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

Chapter 20. The Race

You don’t run against a bloody stopwatch, do you hear? A runner runs against himself, against the best that’s in him…. Against all the rottenness in the world. Against God, if you’re good enough.

—BILL PERSONS, fictional coach in Hugh Atkinson’s The Games

“On your marks—get set—” The sharp report of a starter’s gun sounded. I’d heard it hundreds of times in over two decades past. But this time was different. I was forty-one years old. There would not be another chance. That’s what made this fearsome. My one comfort was that I’d promised the beast in me that this would be my last effort, and my best.

Klecker and the others up front took off like antelopes pursued by wolves. Keep calm, keep calm, I kept telling myself. Don’t get sucked out. I’ve got to run my race, on my schedule. Trying to hold myself back, yet going fast enough to hit about a 6:15 per mile pace, took concentration. I had to be like a camel, although a very fast one. I had to make sure I started slower than the pace of most of my training runs even while factoring out possible adrenaline effects that would make me feel light at the start. I would check my pace by listening to timers along the course who’d holler out the elapsed race time at the mile, 5 miles, 10 miles…

We had barely taken off, it seemed, when I heard the first mile split—several seconds over 6 minutes—just a tiny tad too fast, but right about where I wanted to be. Ray Krolewicz, the indestructible ultramarathon camel, was alongside and tried to make small talk. I could neither listen nor talk, and I soon passed him. A big crowd was ahead, and after only 3–4 miles I had lost visual contact with the leaders.

Jack came alongside me at the first-aid station to hand me my first drink. I grabbed, squirted the juice into my mouth, dropped the squeeze bottle, and kept on, trying to keep the same pace. The key to winning this would be: never speed up, never slow down, don’t stop till the finish. Most important in a race, never get sucked into someone else’s program. And, oh yes, believe.

I’d drink all I could force down. I had to rely on fat metabolism for endurance, but I’d burn carbohydrate for as long as possible—all of what I had loaded into muscles and liver and all I could process from the gut along the way—to boost my speed. Still, I worried that I might drink too much juice, because I had no way of knowing how fast I was losing liquid from sweat. It all depended on pace and temperature, both of which seemed to be rising quickly.

At the 10-mile mark I anxiously listened as the times were again called out as we rushed by. One-o-three ten, one-o-three fifteen…” At sixty-three minutes and 10–15 seconds (at 6:20 per mile) my time was almost a minute slower for 10 miles than what I was aiming for. A little alarm bell sounded in my brain—but the rational centers said, better slow now than later. Like antelopes, Paul and Klecker had already passed through the 10-mile mark a full 8 minutes ahead of me, and I had not been loafing! Such an incredible lead—but then, since last year Klecker had been the best ultrarunner at that distance in the world, ever. What could I expect? Some of the best runners’ strategy, which the great late Pre (Steve Prefontaine) was famous for, is to try to control the race and lead from the start, intimidating the competition and then hanging on by sheer guts. Obviously not my style.

I speeded up only a tiny bit to try to get back on an even pace. I did that surprisingly successfully, because I later (eighteen years!) learned that I finished the first four 10-mile loops in 1:03:16, 1:01:31, 1:01:33, and 1:01:03.

At the end of the first 10 miles my mind was still clear, and I could concentrate on the running machine. There is always plenty of time for taking inventory of one’s otherwise automatic responses on an ultramarathon. I still had 52 miles left to go.

