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

Chapter 6. College Cauldron

On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire?


“I want to go out for cross-country,” I told Edmund Styrna when I walked into his office in the Athletics Building at the University of Maine at Orono during freshman orientation week. Coach—as I would call him for years after—is a tall, crew-cut man with bushy eyebrows. He beamed broadly, and soon took me to the stockroom, where I was issued running duds. Then he took me to the locker room, where all athletes had their own personally assigned lockers. Such attention from the track and cross-country coach of the greatest running team in the state, at the greatest awesomely big university I could imagine, made me want to run my heart out for him.

All the new, strange sights and smells, the excitement and anticipation, were intoxicating. On that very day, the first one of my college career, I changed into the new clean clothes, ran the cross-country course in my boots, and followed up with a workout in the weight room.

I didn’t have a high school diploma, but that didn’t matter. I had had high school and was admitted before graduation ceremonies in June. During the preceding summer, I had been lucky to get a job working in northern Maine for the USDA surveying for gypsy moths, a notorious forest pest. I’d rented a small room just beyond the “one-hundred-mile woods” in the town of Houlton. Having just barely learned to drive, I headed out every morning in my new government-issued truck, on some isolated road (they were all isolated) to set out or to check my traps, baited with the scent (pheromone) of female moths to trap males of the species. I was alone all day, every day, for two months, except for occasional weekends when I hitchhiked the 180 miles back home to my parents’ farm. I caught not a single gypsy moth all summer, basically proving that the moths had not invaded northern Maine. There would therefore be no spraying of biocides.

There was no time left to run after work to prepare for college, so I did it while on the job. After a few minutes of driving to another of my approximately five hundred pheromone traps, I’d stop some 50 to 100 yards from the trap in order to get a short run in. After I ran back to the truck, I’d drive off. Usually, after catching my breath, I’d start singing at the top of my lungs till I came to the next stop. By fall, when I came to the university, I still couldn’t carry a tune, but I could run a little faster and farther. More than anything else in the world, I wanted to make the team.

When I went to the weight room on my first day at UMO, I had seen a brawny specimen of a guy lifting barbells. I’d lifted grain bags at the Good Will School barns, where I barely managed to lift a hundred-pound bag over my head, but only by keeping my back straight. The brute I was watching bent over in a jackknife position, and then he lifted while his back was horizontal to the floor. I’d never watched real weight lifting before, and I didn’t know how it was done. Like that? Well, I’d do no less. I grabbed a set of heavy barbells, bent over, and started pumping. It wasn’t long before I felt a pain in the small of my back. I wasn’t going to let pain stop me, so I kept pumping.

In subsequent weeks, I continued to work on the dish crew in one of the cafeteria kitchens because I had no scholarship money and didn’t get a penny from my parents—they had less to spare than I did. My back pain persisted, but I still managed to run in slow agony, sometimes with shooting pains going down my leg. The doctor in the infirmary had told me that it was just a muscular strain and would go away. Weeks went by, and it was still there, and then it got worse. So Coach told me to go back to see the head physician. I was supposed to tell him who’d sent me and that I was on the cross-country team.

This time I got checked out more carefully. So carefully, in fact, that I got worried. Finally the doctor told me that I was done running for good. No more work lifting trays of dishes, either. He said something about a ruptured lumbar disc—extrusion on the sciatic nerve. “It can be operated on, but it doesn’t really heal up.” I was referred to a neurologist in Bangor, who was no less discouraging. He told me that running was out of the question and I should reconsider my intended career in forestry.

I could not run. I was out of a job and therefore maybe out of college and a career. The trail had gone cold, and I’d have to find another. In a situation like that, one can rely on chance and take advantage of immediate opportunities, or one can plan a strategy. Undoubtedly, given life’s vagaries and complexities, the latter can be as unpredictable as the former. I had no plan. Instead, I studied as never before and eased the pain somewhat by putting a stiff board under my mattress. My emphasis on studies was a good thing, too, because like my high school classmates I was unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college chemistry, calculus, and physics. As far as I know, none of them made it beyond freshman year. The professors did their best to weed us out, to maintain high academic standards. As it was, my back injury and subsequently also a knee injury kept me bound to the books and thwarted their efforts. These injuries had another consequence for me as well. It had to do with the military.

After I got my running duds, the next thing I had been issued at the university was a U.S. Army uniform. All the men were required to take the army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) course for two years. It was just part of the deal if you happened to be a male at a state university. All of us freshmen and sophomores shined our black shoes and the visor in our flat-topped olive hat to mirror sheen once a week. We all showed up for weekly drill in full dress uniform at the field house, to assemble and march in squads, platoons, and companies as army officers hovered all around with watchful eyes. Upperclassmen who’d been promoted yelled commands as we plebes paraded around, practicing staying in step and in formation, carrying and presenting our bulky M-1 rifles. These sessions were agony on my back because I could not bend to loosen the strain on my ruptured lumbar disc. I did not want to have to leave the university, so I did not complain but endured my two years of obligatory ROTC service. We all owed Uncle Sam real military service afterward. The only question was precisely when and where. I didn’t want military service hanging over my head after college for too long; I wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible. So, just before finishing my fourth year of undergraduate studies, I went to see the army recruiter in Bangor.

