How’s this for something cool: A book that recounts a little-known episode from the annals of partisan warfare in World War II while also delving into the “lost secrets” of extreme physical ruggedness and endurance.
I’m listening to a library copy of the audiobook of “Natural Born Heroes — How A Daring Band Of Misfits Mastered The Lost Secrets Of Strength And Endurance.”
It’s by Christopher McDougall, the author of “Born to Run,” which explored the extraordinary distance running of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. He helped launch the whole natural or barefoot running movement.
Here’s the pitch for “Natural Born Heroes”:
After running an ultramarathon through the Copper Canyons of Mexico, Christopher McDougall finds his next great adventure on the razor-sharp mountains of Crete, where a band of Resistance fighters in World War II plotted the daring abduction of a German general from the heart of the Nazi occupation. How did a penniless artist, a young shepherd, and a playboy poet believe they could carry out such a remarkable feat of strength and endurance, smuggling the general past thousands of Nazi pursuers, with little more than their own wits and courage to guide them? McDougall makes his way to the island to find the answer and retrace their steps, experiencing firsthand the extreme physical challenges the Resistance fighters and their local allies faced. On Crete, the birthplace of the classical Greek heroism that spawned the likes of Herakles and Odysseus, McDougall discovers the tools of the hero—natural movement, extraordinary endurance, and efficient nutrition. All of these skills, McDougall learns, are still practiced in far-flung pockets throughout the world today.
That’s my kinda stuff.
Early in the book, McDougall recounts the story of a shepherd who saved the women of a village from a reprisal execution at the hands of a brutally repressive German occupation force. The man “raced to the rescue through the woods, arriving just in time to take aim from a quarter-mile away.” That’s a 440-yard shot, probably with a captured Mauser rifle. The shepherd took out the German commander and the German force scattered — only to run into the rest of the Resistance cadre that had come up with the shepherd. Such incidents are found repeatedly in the lore of the Greek/Cretan Resistance, which was extraordinarily stiff and persistent.
In keeping with his theme — the study of “the tools of the hero” — McDougall describes what was required for that shepherd to make that shot and save the village women from massacre: He had to run at speed through broken terrain, master his heaving lungs and the rage and panic that must have been shooting adrenaline through his system and calm himself sufficiently to make an extraordinary long shot. Luck plays in at that range, but you have to put yourself in the position to be lucky.
“It wasn’t just an act of courage — it was a triumph of natural heroism and physical self-mastery,” McDougall says, then asks, “What exactly were they tapping into?”
His answer is that the Resistance fighters on Crete were tapping into the remnants of an ancient heroic culture, where heroism wasn’t something that was divinely bestowed or just “happened,” but something that was deliberately taught. And the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) operatives that worked with the Resistance — besotted by the classics and a spirit of derring-do — were temperamentally suited to tap the same well.
“It all hinged on the ability to unleash the tremendous resources of strength, endurance and agility that many people don’t realize they already have.”
And that’s the real point of the book: To encourage us moderns to return to some ancient verities to unleash heroic potential. Consciously trying to be a hero, or at least to cultivate the heroic virtues, may be uncomfortable for the products of our decadent and cynical age, but I salute the project. Why the hell would you not want to “unleash tremendous resources of strength, endurance and agility”? Odds are none of us will have to deploy them in defense of hearth and home, but their cultivation makes everyday life a whole hell of a lot more compelling.
Outside Magazine ran a series of blog pieces by McDougall based on his research for “Natural Born Heroes.” Some really fun stuff on parkour, knife throwing, foraging and the benefits of natural, outdoor exercise. Link here.
Go forth and be a hero.