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

Chapter 3. Start of the Race

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start.


For me, the Bushman painting embodies the connection between running, hunting, and humanity’s striving toward excellence for its own sake. All other animals are much more strictly utilitarian. They lack that artistic drive which is detached from ulterior motives and rewards. Looking at the Bushman painting, I thought of the late Steve Prefontaine, from Coos Bay, Oregon, former University of Oregon runner who was one of the greatest and gutsiest all-time middle-distance racers ever. Pre put it this way: “A race is like a work of art that people can look at and be affected by in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.” Yes, the key to appreciation is in the understanding.

As I was growing up, my gods were runners like Herb Elliott, Jim Ryun, and the now-anonymous men on competing teams who could outrun me. These weren’t just people. Some of them seemed to defy natural laws. My appreciation came from the understanding that what they did was extraordinary, and not readily understood. All I knew was: it was not magic. I wanted to know what they ate and breathed and how they lived, what made them so different from other humans and so much like some of the animals I admired.

Seeing a great performance, whether by a human or another animal, still inspires me to no end. I’m moved by others’ dreams and by their devotion and courage in the pursuit of excellence. I get choked up when I see a kid, or anyone else, fighting hopeless odds—someone who goes out there to run the lonely roads with a dream in the heart, a gleam in the eye, and a goal in mind. I admire those who have the courage to step up to the line of a great race to run their heart out for a dream. I empathize with a heart touched by fire during this Dream Time of youth, when as runners we were still undefeated in spirit, felt invincible, and thought the world was pure.

Many of the people close to me in rural Maine did not appear to strive for great things. I saw them carrying their black lunch pails, with a thermos and a sandwich, each morning on their way to the dreary bowels of the clanging woolen mill. In the evening they came back, milked the cow, and went to bed. After some years of the same endlessly repeated routine, they died, usually in the same hospital where they were born.

I wanted to do something different. However, that is a difficult thing if you see no opportunity. On the other hand, it is hard not to try when you think you can do something when you have a chance at success, even though it is often hazardous to strike out on one’s own. That seldom goes unpunished. Any mark of difference may become a target. Even my own father, to whom I owe so much, had taught me this harsh lesson.

His eyesight was failing and he could not carry on much longer with his work as an entomologist. He wanted me to continue in his footsteps in ichneumonid taxonomy to perpetuate his dream. But I had my own dreams, in a different world. He was a fine field naturalist, but his interpretive skills were not based on modern science in which I was being trained. I recall the day when, near the end of my undergraduate studies, I was home on a short vacation, sitting near him at his desk in the old farmhouse where he spent hours each day peering through his microscope, “preparing” specimens. That preparation involved meticulously pinning the wings and legs of every insect on a piece of cork, using thin long insect pins to hold the appendages in place until they dried. He spent hours each day to prepare two or three of his specimens. Every single one in his collection of thousands had every single one of its six legs, two antennae, and four wings in the same precise orientation as every other one. After the insect dried and the pins were removed, he put the specimen into one of the neat rows, each with a label with printed dates, location, and so on in almost microscopic script.

Papa was a veteran of two world wars, who had sacrificed his formal education by enlisting for military service at age seventeen because of ideals—some prince of an ally to his country had been assassinated, and it was his duty to defend his country and its sacred commitments. During my school break, I asked his advice on whether I should also enlist, to fight in Vietnam. I don’t recall the precise words—except the last ones—but the conversation went something like this: “America is an experiment,” he said, and after a long pause continued, “where the driving force is individuals chasing money. I would not risk my bones for a society guided by this principle.”

I felt this to be a put-down because I had worked hard to earn money, to finance my education, and to buy a beat-up car. I loved being an American. “The experiment seems to be working out just fine,” I said, thinking of the optimism and the well-being I felt and saw all around.

“But it is not done yet,” he continued. “Money brings ease, ease makes softness, and throughout history it has always been the toughest, most self-sacrificing who have survived and conquered.” So I went to the army recruiter in Bangor, Maine, to try to enlist in the paratroopers.

“Who should we serve anyway, if not ourselves?” I had asked my father rhetorically, adding that I thought he, too, sought selfish satisfaction through his ichneumon flies, and that “maybe we serve the greater good by serving ourselves.”

He made what I thought were inappropriate analogies to social insect societies with which I strongly disagreed. Then he was silent for a moment, put down his forceps, looked me in the eye, and soberly declared: “If you don’t think like me, then you are not my son,” and silently resumed his work. His view of our having to think alike to be liked seemed extreme then, but perhaps it is not. It is usually only better camouflaged.

I became a scientist in part because I sought some measure of certainty in a world where values were all too often defined on the basis of stature, individual bias, unproven assumptions, wishful thinking, dogma, and sentimentality. However, even in science there are often no hard, universally accepted standards that apply outside one’s strictly defined discipline. One’s greatest theory is another’s so-so generality. Another’s greatest experimental empirical triumph is another’s trivia, if it does not fit into some preconceived “useful” framework. This is not out of malice but from a motivation for excellence, because we as human beings are limited but don’t know our limits.

Ultimately, running appealed to me because its quality cannot be defined in terms of anyone’s use or place in a hierarchy or plan. Perfection is fairly and objectively defined by numbers. There are strict levels of excellence that anyone who chooses can easily recognize and aspire to, with the ultimate being a record. There are rules to the game and the number that one may achieve—whether time taken to run a certain distance, place in a race, or a record—is never open to judgment. Nor can it be snatched away, falsified, or claimed by anyone else. The test is the race, where credentials mean nothing and performances everything.

