Biologist and run­ner Bernd Heinrich has some com­pelling the­o­ries about why we run


Runner's World (UK) - - In This Issue - BERND HEINRICH

On a Septem­ber morn­ing in the moun­tains of Maine, in the north­east­ern US, Bernd Heinrich stops by a spi­der’s web sus­pended be­tween two bushes. ‘No­body knows how they do this,’ he says, then con­tin­ues up the path past his cabin.

He stops and squats when he comes to a ground­hog car­cass he re­cently placed in a clear­ing, a few me­tres from his open-air shower. Heinrich has been doc­u­ment­ing changes in the car­cass as part of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what he calls ‘na­ture’s re­cy­cling’. Bee­tles, mag­gots and flies re­cently left the car­cass in uni­son. ‘That’s amaz­ing,’ he says. ‘How would all these species go off in one di­rec­tion to­gether? I couldn’t find any­one who had found some­thing like that, so I put out other car­casses and now I’m piec­ing to­gether what hap­pens.’

For Heinrich, 76, dis­cov­ery has al­ways come from won­der­ment, then patient ob­ser­va­tion to see what patterns emerge. It’s the process the world-renowned biologist used to make im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to top­ics such as ther­moreg­u­la­tion in moths, and food shar­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion among un­re­lated ravens (his favourite an­i­mal).

Heinrich was a promis­ing high school cross coun­try run­ner, but in­juries and the de­mands of academia kept him well away from se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion un­til he was al­most 40. When he re­sumed rac­ing – first marathons, then ultras – he be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing on him­self with a mix of sci­en­tific in­sight and run­ning naivety. If, as Heinrich’s knowl­edge of phys­i­ol­ogy told him, a pri­mary goal in long races is to in­crease fat me­tab­o­lism to pre­serve carb stores, how do you best achieve that? Eat sand­wiches on the run? (No plus or mi­nus, Heinrich con­cluded.) Drink a litre of honey be­fore a run? (No way.) Olive oil? (Worse again.) Beer? (Pos­i­tive re­sult from one, mid­way dur­ing a 20-mile train­ing run; DNF after lead­ing a race when he drank a beer ev­ery few miles.)

By 41, Heinrich had a for­mula that worked for him: cran­berry juice as rac­ing and postrun fluid, and high mileage with lots of fast long runs. He won his first 100km race, the 1981 North Amer­i­can Cham­pi­onship, set­ting a US record (6:38:21). In the next few years he broke US track records for 100km, 100 miles and 24 hours. He holds US ul­tra records in three age di­vi­sions, in­clud­ing av­er­ag­ing just un­der 8:00 per mile for 50 miles in 2001, aged 61.


Heinrich’s sci­en­tific and run­ning ac­com­plish­ments are ex­am­ples of the ‘sub­sti­tute chases’ de­scribed in his 2001 book Why we run (Harper Peren­nial). Long be­fore Born to run be­came a best­seller, Why We Run (orig­i­nally ti­tled Rac­ing the antelope, which Heinrich still prefers) es­poused the idea of run­ning’s cen­tral role in hu­man evo­lu­tion. Weav­ing the per­sonal with the sci­en­tific, Heinrich ar­gued that we ex­ist as we do be­cause of a con­flu­ence of evo­lu­tion­ary traits. In hu­mans, as through­out na­ture, har­mony ex­ists when mor­phol­ogy, phys­i­ol­ogy and be­hav­iour align, Heinrich wrote. Be­ing fully hu­man means mak­ing use of those an­ces­tral traits in an in­te­grated way, and run­ning is a key to that. Read Why Werun and you’ll bet­ter un­der­stand why marathons can be so com­pelling, and why most peo­ple find long-range projects more mean­ing­ful than a life of tweets and texts. You’ll also un­der­stand why Heinrich’s rac­ing has been spec­tac­u­lar, but sparse.

De­spite oc­ca­sional quirks, Heinrich’s body is clearly one of na­ture’s bet­ter works. He has the dis­pro­por­tion­ately long legs of most elite dis­tance run­ners. Like many top ul­tra marathon­ers, he de­fies the seem­ingly log­i­cal pro­gres­sion of in­creas­ing litheness with dis­tance. In his 70s he main­tains the lean, sturdy mus­cu­lar­ity seen in a photo of his 100km win. Fetch­ing well wa­ter and cutting fire­wood have kept his up­per body up­right and strong. His pulse (still in the low 40s) is vis­i­ble in his bi­ceps when he clasps his hands be­hind his head and con­sid­ers how to an­swer a ques­tion.

