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

Chapter 2. Ancient Runners and Us

Yet that man is happy and poets sing of him who conquers with hand and swift foot and strength.

—PINDAR, Greek poet, c. 500 B.C.

…The essential thing in life is not so much conquering as fighting well.

on reviving the Olympic Games in 1896

We are all natural-born runners, although many of us forget this fact. I will never forget when I first ran barefoot as a child on the warm sand of a lonely wooded road in Germany, where I smelled the pines, heard wood pigeons coo, and saw bright green tiger beetles running or flying ahead of me. I will never, never forget running on asphalt pavement on October 4, 1981, more than thirty years later. On that day I raced a 100-kilometer distance in Chicago with 261 other men and women. Each of them was in one way or another, like me, chasing a dream antelope. When I began to think about what running is all about for us humans, and why I raced, I was surprised at the vividness of my distant memories, and at my new revelations. There were many worlds between the small boy running barefoot on the sand and the forty-one-year-old biologist wearing Nikes on the Chicago pavement. But now these memories were intertwined in my mind with the larger scheme of human existence that relates to our kinship with animals and goes back to the dawn of humankind. Those thoughts gave new meaning to this race.

Movement is almost synonymous with life. With elongating stems and twirling tendrils, plants race one another toward light. Similarly, the seeds of many plants compete to be first on the right piece of ground. Some may travel hundreds of miles by ingenious and diverse mechanisms: being carried by wind or water, or being ferried by berry-eating birds or fur-bearing mammals.

Animals move primarily on their own power: they harness chemical energy by means of muscles. But like plants, we humans have recently harnessed the wind, water, and other animals to carry us. And increasingly, our species, unlike any other, is tapping the energy from coal, oil, and the atom for locomotion.

Throughout the hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution, there has been selective pressure on some species to be able to travel farther and quicker, and to do it more economically and under ever more adverse conditions than either their competitors or their predators. Both predators and prey have to move faster or die. An anonymous runner captured the notion in this now-famous aphorism: “Every morning in Africa, an antelope wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest antelope, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or an antelope—when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” Of course, these animals don’t need to know—they must only be fast.

With the help of our infinite imagination and the technologies it has produced, we now travel faster, more economically, and well beyond the range of our muscle power. But for millions of years, our ultimate form of locomotion was running. We are, deep down, still runners, whether or not we declare it by our actions. And our minds, as much as our lungs and muscles, are a vital force that empowers our running. Whenever one of us jogs down a road or when we line up to race in a marathon, we are not only celebrating life in general and our individual aliveness but we are also exercising our fantasies while acknowledging reality. We are secure in the knowledge that there is no magic. Which is not to say the world is only of simple logic, because although it may be simple in its design, it is awesomely complex in its details.

I’ve run at varying distances and intensities almost all of my life, probably because the primal unadorned simplicity of running appeals to me. Various games incorporate running, but only running itself touches the pure and basic essence of the tension between speed and endurance, stripped bare of our everyday world of technology, beliefs, and hype. Nothing—nothing in the world, in terms of sheer performance—compares in my mind to the thrill of seeing a Lee Evans rounding the curve on the way to a 400-meter finish, or the electricity of a Peter Snell, a Cathy Freeman, a Billy Mills, or a Joan Benoit Samuelson on the home-stretch to an Olympic victory. Why? Because it is pure and powerful.

The Complete Book of Running by the late James F. Fixx concludes with the following lines:

My suspicion is that the effects of running are not extraordinary at all, but quite ordinary. It is the other states, all other feelings, that are peculiar, for they are an abnegation of the way you and I are intended to feel. As runners, I think we reach directly back along the endless chain of history. We experience what we would have felt had we lived ten thousand years ago, eating fruits, nuts and vegetables, and keeping our hearts and lungs and muscles fit by constant movement. We are reasserting as modern man seldom does, our kinship with ancient man, and even with the wild beasts that preceded him.

Several years ago in Matopos (now Matobo) National Park, Zimbabwe, I had a rare opportunity to experience this feeling of kinship with ancient runners that Fixx alludes to. I was on a research trip to study how body temperature affects the running and fighting ability of scarab dung beetles. On the rolling hills, their rock outcrops covered by short grass, I saw and smelled white and yellow flowering acacia trees that were abuzz with bees, wasps, and colorful cetoniid beetles. Giraffes were peaceably grazing on the flat-topped acacias. Baboons and impalas, each in their respective groups or bands, roamed in the miombe bush. Tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra can, at the right time of year, still be seen in such a landscape, thundering by during their massive migration. Elephants and rhinoceros lumber like prehistoric giants over the land, ever on the move. Serendipitously, I looked under a rather inauspicious and small rock overhang and was taken aback by what I saw.


The cave painting

Painted onto the wall under the overhang was a succession of small, sticklike human figures in clear running stride. All were clutching delicate bows, quivers, and arrows. These hunters were running in one direction, from left to right across the rock face. In itself, this two-or three-thousand-year-old pictograph was not particularly extraordinary. But then I noticed something more, and it sent my mind reeling. It was the figure farthest to the right, the one leading the progression. It had its hands thrown up in the air in the universal runners’ gesture of triumph at the end of a race. This involuntary gesture is reflexive for most runners who have fought hard, who have breathed the heat and smelled the fire, and then felt the exhilaration of triumph over adversity. The image of the Bushmen remains for me an iconic reminder that the roots of our running, our competitiveness, and our striving for excellence go back very far and very deep.

Looking at that African rock painting made me feel that I was witness to a kindred spirit, a man who had long ago vanished yet whom I understood as if we’d talked just a moment earlier. I was not only in the same environment and of the same mind as this unknown Bushman running hunter, I was also in the place that most likely produced our common ancestors. The artist had been here hundreds of generations before me, but that was only the blink of an eye compared to the eons that have elapsed since a bipedal intermediate between our apelike and our recognizably human ancestors left the safety of the forest for the savanna some 4 million years ago, to start running. There is nothing quite so gentle, deep, and irrational as our running—and nothing quite so savage, and so wild.