I’ve been running since before I was ten years old. At age forty I suddenly became mindful of Pindar’s ode to an Olympic winner—“Brief is the seasons of man’s delight”—and also the fact that, according to world expert running physiologist David Costill, “there is no doubt that a distance runner is at his best between the ages of 27–32 years.” When I turned forty-one, in the spring of 1981, I took stern cognizance of life’s trajectory. I hung a wild new hope on a lifelong dream that filled my gut with fire and my mind with a stubborn faith and optimism. It was still possible. I planned to race, and possibly win, the U.S. National Championship at 100 kilometers, to be held in Chicago that fall.

Go for it now or you’ll regret it forever, my mind said back then. This act of will was not my last chance to be alive, but it sure felt like it. Running had been a small part of my life. But every part is important, if it is going to be a part at all.

The Chicago race was billed as a battle royal between two ultrarunning greats, Barney Klecker from Minnesota and Don Paul from San Francisco. Klecker, at age twenty-nine, had just set a phenomenal world record. He had run 50 miles in under five hours—in 4:51.25, to be exact. Paul was close in ability, and also hungry. In my mind, Klecker and Paul were invincible. They were human antelopes—swift, unbeatable runners with muscular thighs, thin lower legs, and deep chests.

What would happen when Klecker and Paul—and the rest of us—raced over a distance of 100 kilometers (62.137 miles)? All of us would confront our personal limits, but since Klecker was the very best the world had so far produced, then the limits of human speed and endurance for that distance would be challenged as well.

My new bride, Margaret, had flown with me to Chicago the night before the race, but we didn’t go to the prerace clinic where dignitaries and name runners would speak and where Don Paul would predict “an exciting race.” Instead, I checked out the starting line, jogged along a section of the racecourse on the sidewalk along Lake Michigan, and then retired to our hotel. I lounged in a bathtub filled with hot water. All summer long we had lived in the Maine woods in a tiny tar-paper shack without electricity and running water, studying insects and a tame great horned owl and preparing for this event. This bath was a treat I could not miss.

When I got up the next morning, I ate as many yeast rolls as I could hold and drank a big cup of coffee from a thermos, and then as the dawn showed on the horizon, we hurried down to the starting line.

Figures were darting in and out of the shadows, stretching and striding to warm up as light rain and gusts of wind blew in from the lake. I walked around in my cotton warm-up suit, shivering and nervous. I couldn’t wait to take off. I couldn’t wait for the anticipated relief at the end of only a few more hours, after months of unremitting daily training at a pace faster than the race’s. In my mind, most of the race had been in the 1,500 miles or so I’d run that summer and early fall, and the many tens of thousands in the decades before. By a rough calculation, I had run a distance of at least four times around the globe. Only 62 more miles to go!

Tension mounted as we lined up in rows behind the bold white chalk line drawn across the black pavement. I wondered how many others there were, in the crowd of 261 starters from all corners of the United States and Canada, who had thought as long about this moment, trained as hard for it, and were as energized by dreams as I was.

As I learned later, there were still other dedicated runners lined up besides Klecker and Paul. There was Park Barner, for one. Park is an ultrarunning legend who had regularly run the remarkable distance of 200 miles per week in training. Dan Helfer of Morton, Illinois, was back. He had run second to Klecker in his record run in the 50-mile last year. Roger Rouiller was also in the lineup, a veteran of sixty-three marathons and the American masters’ (in the over-forty age group) record holder for 50 miles. Among the women was Sue Ellen Trapp, the American record holder for 50 miles. As a total newcomer, I had heard only of Klecker and Paul, and they were magnified larger than life in my mind. Unanticipated and totally unbeknown to me at the time, it was a race of the best North American ultrarunners.

Paul and Klecker and most of the others were lined up in front of me. The tips of the front of their running shoes were almost touching the white line. I hung back and tucked myself, almost hiding, into the crowd. I found only one familiar face. I stood next to Ray Krolewicz, who had driven out from his home in Pontiac, North Carolina. I had just met him the previous evening as we both checked out the starting line. I didn’t know it then, but Krolewicz was also a veteran, who had already raced in more than sixty ultramarathons. I had raced in only one. Solidly built, he looked as tough and indestructible as a camel. Last year he’d been third in the 100-kilometer race held at this same place.

We continued to mill around, anxiously stretching, doing last-minute adjustments of shoelaces, and glancing at our watches. With minutes to go, we crowded ever closer behind the line, awaiting the start with eager trepidation. Some of us anxiously stripped off our warm-ups. But cooled muscles unload oxygen more slowly from the blood, reducing their capacity for high rates of power output. From a study of tiger beetles and the work I had done in the field in Africa, I knew cold beetles run much slower than hot ones, so I waited.

Finally someone, presumably Dr. Noel Nequin, the race director, stood up with the bullhorn and announced race directions. Only seconds now. We tensed. I stripped off my lower warm-ups and threw them aside. Then came the bang. The line surged forward, released like fingers letting go of a tensed bowstring. Klecker, Paul, and many others took off at what to me seemed like a frightening pace. Like a wildebeest on the savanna, I became part of the thundering herd behind them.

As the first miles rolled by, I found Krolewicz beside me, talking a blue streak. I couldn’t listen. I became lost in streams of consciousness and in long periods when introspection reached back to near unconsciousness: I achieved a runner’s trance. At times I tried to energize myself by attempting to think, to motivate myself with pep talks, and to retrieve the Cat Stevens song I’d memorized to accompany and soothe me on the run. But all I could recall was the beat and a few snatches of words: “I’ve been running a long time, on this traveling ground…eons come and gone…” Then the words would stop, and I saw flickering images of what seemed, indeed, like eons come and gone.