Epilogue - Why We Run: A Natural History - Bernd Heinrich

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


Things in motion sooner catch the eye than what not stirs.

—SHAKESPEARE, Troilus and Cressida

Every long-distance race, like every hunt, is different yet also similar in many ways. In most ways this one was like most others. After finishing the race I felt like a birder might who has ticked off another rare species for his life list.

Like trying to sight rare secretive birds, ultrarunning is not for everyone. Although Ultrarunning magazine voted me the outstanding male performer for 1981 on the basis of the Chicago race, the Chicago Tribune paid scant notice to it. While researching for this book I read their account of it on Monday, October 5. The paper focused briefly on Barney Klecker from Minnesota, and Sue Ellen Trapp from Florida, as the respective male and female winners of the 50-mile. My name was not mentioned, although I finished the 100-kilometer 4 minutes and 37 seconds before Trapp crossed the same chalk line in her 50-mile win. The oversight is unimportant, but telling.

Ultrarunning is, from a media and a spectator perspective, as one astute observer remarked, “about as exciting as watching paint dry.” Actually, that doesn’t quite capture the reality. It is as physiologically and psychologically challenging as any sport on the planet. But it can’t be reduced to sound bites of seconds or minutes. That’s why I felt challenged to write about it. I chose this race because it was my most memorable one, and most inspired. I remembered thinking while running it that in twenty years I’d write a book about it. It seemed an odd thought then. But when the twenty years were almost up, I remembered, and picked up my pencil.

I had finished the 100-kilometer race not in a dead heat as I had long imagined to myself. Instead, perhaps boringly, I crossed the finish line nearly three-quarters of an hour before the second 100-kilometer finisher. My friend Ray Krolewicz was third. My official time for the 100-kilometer on this nationally certified course had been 6:38:21, beating Frank Bozanich’s North American 100-kilometer road record by 13 minutes. In the nineteen years since then, my record has been bettered by four North Americans. Most recently it was lowered to 6:30:11 by Tom Johnson. I had gone through the 50-mile point in second place behind Klecker, in 5:10:13. This time has since been bettered by six North Americans. Stefan Fekner of Canada beat it by the amazingly close time of just 3 seconds, and Don Paul, who had dropped out early in the 1981 Chicago race, beat that by a hair’s breadth of just 2 seconds in a later race!

My times for both the 50-mile and 100-kilometer were then, and still are now, masters (over age forty) world records.

While writing this book, I contacted Andy Milroy (former technical director of the International Association of Ultrarunners), who e-mailed me the following:

To put your 6:38:21 100 km time into worldwide context…Because of the uncertainty surrounding the 6:36:57 (then a possible world road best) by Richard Chouinard of Canada at the Montmagny race on 21/22 July, 1979, your 6:38:21 at Chicago on 4 Oct. 81 was the best certified road 100 km mark in the world—effectively the world record. Based on the documentation that was available on the Montmagny mark as compared with the Chicago mark, the latter would have had priority.

I hasten to add another point of worldwide context, namely, there are always better performances. My race time, for example, did not come close to the sparkling brilliance of Scotland’s Don Ritchie, who on October 28, 1978, ran a track 100-kilometer in 6:10:20, at the Crystal Palace in London, and who in his younger years set 15 world records. After turning forty, he ran from Turin to St. Vincent, Italy, in 6:36:02 (point-to-point races may count as “notable performances,” but they are not eligible for world records). His many stellar performances cancel all ambitions I might have had for world bragging rights.

In retrospect, the race is a metaphor for my life. Our lives are influenced by our evolutionary past, by experience, and by our minds. There are times when we take life as it comes, and there are other times when we apply maximum effort to try to achieve a certain result. Throughout, it is all an adventure that we like to look back on with pride. We don’t really know if what we’re doing will get us where we want to go. I didn’t really know whether what I was doing to prepare for the race was right. As when choosing the ideal mate, a course of study, or a training regimen, we take calculated risks. In retrospect, I made foolish mistakes. I had not, for example, taken the findings from the birds into account; I should have rested up more, carbo depleted less, and taken a little protein on the run. Undoubtedly, I made many more mistakes that I still don’t even realize. Despite my likely errors, I was asked to record my experiment of one in two ultrarunning training manuals, as were other ultrarunners. One learns more from one’s mistakes than from one’s successes, and I therefore concentrate on them.

