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Nature & the Art of Running

Why We Run is so far from being an ordinary book on running that its scope and scientific excellence may be a disadvantage. The busy editor of at least one prestigious publication, under the impression that the book was a runner’s how-to manual, gave it for review to a sportswriter. It was as if an editor of 1845 gave Voyage of the Beagle to a dog breeder. To be sure, the author, Bernd Heinrich, won the US National Championship 100-kilometer marathon, so he certainly is a runner, and, indeed, his book tells us something of how he achieved this surprising victory at the age of forty-one—how he, virtually unknown in the world of runners, bested some of the most famous runners of his day. But besides being a runner, Heinrich is also a biologist and an acute observer of the natural world. In Why We Run he has brought together these two fields of knowledge, and he is almost certainly the first to do so.

Why We Run is nothing if not fresh. The author himself is unusual, at least in today’s world. Born near Gdansk during World War II in what then was Germany and now is Poland, Heinrich lived for several years near Trittau in a hut in the woods after he, his parents, and his sister took refuge from the Red Army as it swept across East Prussia at the end of the war. His father had been a soldier in both wars, and although he’d never had much formal education, he was also a sometime scientist, a self-made entomologist who had amassed a large collection of perfectly mounted insects all enclosed in metal boxes, which, before leaving Gdansk for Trittau, he buried in the forest where the Communists could not find them. (Years later, the collection was recovered.) The postwar years cannot have been easy—Bernd’s father dug pits in the forest to trap little animals so that the family could eat their meat and Bernd’s mother could stuff the hides for sale to natural history museums. The New York Museum of Natural History eventually acquired some of their specimens.

After emigrating to Maine and settling in a little run-down farmhouse in the woods, Bernd’s parents placed him and his sister in a boarding school for homeless children and went away for six years to collect zoological specimens, first in Mexico, later in Angola. Bernd must have had a powerful constitution, both physically and mentally, to survive his childhood intact, but survive he did, perhaps partly because his early experience in the East German forests had helped him to find his own strengths early—he knew how to entertain himself, which he did by running just for the sheer joy of it, and by carefully observing the thousands of small but enthralling details that make up the natural world.

His early years in a woodland setting taught him what he calls “the basics.” He learned, for instance, “the life cycles of moths, the needs and manners of a baby crow, and the joy of running after tiger beetles through warm sand on bare, tough-soled feet.” Although he was smaller than most children at the boarding school, he won himself a place as a cross-country runner, while improving his diet and that of his friends by capturing pigeons and other small creatures in the forest and cooking and eating them in a secret hide-out. Perhaps he was young and homeless, but his past, however brief, was serving him well.

He remembers how he loved to watch the carabid beetles that ran on those same pathways, amazed that their six legs worked in such precise coordination. When he chased them they ran so fast that their “thread-thin legs were a blur.” On warm days they could outdistance a pursuer. On cool days, though, young Bernd could overtake them and add their little ectothermic bodies to his beetle collection. Hence the carabids became a model for his future studies and for his immersion in the strange and multifaceted biology of speed.

He asked himself a favorite question of scientists: Which of our characteristics do we share with other creatures, and which are unique? The longer we pick at the question, the more unattainable the answers seem. We thought the apes had no language, for instance, until certain gorillas and chimpanzees learned American Sign Language, or Amslan. Perhaps the most famous of these was a chimpanzee named Washo who by age four was using a vocabulary of approximately 150 words, and was making up her own original sentences. Then too, there was a female Bonobo chimp named Panbanisha who unexpectedly wrote a short letter to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist. Trained to communicate with computer keys bearing abstract symbols to which meanings were assigned (a system by which three dots might mean “apple,” a plus sign might mean “run,” and a wavy line might mean “give”), Panbanisha spontaneously wrote several such symbols on the floor of her cage with a piece of blue chalk, asking Savage-Rumbaugh for a food item. Panbanisha was never trained for this, but figured it out for herself to the astonishment of many, including this reviewer, who actually witnessed the event but does not remember what kind of food was wanted. Maybe a strawberry drink.

Yet to this day the conclusion that some animals have language is still debated, even denounced by many members of the linguistic community. We use tools and talk and they don’t, they say. But research has proven again and again that many kinds of animals use tools, and that many an animal can talk, inferentially, referentially, and even verbally, the method used by parrots with enviable fluency. Perhaps the most renowned of these is Alex, an African grey. The colleague and research partner of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Alex asks for items not in view, composes sentences and phrases just as a person might, and conceptualizes abstractly. Once when Dr. Pepperberg had to leave him briefly with a veterinarian, he verbally begged to go home with her, and, evidently assuming that he was being left behind for bad behavior, he promised to be good. Another African grey named Pilgrim, with no training at all, figured out for himself the use of personal pronouns. When his owner was handing out treats to a group of parrots, saying “For you” to each parrot as the treat was given, Pilgrim spontaneously said, “For me” as his treat was handed to him. Perhaps none of this sounds like much at first, but in fact each event requires a human-like degree of comprehension.