Keep those thumbs up, I told myself, to avoid floppy wrists. Motion must be forward and back, minimizing up and down. Keep the knee lift to a minimum. I’d lock my mind on the movements, checking them out to make sure I was feeling smooth. Now—loose, loose—keep it loose. For a half mile I continue my mental tour of the running body, visualizing loose thighs, calves, arms…Then a focus on my legs. Creeping tiredness can cause inefficient motions. Relax. Swing each leg far forward while at the same time loosening all the muscles; that way only the relevant ones do the work, and none work against each other like a bumblebee’s shivering response, which burns energy to produce heat but accomplishes no work. I visualize matching the stride of my right leg in synchrony with the swing of the left arm. For a quarter mile or so, I feel the rhythm and switch my conscious editing to concentrate on the opposite limbs. Once in a while, I vary the length of my stride, to contract my leg muscles for slightly different durations, like frogs varying the length of their calls. The rhythm of my footsteps is steady, unvarying, and like my heartbeat, it is unconsciously timed with my breathing. As long as I’m at rest, I can normally feel the beat when I switch on my conscious awareness. There are either one or two beats with each inspiration, and the same number with each expiration. During running I feel my breathing. Like my heartbeat, the breathing rhythm is usually also unconscious. It is timed to the same unconscious metronome that times the footsteps. I like the feeling of the strong, steady rhythm with everything in sync. At times I listen to it—in just one instant I can bring it up on my screen of consciousness. Three steps with one long inspiration, a fourth step and a quick expiration. Over and over and over again. My mantra. My mind goes blank. Sometimes I vary the beat, with only two steps during the inspiration. I can do this switch-over consciously, but it normally occurs unconsciously as I increase my effort. The harder the effort, the deeper the breaths, until there is the sudden switch in number of breaths. The rhythm preserves synchronicity, synchronicity translates to smoothness, and smoothness means energy efficiency. The body’s metronome has been fine-tuned by more tens of thousands of miles than I can begin to comprehend, which have long been deleted from my working consciousness, just like the breathing rhythm itself. Only the feeling of it remains. And it feels good.

Meanwhile, Klecker’s lead is continuing to grow ever wider. I’m almost to the marathon mark and about to grab my juice bottle when I hear Jack yell: “He is heading for a new world record.” That would be in the 100-kilometer, I presume; he has already set his astounding world record in the 50-mile, last year. “You couldn’t reach him now with an airmail postage stamp,” Jack continues—just as I drop the juice squeeze bottle—perhaps to forestall later disappointment or to prevent me from overreaching.

I will remember his comments for as long as I live. It took some wind out of my sails. Klecker was indeed intimidating. I knew then that if I couldn’t beat him, even in this one race, then I obviously couldn’t have a U.S. record, either. To try to succeed, I needed to start off with fantastic dreams, but ultimately I’d have to be realistic. I tried to console myself with the thought that I must simply do the best with what I have. Giving it my all, that’s all I can do. That’s all I can care about, and therefore that’s what really counts. Nevertheless, things can happen. Any weakness or flaw—no matter how slight—will be magnified in the next 10, 20, 30 miles, and after that it will be hell for all of us. That still gives plenty of room for the unseen, the unplanned, the unanticipated, in any of us. I recall Bert Hawkins, twenty-two years ago at Hinckley, Maine…

My time at the marathon mark was 2:42. I’m on pace again, although Klecker, of course, is far out of reach. 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…

Soon enough it gets harder. Much harder. But I’m not sure anymore whether I’m slowing down or overcompensating and possibly speeding up. I just keep working harder and harder, and steadily going by one runner after another, using them to cinch myself along. A runner up ahead—move up on him—pass—the next one.

Coming by Jack again. He yells: “Paul has dropped out—Klecker is still going strong.”

The cranberry juice is becoming increasingly hard to stomach. I lose both my thirst and my appetite and have to force myself to swallow. Fatigue to the point of pain is overwhelming other sensations. My body is screaming at me to stop, and it would always win if it did not have a mind to play tricks with it, boss it around, and delude it.

To psych oneself up takes self-delusion. That’s where the use of logic comes in. Logic is less an instrument for finding truth than a tool that we use to help us justify what our lower emotional centers direct or demand. Lacking this self-delusionary logic, we would be less able to rationalize, and so be unable to succumb to such mad, senseless, crazy things as trying to see how fast one can run 62.2 miles without stopping. Ultimately, our logic may get wacky enough that we see through our rationalizations, and then they don’t make sense anymore. This almost invariably occurs sometime around halfway through the race, and you ask yourself, Why am I doing this? Why am I here? Why? There is no answer.

At that point, one needs faith—a combination of ignorance, deliberate blindness, hope, and optimism. It defies logic yet makes us able to strive and to survive. Maybe it also distinguishes the mind from a computational machine. It’s what made our ancestors chase the antelope on and on till it tired.

“To run a good ultra-marathon,” the world’s best ultramarathoner, Don Ritchie, has said, “you need a good training background and a suitable mental attitude—i.e., you must be a little crazy.” I had the first. But the second? I ask myself: Is there anyone else in America who might be an even greater lunatic than I, who might push himself even harder? A small voice says, Probably. So I push again, a little harder. Am I crazy? Perhaps. But I must judge both my and others’ ability accurately, maintain absolute integrity to my vision, and be guided strictly by cause and effect, by empirical reality. As Yogi Berra said about baseball, “It’s ninety-percent mental. The other half is physical.”

