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

Chapter 1. Wind-in-the-Face Warm-Up

I love running cross-country. You come up a hill 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. Any day 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. Like most migrants, the robins can fly nonstop for hundreds, possibly thousands, of miles. They can show us the many specializations required for endurance. Grouse have what it takes for explosive power. I presume they have fast-twitch fibers, like champion human sprinters.

Less than a quarter mile farther down the road, I come to another beaver habitation, this one only a year and a half old. The new dam has flooded the woods, and this summer the flooded trees are dying. The beavers are felling large poplars along the edge of the pond to make underwater food caches of twigs to sustain them through the coming winter. As I jog by the pond, wood ducks quickly paddle through the new surface covering of green duckweed, to hide in the flooded winterberry shrubs. The berries are already red, signaling their ripeness to migrant birds. The wood ducks had nested nearby in a cavity carved out by a pileated woodpecker, and within hours after hatching out of the egg, the ducklings jumped like Ping-Pong balls straight up to the entrance and out. They are natural-born high jumpers. The family of wood duck youngsters grew up in this pond last spring. In May, they were tiny downy chicks; now the whole family looks like adults.

Every few steps, I notice caterpillar feeding damage on the leaves of the trees’ branches over the road. Earlier I had seen caterpillar droppings on the smooth road surface, and I’d look up to find big green cecropia and other moth larvae that have now pupated to pass the winter in torpor. Few caterpillars are visible now, but soon the nests of robins and vireos that were hidden all summer will be exposed as the leaves start to fall from the trees. In the beaver bog, the dying maples already have brilliant yellow and orange leaves. These dying trees have peaked sooner than the others and invite admiring glances.

I’m getting warmed up now. My stride is lengthening and becoming looser. I’m feeling better, thinking clearer, and remembering things I had long forgotten. Just past the beaver pond I pass the steep overhanging bank along the road where I’d found a veery nest in the spring. I saw the bird’s dark eyes as she hunched down, watching me pass. The nest is deserted now—but it conjures up images of bright blue eggs, pink, naked young sporting a light white fuzz, and clumsy spotted youngsters who later hopped in front of me on the road.

A few more steps—the beech tree. There are no capsule fragments on the road to indicate that squirrels had been feasting, so there is likely no beechnut crop this year. On the other side of the road are the old-growth hardwoods, where I’ve often seen a barred owl.

Another few steps to the turn in the road by the apple tree, where some deer jumped over the road, and where I once saw two young beavers doddering along.

Next comes a level stretch of about half a mile. I speed up slightly, mentally trying to visualize every portion of my stride. I’m surprised how conscious visualization of my stride seems to affect it. Keep the movement smooth—keep track of exactly what the right side does as opposed to the left at the same moment. Thinking about what I’m doing, I feel it, then feed the information from mind into body and back again. Back and forth. OK—I’ve got it! Like most of our knowledge, such action is usually unconscious.

At the farm pond, I veer off the road and jump over a fence to check for frogs and see how the pond is refilling with the recent rains. I’d heard tree frogs here last month, and I’d seen mink and green frogs. Like some hunter exploring the veldt, I expect to see many treasures on my runs.

Jogging on again, I look up toward Camels Hump mountain, then descend a long slope down to the Huntington River. I’m feeling good, empowered by what’s around the bend, by memories of past runs, and sometimes also by the lure of a race in the future.