July 20, 2011

Book and Board Game Match-Up: Born to Run and Breaking Away

The Book (by Christopher McDougall): Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.

Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence. With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, the author was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.

With a sharp wit and wild exuberance, McDougall takes us from the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultrarunners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons. Born to Run is that rare book that will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that the secret to happiness is right at your feet, and that you, indeed all of us, were born to run. -- Amazon Book Description

The Game (from Fiendish Board Games):A luck free race game based on cycling. Players control a team of 4 cyclists. For each cyclist the player chooses one of his available movement allowances and moves that many squares. Once all cyclists have moved the expended movement allowances are replaced with new ones calculated according to the cyclist's position in the peloton; being at the back of a group brings a high replacement value, being at the front a low one.

Sprint points are earned by being among the first 8 to cross the sprint lines so there is always a trade-off between slipstreaming ("drafting") the other riders in order to build up high movement allowances and making a break for the front to be the first to cross the finish line. --BoardGameGeek Description

Born to Run is miraculous simply because it made me want to go running -- something I usually consider monotonous torture.  The effortless prose and smooth storytelling transformed running into something other than one dull footfall after another.  Break Away has that same effect on me.  Often racing games reinforce that the sport isn't exciting: roll dice.  Move piece.  Wait.  Repeat.  Break Away is the brilliant antithesis of that.  Strategy is king.  Do I punch ahead, or hang in back and hope for a killer slipstream?  Should store up this lap to sprint to the finish, or try to score this lap around?  It's made me think about cycling as a mental and strategic endeavor instead of a purely physical one.

I read Born to Run because I'm a fan of ethnographies, but this pulled me into two cultures: that of the Tarahumara, and that of ultramarathoners.  I was happily impressed with McDougall's writing skill.  He had me laughing, pondering, or biting my nails on every page as he dangled a bit of history, science, or story.  Breaking Away, likewise, keeps my brain engaged.  Other players' moves heavily affect my own in the search for a good slipstream, so even when I'm not moving one of my cyclists, I'm counting, plotting, grimacing, or cheering when someone makes just the move I needed.  Breaking Away is also nice because it accommodates a large number of players.  If you like running and cycling -- or want to -- Born to Run or Breaking Away are excellent choices..

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