I passed all the tests. I was well qualified because, as I’ll explain later, I had in the meantime recovered and also had a whole year of jungle immersion in East Africa. The recruiter thought I’d be an ideal candidate for some jungle country in Asia, where they’d need me for something other than shooting birds. I was a good rifle shot. When I couldn’t run I often went to the ROTC rifle range for recreation because Sergeant Bell, who was in charge, let me shoot all the ammunition I wanted. He said I was a “natural,” and he wanted me for the rifle team. The .22 rifle that I’d earned by doing chores with Phil Potter back home had been my most prized possession, and Phil and I had done a lot of target practice. Also my pulse at rest was slow enough so that I had time to squeeze off rounds in between heartbeats to reduce the scatter of shots about the bull’s-eye.

All was going well. The recruiter smiled. He said I had all the credentials for my first choice, the paratroopers. All I needed was a letter from my doctor since, as requested, I had admitted to my former injuries. No problem. I went to see Dr. Graves, our campus physician, who’d seen me a lot already. “Doc,” I said, “I need a letter for the army.” “OK,” he said, “you can pick it up tomorrow.” The next day he had written a letter and sealed it. When I went to pick it up, he handed it to me and said, “This ought to fix you up, Ben.”

It seemed like an odd comment. But I brought the letter straightaway back to the recruiter, who took it from my hand and opened the envelope. Then he turned his back to me, and as he was walking to see someone in the other room I heard him swearing. Puzzled, I left. Soon after that I received a new draft card in the mail. Instead of the 1A classification I had since I was eighteen years old—when I registered for the draft after I’d been sworn in to become a U.S. citizen and was duty-bound to defend the country—I was now 4F: I was now deemed physically unfit for military service. That’s why I ended up in Dr. Dick Cook’s lab, washing glassware and doing other routine chores before I finally worked on the mechanisms of cell respiratory physiology. That’s why I didn’t jump out of airplanes at the parachute training center at Fort Benning, Georgia, or elsewhere, as Lefty had done.

Although I had sustained a major back injury during my first week in Orono, I did eventually become a member of track and field and cross-country teams. I was not big like many of the field men, nor did I sprint like a gazelle. For too long I had compared myself to others in terms of size and strength and speed, and invariably found myself not up to par. But here, on the track and field teams, a diversity of skills could be found: hurdlers, sprinters, hammer throwers, javelin throwers, shot-putters, middle-distance runners, high jumpers, long jumpers, and pole vaulters. I became a distance runner. I did not have to be like anyone else, an important lesson for life.

Distance runners have one common trait—the good ones are skinny. Weight specialists such as shot-putters or hammer throwers are a completely different sort of animal from distance runners. The two represent extremes of body build, coordination, speed, and endurance. Numerous and diverse aspects of physiology underlie those differences. The weight specialists, in order to be at the far extreme of what is humanly possible, must have a massive body of bulging muscles and thick, strong bones to support them. They require a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers that anaerobically (without oxygen) burn carbohydrate for explosive release of energy. Their competitive event generally takes a second or two; the preparation, years.

The distance runner must fairly float along the ground, sometimes for hours on end. Ideally, he has light, thin bones and long, thinly muscled limbs, like a bird. The key to the distance runner’s performance is to supply his fat-burning muscles with a sustained supply of oxygen. That capacity involves a large support system that includes a large heart capable of a large stroke volume per beat, rapid beating if need be, and slow if not. He needs large arteries, extensive development of the capillaries, large lung capacity, and large fuel depots in the muscles, the liver, and other areas of the body. His cells must be packed with mitochondria, the microscopic power units that, with their batteries of enzymes, convert the fuel and oxygen to energy, which is then harnessed for muscle contraction. The quick power of the sprinter or thrower requires no mitochondria and hence no oxygen, or the support systems for oxygen delivery.

The body’s ability to deliver a continuous supply of oxygen to the muscles (as well as to the brain and to all other organs) is put to the supreme test in distance running. The lung-heart, or bellows-pump, mechanism is extremely important in this task, but the blood is even more so. Our blood is highly specialized for ferrying oxygen molecules from the lungs to the mitochondria, acting in concert with short-range-transport mechanisms across membranes at the muscle cells themselves.

The oxygen-ferrying capacity of blood pumped by the heart is boosted nearly a hundredfold above that of the plasma by containing oxygen-carrying vehicles, the red blood cells. Each red cell of our 25 trillion blood cells is packed with millions of iron-containing protein molecules, called hemoglobin, and each hemoglobin molecule can load up with four oxygen molecules in the lungs and then upload them to the capillaries, such as those in the muscles. Hemoglobin is called respiratory pigment because it has a bright red color when it is loaded up with oxygen, though it turns blue when the oxygen is unloaded, as when the blood in the veins makes its return trip back to the heart and lungs.

As oxygen continues to be transferred to and dumped off in the capillaries, it builds up large concentrations that prevent further hemoglobin from unloading—and thus make the heart’s work of pumping blood a wasted effort—were it not for a second pigment that is very similar to hemoglobin. This protein, called myoglobin (“myo” refers to muscle), is what makes meat red. Myoglobin is within the muscle fibers (cells), and by binding oxygen there even more easily than hemoglobin binds oxygen in the blood, it removes oxygen from the blood and makes it available to the cells’ metabolic pathways. Oxygen then follows its gradient of concentration, from high in the blood to low in the cells, where it is being used up.

Not all meat has myoglobin. As we all know, chicken has white meat as well as dark meat, which ensures that at every picnic there is debate as to who gets the white (breast) and who gets the dark (leg) meat. (I generally choose the dark meat because of the iron in the myoglobin, which all runners need.) White meat is composed primarily of the fast-twitch, anaerobic muscle fibers, capable of explosive, or sprint, power; and red meat has a preponderance of slow-twitch, oxygen-requiring fibers, of less powerful contractions but great endurance. A grouse has white breast muscle like a chicken, and it seems to virtually explode in a burst of power when it shoots up in flight, like a firecracker going off. It can’t keep it up, though. After a few such flight explosions in succession, a grouse is rendered flightless. On the other hand, it can run forever using its dark leg muscles. Long-distance fliers like long-distance runners require dark meat, and migrants such as warblers, sandpipers, and geese all have very dark breast meat (that is, wing) muscles.

