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

Chapter 14. Running Like Dogs and Cats

Cheetahs and wolves represent two extremes of hunting strategies. Both employ running, but different kinds of running and in very different contexts. Felines hunt solitarily for the most part, and their success depends on being able to spend much of their time in waiting. Using stealth, they succeed in getting close to prey or vice versa, then they explode in a lightning-fast sprint. In contrast, the canine strategy generally is to work in teams and to identify and then chase prey with weaknesses. Canines choose carefully and can pursue over a longer distance. Specific muscle types match psychological tendencies. Cats have a preponderance of fast-twitch fibers, which rely on glycolysis of carbohydrate for explosive release energy. Dogs have more slow-twitch fibers, which require oxydative metabolism using fats. In us, both fiber types are used during sustained performance, although elite sprinters have about 26 percent slow-twitch fibers, versus 79–90 percent for elite distance runners. Fiber physiology is, however, not entirely fixed but alters with training. For example, during endurance training the lactate produced during glycolysis by the fast-twitched fibers accumulates less because it is more rapidly cleared.

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Cat

There is leeway in behavioral tendencies between species as well. For example, a cougar relies mostly on stealth and surprise and may chase a deer for only a few seconds. On the other hand, a cheetah on the African plains may be forced to chase an antelope for up to a minute or more, either until catching it or until having to stop from heat prostration. The much slower lions often work in groups. However, the main feline and canine tendencies are still apparent in our house pets even after centuries of domestication. A house cat will seldom follow its owner through woods and fields to hunt rabbits as a dog would with its companions, in this case us, with most eager anticipation.

Dogs will run even when they are not hungry, and they derive pleasure from the hunt itself. Dogs will gladly retrieve such symbolic prey as sticks and Frisbees. The pleasure they get from these activities is, as running is with us, partly social. What human runner would race with the passion of a dog retrieving a thrown stick, if it were not for the incentives thrown out by others? Without others’ interest the time to finish a race or run a specific distance is a dead and uninteresting number. Cats are not socially motivated like dogs or humans. No matter how many times you make a cat run around the track with others, it will still not race, nor can it run as far as a dog.

Dogs are the descendants of wolves, and since they can interbreed with them to produce fertile offspring, they essentially are still wolves. It may take a stretch of the imagination to recognize a manicured poodle being led on a leash down a city street as a close relative of the pack-hunting wolf capable of pursuing and killing moose. However, like his equally domesticated human counterpart, the poodle still has the wolf in him. His pack loyalty has been transferred to a master, and he strains at his leash to go out for his daily romp. He also still likes to eat meat rather than grass.

One might think that the original wild-type wolves might be the choice runners for the dog’s ultimate endurance running event, the Alaskan Iditarod race. They aren’t. No wolf races like a husky, because running capacity as such is not enough. Many types of dogs have been tried for racing. For example, Johnny Allen, an Iditarod winner, has dominated Alaska dog races with his mix of wolves, huskies, and Irish setters. No matter what it may look like, a dog is still a dog and running distance is a general dog talent. But for Iditarod racing, the runners have to feel part of a team, a pack.

Iditarod dogs require a strong appetite, a deep chest, and a strong cardiovascular system, which wolves and many dogs have. These are not the limiting racing factors. What is most strongly selected for in any line of dogs destined to be Iditarod ultraracers is the desire to run. Those destined to race are the dogs that seem overwhelmed with eagerness as they strain to take off and to keep going, and going, and going. There is no apparent difference in either athletic capability or intelligence between racers and nonracers, even though the racing capacity is the result of an ancient heritage of endurance-running predatory ancestors. Many types of dogs can be turned into racers by proper training and environment, but that’s not enough to make a racer out of a cat.

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Canine

Perhaps I had ingrained husky characteristics, being especially talented in the requirement of having a good appetite. In my high school yearbook it was noted, “Ben likes to eat and run.” I ran to school then, and I run to the office from my car in the morning now, simply because I don’t like walking. Running feels good, and it saves time.

It is not always easy to tell what physiological factor is relevant to being able to run fast or far, because there are so many variables, and simple desire may swamp them all. As soon as I thought I was inherently flawed because my hero was tall, I’d find another, perhaps even better runner who was short. I’d then think you had to be very skinny, and then the next hero to come along would be muscular.

When I was in college, I thought you had to be white and from northern Europe, preferably Scandinavia or Ireland, to be a world class distance runner. The distance events had always been dominated by northern Europeans, immortalized by Paavo Nurmi, “the flying Finn,” and the Czech Emil Zatopek, but a host of up-and-coming British and Australian runners were beginning to decisively dominate the middle-distance events. One almost never saw a black long-distance runner. Conversely, many of the best sprinters were black. We all thought that sprinters are born but middle-and long-distance runners are made. It was assumed as an empirical, scientific fact that blacks are innately blessed with natural speed, so that they have raw talent for explosive events. The correlating assumption was that blacks lack either the stamina beyond a quarter mile or the dedication to make themselves into middle or distance runners. Then, ironically, the “evidence” shifted 180 degrees, and it seemed you had to be black and from equatorial Kenya, Tanzania, or Ethiopia to be world class distance-running material. Already, in the Rome Olympics of 1960, Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia ran barefoot into the stadium, winning first place in the marathon. The real surprise came in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when the Nandi tribesman Kipchoge (Kip) Keino from the small African country of Kenya beat the until-then-invincible greatest American middle-distance runner, Jim Ryun, in the mile.

