was not a farm girl, she was not an animal person. My recollection of me was that I knew from the start that she was going to be awesome at this because she is brave, compassionate, and smiley, and that’s what the situation needed. Not some guy like me who’s grinding his teeth and impatient with this, neither was sunshine and love. I thought, “She’d be awesome.” Hopefully, what I bring the relationship is the sense that she’s 90% there already. She just needs that 10% to tell her, “Don’t worry. I got your back. You can be awesome.”
You wrote Born to Run and it changed you. You lose a ton of weight. Can you still run? Especially because you’re taller. It’s not like you’re a light little guy that’s bouncing on their feet. You see certain people and you go, “That person is one of the few people that is built to run.” Most people I see running, you go “It looks so painful.” If anyone has not read that book and Natural Born Heroes, I definitely encourage them. Natural Born Heroes was a deeper hit for me. That one was powerful. What were the Tarahumara doing that you could as a regular guy runner bring into your practice that you still do now that was so helpful?
I wonder if this doesn’t reflect your experience with water. These natural movements are great lie detector tests that if you strip away all the accessories like the special shoes and also the sense of competition, if you get back to the theme, it will reveal all the lies you’re telling to yourself. I bet you see people in the water, they’re thrashing like crazy because they feel they got to go as fast as possible. If you remove the sense of, “You’re not racing. You don’t need flippers. You’re going to get in the water and relax.” You’ll see, “If I straighten my back a little bit and twist a little bit,” you’ll see those movements where everything becomes more natural, unified, and artistic. That’s what happened with Born to Run.
When I went into this thinking, “Why is this 80-year-old dude in a canyon and sandals crashing a 200-mile race?” I’m wearing a pair of Nike Air Vomeros and I can’t run five miles without getting hurt. I’m like, “What’s he doing that I’m not?” You strip away all the stuff and you get back to business, it’s one thing, it’s technique. His technique is dialed in. I have no technique. To me, that’s what it’s all about always. Go through the apprenticeship of learning the craft and then you’ll be okay.
If anybody showed me a videotape of me running, I would be horrified because I don’t look and like the way I’m doing. In my brain, I’m like a gazelle. I spend a lot of time and continually think about techniques. It’s like, “How is my body positioned? How am I hitting the ground? Where are my shoulders? Where are my hips?” You would think that’s boring but to me, it’s the most fun.
It is that mechanism again that you talked about. Do you think that they studied the craft or they never departed from our natural ability to run and they pass it on and the kids have a visual example? It perpetuates and that you then went in and relearned this.
It’s exactly that, Gabby. There are two things I rail about and argue about. They’re unpopular opinions. One is about footwear and the other thing is about competition. It’s this sense of, “You got to win. You’ve got to race.” It’s destructive. For instance, if you look at running magazines, it’s always about two things, what shoes are you wearing and how can you run your fastest marathon? That focus on speed on being better on Strava records, to me, it’s destructive.
When you look at the type of model run, number one, it’s never about speed. These guys are going 200-miles to a canyon. You can’t sprint. You’re taking your time. The second thing is it’s communal. Men and women run together. Kids and old people run together. It’s much more of a party on your feet as opposed to in this race. They’re not isolated with their earbuds in and their heads down. Their heads are up and they’re talking and chatting.
When I’m back in Pennsylvania, I run with an Amish running club, the Vella Shpringa guys. The way they run is they’re out on the full moon and they run through the countryside in the dark. Everyone’s chatting and talking. They’re not racing each other. They’re hanging out on a moonlit night. To me, that’s what the revelation was all about. You’re in a group, you’re learning from each other, and you’re not trying to beat each other.
You have said this in your books. I remember it perfectly. Laird and I talked about it. It was many years ago. Cooperation is a part of our real survival and our success is a race. That competition is a byproduct. People have war and territories and all of that. Ultimately, competition is something we’ve probably made up because we’re bored. It’s quite against our real evolution. Cooperation is connected to our evolution. I always remember that.
I like the pursuit of excellence. I was a competitive person when I was playing volleyball. If you said to me to coach somebody or to do something with a friend, that’s probably why I like team sports because it was the amplification of together. It struck me because I thought, “That feels good.” Competition is stressful. I appreciated that point. That book led you pretty much to Natural Born Heroes. I don’t want to give away the book.