We have both fast-and slow-twitch muscle fibers in the same muscles in our legs, and the mix makes our muscles appear neither white nor dark red, but presumably an intermediate pink. The distance runner’s leg muscles contain predominantly—79 to 95 percent in elite distance runners, versus 50 percent in the average individual and about 25 percent for elite sprinters—the slow-twitch variety, which burns fat and requires a continuous supply of oxygen to operate, so that it doesn’t leave lactic acid, which quickly causes fatigue.

Different individuals have different percentages of fast-twitch as opposed to slow-twitch fibers, which predisposes them to either sprint or endurance performance. It is thought that we are born with our specific muscle-fiber-type ratios. However, no studies are available that have followed the muscle fiber type of an individual toddler to an adult sprinter or a long-distance runner; we don’t know whether muscle fiber type is predetermined at birth or becomes fixed at some early age due to one’s lifestyle.

Researchers determine fiber type percentages (relatively painlessly, I’ve been told) by snipping biopsy samples directly out of our muscles and then staining and microscopically counting the different kinds of fibers, to determine one’s potential for sprint versus endurance events. To some extent, fiber type changes with training. More recently it has been recognized that there are two types of fast-twitch fibers, termed a and b. The FTa fibers are a bit more aerobic than the b, and they become so with training. The average person’s 50 percent of fast-twitch fibers are equally allocated between a and b, but elite marathoners end up having almost no FTb fibers. Fiber type is thought to be determined by the nerves innervating them. One neuron activates numerous fibers all at once in what is called a motor unit. Fast-twitch motor units typically involve one neuron innervating three hundred to eight hundred fiber cells, whereas slow-twitch motor units consist of ten to one hundred fiber cells. Training involves not only the biochemical adaptation of the fibers, but also neural coordination in recruiting them for their work.

By having both types of muscle fibers in one muscle we gain flexibility. We get both power and endurance, but such flexibility is a compromise. An elite sprinter necessarily loses endurance, and an elite distance runner loses explosive power. Why, then, must a muscle that is built for endurance sacrifice power? The answer is probably related to the fact that for many repetitive contractions to be possible, valuable space otherwise available for muscle fibers must be sacrificed for mitochondria, for an extensive blood capillary net, for membranes, and for myoglobin, and of course for the pump-bellows support system. An anaerobic fast-twitch muscle needs no provisions for an immediate supply of oxygen or for fuel, waste disposal, and temperature regulation. It’s like a race car that’s designed to go very fast once around the track, as opposed to a camper that must contain all the provisions for crossing a desert.

Many of the factors that combine to produce sustained power in the middle-to-long-distance runner are proximally measured by the capacity to process large volumes of oxygen for making the aerobic metabolism at the level of the cells possible. The maximum rate at which we can process oxygen depends on all of the many variables we’ve just considered, and many more besides. That maximum volume of oxygen that we can process on a sustained and steady basis over a matter of minutes is abbreviated imageO2 max. And imageO2 max must obviously be quite high in any distance runner who wants to have a chance at getting into the big leagues.

But imageO2 max is not the limiting factor of power for sustained durations. When the fuel runs out, even a Ferrari is forced to stop. Unlike a Ferrari, we’re warned long in advance of impending fuel depletion—we start to feel weak and are forced to slow down long before we’re empty. If his specialty is to run very long distances, then the runner will also be tested for his ability simultaneously to mobilize fuels from body depots and to operate his gut to supply fuel on the run.

Indirect physiological steps are critical as well. A distance runner generates prodigious amounts of metabolic heat. He must be able to dissipate that heat by sweating, which requires intricate processes of salt and water balance and decisions of routing blood either to the skin to get rid of heat or to the digestive system or to body fuel depots. His kidneys and liver must continue to operate and process and eliminate metabolic wastes. A weight lifter, jumper, thrower, or short-distance sprinter has more than enough fuel right in his muscle cells, and since he needs no oxygen during his event and has no stresses for heat dissipation or waste elimination, he can essentially put most of the body’s systems on hold, and concentrate on explosive power. His task is the quick release of massive amounts of energy from a preponderance of fast-twitch muscles, harnessed by a superb biomechanical capacity and learned coordination in speed and agility.

The runner is also tested for biomechanical efficiency, especially on longer runs, where fuel and energy economy become crucial. All of his motions must be harmonious and seamlessly choreographed in a fine-tuned coordination of hundreds of muscles and thousands of muscle units, for one integrated task, one huge reflex mechanism. Whether or not he consciously learned to do so, his arm swings are precisely integrated with leg swings, or stride. Both are meshed with his breathing and likely with his heartbeats as well. At the most efficient running stride, arms, breaths, and heartbeats are multiples of one another. Those multiples change with pace and effort, but the synchronicity does not. It is as though his legs beat the tune to create the body’s rhythm. However, there is an ever-changing rhythm throughout the race as strategy and tactics change in response to current progress and competitors.

In competitions, we test seemingly simple tasks that any fit child can perform, namely running, jumping, and throwing. Their beauty reduces to the ideal of coherence and simplicity; all that is essential is present in precisely the right proportion for the one circumscribed task, and nothing is superfluous. In college field and track, I saw extremes of these specializations. I saw what a lot of us have, but raised to higher levels. I saw the product of dreaming and our indomitable drive for perfection.