Keino was the most spectacular Kenyan running success in the Mexico Olympics, but eleven other Kenyan track athletes also won medals there. Since then, the Kenyans have dominated long-distance running events. Black Kenyans are winning everything from 800 meters to the marathon. In 1999 the Olympic men’s marathon A standard was reached by 240 runners worldwide, and seventy-six of them were Kenyan, which was almost twice as many individuals as for any other nation.* New African runners are popping up almost every month, each as good as or better than the next, and now almost all marathon finishing times would have left the flying Finn and all of his northern European compatriots far in the dust—indeed, by my calculations, not yards but close to 3 miles behind! Clearly, the preconception that blacks lack endurance has been turned on its head. A new presumption is that Africa’s high plains are some kind of special sieve that has selected for the swiftest, wildest, strongest beasts and men, so that these Africans are genetically predisposed to succeed at all running events!

Another explanation that was offered relates to elevation. The Mexican Olympics were held at seventy-three hundred feet, and the Kenyans live at high elevations as well. There is less oxygen available from the thinner air at high elevations, and our imageO2 max decreases by about 3.2 percent for every thousand feet in elevation above five thousand, in those of us not accustomed to altitude. One hypothesis to account for the Kenyans’ running success is that living at altitudes of over a mile has adapted their respiratory systems to give them an advantage at altitude. With time at high elevations, the body adjusts to bring the imageO2 max back up. However, sea level performance is not increased by training at altitudes, and the altitude hypothesis can thus not account for Kenyans’ superior performance, still exhibited when they compete at sea level.

According to a recent book by John Bale and Joe Sang, the real explanation for the Kenyan running phenomenon is cultural. These authors point out that most Kenyan runners come from one locality. There are distinct running regions in Kenya, and by far the highest per capita running medals captured on the world running circuit belong to one group, the Kalenjin, and even more specifically to one group within the Kalenjin, the Nandi. It is unlikely that of all the African blacks, only the Nandi would be blessed specifically with physical adaptations that translate to running prowess. There must be something else. According to data compiled by Dirk Berg-Schosser, in contrast to other Kenyan ethnic groups, this tribe has the highest “achievement orientation.” They are generally regarded as quiet, ascetic, serious people who are hardworking individualists. A principal at a school at Kapsabet even said that the Nandi were “too much individuals to learn to play football or hockey as a team. They usually prevent themselves from being beaten too badly by a good team by sheer guts.”

The Nandi’s traditions derive from their culture as cattle raiders (their “sport”). Athletic prowess came to be prized because of traditions. When one of their tribe, Kipchoge Keino, stepped prominently onto the world stage, they suddenly had a role model. To them, racing became the only game in town, as it had been before to the economically deprived Irish and Scandinavians, and on a micro scale to those of us at Good Will. Running is perhaps the most fundamental of all sports, and it is economically the least costly to perform. As a consequence, it is the most democratic and most competitive of all sports because individual merit can prevail despite economic inequality. It is a sport for everyone, the whole world over.

Running, throwing, jumping, the repertoire of track events, are the basic body movements required for hunting and warfare, and they have been ritualized into games, dances, and initiation ceremonies. It is a small step from there to racing. To the Nandi, racing has replaced former activities that required the same individualism, fortitude, discipline, hard work, and ability to delay gratification. In former times the Nandi aspired to be barngétung, a name given to a member of the tribe who had succeeded in spearing a lion. Similarly, their success at cattle raiding from distant neighbors depended on days of trekking through hot arid country, which relied on physical stamina, hard work, sacrifice, and ability to endure hardship. It was exhilarating sport, and it gave them something to live for. Racing became a ready substitute to warring and raiding, as it can be for hunting large animals.

Similarly, the marathon is also a cultural offshoot derived from warfare. This race of 26 miles 385 yards is a ritualization of a specific historical event. The name of the race derives from the name of the village in Greece from where, according to legend, Pheidippides, an Athenian professional military runner, ran the now standard marathon distance to Athens to report the happy news of victory over the Persians in a decisive battle fought in 490 B.C. Reportedly he said, “We conquer,” then fell over dead.

Within the Nandi, Kip Keino became a hero and a symbol of manhood. He founded a tradition, as Pheidippides did for the Greeks and later Western civilization. Like Pheidippides, Keino came home to report symbolically that they had and could conquer giants. There were then few outlets for Nandi to display prominence, since lion hunting, cattle raiding, and warfare had been outlawed. Here was a new chance for glory through a redirection of old traditions.