The reason I’m asking is there’s a specific part of the book I would like to get into from your point of view. If you can explain the premise of the book with the Nazis coming to Crete thinking, “Overnight, we’ll take these guys out.” I don’t know how many guys are dropped from the sky from the Nazi planes. It turned out to be something different. What I’m curious about first is when a lot of the airmen were dropped, they hit them in the head also. Maybe you can share this. I want to talk to you about the Crete culture about the warrior or hero inside of us. I want to ask you a different side of it.
This is what caught my attention. Originally, when I was researching Born to Run, I learned about a guy who was a different kind of runner. He was a messenger runner on the island of Crete. The first mystery was always like, “How is this dude, this shepherd, running 50 miles through the woods delivering a message, drinking a little bit of moonshine, and running 50 miles back again?” That’s a 100-mile Ultramarathon through the woods being chased by Nazi soldiers. You couldn’t get an Olympic athlete today that could do that and survive. How is this guy doing it with no training?
It led me to another thing. I started looking into that. I learned more about Crete. Crete is the only place in the world where the resistance began the same day that the Germans invaded. When the Germans invaded Belgium, Holland, and France, they would conquer the standing army. The civilians would wait 9 or 10 months and form quietly into a resistance army and then they would go into action.\
On Crete, the Germans are dropping out of parachutes and you guys are like, “Let’s go. Let’s grab the baseball bat from the garage and let’s go fight these guys.” I thought, “This is amazing.” How do the citizens automatically know exactly what to do the day the Germans arrived? How are you all fighting with a unified purpose? You have to look into Crete and realize that this was an island nation that has been doing this forever. They’re always under attack. It wasn’t that they were belligerent or hostile or even warriors. It’s that there is this ancient Greek art of the hero that has been kept on forever.
Back in ancient Greece, you didn’t have the police force, you didn’t have a fire department. You had to rely on each other for everything. If someone’s house was on fire, everybody had to run out and they had to put it out. If there was a murderer on the loose, everybody had to do it. There was no standing army in ancient Greece. If you’re attacked, every citizen is a soldier.
To me, that was an important lesson to learn. The fact that people can pull it together and defeat a common foe by cooperating is a lesson that a lot of us have forgotten. I wonder whether it’s something we could learn again. What led to the whole story of Natural Born Heroes was realizing that this wasn’t an accident. There’s an art of a hero that relies on strength, skill, and compassion that has been taught for tens of thousands of years on Crete. That’s why, in a moment of crisis, everybody knew exactly what to do.
It almost sounds like it’s a culture and it’s almost like they’ve created a curriculum that becomes a passed down tale if you will. In your experience, what I was curious about was the psyche of somebody like that. Maybe some people are more naturally inclined to be like that. What happens? Is there an instilled psyche to this group? We all can be heroes, stand up, show up, and help out. Sometimes you don’t always know what to do. You can also practice it. When you were investigating this, what were you thinking is the psyche of this group behind this idea of this warrior or hero?
The main point, Gabby, is that we are used to sub-contracting everything that we assume that other people are better at something than we are. We’ve even subcontracted heroes. Heroes are the guys in the Marvel movies that come swooping in and they’re bigger than we are, they’re stronger, and they’re braver. The problem is we’ve created a difference between them and us, “They’ve got to be something better than I am.”
What the Cretans believe is you don’t need all that stuff. If you are well equipped to take care of yourself, you don’t need a lot of courage. The whole idea is to train people so that courage isn’t even a factor. If you’ve been trained to be smart, agile, clever, and nimble, you’re not afraid. If you trained well for a 5K race, you’re not afraid. You know you can handle it. You’re going to do it. That’s what the art of the hero is all about. It’s not to create people that are braver and more reckless, it’s to create people that are well equipped with such a great toolset that they’ve been rehearsing this stuff for so long that it’s natural. It’s instinctive.
Number one is this idea of compassion. From early childhood, the word hero means protector. The idea is if your first life lesson is to take care of somebody and people are taking care of you and you share that compassion and you feel like, “I’m responsible for everyone around me. Everyone around me is going to take care of me.” That’s the first step. The second thing is to feel that you can run a long distance, climb a tree, jump into open water and not be afraid.
I want to Point Panic to try and body surf. I swam out, I got crushed by two big ones, I swam right to hell back. I’m watching these guys in their 70s, they’re like seals that are out there swimming around the waves. They were so comfortable in that environment that it meant nothing to them. To answer your question, it’s not that there’s a difference in psyche or mentality, it’s the familiarity with this concept, “I need to be taking care of myself. I need to eat right. I need to get rested. I need to maintain mobility and sensuousness because I’m responsible to take care of the people around me.”