The steady improvement in world records of all sporting events during the last hundred years (when records have been kept) may look like biological evolution. We don’t know all the factors that have been and are involved and to what extent they have had relative effect, but there is one thing we can be sure of: it’s not due to biological evolution. Evolution might still have played a role shaping us back in the ice ages, when we were fragmented into small, isolated populations and faced death regularly due to athletic deficiencies. No longer. We’re now in large, ever-more homogeneous populations where any mutation that could potentially be of value for athletic performance, in the context of a specific suite of characteristics, will be quickly swamped. Nor do we face directional selection in favor of jumping, running, or lifting ability.

It is tempting to extrapolate athletic records to the future and assume they will improve forever. The obvious, trivial truth is, they won’t. In just one century, the law of diminishing returns has already set in. Despite vast improvements in nutrition, a quadrupling of world population, a skyrocketing participation (at first involving just a few mad Englishmen) of athletes from almost the whole world and from most of its social classes; despite revolutionizing training techniques based on vast data banks of scientific research; despite full-time athletes, backed by specialty state-of-the-art Olympic training centers; despite vast improvements in equipment (shoes, poles, javelins, synthetic tracks, waveless pools, aerodynamic and hydrodynamic clothing), we are now seeing decades when records are broken by only fractions of seconds. The bar of acceptable international performance has been raised very high. There are still part-time college athletes who dream of Olympic glory, as some of us once did, but there is no longer any chance of being the best out of a pool of 6 billion people by part-time participation. The best today will now no longer be someone who flips hamburgers eight hours a day and trains evenings or weekends.

Jim Thorpe, perhaps one of the best athletes of this century, had his Olympic medals stripped from him because he accepted petty cash in a minor baseball game. Today all Olympic athletes are supported in some way, usually all the way. Performance-enhancing drugs to build muscle mass are more than suspected in some sprint and weight events, where bulky muscle mass is an advantage rather than a hindrance. Indeed, almost any freak performance (that is, far above the usual—as is now necessary for almost any entry to world-competitive status) is now suspect almost as a matter of course. In my opinion, that mind-set alone will kill the onward march of record performances, and the college athletics that spawn them, dead in their tracks, even before we exhaust our biological potential. Why? Because runners compete for glory. There is no glory in drugs. If drugs are automaticallysuspected, then few except the professionals will put in the necessary heroic efforts now required; they will not put in all the work if they might, therefore, be accused of cheating!

Some reports claim that withdrawing an athlete’s blood and later returning the red blood cells to boost blood volume or the red blood cell count (that is, blood doping) increases aerobic capacity and distance-running performance. Besides the ethical issues raised, the results of such studies are in conflict, and there are risks in performing such a procedure. There are also questionable physiological assumptions being made. It is important to realize that when we lose blood, our bodies respond by replacing that blood. That is, we produce blood to the extent that the body demands. Thus, I suspect blood doping may work to temporarily give a boost to an untrained athlete, but it is difficult to imagine that it would not harm a trained athlete in whom all functions are raised to an intricate balance for a specific task. To an elite distance runner, who typically has a higher blood volume but a lower red blood cell count than an untrained person (to reduce blood viscosity and reduce strain on the heart), any extra red blood cells can only be a detriment, and artificially adding blood seems a bit like adding a third leg when two are already best.

Fortunately, one of the great things about running, at least distance running, is that on the whole it is honest. Recall that when running a 10,000-meter or a marathon, you are operating a whole machine of an almost incalculable number of parts that are integrated, with no one part taking precedence over any of the others. You can’t just increase one function and expect improved performance. Nature does not put in extra parts, nor does she give extra capacities to given parts. You have to improve all the systems at once to affect the whole. Can any drug do that? Possibly, but improving one part by a simple fix simply transfers the limiting factor to the next link in a long chain. The one factor that does affect the whole body, all at once and in a coherent, coordinated fashion, is in the mind, where courage comes from. I put more stock in placebos, faith, and specific training for a desired event.

Simply running to train for speed and endurance stresses all relevant points—all of the innumerable links in the very long and very complex chain—at once. That is, the necessary complexity and efficiency of running is achieved simply—by running. I did not need to lift weights. I never lifted a weight again in my life after I hurt myself, nor have I ever taken even a whiff of any performance-enhancing chemical. To become a runner, I just ran.

Coach Styrna, who had studied at the University of New Hampshire, told us how he had taken many courses from which he learned things he never used. What he learned in track and field he needed for everything in life. For example, you don’t get anywhere by magic, but only by putting in the required number of steps, one at a time, and in the correct sequence. You can’t run the last lap of a mile until you’ve run the first three. There is a truth, a beauty, and a symmetry in this that is inviolate. Every step counts. Each is an act of beauty. Together they create stride, and in terms of the whole, pace.

Studying physiology and running appealed to me. My pace as a university student and athlete both improved, and prospects for actually getting a degree became promising. During my second summer, I worked up in the Maine north woods of Aroostook County again, but this time I was not alone. Far from it. I was in an old-fashioned lumber camp populated by a couple of hundred French Canadian lumber-jacks, who came across the border each summer to cut pulp-wood for the paper mills. With several other forestry students employed by the International Paper Company for the summer, I walked through the woods for five days a week with a spray-paint can. We marked trees for selective cutting. (The company later abandoned selective cutting and reverted to clear-cutting.) We awoke to the cookie’s (assistant cook’s) clanging bell at dawn, jumped out of our bunks, raced to the cook shack, and took our places on long log benches in front of tables laden with eggs, bacon, cereal, doughnuts, cake, biscuits, coffee, tea…After our gargantuan breakfast we headed into the woods, coming back out at five in the afternoon for a lumberjack meal of meat, potatoes, vegetables, pies. I rested briefly on my bunk after the big supper, then got up again, and with my boots still on ran several miles up and down the dusty road from our camp. I believe it was this active regimen that ultimately healed my back, which had not been expected to heal.

