“Natural Born Heroes”: Athletic Bookworm Review + Favorite Lessons
June’s Athletic Bookworm read was “Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance” by Christopher McDougall, and it was a good one for heading into a summer of adventure! So many people have read McDougall’s earlier book, Born To Run, and got hella into ultrarunning as a result (I know it made me sign up for an ill-advised trail marathon back in the day!), but Natural Born Heroes will make you do even crazier $hit. For me, reading it a couple years ago—that’s right, this month was a re-read for me!—made me sign up for Parkour classes.
But back to the book. Those of you who read it know that similar to Born to Run, there’s a single story that weaves its way through the book, though McDougall explores other topics and tangents as he goes. It’s about a band of ‘misfits’ in World War II who decide to kidnap a general (!)… In the process, they’re practicing the art of being old school heroes in the perfect place for it—Greece. From a shepherd scampering along the cliffs for hours at a time to modern-day Parkour in the UK, from eating stewed roots in seaside caves to modern-day foraging, it’s a really cool progression from a crazy historical account to ‘how can I try this as well?’
It made me try Parkour (I have the stamina but none of the grace) and even last year, I’d say it influenced my desire to do Ironman again, and this year, it got me more pumped on the mountain running race I have coming up. It helped me get through being eaten alive by bugs last month when we hiked La Cloche.
OK, a few of my favorite lines / moments (but it’s SO worth reading the entire book because it’s so well-written and such a cool story!)
“The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue.”
This is essentially the basis for this book, and ultimately, the reason for our podcast, The Consummate Athlete. When we started the podcast, our point was to try to learn about a ton of different sports, styles of movement, ways of training, plus nutrition and recovery so that we could effectively jump into pretty much any game or sport or race and be competent at it. Not great, but get it done and have fun. That’s a little less heroic than the examples that the book provides, but I think our podcast does sort of teach how to be set up to handle whatever the world throws at you.
Peter and I have both been super into functional movement training for a while, and it’s part of why I prefer trails to roads, and body weight training to lifting heavy most of the time. (And pullups. So many pullups.)
(Another example that McDougall delves into: “Être fort pour être utile,” Georges Hébert says, which translates to “be fit to be useful.”)
The Art of Charm
One of the protagonists, Xan, is describing another one of the heroes, Paddy, and his ramblings around Europe pre-war. “I had tramped across Europe to reach Greece; like him, I had been almost penniless during that long arduous holiday—but there the similarity between our travels ended, for whereas I was often forced to sleep out of doors, in ditches, haystacks or on public benches, Paddy’s charm and resourcefulness had made him a welcome guest wherever he went and his itinerary was dotted with the châteaux, palazzi and Schlösser in which he had been put up before moving on to his next chance host.”
This part particularly spoke to me because I’ve spent a lot of years now living a fairly nomadic lifestyle, and while I can’t say I’m anywhere near as charming as Paddy is described, I have realized that to be welcomed into a host house (or welcomed back to one), it’s never really about who you are or what you’ve done/are doing—if you can honestly be curious and care about your host’s lives and opinions, you’re going to enjoy your stay a lot more—and likely be invited back!
“One has also to imagine the impact of Paddy on an old count from eastern Europe, barely able to live off his much-diminished lands and keep the roof on a house stocked with paintings and furniture that harked back to better days,” the writer Artemis Cooper, Paddy’s longtime friend, would later explain. “A scruffy young Englishman with a rucksack turns up on the doorstep, recommended by a friend. He is polite, cheerful, and he cannot hear enough about the family history. He pores over the books and albums in the library, and asks a thousand questions about the princely rulers, dynastic marriages, wars and revolts and waves of migration that shaped that part of the world. He wants to hear about the family portraits, too, and begs the Count to remember the songs the peasants used to sing when he was a child. Instead of feeling like a useless fragment of a broken empire, the Count is transformed. This young Englishman has made him realize that he is part of a living history, a link in an unbroken chain going back to Charlemagne and beyond.”
The Outlaw Outlook
“What fueled it all was a kind of Outlaw Outlook: Instead of relying on laws passed down from some god or a king, let’s think like outlaws. Let’s think for ourselves. An outlaw outlook calls on every citizen to create, not conform; to decide what is right and wrong and act on it, not just baa along with the rest of the herd. Outlaws have to be poised, smart, and independent; they have to cultivate allies, assess risk, and keep their antennae fine-tuned tuned to everyone and everything around them. Outlaws focus on what people can do, not what they shouldn’t.”
As a former punk kid, this obviously spoke to me! I love this concept (and it reminds me of the episode we did about Krav Maga and awareness). Even though obviously the modern world has changed the way we can be aware, smart and independent thinkers, in a lot of ways, it’s easier than ever to not think for ourselves and just get swept along with the tides. So I think there is a great call to action, or at least, to preparedness, in this book that we can learn from.
It made me think about today’s political climate as much as it made me think about my next adventure plans, and that’s the kind of book that is absolutely worth reading again and again.
If you want to catch up, get your copy here: Natural Born Heroes
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