Ironically, the characteristics that most strongly distinguish us from other animals, especially other primates, are seldom mentioned or considered in most of the commentaries we see. One such is our ability to run on two legs. Unlike our closest relatives, we do not merely scurry along for short distances with the help of our knuckles—we can race flat out for miles using only our legs and feet. A second characteristic is our nudity, our essentially furless bodies, tufted for the most part on the head and in the interstices of the limbs and the torso. A third characteristic is our ability to sweat profusely. Our boastful phrases “sweat like a pig” or “sweat like a horse” are essentially meaningless, since we sweat much more than either of these animals. Running, sweating, and nudity were born of the African savanna, perhaps at the time that our ancestors moved out of the forests to become the slim and graceful Australopithicines. Out in the African sun, away from the trees, we needed to keep cool, hence our sweating, naked bodies, and we needed to protect the overactive brains that since have done such damage to our planet, hence our thatches of hair.

Not surprisingly, sweating and bipedal running are two of the more important requirements for participation in marathons. And these, as Heinrich convincingly demonstrates, came about because of two other human qualities, the first being our need to hunt. Astonishing as this may sound to many in today’s automated world, the human being can in fact outrun many other kinds of animals, among them members of the deer and antelope families. Heinrich cites a Navajo hunter named Yellowman who, after half a day of relentless chasing, could run a deer to the point of collapse, whereupon he would wrestle it to the ground and stifle it with his bare hands, holding a little sacred pollen in his palms so that the deer’s last breath would be holy. The deer’s unperforated hide would then be used in religious ceremonies.

In the recent past, Kalahari Bushmen were also able to run down their prey—in the Kalahari Desert, the animals in question were antelopes—taking advantage of the heat of the day. The Bushmen, thanks to their human physiology, could tolerate heat more easily than the antelopes, who are so elegantly designed that they are virtually independent of water, an excellent adaptation for a desert environment, but a disadvantage if one must outrun a human being. Instead of cooling themselves by drinking water or immersing themselves in it, they can let their body temperatures rise, yet must try to minimize the amount of heat that their bodies accumulate, to which end they spend the middle of the day standing quietly in the shade. A human runner who could never outsprint them can, by remorseless chasing and phenomenal endurance, eventually exhaust them.

Presumably, the marathon method of hunting is an ancient one, and it involves the second human attribute which, Heinrich believes, other animals probably lack—the ability to formulate and also to realize long-distance goals. “We are psychologically evolved to pursue long-range goals,” he writes,

because through millions of years that is what we on average had to do in order to eat. To us, even an old deer that had not yet been caught would have required a very long chase. It would have required strategy, knowledge, and persistence. Those hominids who didn’t have the taste for the long hunt, as such, perhaps for its own sake, would very seldom have been successful. They left fewer descendants.

Our ancient type of hunting—where we were superior relative to other predators—required us to maintain long-term vision that both rewarded us by the chase itself and that held the prize in our imagination even when it was out of sight, smell, and hearing. It was not just sweat glands that made us premier endurance predators. It was also our minds fueled by passion. Our enthusiasm for the chase had to be like the migratory birds’ passion to fly off on their great journeys, as if propelled by dreams….When [the hunter/runners] felt fatigue and pain, they did not stop, because their dream carried them still forward. They were our ancestors.

Why We Run is rich in well-presented biological information. Anyone with a passing interest in the natural world will read it with fascination, and everyone will learn from it. After a lifetime interest in animals, for instance, this reviewer was surprised to find that camels do not, after all,

metabolize the fat in their hump in order to get water. The camel’s hump is instead like a fanny pack that ultra-runners sometimes use when refueling stations are few and far between. It is not like a load of drink, but more like a load of concentrated food, like the commercial power bars that are currently popular. The advantage of carrying the fat on the back, rather than evenly distributed all over the body, is that it leaves the belly and other shaded areas less insulated and thus more available for heat loss from the body core. Perhaps even more important, the fatty hump serves, like our head hair, as a heat shield from the sun in the middle of the day, so that less water needs to be lost by sweating.

If Heinrich’s book has a flaw, it is that he is too quick to make certain assumptions about our vertebrate kindred, a flaw which is well masked by his truly vast erudition. It is a flaw common to many biologists, for all their protestations that we human beings are but one of the many kinds of mammals, with nothing but a gene or two (besides our egotism) to differentiate ourselves. This flaw is expressed when biologists start talking about the mental attributes of animals, as does Heinrich on the subject of long-range goals. “A quick pounce-and-kill requires no dream,” he writes:

Dreams are the beacons that carry us far ahead into the hunt, into the future, and into a marathon. We can visualize far ahead. We see our quarry even as it recedes over the hills and into the mists. It is still in our mind’s eye, still a target, and imagination becomes the main motivator. It is the pull that allows us to reach into the future, whether it is to kill a mammoth or an antelope, or to write a book, or to achieve record time in a race.