Well nourished and in excellent shape when school started in the fall, I was even more motivated because of my wrenching setback the year before. This year I flew. I was with the leaders of the pack, and my spirits soared. I joked with my team members that we were animals. We mock-growled at the starting line before a race. The better we ran, the more we all felt that the word “animal” was an accolade. Indeed, we won not only the state and Yankee Conference titles; we also got the chance to run in the Eastern Division of the Intercollegiate Amateur Athletic Conference, held in New York City that year. And wonder of wonders, we won it. We were the best team east of the Mississippi in our division. My roommate and teammate, Fred Judkins, from Upton, near my hometown, won the overall individual honors, an incredible victory. The night before our race, we ate at a restaurant on Madison Avenue. He amazed us all by consuming two servings of steak, two huge baked potatoes, and two servings of apple pie and ice cream. Fred went for doubles in everything. Later this included two tours of duty in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.

I settled into my studies and began to tolerate the work of washing dishes in the cafeteria kitchen and my other job, collecting dirty coffee cups in the student union. To my surprise, some of the subjects were beginning to interest me, and I even managed to earn B’s instead of the usual C’s. Indeed, I soon made the dean’s list (B or better average). This was not unusual for the track athletes, but it was quite an achievement for me—I had received rejection letters from four of the five colleges I had applied to. Coach posted a write-up from the school newspaper showing that the members of our track and cross-country teams racked up the highest grade point averages of any groups on campus. David Parker, our best sprinter and state and Yankee Conference quarter-mile champion, even got straight A’s, an incredible achievement for an engineering-physics major.

Athletic letters and awards were handed out at a special banquet in the winter. I’d earned my big blue M, the letter signifying I’d made the cross-country team. A dark blue jacket with a large, light blue letter Memblazoned on it was also part of the prize. Like all lettermen, I would wear it proudly. After the awards there was an election by team members to choose the cross-country captain for next year.

When the votes were cast after our lavish meal and all the speeches, I was not just curious, I was nervous. I was tempted to vote for myself. Who knows? I might break a tie. But I resisted. We wrote out choices on strips of paper, folded them, and brought them to Coach, who was sitting with all the other dignitaries at the head table. He unfolded them one by one and put them in separate piles. Then he made an announcement: “The captain chosen for next year is—Ben Heinrich.” I was choked up with emotion.

The university was a fabulous place. I loved going to the difficult and exciting classes with friends, then unwinding in the Bear’s Den between classes at small, intimate tables, drinking our coffee. We’d talk with the smiling, beautiful coeds, watch the fraternity brothers with their different bright-colored frat jackets. I was not one of the fraternity men, in part because I didn’t have time to party and I had a large deficit of social skills. But the cross-country team had given me their ultimate social accolade. I could never let them down, especially as it was likely I’d really be needed, for we had the chance to be state, if not New England, champs again.

But I did let them down. Shortly after the team elected me to be their captain, Papa, then in his late sixties, announced that he and Mamusha were about to make their last great expedition—and he wanted me to go with them. It would be to Africa, the mysterious continent I had read about in the books of Osa Johnson, Carl E. Akeley, and others. Africa to me represented the ultimate in adventure. There was no question that this would be a once-in-a-life-time experience, and it was my only opportunity to be with my parents and to see the life I had heard so much about when, as a child in the Hahnheide and during our first year in Maine, Papa had taken us two kids into bed with him to tell us about his adventures in far-off jungles. Having spent nearly six years at the Good Will orphanage after that, I had seen little of my parents since we had come to America. I wanted to give Coach and the team my very best efforts, but after painful deliberation, I knew that there was no choice: I had to go to Africa. Years later, I would realize how profoundly this trip influenced my thoughts about running.

My job during my thirteen months in Africa in 1961 and 1962 was to hunt birds and to skin and prepare them for a museum research collection. There was never a day off. For me it was a nonpaying job, because Papa felt the privilege to go along was compensation enough. He and Mamusha were employed to collect rare birds in isolated forest islands for Yale’s Peabody Museum. Along with several local Africans, I was just their helper. My only diversion from bird hunting was to collect insects for my father’s collection.

We lived and worked in tents the whole time. Mine was a pup tent with a bedroll. I lived in the field for most of the day with a shotgun in my hand and a bag on my back. At dusk, I sat around the campfire with Mohamed, Waziri, and Baccali, our African helpers, and shortly after dark I crawled into my pup tent to sometimes scribble in my diary by the light of a candle. At dawn, I crawled back out to eat the oatmeal Mamusha cooked and to return for the day, alone, into the forest. I was a predator pure and simple, and at age twenty-one, I loved it. There was no need for pay. I could spend days tracking down new voices, new birds, and never grow tired of it. I felt as I had in the Hahnheide, only now the smallest bird was often the most valued prey. Food was a distant, secondary objective. The hunt itself was its own reward.

In the desert scrub, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, I wandered daily and heard spur fowl, guinea hens, hornbills, duetting barbets, and untold hundreds of other birds. I watched bateleur eagles and vultures soar overhead. I smelled the sweet scent of acacia blossoms, and I saw them abuzz with brilliant cetoniid beetles and butterflies. I walked under massive baobab trees with gray, wrinkled bark like elephant’s skin, honeybees streaming from their cracks and folds. I saw the spoor of dik-dik and gerenuk. I saw a red, sandy path with human footprints leading to thatch-covered huts. In the evening, I smelled wood smoke and heard the throbbing of distant drums.