After about 4 hours, the sun is blazing hot and the wind has picked up. Jack still holds out the welcoming squeeze bottle full of cranberry juice every few miles. I grab, squirt, swallow, drop the bottle, and am glad to have both hands swinging free again…“Klecker is fading,” I thought he said as I went by. What? Really? Fading? Did I hear correctly? I’m still passing people. Another 5-mile lap, another cranberry juice. “You’re in second place…” So what? I think—he is still miles ahead.

Every handoff is now a welcome event. Every handoff ticks off another 5 miles completed.

I don’t really feel thirsty, but I drink anyway, because on my training runs I had often had a lot of fluid weight loss without feeling thirst. Thirst arrives too late.

“He’s dying!” Jack says at another handoff. I did hear it right. I think of Billy Mills as he, a complete unknown, is coming out of the last turn charging into the lead of the Olympic 10,000-meter, saying over and over to himself, I can win, I can win, I can win. I feel a shiver all over my body. Jack’s two words have an electrifying effect. Although my body is weakening, I’m carried along now by what amounts to spirit. I don’t really know what spirit is, but I feel different. I know I’ve got a chance! The impossible. Nobody knows me. And I’m charging out of nowhere, and I’m going to catch him! I know what he is experiencing. I know exactly what it feels like to die on the run. Last week was my most recent reminder. There is no way he’ll go beyond the 50, and there is no way I won’t.

It is time to get excited. It is time to squeeze out the adrenaline. I think of Mike, Bruce, Fred on our cross-country team, mock-growling, laughing, and saying on the run: “Gotta be tough—be an animal.” I also know that being ahead means nothing—not till the finish line. Two years earlier, while I was laboring about a mile from the finish line of the San Francisco marathon, I heard snatches of chatter from radios held by spectators along the course. I recall hearing: “Here comes the winner now…it is Peter Demaris.” Demaris was just barely visible, far ahead of me. But I wasn’t ready to cede defeat, despite the premature announcement of his victory. I speeded up, and just kept going—I don’t know how or from where it came, but something made me fly. My finishing time was nothing to brag about, but the San Francisco Examiner the next day (October 29, 1979) headlined, “Tricky ending to Golden Gate Marathon—complete unknown wins.” I was that unknown runner. And I know there are many. They can be any of us. I might get the lead now—today—but I, too, could be caught…just as Demaris was caught then, right before the line.

During exercise, the mobilization of fuel for use by the muscles is controlled largely by the circulation not only of adrenaline but also of noradrenaline, adrenocorticotropic hormone, glucagon, and thyroxine—all these hormones are controlled by feedback loops through the brain. I obviously don’t think of hormones or their feedback loops now, but abnormal performance demands abnormal physiology. How do I change from being normal? I involuntarily draw inspiration and strength from the example of brain power exhibited by others I admire.

Lefty had it. Lefty Gould, who had talked to me for hours when I was mail boy and when I had jogged back and forth twice a day carrying the leather mail pouch. He had looked unblinkingly at me with his pale gray eyes and told me of the “Krauts” who crawled over the lines and held him up at gunpoint, to demand his cigarettes, then let him go. In my mind’s eye, I see him next in the hospital as a group of interns wheels him along. Feebly and laboriously he hoists himself up on one elbow and declares with a grin on his face, “I can lick all of you fuckers!” to show them not to pity him, the once great prizefighter. His brave but feeble gesture was a declaration of his generosity—how much he had in him, even when his body was helpless. Not to give an inch is to give everything. The stories he told me, a little kid…He’d lean out the teller’s window to tell me how he’d thrown his shot-out thighbone at the enemy…as he continued shooting even as he sunk into unconsciousness. I draw deep now, on memories—on life, really. The mountain of life. Let there be enough of it to draw from…till the finish line…Lefty—now I see him—as he lay so still with his hands neatly folded across his U.S. Army uniform, in the casket in Moody Chapel, where I’d been hundreds of times as a kid before running off into the woods on Sunday afternoons. Tears well up. Lefty had been a personal bodyguard of General George S. Patton, a 1912 Olympian. Patton had said, “Now if you are going to win the battle, you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up.” The body can handle only little steps. The mind can take great leaps. To that tree…

My entire life is compressed into this little life of several hours. The past, present, and future fuse into a searing knot where the body shrinks and the mind is of ever-greater significance. Horizons shrink. I’m dipping into pain, gradually, inexorably. I look up and focus on a tree up ahead. Keep the pace—to that tree. I’d make it and reward myself with a congratulation: I made it! There—now to that tree. And so it goes, one little section of the distance at a time, distance I’d never in my life have to run again…ever…never again. Now is all that matters. Now—now. This moment.

