This week, we host Chris McDougall, runner, reporter, and author of Born to Run, on the show to discuss his wide-ranging life experience. His concept of the hero is that they are responsible for others, that we humans are designed to be cooperative, that we are at our best when we are thoughtful and caring. In it all, it is important that we seek out fun. From learning from Mexico’s Rarámuri ultrarunners to training a mistreated donkey to join him in competing in the 29-mile Pack Burro race in the Rockies, Chris’ life has been anything but average. Now living on Oahu, Hawaii, the 61-year-old continues to push himself to uncover stories, pick up new hobbies, and reflect on how his past informs his present day outlook on health, wellness, and keys to longevity.
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“I think what bothers me the most — and this applies in every aspect of our lives — is this sad human arrogance that we can outthink two million years of evolution. Natural selection has created this unbelievably complex self-healing device.”
“I spent a lot of time on the Greek island of Crete looking at World War II resistance fighters. Crete was one place that had a sensational story about average citizens who rose up to resist the German occupation. Again, these are not trained soldiers, these are just citizens who, overnight, literally from one week to the next, went from being citizens into being military operatives against the most formidable army on the planet. And so, my question was, well, how do you do that physically? How do you turn yourself into a super soldier? And one of the things I looked at was diet.”
“You know, one thing, when you look at the human animal, there are two things that we are really good at. We are extraordinarily adaptive — we’re very creative and ingenious. But secondly, we’re extraordinarily cooperative. What is the internet all about? It’s about trading stuff, trading images, trading thoughts, trading ideas. We are probably the most cooperative animal on the planet and we tend to forget that sometimes because, particularly in America and particularly in this era in America, we’ve come across this very sad notion, you know, you gotta be tough. You know, you gotta close the borders, you gotta be strong, you gotta crush this guy, you gotta win, win, win. That’s not who human animals are. You know, human animals throughout history have coexisted and have shared and cooperated. And if you look at most ancestral cultures, they were not about accumulation and acquisition and conquering. They were about coexistence, cooperation and learning from each other.”
David Stewart: 0:16
Hey Chris, how are you today?
Chris McDougall: 0:19
I am terrific Good night’s sleep, fresh cup of coffee, sunrise on the beach. Every box ticked off. Where does this podcast find you today finds me on the windward side of Oahu in Hawaii.
David Stewart: 0:31
Windward. Okay, I’m not a sailor. Which direction is that? Oh?
Chris McDougall: 0:33
yeah, sorry. The reason it’s fresh in my mind is we have the trade winds coming in, so we have these howling 25-mile-an-hour winds, so you are very aware of which side of the island you’re on. If you were on the east side, directly across the mountains, from Honolulu, Gotcha, there’s an insane.
David Stewart: 0:50
It’s called Sandy’s Beach. Oh yeah, with that crazy wave that like jacks right up and like smashes you into the sand, AKA Breakneck.
Chris McDougall: 0:58
Beach. Yeah, exactly, yeah, I’m pretty close to.
David Stewart: 1:01
Sandy’s yeah. So what’s your attraction to Hawaii?
Chris McDougall: 1:07
My wife is my big attraction to Hawaii, so she’s from here. She grew up here in Hawaii and we met in Philadelphia more than 25 years ago where she only expected to spend nine months and I never expected to spend any time in Hawaii because my concept of Hawaii was I’d never been here but I figured you know Waikiki resorts big old like adult Disneyland was not interested at all. She was not really interested in Pennsylvania. So somehow our compromise was she spent 25 years there and then we moved here about three years ago.
David Stewart: 1:38
I love, love, love Hawaii. I try to go there like two or three weeks every year in Hawaii. It’s my favorite place, and now I used to go to like Hawaii and I used to do Maui, but now it’s all about Oahu. I just love Oahu. I think it’s amazing. Yeah, and why is that?
Chris McDougall: 1:54
You just like exploring Oahu or is there a particular attraction, like you want to be North Shore or something like that.
David Stewart: 1:57
Well, it’s the variety. So I love Honolulu. I mean people don’t like it when I say this, but it’s an Asian city. It happens to be part of America, but it’s like an Asian city in the middle of nowhere, in the center of the Pacific. But it’s a very cosmopolitan place and then you drive 10 minutes and you’re in a jungle, or you go up to the North Shore and that’s where the wild people live up there. Like I won’t go in by surf, but like in the winter, there’s no way on earth I’m going to that water. That’s just crazy up there.
Chris McDougall: 2:30
I think you nailed exactly the attraction for me as well. So the first time my wife brought me here, I was resisting like crazy, like why don’t you go, I’ll see when you get back. And we finally came and she was smart enough to take me over the mountain into where she were about to come here. Hey, kyloa, you leave the airport, you’re within 10 minutes, you’re in the middle of a mountain and it’s rainforest on either side and you’re on the top of the mountain. They’re coming back down over Coney O’hey Bay and again, in less than the space of a half an hour, you feel like you’re in a completely different planet and that’s what attracted me. And then, the same thing, I can actually have one of Moped. I got a little electric Moped and there’s a beach called Makapu that I can reach in 20 minutes. It feels wild, savage, like undiscovered, and I can get there from my like suburban home and less time that it takes me to go to the supermarket to, you know, pick up groceries.