Heinrich has al­ways been at home in the woods. He was born in Ger­many in 1940 to a pair of bi­ol­o­gists. To­wards the end of the Sec­ond World War, the fam­ily moved to a for­est to es­cape the Soviet in­va­sion. Liv­ing in an aban­doned hut, they sur­vived as scav­engers, Heinrich says, trap­ping mice and for­ag­ing ed­i­ble plants, eat­ing found car­casses. Heinrich and his sis­ter played be­neath the canopy. The en­vi­ron­ment im­printed it­self on Heinrich, who, when he’s had a choice, has lived in such a set­ting ever since. Self-re­liance also seeped into his con­sti­tu­tion.

The Hein­richs re­mained in the hut un­til 1951, when they em­i­grated to the United States. At board­ing school in ru­ral Maine, Heinrich be­came a star cross coun­try run­ner, win­ning most meets in his se­nior year. The record of that 1958 rac­ing sea­son is in Heinrich’s first jour­nal, which is half run­ning di­ary, half na­ture log. De­tailed doc­u­men­ta­tion formed the ba­sis for Heinrich’s later bi­ol­ogy break­throughs and he ad­mits he still has trou­ble shut­ting off that part of his brain.

‘I re­mem­ber that dur­ing a race be­fore the 100K I was look­ing for

cater­pil­lars,’ says Heinrich. ‘I’m al­ways look­ing. It’s one of my rea­sons for be­ing out there, run­ning. It’s a way of get­ting some­place else and keep­ing track of ev­ery­thing and see­ing what patterns fall out.’ Heinrich also chron­i­cles his daily life, from the weather and ran­dom con­ver­sa­tions to feel­ings about oth­ers.

THE TREE FROG’S CALL After re­ceiv­ing his doc­tor­ate in zo­ol­ogy in 1970, Heinrich spent the next decade as a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia. He de­scribes his run­ning dur­ing this time as ca­sual, al­though if you press him he’ll re­veal that he broke two min­utes for 800m in his 30s.

Early in his sci­en­tific ca­reer, Heinrich fo­cused on so­cial in­sects, es­pe­cially bees. He cor­re­sponded with the world’s pre-em­i­nent author­ity in the field, Har­vard biologist E.O. Wil­son, who was also a run­ner. After teas­ing out times from Heinrich, Wil­son told him he thought he could break 2:30 for the marathon, and Heinrich im­me­di­ately wanted to prove him right.

Wil­son once wrote that ‘deep ig­no­rance, when han­dled prop­erly, is also su­perb op­por­tu­nity’. Heinrich por­trays his train­ing as im­pro­vised out of ne­ces­sity. ‘I was hun­gry to know,’ he says, ‘but I felt like a lot of what I read was hearsay. “You’re sup­posed to do this, you’re sup­posed to do that.” I want to see the data. It’s bull­shit to me un­til I see the re­sults.’ Heinrich was left to the mus­ings of per­sonal in­ves­ti­ga­tion that pep­per Why­werun, such as, ‘These re­sults strongly sug­gest that [male tree frogs voic­ing mat­ing calls] need a long pe­riod of warm-up, when glyco­gen is used as a fuel, be­fore a switchover to fat me­tab­o­lism oc­curs. This is also the case for lo­custs dur­ing flight, as well as for hu­man dis­tance run­ners. The les­son to be learned from frogs is, start slow and work into a pace slower than the fi­nal pace.’

Wil­son proved pre­scient. Heinrich won his debut marathon, in San Fran­cisco, in Oc­to­ber 1979, in 2:29:16. He im­proved to 2:22:34 a few months later and then, two days after turn­ing 40, he won the mas­ters divi­sion at the 1980 Bos­ton Marathon in 2:25:25. As in his first marathon, where he took the lead only in the last mile, ‘at Bos­ton I was pass­ing ev­ery­one at the end’, says Heinrich, ‘and I thought, “If this race had been longer I could have caught ev­ery­one.” That’s when I de­cided I needed to do some­thing re­ally long, like 100km. I looked at the pace [for the Amer­i­can record] and I thought, “Yeah, I can do that.”’