In our modern-day, you look at the cover of your magazines and its muscular strength versus adaptability. That’s an important reminder. Sometimes people bucket fitness if you will, like, “I bang iron and I eat this much protein.” It’s a big, whole, full story and circle that involves many different things. Obviously, you read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. How did that land for you in relation to what they were doing in Crete?
What I love is when you start to work on a project and you start finding validations along the way. Whenever I try to get into questions about fitness or training, I’m cautious until I start to find a bloodline of the same behavior that’s being repeated over and over again. Look at cold water plunges. Wim Hof makes it popular. If you go back through history, it’s dating back to almost prehistory.
The same with barefoot running. If you look at the same sandals that we’re wearing today, the Spartans wore them, the gladiators wore them, ancient Roman wore them. It’s the same footwear. The Hero’s Journey was the same thing. What The Hero’s Journey is all about is the opening up of the inner eye, the broadening of the self, into realizing, “It’s not just me now but everybody around me.” We’re all linked in together. The sooner the hero opens his eyes and lifts his head, he realizes that his or her actions are going to send ripples in every direction and they’ve got to be cautious about what that action is. That’s when they start to propel themselves in the right direction.
It’s all about that transformation from being the egocentric child into being the caring, mature adult. That is The Hero’s Journey right there. What I love about the ancient Cretes is realizing that the journey has to be curated. You can’t trust the 5-year-old to figure it out for themselves. You’ve got to show them, “You’re responsible for your brother. If your brother falls in the pool, you better go in and grab the kid. If your brother’s hung up, rip that sandwich in half and hand the other half over.” That’s something that needs to be cultivated and cared for.
Do you have patience for that as a parent? Especially for females, they start around 12. They go through this period where there’s a crisis. It’s serious, friendship dynamics, and how I look in my shirt and my pants. Do you have the patience as a parent to give breathing room to some of that? Do you mix that?
I’m a step-in-and-fix-it kind of guy. As much as I push for independence and resilience, at the same time, my instinct is like, “Quick fix. Take over myself.”
You look great. Those friends are nice anyway. That’s always such a delicate balance where you go, “They’re going through that process of understanding who they are.” We call it dirtying the nest and breaking from you. Sometimes you think, “Who cares? It’s not a big deal.” You have to let them. I remember even having those times, like, “This is everything right now.” It’s like, “It’s not.”
I have a few more informational questions. Your fascia. I have a friend who’s like, “I like to get my bang for my buck because I have little time.” She’s got three kids. If I’m going to do stuff to take care of fascial treatment, did you change your view on that? What did you learn about that?
It’s one of those things that is constantly reinforced. I wasn’t even aware of fascia when I was working on Born to Run. This was a new element that I started to look into as I was working on Natural Born Heroes. I saw these Cretan shepherds who were bouncing up a mountain. They look like kangaroos. How do you do that? That’s what opened my eyes to what fascia was all about.
I met a guy named Lee Saxby who was a running trainer in London who started talking about it and Tom Myers. It ended up leading me to Kelly Starrett. What I liked about it was something I didn’t know previously on Born to Run I was learning about for Natural Born Heroes but it applied backward. It’s like, “If I’d known about this stuff in Born to Run, I would have written about it there because it all ties in together.” They were doing the same thing as the Cretan shepherd. It was the same thing Tom Meyers was teaching. It was the same name that Kelly Starrett is going into. You start to find these unifying principles.
You talked about the person who wants more bang for their buck. One thing I love about Kelly Starrett is if you can’t do it in five minutes with a tennis ball, it isn’t worth doing it. Everything is quick and simple. Back then, his whole thing was if you can get into a deep squat and stretch out that whole chain in your body for about twenty minutes a day, you’re good to go. Don’t worry about all the fancy stuff.
Have you ever seen Kelly Starrett do an overhead squat?
You can check your flexibility privilege at the door. It’s beautiful. Fingertip to toe tip, anyway.
What gets me is whenever I check out his videos, it’s his garage with his kids running around in the background. He’s sitting in this full-on lotus and I’m like, “You’re 240 pounds. How are your legs bending that way?” He’s not even thinking about it. That’s how he sits on the floor. You asked this idea about fascia. This was a new thing for me. I saw the connections in every direction. Everything I happen to be looking at for what I thought was unrelated is all related to the springy tissue in the body. If you can tame it and understand it, you’re going to get that bang for the buck that you’re looking for.