David Stewart: 3:24
Yeah, if I was a billionaire and have a house there, I just go there all the time on my jet, but I don’t yeah.
Chris McDougall: 3:31
Well, I ain’t, but somehow we figured it out.
David Stewart: 3:34
Yeah, oh, there’s so much I want to talk to you about. We share a pet peeve about cushioned running shoes. I just think they’re a plague. But I understand you share this opinion.
Chris McDougall: 3:45
What’s worse than a plague? I think a plague is being too kind, too kind in a running shoes. Oh, okay, yeah, worse than a, yeah, it’s fine. Well, my own evolution in that thinking, I feel should be universal, because I came in from it from perspective of, like, more is better, more cushioning is better. And the sad thing was I was a writer for runners world. I was a freelance writer but one of my sort of go tos was runners world. I wrote for them pretty regularly and I had absorbed that whole ideology from the running magazines that you know, rotate your shoes every 300 miles. You know, go to the specialty running shoe store and make sure that the specialist looks at your unique gate and gives you just the shoes for you. And then you walk into these stores and is a bewildering wall of footwear Like, oh, I don’t know which one I need to. Naturally your eye gravitates toward. Well, what’s this big thing? You know, this thing looks well armored to protect me and there is this massive deception that more cushioning and more control and more support is better and it is absolutely awful. And the worst thing about it is the science irrefutably back set up. You know, if you talk to any bio mechanism about this. They’re like yeah you, an art support does nothing but weaken your arch. If you have an arch on a building, you know a basic structure of architecture is an arch. Why an arch is a load supporting design. It loads from the top down. You put something underneath an arch. It weakens the arch. So I could spend I could do an entire TED talk right now with a whiteboard about this. But from my perspective I was a freelance writer, did a lot of work for Runners World, was on assignment for Runners World in Mexico where I spent time with the Taramani Indians who run in homemade sandals, and I’m meeting guys in their 70s and 80s, men and women who were just flying up and down these steep canyon climbs in a thin pair of rubber tied onto their foot. And that was my question was how are these guys still moving in 80 without busting up knees and hips and arthritis and these crappy old shoes? And then I realized they are moving into 80s because of the crappy old shoes.
David Stewart: 6:09
Yeah, that’s right. I find we tend to deal with people over 50. And there’s this insanity out there about as you get older, you want more cushion your shoes. Fiddle night launch, the shoe partially involved with which I can’t say that too loud because it’ll cut my head off Called the Cruiser One, this huge cushiony thing, and it’s like putting mittens on your feet. It just knocks out all the sensation about your foot. And as you get older, balance is a really big thing. Well, what’s the main input of balance is the nerves about your feet, and if you put those to sleep, we’ve got these big cushiony things. So, yeah, I started like when I’m in the gym, everything I do is barefoot. I barefoot in my house. I do wear shoes outside, but I try and wear like the least cushy, hardest thing I can find. That just works for me.
Chris McDougall: 7:02
I think it works for everyone. And what’s the first thing everyone does when they get home? They take their shoes off and go. Ah, I’m so glad these things are off my feet. And, like you said, I think what bothers me the most and this is kind of it always applies in every aspect of our lives is this sad human arrogance that we can outthink two million years of evolution, that natural selection has created this unbelievably complex self-healing device. Like the other day I cut myself on the side of my hand. A couple of days later I’m like oh, it’s gone already. It’s unbelievable, it’s like a superpower. My skin will reform magically. If you were watching X-Men, that’s like Wolverine does and my hand does it. So we have this body which has evolved over more than two million years, and yet someone in a shoe lab is smarter than that. I don’t know. Okay, evolution’s good, but my brand new idea that I thought this morning is better than that, and that’s my problem with shoes. We have feet which have adapted as our first early warning signals of everything on the ground about posture and sensation, and yet somehow you know some guy in a shoe lab who’s gotta come up with a new design because it’s sale season is smarter than that.
David Stewart: 8:24
People tell me their back hurts or their shoulders hurt. I just say, like I have somebody. Look at your feet. That’s my guess is that’s where the problem starts.
Chris McDougall: 8:33
I would say, actually, don’t have someone look at your feet, because it’s funny. So you know I’m full on evangelist creature about natural movement and natural foot health. And my wife was having a little difficulty. She was having something a little bit of tendinosis in her foot and she actually went to see a podiatrist and she walked through the door and on the wall is an entire array of devices you know, art supports and pushing insult that they’re selling. And that’s the first thing that Dr Souther talked about was about orthotics and pushing this and pushing that. And she came up, came over. I actually seriously disappointed because what she was hoping for were exercises and movements and what she got were devices and crutches and she’s like, yeah, it’s as bad as I thought it was. And so I was kind of like, yeah, well, that’s what’s going on out there.