Heinrich moved to teach at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont in 1980, where he stayed un­til tak­ing early re­tire­ment in 2004, hav­ing chafed un­der much of academia’s con­ven­tions. ‘I hated all of that, the grad­ing, the com­mit­tee meet­ings and so on,’ he says. ‘Talk­ing about how the kid­ney works for 20 years un­til I hardly knew it my­self any­more. It just be­comes so rote that it gets dead­en­ing.’

Only in up­per-level courses could Heinrich be him­self. Daniella Swen­ton, the inaugural win­ner of the univer­sity’s Bernd Heinrich Award in Phys­i­ol­ogy and Evo­lu­tion, re­calls, ‘He would tell us per­sonal sto­ries of his research and his life ex­pe­ri­ences – run­ning came up of­ten – that led us into deeper con­ver­sa­tions.’ That me­an­der­ing-with-a-point will be fa­mil­iar to any­one who has read Why­werun, where Heinrich moves quickly from, say, his Viet­nam War draft card to the mus­cle-fi­bre makeup of field-event spe­cial­ists.

Heinrich’s run­ning hero­ics weren't com­mon knowl­edge. ‘He was very mod­est aside from dis­cussing the dis­tances that he ran,’ says Swen­ton. ‘I learned about his ac­com­plish­ments from other peo­ple.’

Heinrich re-es­tab­lished roots in Maine by pur­chas­ing 600 acres of farm­land. Not farmed for decades, the land has re­verted to its nat­u­ral wooded state. The level area, suit­able for liv­ing quar­ters, is half a mile from the road, up a steep, rocky path that be­comes a stream after rain. Heinrich parks his dented pickup truck on the road be­low, and starts and fin­ishes al­most all of his runs


danc­ing from stone to stone on the path. (‘My PB up the hill is 3:12.1.’) When Heinrich bought the land, the only build­ing on it was a tar-pa­per (sim­i­lar to roof­ing felt) shack with no elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter. He lived in that shack while train­ing for his break­through 100K debut.

After re­tir­ing, he built a small cabin, with a large tree trunk an­chor­ing the one-room ground floor and a lad­der lead­ing to a sleep­ing loft. He has four chil­dren by three women, but spends most of his time alone at the cabin. ‘I have now come to the re­al­i­sa­tion that this is where I be­long,’ he says. His wife lives in Ver­mont.

RAVENS AND RECORDS Heinrich works sit­ting in an old metal chair, but he may be get­ting a lit­tle soft: he hired a lo­cal to help him con­struct the cabin and has in­stalled so­lar pan­els to al­low for evening read­ing and In­ter­net ac­cess. He even has a mo­bile phone, ‘but I’ve never re­ceived calls from it, be­cause there’s no ac­cess ex­cept from cer­tain spots, like the top of a tree’, he says. Heinrich is a fre­quent tree climber. The ath­lete in him makes the as­cents quick, while the sci­en­tist in him tells him not to worry about stand­ing on branches be­cause they’ve evolved to hold huge amounts of snow.

Heinrich cuts wood for an old stove that heats the cabin. He does all of his cook­ing on it. His wa­ter is drawn and car­ried from a well a few hun­dred me­tres away. In win­ter, he must first use a long pole to crack through the ice. The re­trieved wa­ter and wood stove com­bine to pro­vide Heinrich’s shower, which in­volves filling a plas­tic wa­ter­ing can with heated wa­ter, dan­gling the can from the branch of a tree and stand­ing un­derneath for the ap­prox­i­mately 45 sec­onds it takes to empty. This al fresco ar­range­ment is pleas­ant in Septem­ber, less so come Jan­uary.

Three-time world cross coun­try cham­pion Lynn Jen­nings, who has run with Heinrich, de­scribes him as ‘one of the most au­then­ti­cally him­self sort of an­i­mals one could meet’. The lack of in­door plumb­ing and scant elec­tric­ity aren’t be­cause he lacks means or is try­ing to prove a point. When Heinrich dis­cusses a gen­er­a­tor he briefly used to power a light bulb, the im­pres­sion is that he was in­dulging the nephew who gave it to him and that the de­vice was more trou­ble than it was worth.

