Why we Run?
by Ron Marinucci, Aug. 31, 2009
Why we Run?
I often say, if there’s anything I enjoy as much as running, it’s reading. In fact, for quite a few years, there was a running joke (no pun intended!) around our house. “I have to retire,” I’d say. “There’s so much to read and I’m running out of time.” OK, Karen and Matt didn’t laugh, but that surely was my sentiment.
Retirement, at least partially, came for me going on five years now. And I recently came upon a book I purchased shortly after signing out. It had been forgotten, buried under a pile of other books. I’m glad I rediscovered it.
Why We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich (Ecco Paperback) was a very pleasant surprise. Heinrich is a biologist and offers a unique perspective of running in light of his studies of anthropology, physiology, biology, and even philosophy. He has a lot to teach us and does so in an entertaining, interesting, and insightful manner.
Natually, much of the book is personal. He recalls something his father once told him, “If you don’t think like me, you are not my son.”
Why We Run is centered around Heinrich’s preparation for the 1981 National 100K Championship in Chicago, “to see how fast one can run 62.2 miles without stopping.” He takes us through his training, diet/nutrition, rest, and the race itself, which he planned to win at age 41. And we see how his study of insects, birds, and mammals aided him and, in fact, quite often determined how he’d train.
From his earliest days in Germany, Heinrich remembers running everywhere and being fascinated with the animals, large and small, of the forest. How fortunate he is to have been able to mesh running with his love of science.
“I became a scientist,” he writes, “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, wishful thinking, dogma, and sentimentality.” Similarly, he later adds, “…running appealed to me because its quality cannot be defined in terms of anyone’s use of place in a hierarchy…. Perfection is fairly and objectively defined by numbers…. The test is the race, where credentials mean nothing and performances everything.”
(Reading this from a man who lived in post-WW2 Germany reminded me of an interview I once had with Michigan elite senior runner Gerard Malaczynski, who spent much of his life under the Communist government in Poland. He voiced an eerily similar sentiment, reflective of running and his life experiences. “There aren’t too many activities in your life…where no politics are involved. [In running} The clock says who wins. It is very fair.”)
Throughout the text, Heinrich explores the physiology of running, VO2max, the role of mitochondria, running efficiency, fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers, and so on. He gives relevant examples gleaned from his study of birds, bugs, etc.
What, then, can we runners learn from insects and birds? Don’t try, Heinrich warns us, to outsprint a bug and don’t challenge a bird to a marathon or longer. Perhaps more specifically, he tells of a grant he received to study “how body temperature affects the running fighting ability of scarab dung beetles.” Huh? A few pages later, we discover the results. “Cooled muscles unload oxygen more slowly from the blood, reducing their capacity for high rates of power output.” Remember this tip the next time you are on the starting line of a race.
His study of camels, frogs, cheetah, antelopes, wolves, and other animals shine light on such matters as hydration, long-distance training, and faster running. For instance, various analyses led him to settle on cranberry juice as his drink on the run. (He actually experimented with other drinks that seemed to work for animals, including honey, olive oil, and even beer, “with happy,” but disastrous results.
On running as sport, he notes, “Play serves a vital function in many animals.” It provides practice for flight or the hunt, for example, and pleasure.
Heinrich is also a bit of a philosopher. “To not use [one’s strength] fully to try for an inspiring goal seemed wasteful, if not disrespectful, like foolishly squandering a precious gift.”
Of course, “the test is the race” and he takes through his grueling 100K run in Chicago. Over the final miles, he asks himself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I here? Why?” Later, he answers. “Why? It doesn’t really matter…and who cares? Nobody will know…except me.” (my italics)
In winning the championship, Heinrich, a relative unknown in ultrarunning, set an American, if not world, record. He ponders whether to have this 100K time put on his future gravestone. “After all,” he muses, “two sets of numbers designating birth and death dates say little about a person. It is the in-between that matters.”
Despite some heady, technical/scientific parts, Why We Run is very readable and interesting. It’s as much how we run as why. It’s certainly not a training manual, but a chronicle of the experiments, based on his studies and observations of animals, Heinrich applied to his running. Some seem quite outrageous, if not nutty, but all are very insightful.
Throughout all of this, Heinrich leaves me with one unanswered question. I want to know how scientists managed to get pronghorn antelopes on treadmills with “polyethylene masks to collect air” for measurement?????
Read the book. I think you’ll enjoy it.