It’s as if I’ve been in the woods a hundred years, trailing a big whitetail buck forever—I’ve finally come close physically. I can do it! Don’t mess up now. This is the end of the longest hunt, and the biggest buck of all is up ahead. He’s that white line across the pavement. My mind locks on, drawing me forward.

Finally, as I’m nearing the end of the 50, Jack hollers excitedly: “Klecker is finished! You are first now, and far ahead of the next runner.” Only 12 more miles to go. I grab the cranberry juice and speed on, all the more possessed. If I can finish first, that’s all the more reason to run ever harder, because now I have a chance to set a record—if I can only hang on. But anything can happen—a muscle pull, the dreaded wall, dehydration, an ankle sprain…a complete unkown….

The end of this hunt is drawing close. The quarry I’m trying to catch will be defined by a number, my finishing time: hours, minutes, and seconds separated by colons. And that number once made will be with me for the rest of my life. Maybe it should go on my tombstone. After all, two sets of numbers designating birth and death dates say little about a person. It is the in-between that matters. The number I am making now is pure. It will define the limits of my animal nature—it will be the measure of my imagination, achieved by gut and spirit. It can’t be bought, traded, or achieved through leverage. All other honors are paltry in comparison. It is valuable, because it’s a product free of others’ judgments, prejudices, jealousies, and ignorance. This is life not as it is, but as we idealize it.

Don’t forget the precious past. I’m forty-one. I’m nearing the end of the cat’s proverbial nine lives as a runner. The back, the two knee operations, the orthopedic surgeon saying, “If you don’t stop running, I’m going to have to take that kneecap off and throw it in the garbage can.”

“How many miles do I have left if I stop running?” I wanted to know.

“I can’t tell you that. It could go tomorrow, or it could last you twenty years.”

“What if I don’t stop running?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“In that case,” I had told him, “I’m going to run like hell and get into the best shape of my life, and use those miles to their utmost.” And I did, and won first master in the Boston Marathon. (Inactivity never helped me: this was only one of four very similar scenarios that I encountered in over forty years of running.)

A picture pops up in my mind of the tall man I saw walking across the campus at Berkeley. His face—was missing. Burned off by napalm? All of those brave soldiers—many of my running mates. Someone else went, because I didn’t…. Their heroism—and I’m complaining that I’m tired?

I inhale deeply. I suck in the fresh, clean air off the lake. I run past strollers on the racecourse sidewalk who see us runners in deep concentration. We look neither right nor left. We stink of sweat. Our glazed eyes stare ahead…Runners don’t have to smile. We don’t have to look pretty. We don’t allow ourselves to be judged, and we cringe every time we see a superb athlete such as an Olympic diver, gymnast, or skater having to stand to be judged, waiting for cards with numbers to be held up.

One little distance at a time. One step. Every one is precious. Every step is aliveness, because aliveness is to resist inertia. I draw on all the emotional wells I can think of, trying to kill the demons of indifference that say, Why? Why? It doesn’t really matter—why should I care whether I win or if somebody else does? And who cares whether I finish in 6:30 or 6:31 or even 8:30, if I’m first? Nobody will know the vast differences. Except me.

I’m still passing people on successive loops who are miles behind me in the race. Bystanders can’t tell who is up front from who is way back in the pack. Just as in real life.