Some ac­com­plished run­ners suc­ceed be­cause of their type-a per­son­al­i­ties. They bring an in­ten­sity and com­pet­i­tive­ness to all as­pects of their lives, run­ning in­cluded. Al­berto Salazar comes to mind. Other top run­ners pros­per by fo­cus­ing on one or two things they’re pas­sion­ate about and treat­ing other mat­ters with a dis­in­ter­est that can border on dis­ar­ray. Heinrich is in the lat­ter camp. In­tro­duc­ing his in­fant grand­daugh­ter, he mis­pro­nounces her name. His run­ning shoes are well past their ex­pi­ra­tion date and din­ner at his cabin in­cludes home­made

bread (be­sieged by hov­er­ing fruit flies) and but­ter, which sounds ap­peal­ing, but tem­per­a­tures had hit the 80s that day and Heinrich doesn’t have a fridge.

In con­ver­sa­tion with Heinrich, long si­lences fol­low most ques­tions. Some­times the pause is so long that you start to won­der if he heard you, or if he’s pon­der­ing dung bee­tles or raven calls. When the words come, they do so slowly, care­fully cho­sen. A play­ful laugh clears the air be­fore some an­swers, such as when I asked why, after set­ting records, he didn’t try to im­prove them.

‘When I ran the 100K, it was the best ever on the road,’ says Heinrich. ‘I thought, “No way can I do bet­ter.” I con­vinced my­self while run­ning that this was the one and only time, and I’m go­ing to push this as hard as I can. As far as I was con­cerned it was like Hil­lary climb­ing Ever­est – why would he want to do it twice? Why would you do it again and again, like some of these run­ners? The point was to do my best and I had done my best.’

After the 100km race, Heinrich didn’t train for over a year. ‘I was still run­ning, but just for the hell of it,’ he says. ‘I didn’t see any point in com­pe­ti­tion, and was busy with other

things. But then, after a while, I looked at the record for 100 miles and thought, “Well, that’s so much slower, I know I can do that. Once I get old I’ll re­gret if I just sat on my ass.” So I tried it and I got the record.’ ‘I con­cen­trate on one thing at a time,’ he says. ‘I did that with the ravens, I did that with the bum­ble­bees and I did that when I chased records.’

FLY­ING SOUTH WITH THE BLACKPOLL WARBLER For Heinrich, both train­ing and research re­quire con­sciously adopt­ing pa­tience to reach the other side, whether it’s a PB or a bi­ol­ogy break­through. ‘Run­ning is fun, but train­ing is not, and sit­ting in a tree all day watch­ing ravens is not fun,’ he says. ‘You can only do it if you have that vi­sion, that spe­cific goal, so that you know you have to put up with the drudgery. With research, it’s like run­ning; you have to put in ev­ery step to pursue that goal and get that prize.’

Even when that prize has noth­ing to do with run­ning, hu­mans’ unique abil­ity to set and work to­ward longterm goals stems from the role of run­ning in our evo­lu­tion, Heinrich be­lieves. It’s now ac­cepted that early hu­mans used per­sis­tence hunt­ing to run down swifter prey, thanks in part to our abil­ity to dis­si­pate heat, which al­lowed us to stalk un­til the an­i­mals col­lapsed. And it’s also ac­cepted that the high-qual­ity calo­ries thus ob­tained helped the hu­man brain to grow. What’s spe­cial about Heinrich’s view is an or­ganic elegance lack­ing in the more mech­a­nis­tic ‘run = get meat’ ver­sion.

‘Our an­cient type of hunt­ing re­quired us to main­tain long-term vi­sion that both re­warded us by the chase it­self and that held the prize in our imag­i­na­tion even when it was out of sight, smell and hear­ing,’ he writes in Why we run. ‘It was not just sweat glands that made us premier en­durance preda­tors. It was also our minds be­ing fu­elled by pas­sion. Our en­thu­si­asm for the chase had to be like the mi­gra­tory birds’ pas­sion to fly off on their great jour­neys, as if pro­pelled by dreams.’ Else­where in the book, he writes, ‘We are psychologically evolved to pursue long-range goals be­cause through mil­lions of years that is what we had to do in or­der to eat.’

