Natural Born Heroes

Over the weekend in Taipei, I read Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall"s follow up to Born To Run. Natural Born Heroes is variously an account of the Cretan Resistance to the Nazis during World War II, and a manifesto for Crossfit/Parkour/a high fat diet.

The story of the war in Crete, or rather a strange facet of it, when a fee SOE operatives and some Cretan shepherds kidnapped a Germsn general and smuggled him off the island, is bizarre and compelling reading. There are any number of twists that would stretch credulity in a work of fiction; last minute reverses of fortune and reprieves, and ever more outlandish characters like the Homer-quoting classicist, the lady Australian leader of a French Resistance cell, and a variety of Cretans all called George.

In parallel, McDougall gets over enthused about alternative fitness movements, like a man on a beach somewhere picking up logs. He is enraptured by the skill and grace of this man, so it’s unfortunate that the Youtube video he references looks like a slightly ungainly pleb jumping about on some rocks – but I’m not sure anything could live up to McDougall’s hyperbole (see also Born To Run, and the central thesis that Nike and Adidas are hell-bent on killing us via padded running shoes).

This is a shame, because there’s a fascinating history to be told about functional fitness, and how things like CrossFit are in the tradition of the French school of Natural Movement, and other barbell- and gym-hating practitioners before that. But there’s a lot missing as well, like the way Tough Mudder is adoringly described whereas it’s inspiration, some nutters in a field in the North of England, is never even mentioned. You wonder what else is omitted to suit the narrative. There’s also the adulatory praise he heaps on slim people and the contempt for the Schwarzenegger gym-grown physique, which is at odds with the admiration he has when he sees a Greek special forces soldier with a neck like a tank. You can’t have it both ways.

At the same time, it’s encouraging to see that there’s no truly new idea under the sun, and there’s lots of interesting colour here. There are other things I’ve read recently that make the case against a high-carb diet, but more needs to be said by more people to get the message across.

Natural Born Heroes is thus both exhilarating and frustrating. If you’re reading it for the war story, the digressions into fitness are a distraction, and I suppose likewise if you wanted a follow up to Born To Run, all the Cretan stuff is a bit much. But at least this way it’s two books for the price of one.

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