David Stewart: 9:26
I know you talk a lot about food too. I want to get your thoughts on something here that I sort of go back and forth on protein. What are your thoughts on how much protein, what kind of protein? There seems to be a wide array of opinion on this.
Chris McDougall: 9:41
It’s a fascinating topic and I really wrestle with it because my first book, born to Run, was based upon the Tarumala in the Deep Copper Canyons of Mexico, and they are essentially or largely vegetarian. They live on basically chia and sort of heritage, corn product, pinole and whatever kind of vegetables and root products they can scavenge or harvest down in the Copper Canyons. It’s very hostile environments and they live on a minimalist, almost exclusively vegetarian diet, with the occasional goat sacrifice on a sort of regular basis for holidays hey, there’s a goat, let’s have a goat barbecue. And they are sensationally healthy, fantastic endurance athletes with great quality of life deep into old age. But then the next book I did was called Natural Born Heroes, where I spent a lot of time on the Greek island of Crete and was looking at World War II resistance fighters. Crete was one place that had a sensational story about average citizens who rose up to resist the German occupation. Again, these are not trained soldiers, these are just citizens who overnight, literally from one week to the next, went from being citizens into being military operatives against the most formidable army on the planet. And so my question was well, how do you do that Physically, how do you turn yourself into a super soldier. And one of the things I looked at was diet, and they are essentially on the Mediterranean diet, which has a substantial amount of animal protein at its base. You start talking about that fist-sized chunk of protein which should be at the center of a meal. So I’m trying to make these two things exist in my brain. We’ll have to get a Theromata great athletes vegetarian, and the Cretans great athletes, who have a Mediterranean diet. And one thing that was important for me about both of these cultures is that these were ancestral diets. It’s not something like fad. They did for 20 years. This has been going on for hundreds and thousands of years. And where I ultimately landed was essentially where Michael Pollan has been for years, which is eat real food, mostly vegetables, not too much, and that to me, in those nine words, he sort of summarized what it’s all about. As humans, we are lucky to be the great bottom feeders of the planet. The reason why we can exist anywhere on planet Earth and beyond is we can do pretty well on anything. If you stick you up in Alaska with the Inuit and you got to eat blubber for a couple of years, you’ll be fine. You put you down the Copper Canyon and you’re eating heritage corn, you’ll be fine. So I think the thing is we have an extraordinarily adaptable digestive system, but for me where it lands is a mindful approach to eating. I personally land on that fist size of protein that becomes, for me personally, the basis of my diet. My wife genetically comes from diabetic and hypertension heritage in her family, and so she’s cut out meat almost entirely. A little bit of fish on occasion, that’s it, and I feel like we’re both thriving. So that’s basically where I landed on it. I think it comes down to that question. I think you cannot really defend meat eating on a moral basis at all. It is essentially, if you want to be crude about it, like cannibalism. It is as offensive a moral shortcoming for us as humans as can be. At the same time, on a day-to-day practical basis, I still indulge myself in a chunk of some kind of flesh, usually fish. I haven’t swapped it out for a substitute. So that was a pretty lengthy answer to your question, but I think the mindfulness and the reduction of the meat intake is where it’s at.
David Stewart: 13:45
Yeah, one of the things that comes to mind is you’re speaking about these two different cultures is their genetics. So in their microbiomes they very well be optimized for the food that they’re eating. I was in Nepal once and I remember the Sherpa who was leading my thing. They would eat a dalbat, which is lentils and rice, and they would occasionally have a chunk of yak or something, but rarely and he was telling me he’d come to America for a little while and he just couldn’t manage the food and he also couldn’t manage the temperatures. Anything over about 70 degrees for a Nepali is just intolerable. But I sort of feel like these diets the sort of blue zone stuff and all that there is you said their heritage diets and the population, the diets are optimized for their genetics and for their biomes. I sort of wonder about these things, about when people say you should eat the XYZ diet. I think in general I’m sort of a Mediterranean diet guy, but I know people who are incredible athletes that consume maybe 60 grams of protein a day and they’re vegetarians and I can’t do that. I’m not optimized for that.
Chris McDougall: 15:02
I think David too has said where the big misconception comes is. There’s a lot of focus on protein and maybe not as much on the high glycemic foods, and to me that’s like the real issue. Oh yeah, you know high glycemic foods, so you know where you follow the protein question, whether animal protein or a tofu, a plant-based protein. I think it’s an interesting question but to me it’s really secondary, like have you gotten your blood sugar under control? You know we recommend a thing called the two-we test, developed by a guy named Phil Moffatone. You might be familiar with it and to me that was the big revelation because you know, phil Moffatone is kind of a 70s kind of hippie in temperament and but he’s trained some of the greatest endurance athletes of his generation and beyond. And he goes like you know I don’t want to argue with people, I don’t want to scream and yell this. You know vegetarian, that protein. So he goes do the two-week test. Remove all the high glycemic foods from your diet for two weeks and then at two weeks reintroduce them and see how you feel. So at the end of two weeks, you know have a half a bagel. Do you suddenly feel sluggish and sleepy? Maybe you shouldn’t be in the bagel, but what I love about it is it’s that factory reset, because we have so many calories splashing around in our system we don’t really know what’s causing it. What if I’m sleeping in the afternoon? Is it because I didn’t get enough sleep, or is it because of the donut, or what is it? But you remove the high glycemic foods for two weeks and then you can see what’s actually optimizing your sensations and your performance. We’re in total alignment like that.