I had no reason to run, but when we were near a dirt road, I usually did run when our busy schedule allowed. On one occasion, on the slopes of Mount Meru, I ran barefoot as I had seen Africans do and as the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila had just done while winning the Olympic marathon in world record time. However, by my usual turnaround point at a small pond I saw blood between my toes, and I would have liked to stop. Instead, it was essential to speed up because it would soon be dark, and predators could ambush no matter how alert I was. Adrenaline dulled the pain and I got back to camp safely, but at a cost. The soles of my feet had become like raw hamburger. I lost the skin off the bottoms of my feet, and could not walk for about two weeks. In running, long physical training is essential for toughening everything from the head to the legs and all the way down to the bottoms of the toes.

After returning from Africa, my running at UMO was, in retrospect, good but not outstanding. I injured myself again, breaking some cartilage in my knee while pushing my hundred-dollar little red Hillman down a hill to get it started, as always. Eventually the knee required surgery. The Hillman was beyond repair.

I did not feel I was within close enough range to aspire to anything outstanding. Lettering in the track and cross-country teams, and sometimes even winning my events, was almost more than I had hoped for. Except for just possibly one thing.

The names of all the previous heroes who had set university records were inscribed on plaques hung on a wall along the field house cinder track. I’d run by them thousands of times—the names and achievements of the athletes of the past who were now legends. A few of the current crop of athletes would manage to post their names while I was still there. There just was no way, it seemed, that I could rank among them. Eventually, I improved in the 2-mile run, my specialty on the track team, and it seemed remotely possible that I might leave the university with my name on a plaque. Chasing a realistic goal injected my running with new fire. Finally, by the very last race that I’d ever run in the field house, I thought I could do it. My confidence seldom exceeded my ability. This was it. I’d go for broke.

There were too many laps per mile in the confines of the field house for me to keep count while I also concentrated on pace. My priorities were to concentrate on running smoothly and to focus on lap times, until I knew I was on record pace. Then I would just hold that pace and hope to hang on to it through the final, or gun, lap. At the sound of the gun signaling the beginning of the last lap I would simply fire off and let it all pour out.

All was going according to plan. I heard Coach yell out the times for the quarter, half, and the mile. My intended pace was right on, and I was feeling strong, saving up for the big kick. I could hear people yelling as they crowded to the edge of the track. The excitement mounted. I reached deep. One more lap. Another. Another. I soon anxiously waited for the gun lap, eager for the final sprint. More yelling. Then I heard the long-awaited bang. But strangely—it was not just one bang. There were two in rapid succession, and they had come while I was already at least 10 yards beyond where the lap should have begun. No matter. Maybe this was for emphasis. Maybe they knew I was on record pace. I reached deeper, found what I wanted, and took off.

That last lap was probably the fastest postrace lap ever; I had run an extra lap. The race official with the gun had lost track of the lap count himself, so he had given me not the signal to sprint in, but to get me to stoprunning. I had already missed the record, but only by a mere two-tenths of a second. When the actual final lap had come, I thought I still had several to go, and when I did pour it on, the race was already over.

That this mix-up would happen to me, and never to anyone else (to my knowledge) at UMO, and then on the very final of the very many races I had run—the only one where I assuredly would have set a record—seemed almost bizarre. But it was consistent with many other experiences before, in which fate had led from bad to good fortune. And so I wondered what good fortune might come from this teasing disappointment. Maybe it fanned the running flame or redirected it. There may be no more compelling goal than a close one, but there is none more lasting than a distant one not yet attained. The result of this race gave me a long-lingering sense of disappointment that contributed to my desire to go for it again, but at a much longer distance, some seventeen years later. For the time being, I continued to run for fun, but I was sure that my racing days were over.

Runners are rational. They have to be. Although driven by dreams, they learn uncompromisingly to confront facts, and they do not get misled too far by wishful thinking. They are like wolves and other predators who hunt by choosing their prey wisely. They do not chase fleet-footed antelope that they know will outrun them. Back in the 1960s and 1970s there was still much reachable “game” to catch by those who would put in the work and who had the dream. There were, therefore, many “hunters,” so that a constant new crop of talent was exposed. Some of them, it turned out, possibly to their own surprise, were blessed with great talent. They became the heroes of my boyhood and beyond—Jim Ryun, Herb Elliott, Peter Snell, Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Billy Mills, Lasse Viren, Steve Prefontaine…They aspired to be gods, and at some level they were. Yet the real reason my high school and college running mates and I saw them as heroes was that we secretly believed we were elementally equal. We were convinced that if we only tried, if we did what they did, then we too would rank among the gods.

Now all the records have been raised to unimaginable heights. The results are dramatic. Kevin Setnes, an ultrarunner and coach, wrote me in June 2000:

I don’t think there is any question that America has hit rock bottom when it comes to running performances. Some records have been set, but except for the few exceptions, runners today are way behind their predecessors fifteen years ago. Boston’s[marathon] tenth American finisher today would have been hundredth in the mid-80’s. In 1983 I was 51st American in the Duluth marathon, in 2:25. This past weekend an eleven minute slower time got tenth place. The Olympic Trials is not just another example in a long list.

