Why We Run: A Natural History
by Bernd Heinrich
Ecco, 292 pp., $12.95 (paper)
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 …