David Stewart: 16:34
That’s when everybody asks me about foods. It’s like that’s immediately where I go. Yeah figure out your sugars first, and then, where you know, stop with the high glycemic, right? Yeah, exactly, that’s because let’s get rid of the stuff that’s hurting you before we start adding the stuff that may give benefit.
Chris McDougall: 16:49
I think that’s what ties in with like cushioning shoes. You know, before you go to a maximum cushion, let’s just see how your foot performs and then you add protection as necessary. Don’t go to the nuclear response first, yeah.
David Stewart: 16:58
That’s right. I want to go to this idea of the hero, which is something that’s really prominent in a lot of your work. What is a hero to you?
Chris McDougall: 17:08
That was a question that I had to sit on for some time when I was researching Born to Run. I kind of threw out a pretty wide research net to grab all the books about running I can lay my hands on, and this was back in 2004 and the bookshelf was actually pretty thin. There were not many books about running available and the books you got were all the same kind of archaic. You know, practical advice like you know, make sure you vaseline your nipples so you don’t get chafed. You know, go to the specialty running shoe store. So there really was not much material available in print, but there were a lot of books available out of print. So I was going on Abe Books, which was an online resource for out of print books, and anything that seemed to be cool about running I could grab. I did it, and so I was finding all kinds of really interesting books about the guy named Percy Serity, who was this wacky New Zealand trainer who actually trained the best Olympians of his time, arthur Littier. And I came up a book across, a book called the Cretan Runner, and there wasn’t much of a description, so I just bought it and it was, like, you know, four or five bucks. And when the book came I realized, oh, this isn’t actually about running at all, it was about foot messenger going World War II. So I kind of pushed it aside. I wrote Born to Run and then, when I was sort of cleaning up my research library afterwards, I came across this book which I hadn’t read. And then, before getting ready, I read it for the first time. And that’s when I discovered this whole crazy story about these Greek civilians who became these resistance fighters. And one guy in particular was a guy named George Seacondakis who would run these like 100 miles across the mountains, deliver a message to the resistance. Get the reply run 100 miles back and I go. How the hell are you doing this, man? That’s 200 miles through Nazi occupied territory without like aid stations. And so I started to dig into it and what became apparent was in Greece, but especially in Crete, there was something known as the art of the hero. This is something that people are actually educated in, and the idea was and again it was so blindingly apparent when I put myself into their shoes was on Crete, there was like no police force, there’s no fire department, there was no standing army. Everybody was responsible for everyone else. So if your house was on fire, if your neighbor didn’t help, your house is gone. If someone’s stealing your donkey and your neighbor doesn’t help, the donkey is gone. So everyone has to have both the moral and personal responsibility, but also the physical capability of responding to a crisis. And on Crete so Crete being an isolated island which had been under assault by Italians and Cyprians and Europeans forever Everyone’s always trying to invade Crete, and so the Cretans had developed this art of the hero where they were physically and morally capable of stepping up for each other. And this is something that young people are trained in from the time they’re little kids. There is actually the word on Crete for citizen in the Cretan dialect is actually runner. A person who can actually run to someone else’s aid is a citizen, and it’s called the Dramenogroi, which is citizen, and before that you’re anti-Dramemoi, which is not quite a citizen yet. So everyone is under like 16 years old, you’re not a runner yet kid, but when you’re 17, 18 years old, you are capable of stepping up. So that became fascinating to me, and where it left me in the end was I wrote that book, natural Born Heroes, and what I was looking at was where this tradition of educating people to be responsible for each other where else it springs up in the world. And to me it comes down to three things there’s a physical side, there’s a mental side and there’s basically a spiritual side or a soulful side. You have to be physically capable, physically fit, you have to be skillful, you have to be adaptive and smart and, lastly, you have to be compassionate and wanting to make this assistance. And if you go back through Greek mythology, we have a sense of Hercules being super strong. No, hercules was cunning as hell. Most of the time when Hercules had a challenge, he was outsmarting his opposition. Also, hercules was extraordinarily compassionate. And so when you look at Greek mythology you don’t see the big old like Dwayne Johnson’s the Rocks Actually, I’ll take that back. Dwayne Johnson’s a pretty good example of a guy. In his film image is very smart, very strong and very compassionate. I have no idea if the guy’s like that in real life, but he embodies essentially what the Greek ideal of the hero was.