There are now many more runners out there than there have ever been. But they run for the enjoyment of it, for health, and possibly for social reasons such as companionship. Who among them that can run a marathon in 2:20 (a time that would have left all the great marathon and distance runners in the dust half a century ago) would now seriously dream of, much less plan on, running to glory in the local Boston race, knowing that large contingents from other countries will stream by as if he were standing still, with many going well under 2:10 to claim the glory and the prizes? I know I would not. Back then, after my failed attempt at the field house 2-mile record, I knew that it was time to do something else.

At Good Will School, I had grown up reading the adventure stories of great explorers and scientists. There were many real heroes and fictional characters like Professor Gottlieb, idealized in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith,who elevated test tubes and Bunsen burners to the level of sacred objects. Professor Gottlieb labored alone in the laboratory. I felt inspired by his image, because a scientist’s achievements, like any athlete’s, are produced by individual effort and by taking one little step at a time in a consistent direction. These men and women of science were heroes and role models. They did experiments to see what made animals tick. They did not engage in hype or genuflection to seek influence or beg for money.

After graduation and receipt of my 4F military draft status, I had worked for Professor Dick Cook washing glassware in his laboratory. Dick Cook to me was Professor Gottlieb incarnate. I learned from him how to flame test tubes just right with a Bunsen burner and how to raise and maintain sterile Euglena cultures. Before I knew it, I was studying Euglena cells’ respiratory physiology and metabolic pathways. One day, Dick said, “Why don’t you make this work your master’s thesis?” He was proposing a new chase, one that would have seemed inconceivable to me just moments before. Suddenly it seemed rationally possible. This time I would not be striving for a record to hang on the wall in the university field house, but instead I might make discoveries. The lure of the hunt in this new game had been redirected, but ironically the research I did may indirectly still have related to running.

One of the main points of athletic dogma is that our rate of oxygen consumption equals our rate of sustained energy expenditure. Thus, our imageO2 max is thought to be an accurate predictor of maximum work output, or ability to run fast for long distances. Often it is, but had Derek Clayton, Frank Shorter, or Alberto Salazar known it, they might not have even tried to set world and Olympic records, because their imageO2 max is near 70, almost modest in comparison to, for example, Steve Prefontaine’s 84.4; he could run a 3:54 mile, but his marathon performance does not even come close to that of the three others, who set world records, won Olympic gold, and were the kings of the road. The fact is that some people get more aerobic work out of the same volume of oxygen they inspire. That’s what’s called efficiency. Children are notoriously inefficient runners because they breathe in a lot of oxygen but (relative to trained adults) don’t run very fast even when running at a high percentage of their imageO2 max. I was probably lucky not to have been typecast for aerobic capacity or I might not have pursued anything requiring lung power, because it turns out that what you have is less important than what you do with it.

Running efficiency involves neuromuscular mechanical coordination that is probably acquired through years of training. You see it in a smooth, fluid stride where there is no wasted motion, no up-down bobbing, no lateral arm swings, and of course, no carrying of extra weight. Given the physiological studies I did with Dick Cook at the University of Maine, I could not help but wonder if metabolic efficiency at the cellular level might not be involved, as well as mechanical efficiency, in making the runner. We grew the single-celled protozoa Euglena gracilis, which move themselves around in the water by vigorously whipping a tail, or flagellum. They are metabolic virtuosos that can live off sunlight as an energy source. They can also get their energy from acetate, short, two-carbon fragments that our own cells use when we break down multicarbon chains of fats to use for energy. Finally, they can also get energy from common glucose, the sugar that we get when we break down glycogen from its storage form in the muscles and liver, to use for energy.

Dick and I fed Euglena by dissolving either acetate or glucose into the watery medium in which we grew them, and then we measured their rates of oxygen uptake. To our great surprise, we found a massive, four-times-greater rate of oxygen consumption (that is, presumed metabolic rate) in the acetate-using cells than in the glucose-using cells. Yet rates of cell protein synthesis, growth rates, and mass were identical. When we gave glucose-adapted cells acetate, they showed no immediate effect of increased respiration. However, after a period of adaptation, during which we measured sharp increase in the enzymes for acetate use, the glucose-grown cells began to use large volumes of oxygen. In both acetate-and glucose-grown cells that we then washed to measure oxygen uptake in the absence of substrate, the respiratory rates were equal. Our results showed that acetate-using cells have the same net energy production as glucose cells, despite consuming massively more oxygen. Additionally, they produced an acidity that soon killed them, whereas glucose-grown cells continued to divide and reproduce, staying healthy.

I’m not implying that we can directly apply these results to runners. However, they do show that oxygen consumption rate, the basis of imageO2 max, is not necessarily totally diagnostic of the cells’ sustained rate of energy expenditure. This alerted us to the possibility that metabolic efficiency could be as important as mechanical efficiency.

