Philadelphia-bred author Christopher McDougall sold two million copies of his 2009 book “Born to Run” and influenced runners all over the world to ditch their clunky running shoes for lighter ones or no shoes at all. Earlier this month, he released “Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance.” McDougall, a one-time Philly Mag writer, tells the story of average Cretans during World War II who resisted the Nazis, plotting to recapture a beloved general from behind enemy lines. Rather than focus on what they did, he turns to how they kept their bodies in shape to do it: Following practices of the great athletes of Ancient Greece. McDougall then goes around the world to find athletes doing the same today, and shows how everyday people can follow the same regimen.
McDougall, who grew up in Upper Darby and attended St. Joseph’s Prep, will be speaking at the Penn Museum tonight at 6. He’ll also be running with the group Run215 at 5 for anyone who wants to join. The route starts and ends at the Penn Museum. Billy Penn caught up with one of the nation’s most famous runners to talk about his new book, his favorite running route in Philadelphia, the Broad Street Run and much more. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you get the idea for “Natural Born Heroes?”
I was intrigued by underground distance fighters. We alway focus on the exploits and the recklessness. I was intrigued by the physical demands, and it was kind of similar with “Born To Run.” It was how could a tribe of indians run 200 miles, and we can’t. With the resistance movement, how do these guys live off the land and run for insane distances?
Some of the “everyday heroes” from your book live in Pennsylvania. Who are they?
It’s a really weird coincidence. I was a little intrigued by parkour. It was right at the time I was mulling how do I find more about this, and I was up at a drugstore not far from my home in Lancaster and see these guys vaulting and flipping through the air. So I checked it out went to talk to them. They were in parkour and said they learned from a guy in the U.K. So I started from them in Lancaster and then went to the U.K. to learn from the source.
“Born to Run” is all about the minimalist movement and barefoot running. Did you ever run barefoot in Philly?
Just about everywhere. Many times. I did an event with the Fishtown Beer Runners. (Co-founder and president of the Fishtown Beer Runners) David April and I were talking about doing something together. I said, ‘You set off from Fishtown,’ and I set off from Head House books and started running up Delaware Avenue, doing it barefoot. I did most of the (Holiday Light Run) with Beer Runners barefoot. Philadelphia is great for barefoot running. It’s amazing how clean the streets are in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is a great running city, an amazing running city. Streets are wide and there are tons of parks around. You expect to run through more debris.
Did you ever do the Broad Street Run when you lived here?
I did it back in the late ’90s. I love the iconic races. There are a sprinkling of these O.G. races around the country. That’s sort of my dream one day to do all the classic, iconic races. Broad Street’s a party, man. To me it really affirms what it’s all about. Why do you need to gather with 39,999 other people? Because we’re all about celebrating the same thing.
Do you have a favorite running route in Philly?
One thing I like a lot is around Strawberry Mansion. You can go up above Strawberry Mansion Bridge and Belmont Plateau and Fairmount Park that way. When you’re up in the Mansion you’re in this really cool overlook over the Schuylkill. You figure you’re in Appalachia.
How often do you come back?
Most of my friends are still there. It’s what I consider home. Lancaster is kind of like a vacation.
Which neighborhoods did you live in when you were living here?
I had an apartment at 4th and Green. It was an amazing place. The apartments in Philly were insanely cool. This was part of a townhouse, a rowhouse really, and it was $500 a month. And from there I was at 23rd and Fairmount and 22nd and Green. Basically the Art museum and Northern Liberties was where I lived for the last 10 years in the city.
Any Philadelphia restaurants you’d recommend for runners or otherwise?
I’m more of a grazer. The thing about it is, like most people, I tend to circle in one area and one watering hole again and again. I used to eat at (the now-closed) Tavern on Green again and again.
How involved are you with the Fishtown Beer Runners?
Dave April and I stay in touch pretty frequently We’re always coordinating stuff. They have a cancer benefit so we’re trying to figure out a way (to get me involved). And I know Jon Lyons at Run215. You familiar with the November Project?
Back in the day I felt like the only one out there. Now there are tribes all over.
Not just running, but how have you seen Philadelphia grow overall?
It was long overdue. When I moved to Lancaster it was like, ‘why hasn’t it happened? Where is this Philly renaissance?’ It’s like the perfect transition city for people moving right out of college. I never even owned a car in Philly. I just had a bike. You can get from like Grays Ferry to Northern Liberties in like 15 minutes.