“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness,” Dostoyevsky wrote. My stream of consciousness alternates between vividness and dreamlike somnolence. Sometimes it retrieves peaceful scenes—the antithesis of what I’m experiencing. I envision myself lying in the grass by the cabin, paddling with my pal Phil down Bog Stream, fishing with him as a teenager at dawn on Brailley Brook in the great north woods of Maine. I try to feel the birds, the forest, the people that are in me. I call upon these riches through images in my mind that “flicker about in dreams or can be called upon to relieve an hour of stress or idleness,” as Howard Evans, a biologist friend, once wrote. I call upon those images now…I see Phil when I ran the state meet at Bates College. He’d driven thirty miles from Wilton, the little town with the roaring, clanging textile mill where he’d gone early each morning most of his life, carrying his black lunch pail with a thermos and a sandwich. He’d driven all the way to Lewiston just to see me run. Nobody had ever done that before. I’d won it for him, against the best distance runner in the state, and in his excitement at seeing me win, he jumped out onto the track—and threw up! I’m running for you now, Phil…I see you in bed. Cancer has melted your frame. You can barely move. “It’s a hard row to hoe,” you say wearily. I have hoed hundreds of rows of beans and corn, many for you in your garden when I was a kid. “Take me to Bog Stream in the canoe,” you feebly begged me. You wanted to go out, on our favorite canoeing stream, where we’d found peace together.

Now during the run I tap into another emotion: shame. Did you want us to tip the canoe in order to drown yourself? I had played dumb. It took you another two weeks of agony, lying staring at the ceiling, before you expired. How precious you’d think this moment is now, if you’d had it, ever. How precious I’ll think it is, when I’m where you were….

My heart pounds. When will it be my turn? I try next to distract myself with pleasant images—painted turtles slipping off half-submerged logs on the Kennebec River as we glide quietly around a bend with the rowboat, down past the gardens at Good Will. Bumblebees buzzing on the blue pickerelweed blooming along the banks, where the lily pads float and the pickerel lurk…Will my kids see these wonders? Feel them? My daughter Erica—only ten years old—has just left with her mother to live back in California. Erica—Erica—I love you—I love you…And my body shudders. Winning is not enough, I tell myself again and again. I had for months forgotten what the record was, after I knew I’d try for it, because ultimately it didn’t matter. My best did.

The miles roll on. My first place finish feels assured, but so little in life really is.

My pace now has to be maintained by a different body. The very landscape has changed. The distance between trees has expanded, the ground has hardened, the scenery is fading. There are no more bystanders. Nothing but pavement 10 feet in front of me, 5 feet, and my mind’s constant vision of the quarry ahead—that white line across the pavement. The universe is contracting, constricting. The pavement—and the line—is all there is. I’ve run several times around the globe for this opportunity, and I could still miss it by a second. If I don’t run those 100 yards to that next turn as fast as possible, I will later experience a pain greater and more long-lasting than what I feel now…To that tree….

I remember only short phrases of songs. I had rehearsed a Cat Stevens song in hopes of distracting myself on the run: “Summers come and gone / Drifting under the dream clouds / Past the broken sun / I’ve been running a long time, on this traveling ground.” I needed stronger and stronger medicine. Images of…the cabin in the woods, the tranquillity of the trees and the songs of the birds at dawn, the thoughts of their epic migrations, the feel of wet dew on the grass early in the morning, the humming of the insects on the rhododendron in the bog—the flight of the ducks last spring and their excited quacking in the swamp…Memories, distractions, remembrances, and the longing for “the peace beyond understanding” rush me onward.

As I’m rounding the bend with only 2 or 3 more miles to go, I’m elated by one thing, there is one overpowering, delicious thought: This will end soon. I speed up slightly, catching a second wind for the anticipation of release—in minutes—seconds. That foretaste of relief drives me as hard as any other motives. However, even when I finally see the finish up ahead—that group of people—I continue to fear that possibly another runner might be creeping up behind, having saved it to the end, to rush by to take me by surprise. Or if I’m close to a record, any number of them could be invisibly beside me, separated only by a date.

Soon I see it, up ahead—the prize, the white line across the pavement. A hundred feet—50—10…Finally…It’s over…I’ve done it! I’ve come through—into a heaven where merely being there is the sweetest ambrosia.

One would think I’d have raised my hands in triumph and pranced about like a mad banshee. However, I was much too exhausted to raise even a finger; instead, feeling a deep, quiet, warm glow, I collapsed onto the soft, cool grass in the shade of a tree. I felt unimaginable contentment as my heart pounded a long time from the hard finishing sprint.

The tall, solid metal winner’s cup is inscribed at the base with the words “Winner—100k” and beneath them, “1981 National Champion.” The cup is full. It contains what I had put into it. Like catching an antelope, the best things in life that we can experience are served on the challenge to endure and to overcome in the long run.

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Bernd Heinrich crossing the finish line, October 4, 1981, Chicago, Illinois