At age fifteen Keino ran a mile in only 5:56. Training full-time as a government employee, he worked extremely hard and incorporated all of the latest training methods. Subsequently, talented individuals were recruited to the high schools at which organized training and competitions were established. The selection of talent by the state and its nurturing was important in producing the Kenyan running phenomenon.

Each successful Kenyan racer who makes the world scene is directly or indirectly selected from the whole population. The population’s average is irrelevant for Olympic performance. What matters is that the population contains at least a few potential stars. It may well be that on average there are more potential basketball stars among a given number of Watusi or Masai than among the same number of residents of Boston, but that says little about where the gold medalists in that sport will come from. It may well be that most black women in East Africa walk while balancing huge loads on their heads as if it were a natural thing to do. Sure, it’s genetic. But nobody could rationally propose that European women are not equally genetically endowed to be able to do precisely the same. They just don’t have the same exposure to a culture that fosters the practice from very early childhood and then channels development. Why should it be different regarding racing success, where only a vanishingly small percentage of the population (not the mean or average) gets to achieve prominence? Talent is not enough.

Bale and Sang conclude: “In athletics it is culture and not biology, attitude and not altitude, nurture and not nature, which are crucial variables which ‘explain’ individual athletic success in the rationalized and regulated world of achievement sports.” Tom Derderian, who wrote the book on the Boston Marathon, concurs:

The idea of talent is a myth because talent is only manifest in retrospect. The myth should be smashed, toppled, because it is an insult to consider an athlete who made it to the top, unfairly and inevitably because of his or her genes, and not because the athlete decided by thinking in an act of free will to try to win. In that intelligent decision, an athlete engaged the competition with a pledge to win. With that intention, support of community, knowledge, understanding, and the willingness to take a risk and suffer the consequences comes no guarantee, but just the possibility of greatness. The talent lies not in our genes but in our minds.

Few people know what goes into a championship performance unless they’ve tried it themselves. As Bill Rodgers, winner of four Boston and four New York City Marathons, said, “Running is the world’s greatest sport, with the best athletes. It requires so much physical and mental energy, a real commitment.” However, one truth does not necessarily exclude another. One cannot succeed in racing unless one has the health and physique, that is, genes. We’re not all identical peas from the same pod who happen to roll in different directions. There are individual differences, and for one individual it might be relatively easy to train to run a mile in under 5 minutes or a marathon in under 3 hours, while to another individual such feats are heroic. Heroism deserves credit wherever it is exhibited. To run a championship performance requires commitment and willingness to take risks, but the risks are greater when the talent is less. Those who seemingly show less greatness because they run in the pack may actually draw from a fount of courage. How much can gallantry overcome? Before setting up a specific running goal, one must be realistic; it is important to know if you are a cat or a dog.

When Ed Styrna, my college running coach and a former national champion in the hammer and javelin throws, was asked (in retrospect) to comment on my running, he wrote, “Ben would have been left in a cloud of dust after the starting gun went off in a 200 meter race against Michael Johnson, but Johnson would have been foolish to try to keep up with Ben in an ultrarunning race. Ben had the kind of muscles that were designed for endurance and he had the mental toughness to back them up.”

Athletic achievement is contingent on a realistic assessment of one’s capabilities. Nobody will consciously focus his life for years on end, to the point of enduring agonizing strain and discipline up to the breaking point for possible victory and glory, when victory is not attainable, or when glory will be snatched away even if victory might be attained. When the bar is impossibly high, few will aspire, and when there is no glory, few will be inspired. Ultimately we are shaped by the anvil of our environment and the hammer of our mind, if used.

The dream is important. In us it activates the brain, and in all creatures, even insects, the brain activates the body. Insects presumably don’t dream, but in some species subtle environmental cues activate the nervous system to flood the body with hormones that cause massive muscle growth as well as engendering all sorts of other changes. In some aphids, mere changes in day length result in them growing wings and the musculature required to power them. Surges of hormone production resulting in huge physiological changes of the body are universal not only for insects, but also for reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. If some animals’ brain hormone production can be triggered by mere flashes of light and other numerous and seemingly trivial external cues, then it does not seem preposterous to consider that just maybe we can be molded by fierce dreams that allow us to perform what we’d otherwise be incapable of accomplishing.

My commitment to win the 100-kilometer National Championship involved a large risk, because I could be reaching for more than I was capable of. I had to remodel myself within the constraints of my “normal” physiology to be able to do what would not otherwise be possible. But what was possible? When I had won the Golden Gate Marathon, been first master at the Boston Marathon, and been third in my first 50-kilometer race, the deciding moments had been near the very end. Perhaps I had discovered my strength. To not use it fully to try for an inspiring goal seemed wasteful, if not disrespectful, like foolishly squandering a precious gift.