I drank one and a half gallons of cranberry juice during the race but still lost 8 pounds of body weight, and since my kidneys had shut down—I never once urinated—I must have lost about 20 pounds of fluid through sweat. Feeling that cranberry juice might have been a magic elixir, I used it in a 50-mile race that was held on a chilly late fall day in Maine. I did not sweat as much and urinated instead. It cost me much time. I learned that the juice is highly diuretic. For another race, I trained even harder—peaking at 200 miles per week—for a 24-hour race in North Carolina. I again used cranberry juice. This time it tasted so foul when I tried to drink it on the run that I could not get it down. I was reduced to drinking water, and the water contaminated by the mere taste of the juice remaining in my squeeze bottle made it soon impossible for me to stomach even that. I hit the wall at 32 miles and dropped out. I learned that I should have read the fine print on the label. This cranberry juice, it turned out later, lacked corn syrup additive and had an artificial sweetener instead; the lack of endurance came from the lack of racing fuel.

The taste aversion could have been from having trained my body during the race that the pain from running comes from the juice being ingested. That is, I would have been nauseated with any cranberry juice, because my body remembered from the race that the more cranberry juice I drank, the more I felt pain, and so my body then tagged the pain as coming from cranberry rather than running. In the same way rats, once made to feel pain or ill by food with poison, develop a taste aversion to the flavor of the food that made them ill (for example, when receiving radiation while eating that food). I had, apparently, unconsciously remembered the pain experienced during the race, although I no longer had a clear sensory memory of it. Our inability to retain a sensory memory of pain may be a psychological adaptation allowing us to repeat the hunt, to not become immobilized, and to repeat the race again and again. (I went on to set American records at the 100 mile, and most miles run in 24 hours before it sunk in.) In contrast, I remember still the exquisite rapture from childhood of capturing my first tiger beetle, holding a baby bird, and a thousand other pleasures that motivate and empower me to act even now.

I was invited to run in the Greek Spartathlon, a 152-mile race from Athens to Sparta. This time I felt pressure to win, and probably due to my previous success and short memory, I took off with the European antelopes on that still dark dawn in Athens. When I got into the steep mountains before Sparta, I stopped to walk. That felt like quitting. I had not yet realized that walking breaks can be part of ultrarunning strategy. This time my friend Krolewicz, the camel, who was also in the American contingent, beat me handily; he finished. I had not heeded the example of the camels and frogs, which pace themselves and do it right. Nor had I invoked caution from the example of the deer, which do it wrong by sprinting when they are chased by an endurance predator.

Success is different things to different people, as I was reminded on a recent trip across the country. Our family stopped at Red Rock State Park near Gallup, New Mexico. An Indian man jogged by us up the canyon while we were picnicking. When he came back down, I intercepted him for a chat. We discovered we were both distance runners. He had recently completed six marathons even though at one time he weighed 250 pounds, smoked heavily, and had high blood pressure and a drinking problem. Running had saved his life. “Every time I cross the finish line,” he told me, “I win.” He had won big. His brain had done it. He thought he could do it, and did it. He could have been dead wrong. I also feel that I owe much to my running—my education, my health, and maybe my life.

In Chicago I’d done the best that I knew how at the time. That’s what mattered to me. As I said, when I finished the race I didn’t even know what record, if any, I might have set. I didn’t consciously dwell on the race until nineteen years later, when I watched my son in a high school cross-country meet. It sent shivers down my spine. Memories kept coming and it all seemed as if it had happened yesterday. And so I began to write, lest I lose the experience that had been so costly and so precious to me. I wanted to pass it on, and to retrieve the running experience anew I also started to relive it; I began a training regimen to try for some age-group (over sixty) records.

When Bushmen kill an eland, wildebeest, or some other antelope, they share the meat with their friends. They gather around the glowing embers of their campfire and talk deep into the night about the hunt. When they are not hunting, they are talking about hunting, reliving their experience.

I believe our common hunter’s heart is the ability to impart value far in excess of what seems practical. That’s dreaming. That’s a large part of what makes us human. If modern runners were drawn around a campfire in a warm African night, they would, like any Bushmen, poke the embers and relive the run all the way to the finish line and beyond. That’s what I’ve tried to do here.