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Stranger Than Fiction
Five years in the lives of Born to Run's colorful cast of characters

By Yitka Winn

Photo by Ryan Heffernan / Aurora Photos

I’d been a frontline witness to the phenomenon, having worked in the footwear department of Seattle’s REI flagship store from mid-2009 to mid-2011. For several years, the store was the only local carrier of the Vibram Fivefingers, the minimalist shoes that Barefoot Ted was described as sometimes wearing in Born to Run. During those years, the words on every approaching customer’s tongue were, “Do you have those shoes with the toes?” followed by, “See, I read this book … ”

My job morphed from shoebox slinger to barefoot-running philosophizer, running-form advisor and in-house Born to Run expert. Everyone wanted to talk about the book. People would show up to the store, announce they’d chucked all their running shoes out the window, signed up for an ultramarathon and were ready to buy some Fivefingers, please.

Had it been McDougall’s intention to ignite the so-called “barefoot-running debate” that continues to rage five years later? Not really. His goal, he says, was simply to get people to consider the possibility that running could be enjoyable—and, in his case, losing the shoes helped him do that.

“Most of the time when you see running depicted,” he says, “it’s punishment. It’s this awful thing you have to do in order to accomplish something else. Yet I know the experience is the exact opposite—it’s fun—and there wasn’t anything out there that portrayed running that way.”

And who better to paint that picture than the oddball protagonists who found their way into the pages of Born to Run? In many ways, the characters seem like caricatures of themselves—in the words of the Denver Post, “so mind-blowing as to be the stuff of legend.”

Perhaps they were grounded in some truth, but it seemed to many readers they’d been exaggerated to their extremes, like political-cartoon renderings: the peaceful, corn-beer-chugging Tarahumara, the eccentric Barefoot Ted, the young party animals Jenn Shelton and Billy “Bonehead” Barnett, the humble ultrarunner phenom Scott Jurek and, of course, the mystical, larger-than-life figure of Caballo Blanco, a gringo runner who’d run away to the Copper Canyon to live and run free amongst the Tarahumara.

I couldn’t help but wonder, are they really all like that?

Through their involvement in the book Born to Run, these characters—who were, in fact, real people, and not really “characters” at all—had become instruments in a movement far bigger than themselves. I wanted to know, how did they feel about that? How had the book and its blockbuster success affected their lives? And, above all, I wanted to know …

Where are they now?


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