Why We Run: A Natural History - Bernd Heinrich (2002)


The human experience is populated with dreams and aspirations. For me, the animal totem for these dreams is the antelope, swift, strong, and elusive. Most of us chase after “antelopes,” and sometimes we catch them. Often we don’t. But why do we bother to try? I think it is because without dream-“antelopes” to chase we become what a lapdog is to a wolf. And we are inherently more like wolves than lapdogs, because the communal chase is part of our biological makeup.

For me, the glimpse of a new “antelope” on the horizon came in early May 1981. I had seen a fresh sign, and I had to give chase. I had just run my first ultramarathon, a 50-kilometer race, a short race that barely qualifies as an ultramarathon. But in the final half mile I had passed the then-current U.S. National 100-kilometer record holder, which made me wonder if, just possibly, I had the potential to race well at long distances. The North American 100-kilometer championships were to be held on October 4 that year in Chicago. Although at that moment I could just barely have run another step further, I began to dream about the potential of racing the 100 km, twice as far as I had ever run before.

The problem was: how to prepare to run that far? As a zoologist by profession, it seemed only natural for me to look to other “endurance athlete” species to see why and how it’s done, and for tips on how to train. However, I did not write this book as a training manual, nor did I write it to highlight my running exploits, which are puny relative to those of others. I wrote to show what is involved in running an ultramarathon race, and to pull together the race experience with the insights I gained from my studies of animals. My intent is to amalgamate the race experience with human biology to explore what makes us different from other animals, and in what ways we are the same. In the process, I discovered some possibly new perspectives on human evolution.