David Stewart: 21:50
Fascinating. It sounds like what you’re where you’re going with this. Is this mission for something greater than yourself? That it’s about the others. I mean.
Chris McDougall: 21:58
That’s completely right. You know one thing when you look at the human animal, there are two things that we are really good at. We are extraordinarily adaptive, you know we’re very creative and ingenious. But secondly, we’re extraordinarily cooperative. You know we are there. What is the internet all about? It’s about trading stuff, trading images, trading thoughts, trading ideas. We are probably the most cooperative animal on the planet and we tend to forget that sometimes because, particularly in America and particularly in this era in America, we’ve come across this very sad notion. You know you gotta be tough. You know you gotta close the borders, you gotta be strong, you gotta crush this guy, you gotta win, win, win. That’s not who human animals are. You know human animals throughout history have coexisted and have shared and cooperated. And if you look at most ancestral cultures, they were not about accumulation and acquisition and conquering. They were about coexistence, cooperation and learning from each other. And that, to me, is what that mission is all about. If you can, if you look at the real foundation you know not the distortions of religion that we have sort of clung to today but if you look at the actual foundations and the actual original teachings of every major religion, what’s it all about. Don’t be an asshole, be nice, be nice, you know I mean I love that whole parable. You know that was at the root of Christianity. You know that when the Pharisees come to Jesus and they go which of the 10 commandments you know is number one to try and trick him, he’s like actually none of the above Golden rule. Treat everyone else the way you want to be treated. Like that’s it. The entire Bible can be summed up in about 17 words. So that idea of mission, I think you can take spirituality, it put on a very non-spiritual basis, on an evolutionary basis, which is humans do best when they are caring and thoughtful for each other and they do the worst when they are domineering and antagonistic.
David Stewart: 23:59
So, which brings me to the idea of something probably you and I both identify with when do you know when to stop? You know you’re describing these people running 100 miles each way, doing these amazing things. When do you know when? Okay, that’s enough. We need to stop now.
Chris McDougall: 24:15
I think the question is asking yourself what caused you to start, and that’s the real question. You know what is your motivation, and I see it a lot too. I got into the ultra-marathon world and if you start to talk to ultra-marathoners, there’s a lot of divorces in the ultra-marathon world and I see a lot too from people who are doing charity runs. You know, I’m gonna run a marathon a day for 50 days so I can create exposure for neurological disease. Or I’m gonna run around America to raise awareness of diabetes and I go. Are you really trying to raise awareness of diabetes or are you just really enjoying running around America? And so that’s my question. It’s not when this person should stop, it’s what’s causing them to start in the first place. Are you escaping something else? Are you neglecting something else? And that’s my thing. If you have created that balance in your life where you are not imposing your egotism on those around you in order to pursue your hobby, you’re good to go. But if other people have to sacrifice so you can run a hundred-mile-a-week every week throughout the year, maybe it’s time to dial it back. On a physical basis, I don’t think there’s any reason to stop if you enjoy it. Well, let me I’ll back it up a second. So I just stopped something very recently. I stopped playing pick up basketball this year and I thought I would never stop. I thought they had to wheel me off the court in a stretcher and the reason I stopped and maybe this is the better answer to the question is because I realized I was on. I plateaued on the learning curve Like I realized, oh, you know what, I’m not getting better and I’m never gonna get better, like I’ve peaked and I’m as good as I’m ever gonna get. And I kind of didn’t like it. Because there’s a pickup game that I love here. It’s every Sunday morning, 7 am. I would be there at 6.30, warming up, good to go. 7 am on a Sunday. I’m ready to go hard. What I realized is, if I’m missing this shot, I’m like, oh, okay, next week I’ll be back. That shot’s back on. And it’s not back on. Like you know, that lefty hook, I’m not getting it and consistently not getting it. And I realized, ah, that’s it. I’ll probably never get that lefty hook, as good as I want it to be, and that was kind of a downer. So I decided to stop playing pick up ball and my wife was like startled. I just came out and go. You know what I’m done? She’s like sure you are. That was it, and I think what I decided to do was substitute another activity where I could beat the bottom end of the learning slope. I’d rather start and learn, rather than just kind of cruise along, you know being not as good as I want to be.
David Stewart: 27:15
What do I identify with that? That’s how I did with surfing. I surfed like every day for five years and then it was like, okay, that’s it, I’m done. So I love my surfboards and you know I did that with like skating and a lot of it. My current fixation is master ski racing, which I started last year and there’s a lot of curve ahead on that. But I know that day is going to happen where I just come in and my wife is like used to it. She’s just like, yep, one day you’re going to walk in and it’s going to be all done, it’s all stuff. We’re going to do something else.
Chris McDougall: 27:43
That’s the important thing is you got something in the other chamber ready, you know, locked and loaded. Something else is catching your eye.