There are innumerable steps involved before an ingested food molecule finally has the energy it contains converted to adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and creatine phosphate (CP). The ATP and CP are the immediate energy sources used in muscular contraction. There is loss of potential energy at every step in a complicated conversion process, so the scope for cellular inefficiency is large if the number of metabolic steps are many. Such cellular inefficiency has not been considered as a potentially major variable in athletic performance. If it is a factor, then we can predict that there would be a lot more variability in endurance versus sprint or weight athletes, simply because in the endurance athletes’ reliance on mitochondrial respiration, there are innumerably more metabolic steps contributing to and directing throughout the whole performance. A sprint athlete can run 3–5 seconds simply off the ATP that he has made previously from anaerobic metabolism occurring in the cells’ cytoplasm, not within the mitochondria. Further anaerobic metabolism from the breakdown of glycogen gets him up to a half minute or so farther. During a long run, the distance runner has to continually operate every single step of the energy-yielding operation, all the way from the stomach (at greater-than-marathon distances) to the mitochondria within the cells, to produce ATP for muscle contraction from aerobic metabolism. Looking at the metabolic energy production of a microorganism such as Euglena may not be entirely frivolous, because mitochondria, the sole organelles of our bodies that supply us with all of our aerobic power and give us the ability for sustained exercise, are evolutionarily derived from bacteria. It seems rather arbitrary whether we call them “cell organelles” or “highly adapted bacteria” that use us as carriers to house and propagate themselves. Mitochondria still contain their own DNA, which is much more variable than our chromosomal DNA. It can, therefore, be suspected that their metabolism, which produces the ATP we use for muscle contraction, is also variable. Hence, the metabolic efficiency of aerobic metabolism could differ among individuals, affecting either their imageO2 max or the power output per given imageO2 max. Each of us is seeded with mitochondria strictly from the female line, through the egg. This implies that, if mitochondrial efficiency is indeed a variable in aerobic capacity and we want to be champion distance runners, then we must look closely to the maternal line if we want to choose our parents wisely.

In two years, I’d published three scientific papers with Dick Cook on Euglena metabolism. I was hooked, thinking I was leaving a mark that would be more permanent than a name written on the field house wall. We had discovered a new metabolic pathway, and I was never pushed to the edge of my capabilities as I had been routinely in track, in cross-country, and in my undergraduate studies. We showed up at the lab every day, and it was so exciting to me that I couldn’t even stay away on weekends.

I gave an oral presentation of my work to the whole assembled faculty and zoology graduate students, and as we walked out of the amphitheater together afterward, Dick pulled the pipe out of his mouth and said in his soft, low voice, “Ben, that’s the best damned seminar I’ve heard here for a long time.” That was obviously a damn lie in the sense that others, more interested in something else, surely thought it trivial or incomprehensible gibberish. But that was fine by me, as long as Dick was pleased. Later Dick said, “You’ve actually got nearly a Ph.D. But I won’t give it to you. You need to leave Maine, to get more experience.”

As I’ve said, Euglena can become totally independent of energy from food. When given light they quickly develop their own populations of energy powerhouses—little green organelles, called chloroplasts, that harness the energy from the sun directly. Like the mitochondria derived from bacteria, chloroplasts also have an ancient origin; hundreds of millions of years ago they were derived from free-living algae that invaded Euglena ancestors, and some of these associations became plants. They, like the mitochondria in other hosts that become animals, also still have some of their own DNA.

Dick had got me started assaying RNA and DNA from Euglena during the cell-division cycle, but we had no way of differentiating the potentially different kinds of DNA. During one of our discussions on these matters during a long car ride on a fishing trip to the Narraguagus River, Dick suggested that I ought to go to UCLA for my Ph.D. “They have a great bunch of protozoologists and molecular biologists there. You should study extrachromosomal DNA. We know hardly anything about it.” Nothing could have sounded more exciting to my ears.

Having money left over from my research assistantship, I bought my first real—that is, functionally starting—car, a secondhand white Plymouth Comet. Packing nothing more than a box of clothes and a sleeping bag onto the backseat, I drove across the country, pulling over onto some deserted road at night to sleep and having breakfast the next morning at the next available diner. After I crossed the state line to California, I went straight on to Malibu Beach, to try surfing. In the afternoon I drove through the redwoods, and that same day walked the halls of the zoology department on the UCLA campus, where I met a student whose neighbor had just moved out and who needed someone to take over the apartment. Within a week, I met Kitty Panzarella, a fellow student who soon moved in with me into that little apartment on Greenfield Avenue, and who became my wife.

In 1966 Los Angeles was quite an experience for someone straight out of the Maine woods. I recall scenes of driving down the Santa Monica Freeway with six lanes of traffic all in one direction, and as many in the other. A blue haze overlay endless tracts of flat houses surrounded by palm trees, and through the distant haze I saw a gigantic labyrinth of metal pipes, tanks, and chimneys spewing white fumes. As we were cruising down the freeway in this landscape, the driver of the car (a fellow graduate student) had the window open, and over the radio, turned on full-blast, I heard Jim Morrison of the Doors pounding out a hypnotic rhythm: “Light my fire…light my fire…try to set the world on fire.” Not very likely. We were sweating, sipping beers, and heading to check out a love-in at Griffith Park, where crowds of stoned hippies with long hair and beards, dressed in bell-bottom trousers, were smiling beatifically. It was surreal, unearthly. I could just as well have landed on the moon.

Despite a supportive mentor, a loving wife, and a generous research assistantship, I still had not made much, if any, progress on a thesis project, even after one year of hard trying. The DNA trail was growing cold on me. I felt like a miler who suddenly realizes he doesn’t have natural speed, and so can’t realistically expect a great prize, no matter how much work he puts in. I was wandering and wondering more and more, with fewer rather than more prospects of catching something big.

There was only one thing that stayed familiar. The tartan track. I was on it almost every afternoon or evening, just to run. I had no thought of racing, although a group of us regulars became an informal club, and we called ourselves the Termites. Termites are paragon social animals. They are not very swift, but by sheer dint of persistence and teamwork they chew through solid wood. We ran mostly quarter-and half-mile intervals, in little Termite bands, and in the UCLA intramural competitions I got roped into running the mile. One of the guys on the team talked about someday racing 26.2 miles—a marathon. I thought he was nuts. I could at least potentially wrap my mind around mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA (although doing so “with my fingers” eluded me), but I could not comprehend the possibility of jogging, much less racing, over such a long distance.