“Why We Run: A Natural History” by Bernd Heinrich

If I took one thing away from this book, it was this: Pacing a marathon is like making love to a beautiful tree frog. These amphibians stage contests of sustained mating shouts, and those males who can croak all night have the best chance of ending up with Mrs Frog. But many of them stuff it up. Males who are trying to get noticed in the frog chorus often give longer, more attention-grabbing calls. Yet such calls are much more costly in energy terms, and frogs who overdo them typically run out of stamina, hit the wall due to glycogen depletion, and fail to last the night. The steady-paced frogs, standing together, hand-in-hand, have the best chance of winning the mating ultramarathon.

This is a gloriously unique book. Bernd Heinrich is world-class biologist and ultramarathoner, and a man who really wants you to share his love for dung beetles. Heinrich draws on lessons from the animal kingdom to explain the different ways in which nature tackles the challenges posed by endurance activity. By studying phenomena such as the aerobic capacity of antelopes, the cooling strategies of insects, and the migration activities of birds – arguably the greatest ultramarathoners in the world – he illuminates what happens to our bodies when we run, and why humans have evolved to become such superb distance runners.

The tree frogs and lizards get it in the neck in this book though. Just about every experiment into these animals’ VO2 max seems to culminate in the unfortunate subjects getting blitzed up in a blender so their levels of lactic acid can be measured. You should never accept a smoothie off this man.

Heinrich is an entertainingly self-aware nutcase, and the book is structured around his quest in 1981 to win the American 100k championship on his first attempt at the distance. Training with virtually no knowledge of sports science, Heinrich retreated to a cabin in the New Hampshire woods and experimented on himself, using his understanding of animals to test out ideas about diet, pacing and training.

From the bee kingdom, he noticed that flight endurance is almost entirely down to the amount of carbohydrate in a bee’s stomach, in the form of concentrated nectar. An abortive long-run experiment with a quart of honey (hello bushes!) made Heinrich look for other sources with the right mixture of carbohydrate and water. There was one obvious candidate: beer. Admirably casting common sense to the wind in the name of science, he tried drinking a 12oz bottle midway through a 20-mile run. The result? A negative split! Clearly beer is the ultimate running fuel.

Except of course, it isn’t. Those of us who aren’t mad professors living alone in a cabin in the woods can quickly foresee what happens when he tries this in a long race. The plan? One beer every 4 miles. The result? Nausea and a DNF.

Throughout the book there are all sorts of interesting asides and gems of information for the non-biologist. Why do chickens have both white and dark meat? Their legs contain myoglobin, a muscle protein that removes oxygen from the blood and makes it available to the metabolic system. This red meat in the legs is full of slow-twitch oxygen-demanding fibres that assist with endurance. The white meat in the breasts, on the other hand, is rich in the fast-twitch fibres necessary for swift, explosive power, such as bursting into flight in a flurry of feathers when danger approaches. This mixture of white and dark is the reason why chickens can’t fly very far, but can run on the ground forever. By contrast, long-distance fliers, such as geese, have very dark breast meat to assist their wing muscles in flight.

Those who have read Born to Run will be familiar with some of Heinrich’s central findings about how humans have evolved to run long distances, primarily because Christopher McDougall lifted them wholesale from this book. If there is one game-changing development in the history of human evolution, it is our ability to sweat profusely. No other animal can perspire in buckets like a human. This was not just useful so that we could sell Global Hypercolour t-shirts to one another, but also so that we could keep cool when hunting on the African plains. Our non-sweating quarry, by contrast, would slowly overheat as we chased it over many miles. Endurance hunting – chasing antelopes to exhaustion – allowed us to eat meat in abundance, which in turn (so the theory goes) allowed our brains to develop more quickly through access to more protein.

As the author points out, other animals have cooling strategies too, and there was nothing inevitable about the development of sweating. Had we been aerial creatures, we might have followed the example of bees, and regularly vomited over ourselves to keep cool (this justifies my behaviour on a particularly steamy night outside Hussein’s Kebab Van c.1999). Or if we had been carrion birds prone to perching in one spot, such as vultures, we could have developed the party-piece of defecating all over our legs (this does not justify my baby son’s actions yesterday morning). Demonstrating that Germans do indeed have a sense of humour, Heinrich concludes that “anyone who has ever been running hard on a sweltering day will be able to identify with such behaviour”.

Heinrich’s main point in Why We Run is entirely absent from Born to Run though. In his view, endurance hunting and ultrarunning are both manifestations of an evolutionary quirk unique to humans: the pursuit of long-term goals and dreams. Chasing animals to exhaustion takes a very long time, and requires the sort of internal vision that finds the chase itself rewarding, but also allows us to keep the prize/prey in our minds, even when it is out of sight and smell. In Heinrich’s view, “We are psychologically evolved to pursue long-range goals, because through millions of years that is what we on average had to do in order to eat.” Only humans have the mindset to undertake such long-term activities without an immediate reward, and it arguably benefits us in other aspects of life too, such as agriculture and collective government. When we train for months on end to run long distance races, we are experiencing a “substitute chase”, taking ourselves back to those early days when what we wanted most in life was a sweet, tasty antelope. Nowadays, of course, we always have the option of putting it in a blender at the end.

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2 thoughts on ““Why We Run: A Natural History” by Bernd Heinrich

  1. Inigo says:

    This is a great review, and you should add an Amazon Affiliate link because I’m going to buy the book because of it.


  2. inigos says:

    This is a great review, and you should add an Amazon Affiliate link because I’m going to buy the book because of it.


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