David Stewart: 27:50
Yeah, which brings me to this idea of thinking about doing hard things, so thinking about some. There’s a sort of a thing that’s easy to fall into as one gets a little older, which is this idea of like total comfort. So we’re sort of it sort of goes with the sneaker thing right Like softer, more comfortable. How can I have less stress, take on less things and you know which is the very softest chair that I can sit in, because that’s defined as like the best when in fact this is not so great. Talk to me a little bit about taking on hard things.
Chris McDougall: 28:26
I was at a conference once at Harvard and I was going to be on a panel with Dan Lieberman, who’s a evolutionary biologist, and a guy named Dr John Rady, who is an evolutionary psychiatrist, and me and we had a little green room gathering with, like, the president of Harvard and some other people before we went on stage and while we were there, this guy, dr Rady, whom I’d never met before, kind of puts his consoling hand on my shoulder and goes yeah, I imagine academic environments are probably pretty stressful for you because of your ADHD. And I look at him and go I’m not ADHD. And he goes yeah, you are. I go wow, I was pretty offensive, you know, like thinking to myself, and he just kind of broke it down for me. He’s like I watch you. You barrel through the door, you’re a 10 minute slate, your back’s covered in sweat. You grabbed like two sandwiches. You almost knocked over the president of Harvard, didn’t even see her. You met four people in three minutes and I’m like, oh yeah, suddenly in my life makes perfect sense now. Oh, thank you, doctor. But I think what caught my eye about that was that it was this glimmer of something else, like, oh hey, if I’m in the car. I’m always looking at the window. Look at that like mountain. It wouldn’t be cool to go up that mountain Just to check it out. Or look at that surf break Like wouldn’t it be cool just to swim out just to check it out. And to me, I think that the do hard things comes camouflaged in a do fun stuff you haven’t tried before, and that’s where it is to me. So you know, if you point me to something like 40 pound kettlebell, it’s okay. You know, do 100 deadlifts with a 40 pound kettlebell? And, being there, done that kind of know what it is already. If I can count it, I don’t really want to do it, but if I’ve never tried it before, suddenly that’s what gives me juke’s stop. So I think I found the mechanism to keep me on that upward learning curve of just whatever tingles my ADHD and like, hey, man, let me get out of this chair and go run after that. Where it’s put me, though, in a practical sense, is that your eye just starts to then seek out those opportunities. So it’s not like I’m seeking hard things, I’m seeking new things, I’m seeking like exploratory things, and that’s it Basically. That’s, you know, it’s beautiful as sugar with the medicine, like I don’t think it was being hard, I think it was being kind of cool, cool and interesting and new.
David Stewart: 31:00
That’s such an interesting take on this Is what you’re describing is sort of ongoing beginner’s mindset, and then once a certain level of mastery is brought, then it’s like, well, my learning curve is not what it was and I really get off on the learning curve. It’s that, it’s that right.
Chris McDougall: 31:18
And a big part of the learning curve is once you’ve done it, though it takes a long time before you feel mastery. So here’s an example. So what Dove tailed with my abandonment of pickup basketball was a beginning of body surfing. So when we first came to Hawaii, I remember telling my wife, like you know what I’m going to, like this, I’m a really good body surfer. And she’s like you have no idea what you’re talking about because I came from like Jersey Shore. Oh right, background of like body surfing was, like you know, a waist high wave and you plank out and you just slide into the sand. I mean, I’m really good at that. She’s like you’re in for an eye opener, my friend. So she took me to Sandy’s breakneck beach and I’m watching dudes dive into double overhead barrels and there’s like no water underneath them. Like what are they doing? And you know, my eyes shot up like that’s cool. So I started to get into body surfing and actually where I met Drew, our mutual acquaintance, who brought us together, was at a place called Point Panic Like the name alone basically tells the story. And Point Panic is a body surfing only break on the Wahoo and yeah, it is massive waves which rockets straight toward a stone jetty, and the first time you go out there like, does anybody actually survive this? Like what’s the mortality rate on this thing? That became my fascination. So now that I’ve been body surfing, I’ll look it away and I go cool, I want to try it Now. Once I’ve tried it, though, the first thing I think of is 15 things I could have done better. You know, if I’d only done this, this and this, so I want to get back on that wave. Now there’s like 20 things I could have done better. So the more knowledgeable you get about the challenge, the more you realize how you’re underperforming. So to me, that’s where that learning slope can go on. It’s Himalayan, you know, and it’s wise, because the better you get, the better you could be Boy.
David Stewart: 33:12
Do I identify with that? Yeah, as you sort of go up that curve from novice to beginner to some level of skill, to expert, to master, to virtuoso, you still realize, like, even if your skill level is awesome, that upper level is where you get to sort of riff on the thing of whatever you’re doing and that’s endless. Yeah, I really enjoy that. I can’t say I’m like a particular… Well, I’m good with a camera, yeah, but in that realm I’m one of those people. But with the physical stuff, no, not yet.