Splendid. But who is Heinrich to say that this quality is uniquely human? Perhaps “a quick pounce-and-kill requires no dream,” as Heinrich puts it. But the behavior that precedes the pounce and kill, or, in other words, the patience to silently creep up to a quarry, or to wait in an ambush for a quarry to appear, may very well require some kind of long-range dream. The “pounce-and-kill” part is the climax of the process, not the beginning, because here the endurance trial is not of exertion, but of carefully stalking, or of keeping perfectly still, for a seemingly endless amount of time, even when one is impatient and hungry. To successfully pounce and kill, one could very well need to retain the image of the quarry and keep dreaming of the moment when one will pounce on it, so that one can overcome the twitching and aching in one’s muscles, and the nearly overwhelming urge to move prematurely. Like the ability to continue running even when one is tired, the ability to creep slowly even when one is anxious or to sit still even when one is twitching could just as well be “the pull that allows us to reach into the future”—certainly for an activity such as writing a book.

This is a minor criticism, however. When it comes to comparing animal and human faculties, Heinrich is just guessing, as he readily admits. In this he is far ahead of many of his colleagues, who are only too willing to overrate the abilities of human beings at the expense of other animals, as if such species-centric views were proven facts, not merely expressions of the current version of scientific correctness. But Heinrich seems to care very little for an appearance of correctness: the fads and fashions of the times do not matter much to him. It is refreshing, for instance, to learn that he is a hunter as well as a runner. “I grew up in Maine hunting deer,” he writes, “and that seemed to me the most absorbing activity humanly possible.” He adds later that “the allure is [not in the kill, but] in the chase.” One guesses that, his academic style of life notwithstanding, he probably continues to supply a fair amount of venison for his family’s dinner table.

Some animal rights activists may object to his views, but then the concept of animal rights, however valuable, is new, and Heinrich is discussing something ancient. Many wildlife biologists are, after all, little more than hunters who have gone off in different directions. If these biologists had lived in an earlier era, their interactions with nature would have been in search of meat instead of data.

Heinrich is also refreshingly blunt on the subject of men, women, and female choice, hypothesizing that the feminids of old chose for their mates the hominids who were successful hunters, a hypothesis that might not agree with some feminist theory, but would certainly apply to women in a hunter/gatherer society. Heinrich assumes that our female ancestors did not hunt any more than do modern hunter/gatherer women, but instead chose as sexual partners the men who hunted successfully, or who looked as if they could, thus determining the physical attributes of our species. Heinrich seems aware that his hypothesis about women minding children while men hunt is daringly reminiscent of the barefoot-and-pregnant role once allocated to women. He is careful to include the fact that hunter/gatherer women, by collecting edible plants, provide more food for their groups than do the hunters. Even so, Heinrich says, women crave meat and are ready to reward those who provide it, and

division of labor, though perhaps currently not politically correct, is an ancient tradition with deep biological roots. And there is nothing wrong with diversity, either between people or between sexes…. If “man” is the hunter, then it is because women permitted or selected him to be. They are the other half of the same man-the-hunter syndrome.

Heinrich’s early love of running, plus his knowledge of physiology and his hard-won ability to endure, helped him to prepare himself so successfully as a long-distance runner that in 1981 he ran the North American 100-kilometer championship race in Chicago in six hours, thirty-eight minutes, and twenty- one seconds, crossing the finish line an astonishing three quarters of an hour ahead of the next runner, and beating the previous record by thirteen minutes. He describes in detail the calculations involved in getting his body to cooperate before and during the marathon:

I’ll not be trying to outsprint an antelope. If I tried to be too brave, I’d overreach. I’d blow up. I’d end up a casualty alongside the path. Once you speed up to the point that you’re breathing hard, you dip too deeply into the carbohydrate stores, and possibly pass the anaerobic threshold, when lactic acid is produced faster than your metabolic and cardiovascular systems can get rid of it. Lactic acid is like sand accumulating in the gears of a car that soon bring all to a grinding halt. Don’t speed up, don’t slow down, and above all, never stop…

It is hugely to our benefit, however, that Heinrich is able to explain his triumph not as a matter of personal macho but in a larger perspective. He was able to win because, like certain speedy dinosaurs, cockroaches, and Jesus lizards, he is bipedal; because he is a mammal who sweats and insulates his brains with hair; because he can sustain a dream of victory throughout a long and difficult ordeal; and because our ancestral feminids chose fast-running, antelope-chasing, meat-producing hominids to father their children. His attitude will appeal to anyone who wants to learn about the biology of running, or wonders how we human beings fit into the natural world.

December 5, 2002

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