When Bernd Heinrich decided to write a memoir of his ultramarathon running experience he realized that the preparation for the race was as important, if not more so, than the race itself. Considering the physiology and motivation of running from a scientific point of view, he wondered what he could learn from other animals.
In Why We Run, Heinrich considers the flight endurance of birds, the antelope’s running prowess and limitations, and the ultra-endurance of camels to understand how human physiology can or cannot replicate these adaptations. With his characteristic blend of scientific inquiry and philosophical musings, Heinrich offers an original and provocative work combining the rigors of science with the passion of running.
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Why We Run
A Natural History
and see two deer going, "What the hell is he
doing?" On a track I feel like a hamster.
-- Robin Williams, film star
These days, my daily run is almost always in the mode of a wind-down after a long day of sedentary activity. I come home feeling a little restless, and eager to smell fresh air, and as I change into running shorts and a light pair of running shoes I start to feel new. I feel transformed and free, like a caterpillar molting into a butterfly. Seconds after tying my laces, I can trot down the driveway.
It is overcast this afternoon (September 21, 1999) and there is a fine, misty drizzle that feels fresh on my face. The still air amplifies the sound of water dripping on maple leaves. The leaves are still bright green, but they will transform into a kaleidoscope of yellow, orange, red, salmon, and purple in another week or two. The goldenrods along the dirt road are just starting to fade, and several species of wild asters are flowering instead. I note the splashes of their lavender, purple, and blue flowers. There are usually bumblebees on these flowers, but today these cold-hardy bees remain torpid in their underground nests deep in the woods.
Watching a large orange and black monarch butterfly feeding at an aster, I wonder how much sugar it is getting from the nectar to fuel on this stop on its migration from Canada to Mexico. The butterflies,like human ultramarathoners (those who race 50 or more miles), need regular refueling stations. While it was warm and sunny during the last couple of weeks, I've daily seen the monarchs floating by on lazy, soaring wing beats. These individuals are at least the third generation of those that left central Mexico last spring to come north to breed. All of them are now journeying to their communal wintering area in the cool mountains near Mexico City from where their ancestors had come. There they conserve their energy reserves through the winter by literally putting themselves in refrigeration that slows their metabolic fires. What incredibly long journeys these delicate creatures make just to avoid lethal freezing, while keeping themselves at a low-enough temperature to conserve their energy supplies during months of fasting! Monarch butterflies are long-distance travelers. It is in their makeup. It is their way of coping.
I turn left at the bottom of the driveway, just across from the beaver bog. It is quiet there today. In April I'd heard the cacophony of the snipes whinnying and the red-winged blackbirds yodeling, and all were gone already two months ago. Dragonflies emerged from their larvae in the cold water, seeking warmth. But today, all the dragonflies, their muscles cold, are grounded. Mist collects in droplets on their wings as they perch limply on the cattail foliage. I glance across the bog to the beaver lodge in the pond where the Canadian geese nested. One never knows, there could be a moose, a great blue heron, otters.... No moose and no geese today. Anyday now, any hour, the geese's haunting cries as they glide through the sky will signal the birds' excitement as they, too, head south, arranged into long Vs. Like human runners following one another's wind shadow, they take advantage of reduced air resistance to save energy.
Almost everything we know about ourselves has been built on knowledge learned from other organisms: Gregor Mendel's peas, George Beadle and Edward Tatum's bread mold, Barbara McClintock's corn, and Thomas Hunt Morgan's fruit flies have taught us the basics of inheritance. Mice, rats, dogs, and monkeys have been the subject of studies that provide us with an endless knowledge of practically all our physiological functions. From studies of rats and mice we learned how to fight viruses, battle bacteria, and guard against debilitating diseases. Without insights gleaned from other animals in their natural environment in the field, knowledge of our behavior, our psychology, and our origins would be superficial and rudimentary. As Koyukon elder Grandpa William told anthropologist Robert Nelson (in The Island Within, Vintage Books, 1991),"Every animal knows more than you do." So I too believe that animals can teach us much about running. They've been doing it for many millions of years before there were recognizable humans.
We can find animals who are far superior to us in practicing what we preach in terms of industry, fidelity, loyalty, bravery, monogamy, patience, and tolerance, but looking to other animals in order to justify our own moral codes is dangerous. Their example can be used just as easily to justify hate, violence, torture, cannibalism, infanticide, deception, rape, murder, and even war and genocide. They can show us how we became what we are, but not what we should try to become. We can learn from them about running the way we want to run.
Given the grand diversity of animals on this planet, we are hardly more unique or even special than most others. We are the product of a vast evolutionary grandeur being created under the same interplay of innumerable constraints and possibilities.Only through them can we see ourselves objectively through an otherwise vapid haze of wishful thinking and unbridled assumptions.
Past the pond, in the five-foot-thick, half-dead sugar maple, a hairy woodpecker hammers on the thick, dry branches, ignoring the jogger. Nearby, a flock of robins swiftly scatters from the young maple trees overgrown with wild grapes. The birds are doing last-day fattening up for their migration, feasting on the berries that conveniently ripen at this time. A grouse feeding on the grapes the robins have knocked to the ground explodes in a loud whir of wings. Its powerful, swift flight startles me. If flushed repeatedly, the grouse would tire and become unable to fly...Why We Run
A Natural History. Copyright © by Bernd Heinrich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.