Chris McDougall: 33:47
Well that brings. One last aspect too is that at the point of my career where I feel like I’m pretty skilled as a writer, my tool set is pretty solid for what I do, and now what I really actually enjoy is sharing that with other people. So one of the things I like the most is when kids have got to write their college admissions essays friends of my own kids. It’s kind of a horrible situation they’re put into because suddenly here you go. This is all the eggs, all the chips are on a table. Describe yourself in 650 words, what the hell? That’s an impossible challenge for a 17 year old, and so I really enjoy telling kids here’s how you break it down. You know, here’s your beginning, middle and end. Here are the things about your life. So once you get to that point, I’m not going to say I’m quite virtuoso. You know I haven’t gotten that 10,000 hours of writing where I feel I’m a virtuoso, but I feel like my skillset, my carpentry skills, are solid enough that I can teach other people how to use the tools. You know, here’s how you let the hammer do the work for you. You know, don’t push the saw. And so with writing, which I feel is probably my strongest asset. That’s something that I also get a pleasure out of now sharing that.
David Stewart: 34:58
Absolutely the mentoring thing, 100%. Let’s talk a little bit about you did work coverage, conflict journalism. Yeah, you know the Associated Press for a bunch of years.
Chris McDougall: 35:07
Yeah, what motivated you to do that? So it’s a good question, and it sort of makes me throw my mind back into my 20s and 30s, where primarily it was the latter, like this is what you do next. So if you are a journalist, you want to be a foreign correspondent, because those were the cool guys, and if you’re a foreign correspondent you want to be a conflict reporter, because those are even cooler guys. So I was able to get a job as an Associated Press correspondent in Spain and then took over as the head correspondent in Portugal. And while in Portugal wars broke out in the former Portuguese colonies in Africa and Angola and Mozambique. So I had the opportunity hey, you want to parachute in and cover the Angola and Mozambican Civil Wars? So you responded absolutely, because that’s career promotion, it’s extraordinary independence, because when you’re on the ground, that’s it. Back then this was in the 90s you didn’t have cell phones available, so barely had satellite telephones. Almost all of your communication was through a satellite, telex, which is one way I would write a report and send it one way by telex back to New York, and there was no return information. So you’re out in the field on your own. So that’s a really intoxicating offer for a 23 year old writer. You go off, you find the stories, you are the ultimate expert because nobody else is out there. And for your profession, david, as photographers, as reporters, we were like, oh man, as photographers are really out there because you guys had to get the image. I could always circle back, talk to people and get the story, but the photographers had to be on the spear’s tip, where it’s actually happening, to get the image. So as reporters, we used to always be like man. As photographers, man, they really got it rough because we were always a quarter mile behind you guys. But what attracted me to it, I think, was largely ignorance. I did not know what it meant. Once I was in that world it became pride and self-importance because you start to think there’s not many of us out here doing this for a reason. I think the reason is not what we think, it is. In my pride back then I thought, well, hey, the reason I’m here is because I’m braver, I’m more adaptable, I’m more knowledgeable, I can survive in this environment and figure things out and give good news reports. But I didn’t realize is because of the price you really pay that you only find out about later. No-transcript. Only now really people start to talk about what happens to people who are absorbing a lot of shared human misery, and it’s an interesting environment. We’re now where people can actually see this online where you couldn’t see it before. But if you were in the field, you’re seeing this, you’re taking it in and you’re you know You’re paying praise for it. You didn’t realize when you signed on.
David Stewart: 38:16
I just on a level set here. I was a photographer at a really high level for a long time. I did not do conflict like I did pretty people on magazine covers. In the conflict people were just a Whole different animal and I was not. I was not wired that way. Just to be clear on that.
Chris McDougall: 38:36
Yeah, I think the wire, though, is also Eternus. You know, it’s not so much that I think a lot of people as people who stay in the profession I might be wired that way. A lot people first get into it because, oh, that’s the cool thing, off I go, and then it’s very hard to let it go.
David Stewart: 38:49
Oh yeah, I should. I want to touch on Sherman, which is an entirely different Thing. Who Sherman? So Sherman is my daughter’s rescue, donkey my at the time nine-year-old daughter’s rescue donkey, tell me I know there’s a whole book out there, but briefly, what was your attraction to Sherman? What was Sherman’s condition when you met Sherman and Sherman’s transition?