You did a lot of work about using sugar for fuel versus what you learned about. There’s been a lot of conversations around stored fat for calories, adaptability, metabolic flexibility, all these things. Do you personally keep that in practice? What’s that look like for you?
The good news is when I do something wrong, I know it’s wrong. Here’s the thing about it. The revelation for me was that I encountered Phil Maffetone. I love that Phil looks like a hippie. He doesn’t have time for the argument, “I don’t want the flame war online. If you don’t believe me, don’t believe me.” He came up with a simple thing, the two-week test. Strip out all the high glycemic foods from your diet for two weeks and then have a Snickers bar. How do you feel? If you feel crappy, maybe it’s a Snickers bar. If you feel good, maybe you’re fine.
What you learn is once you strip out the sugars and the high-fat burn foods and then you reintroduce them, you can pinpoint your tolerance level pretty fast. If you do the two-week and you eat a piece of bread, you’ll feel fine. You eat the second piece of bread, suddenly you feel all saggy and tired. That’s what I love about it. It’s about stripping things down to their bare essentials and then reintroducing them a little bit at a time to see how your body responds.
What I’ve discovered is that I can’t get away with a high glycemic diet. I will put on weight and I’ll feel bad fast. They got chocolate haupia pie here in Hawaii, which I never knew about before which is a human rights violation. That should not exist. I’ll eat a piece of that pie. Every bite, I know what the consequences are. What are you going to do?
It’s being equipped with the information. You talked about running, walking, hiking, defending, leaping, landing, and the importance of knowing how to throw something. That connects to us being able to kill animals, eating that type of protein, all kinds of things. If someone’s sitting there and they go, “That’s cool but I live in a place where I don’t have access to these things.” Do you say to people, “Encourage taking up something new.”
Is it going into a climbing gym and doing some climbing or learning to throw axes or knives? Do you encourage people to explore these other parts of the ways that we move? Sometimes we get locked in that we are afraid to do something new and out of our comfort zone. You must have people all the time who go, “I read that book. Now I’m doing all this different stuff.”
Not so much. It’s surprising. We have a lot of trouble getting away from the accomplishment portion. I get a ton of messages all the time from people who are like, “I want to run barefoot but I have a marathon coming up. What can I do?” I’m like, “Don’t run the marathon. Master the skill. Don’t worry about the thing.” People are concerned about looking bad for not having the right clothes or not doing it right. It inhibits them from trying the stuff.
The thing that is most important to try is those activities, which increase the range of motion. That is something that people are most uncomfortable with. Things where you’re moving your body around in a wacky way, people don’t like that. They want to be on the treadmill or lifting the weight on the machine. They want a controlled, unified movement. They don’t want to be jumping and leaping around.
To me, the two perfect sports, the unimprovable sports that exist in the world, are ultimate frisbee and parkour. Ultimate frisbee is competitive but people aren’t going to be world champions. Most people who play ultimate frisbee are chucking their frisbee around the beach. When you think about that movement, catching a frisbee and diving for it and throwing it, it’s all about trunk rotation. For ultimate frisbee, people don’t think of it as serious.
If you find a parkour troupe and go out and work with them, you’re going to learn so much so fast. Parkour is adamantly anti-competition. These people do not compete. There’s a great video I like to steer people to that’s called Movement of Three. There’s another one called Movement of Three where it’s the same as the Movement of Three. These are women doing parkour. It looks freaking fun. They’re laughing and having a ball. If you look at what they’re doing, it’s hard. It all became from jumping and twisting and running.
To answer your question, if you can focus on the activities that encourage a range of motion of moving around, being flexible, being explosive, being adaptable, ultimate frisbee, parkour, getting in the water. You can’t be clumsy in the water because it’s a great lie detector test. You’re going to see yourself sink quickly. Those are the things I encourage people to try to do. Do trail running. If you can get out into the woods, you’re jumping over things, you’re twisting around things, and you’re not just beating out a rhythm on the pavement.
What do you wear on your feet if you were going trail running?
I try to match the protection to the terrain. Running on asphalt, I’ll go barefoot. If I’m going into the woods and it’s normal terrain, I’ll wear a pair of sandals. Barefoot Ted makes them. If it’s a gnarlier trail, I will add protection as protection is required. I don’t think I wear anything that’s more built-up than a pair of Merell barefoot shoes, Inov-8s, New Balance Minimus, nothing that has a lot of cushions because I’m prone to adapting back to bad style. I try to keep it between me and the ground as possible.
