Biologist and runner Bernd Heinrich has some compelling theories about why we run
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE BRILLIANT MIND ( AND BODY) OF BIOLOGIST, ULTRA RECORD- BREAKER AND MAVERICK RUNNING MAVEN 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.
RACING THE ANTELOPE
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
‘ THE LESSON TO BE LEARNED FROM FROGS IS, START SLOW AND WORK INTO A PACE SLOWER THAN THE FINAL PACE’
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.’
‘ 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’
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