Hence the pull of ‘sub­sti­tute chases’ – set­ting a marathon PB, get­ting a de­gree, cre­at­ing a work of art – to mod­ern hu­mans. Our an­ces­tral run­ning past has wired us to find more mean­ing in such pur­suits than the scat­ter­shot way in which many of us live, says Heinrich. ‘Find­ing out what the ravens were do­ing, find­ing out what the mag­gots are do­ing, they’re all chases,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what the out­come is go­ing to be. It’s got to be dif­fi­cult enough to make it chal­leng­ing, in­ter­est­ing, where you’re look­ing ahead and see­ing a wor­thy goal.’

An­other ves­tige of per­sis­tence hunt­ing is felt more di­rectly – that run­ning can be en­tic­ingly plea­sur­able on a day-to-day ba­sis. ‘For any be­hav­iour, there are two lev­els of cau­sa­tion: the prox­i­mate and the ul­ti­mate,’ says Heinrich. ‘The prox­i­mate is the im­me­di­ate. The ul­ti­mate is what it’s for; it’s due to some kind of func­tion. Why do I like the fresh air? Be­cause it feels good. Why do I like the fresh air in­stead of pol­lu­tion? It might be be­cause you want to avoid tox­ins you don’t even know about. Why do you have sex? Be­cause it feels good. Why do you have it re­ally? Be­cause you’ve been pro­grammed that way by evo­lu­tion.’

Run­ning for plea­sure, as op­posed to train­ing for a goal, is a prox­i­mate be­hav­iour, says Heinrich. The ac­tiv­ity had to trig­ger re­ward cen­tres in the brain so that early hu­mans would want to do this thing that helped them sur­vive. To Heinrich, the in­ef­fa­ble sen­sa­tions a run­ner ex­pe­ri­ences on a 10-miler are sim­i­lar to the joy he thinks mi­gra­tory birds must have when fly­ing. He writes, ‘What makes the blackpoll warbler strike out south in the fall after a cold front is prob­a­bly not fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from what mo­ti­vates me to jog down a coun­try road on a warm, sunny day. We re­spond to an­cient urges that had adap­tive roots.’


In 2013, Heinrich found a new sub­sti­tute chase: break­ing Susumu Ichida’s 70-and-older Bos­ton Marathon record of 3:16:50. He be­gan to train prop­erly. Some days, he ran through the woods around his cabin. Other days, he braved the half-mile de­scent to the clos­est road and ran many of the same loops he had in his 100km train­ing.

‘I had a good train­ing pro­gramme go­ing,’ says Heinrich. ‘Some­times I felt like I was fly­ing. Then I timed my­self on some road runs and found I’d been shuf­fling. On my 20-mil­ers, I was barely do­ing eight-minute miles. It wasn’t good enough and I didn’t care to fin­ish 24,631st, or what­ever.’

He with­drew from the race, say­ing that, with­out the mo­ti­va­tion of break­ing the age-group record, he couldn’t jus­tify train­ing two to three hours a day, and be­gan in­stead to ‘use ev­ery minute more pro­duc­tively for my research and writ­ing’. Heinrich hasn’t since found an­other wor­thy run­ning goal. But, be­ing the man he is, he still runs most af­ter­noons.

‘In the morn­ing all the birds are chirp­ing and ev­ery­thing is go­ing on,’ he says. ‘I grab a cof­fee and get to work. Then, when I get tired, I take off. If I run out of ideas, I go for a run, and things fall into place.’

Heinrich cuts brush with a scythe, one of the many phys­i­cal jobs he does to main­tain his 600 acres. He does not seem to mind the hard labour

Heinrich does most of his writ­ing at this desk, which is as rough- hewn as the cabin he lives in; wall hang­ings adorn his rus­tic quar­ters; Heinrich cuts the wood to heat his cabin – Maine win­ters are bru­tal, with tem­per­a­tures dropping to as low as -20C; a tree­top view of Mount Blue, Maine

Heinrich fin­ishes yet an­other run at the top of a steep path that leads from the main road to his cabin in the wilder­ness

To shower, Heinrich hauls wa­ter from a well, heats it on his stove, then puts it in a wa­ter­ing can sus­pended from a tree

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