I encourage people to read Natural Born Heroes. Hitler sent General Mueller whose nickname was The Butcher. From Born to Run, you learned about George and his nickname was The Clown, which I thought was fascinating, The Butcher and The Clown. What was George wearing on his feet exactly? Those were brutal trails that this guy’s on.
It was a revelation to me because I went there. The rocks in Crete are jagged. My boots got shredded quickly and so did most of the British resistance fighters. George had on a pair of these homemade leather-bottom boots. What you learn to do is rather than powering over the rocks, you land lightly, land gently, and bounce around.
In Running with Sherman, Sherman is a donkey. It’s a beautiful story that you have a rescue. I won’t go on and on into it because I don’t want to ruin it. He needs a mission. It’s this idea that it’s not different than us. For you, it had to be Sherman’s idea or so it appeared. He had to have friends. There had to be a mission. You said something I thought was beautiful. When you came out of that experience with Sherman, you learned something powerful, which was to look and pay attention.
You said that being a war correspondent, be quiet and pay attention. I appreciated that. Whether you’re in business or you’re a parent or you’re trying to get through your days, this idea of looking and paying attention is maybe underrated. Thank you for your time. Do you have something that you want to share that’s coming up next? Is it a secret? If not, where can people find you and connect with you?
I got to first thank you too because I’ve never been in an interview that’s this well prepared. You want to talk about the art of listening, you’re bringing it.
I was stressed out. I was sitting with Laird and I was like, “I’m always concerned. Can I honor the person that I’m talking to?” He’s like, “That’s probably why you do a pretty good job.”
Honestly, you bring apprehension to it that you don’t need. You’re sharp enough on your feet and you could have winged it and done fine. You had me like, “I’m going back and forth between my personal life to stuff I’ve written about.” You thought this through and it sharpened me up too. That’s where anxiety pays off for you because you came in super well prepared.
We’re all connected and have similar things. I always want to find that in the stories because that seems to be the thing that always comes up for me. I meet the most extraordinary people that have done beautiful work like yourself. You realize that if we can keep being reminded that we’re all trying, we all have a hard time sometimes, and that doesn’t mean you can’t be badass and still show up. Do you have something that you’re excited about?
I’m working on a new book. The operating title is King of the Weekend Warriors. There are these two guys that I know who are best friends and one of them is a super alpha dog and the other guy is super chill and zen. Together, they’ve set nine different Guinness World Records. What I’m looking at is that role. I want to keep exploring this idea of competition. I feel like it’s been such a destructive force.
We’re seeing a lot more high-performing women who start to have these physical breakdowns because they’re pushing both their body image and the competition level. What I want to challenge is this notion that we have to compete, we have to be the best, we have to win or go all the time, and using these two guys and their friendship as a launching spot for that story.
I know that is a hard process, putting together a book. I will look forward to it. Do you have a deadline? Do you have an editor?
She’s not around anymore. The deadline is a whole different story. Yes, I have an editor. What I tend to do is not do anything until he starts yelling at me. He’s not a yeller. I’m dawdling along. I’m getting there.
I look forward to the next book. Give my alohas to your family. Do you ever feel like you’ve run too slow in the sand? Does that frustrate you ever?
I’m fine with too slow. That’s my starting point.
There’s a beach in Kauai that I run on. It’s called Lumahai. It’s deep. It’s super aerated. It’s a short break. I know I feel like I’m running but if you watch me, I wind up walking.
You’re pantomiming running.
Also, self-breathing. It’s heavy. Thank you.
Thanks, Gabby. That was great. I appreciate it.
Thanks so much for being here. If you’d like, rate, subscribe, and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me, @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.
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- Christopher McDougall
- Born to Run
- Natural Born Heroes
- Running with Sherman
- Schweddy Balls
- The Hero’s Journey
- Lee Saxby
- Tom Myers
- Kelly Starrett
- Phil Maffetone
- Movement of Three
- Barefoot Ted
About Christopher McDougall
Trained as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, Christopher McDougall covered wars in Rwanda and Angola before writing his international bestseller, Born to Run. His fascination with the limits of human potential led him to create the Outside magazine web series, “Art of the Hero.” Born to Run is currently being made into a feature film starring Matthew McConaughey.