Chris McDougall: 39:13
This to me was one of the most fascinating Assignments I’ve ever had, because I didn’t know it was a writing assignment at the time. It only became a writing assignment when an editor that I worked with at the New York Times Called me up one day and she was kind of canvassing for fresh story ideas and a fresh column. And I happen to be on my way to the dentist and I’m like, yeah, I actually pulled over to talk to Tara and Just told her what was going on in my life and she’s like, oh yeah, that’s gonna be a good book. I go, it’s not a book, this is actually something. I’m not even sure if it’s gonna last another week. And the situation was that where we lived was a very rural Pocket of Pennsylvania called Peach Bottom. At Peach Bottom is an Amish community in the middle of nowhere and all of our neighbors were Amish and Mennonite. We had just kind of stumbled into this community by accident my wife and I are moving out of Philly and we thought we can live anywhere and we just found this cool log cabin in the middle of nowhere and jumped in with both feet before you realized, oh, this is a real departure, but we really liked it. You know, we spent 20 years on that little farm and One year when my daughter was nine, we were out on a hike through the woods and this woman comes bursting out of the woods Riding a donkey which none of us had ever seen before. You know, donkeys are not an east coast animal, they’re like a rocky mountain. You know west coast animal, not east coast. And it’s like a cool, sturdy little miniature horse. It’s like a kid sized horse. So we all were kind of enchanted by this woman and her riding donkey, with that with the saddle, and we all forgot about, except for my daughter who’s nine and it kind of lodged in her brain and like that’s be the coolest thing in the world. So for her 10th birthday we’re like hey, what do you want? She was like a donkey. My first thought was like dude, you’re not getting a donkey. But then I thought yeah, you know why not? We got the acreage, we got the fences, why not? So we started asking around and one of our neighbors, a Mennonite Farmer, said actually we’ve got somebody we know that has a donkey and we got to get it out of his hands. He was a hoarder. So I thought, perfect, you know, free donkey dynamite. And then we went to look at it. This was not the charming little galloping, clip-clopping donkey that my daughter was envisioning. This was a desperately sick, nicolected animal who’d been locked in a stall for years, with hooves that were so like, monstrously overgrown, that they looked like downhill skis and matted fur. And it’s a dead a dead glaze in its eyes. And it was living in a dark, muddy stall. And my first thought was like man, we don’t. I don’t think this thing’s gonna survive. But we ended up taking insurance, I mean. The second thought was we’re not leaving here, so we take in Sherman. And that same woman that we met on the trail. I tracked her down because you’re the only person I know that has a donkey. So I found this woman, tanya, and I said what do we do? And that’s what she said. You know, this donkey needs a job. It’s got to have a reason to walk out the door and move every day. And I don’t know, job or no donkey, I don’t know. I’m gonna do it this thing. And then I thought well, I run every day. If I can get this donkey to run next to me and meet my running partner, then maybe we can get it moving again. And that began the whole evolution. Like can we turn Sherman into my running partner? And it’s anybody who’s got any familiarity with donkeys knows and that’s not many of you, but you know that the best way to solve a problem with a donkey is throw more donkeys at the problem, because they’re herd animals. So if you want one donkey to do something, we’ll get two others and together they’ll all do it. So we ended up creating this little Three donkey running pack with me and my wife Mika, and our friend Zeke, who was taking time off from school for some mental health issues, and the six of us three donkeys and three horrifically unprepared humans Became a slower running pack.
David Stewart: 42:57
I love that story. Chris, is there anything you want to leave my people with today?
Chris McDougall: 43:01
Well, you know, I love the conversation, I love the, the preparation you’ve done and I think maybe the takeaway, if there’s one little nugget to glean, is, you know, seeking out fun. And I think you know, maybe in our health and Longevity quest we look at it as a burden and a job as opposed to Fun and excitement. And I think there’s a through line for everything I’ve done in my life. It’s like, hey, what’s the most amount of fun I can get out of this? I think when most people look at exercise, it becomes a downward spiral like I ought to, and then I over did it, and now I’m sore, and now I don’t want to do it, and now I didn’t do it enough. And it’s a downward spiral of Self-doubt and self-recrimination as opposed to hey, that was pretty good, I could probably do more than that, I can’t wait till tomorrow, and then I was really fun. Maybe you run a little more slowly, maybe you run with a friend who’s slower than you, maybe you run a little bit shorter than you wanted to. That becomes an upward spiral, like can’t wait to do more, as opposed to a downward spiral like that did too much I.
David Stewart: 44:03
Think that is so well said. One of my personal bugbearers is sort of fitness shaming and I think that, yeah, we all like to optimize ourselves, but can we have some fun here?
Chris McDougall: 44:16
Yeah, you know something, my man, you’re kind of guilty that yourself too, you know.
David Stewart: 44:19
I am, I’m one of those people. All right, I’m, I can, I can speak with authority on this topic.
Chris McDougall: 44:30
Right yeah, but he was without sin, right yeah. That’s the cool thing about it is maybe the caveat of that is you enjoyed it so much, it’s hard to stop.
David Stewart: 44:42
Exactly, chris. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, what would they do?
Chris McDougall: 44:46
Look, online Chris McDougallcom. Chris McDougall, author on social media, I’m out there, not not that hard to find two L’s in McDougall, that’s.
David Stewart: 44:55
that’s the trick Gosh, it’s been so fun talking to you. Drew told me, hey, I’m at, this really cool guy you should talk to him, and I said, yeah, this Chris seems really awesome. Let’s bring him on.
Chris McDougall: 45:04
I’m glad you felt that way!
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