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why we run

27 October 2003

Every other book you pick up nowadays is a "natural history" of something, as if publishers were trying to persuade you that half their lists were written by Diane Ackerman. "Natural history" is the second-most-common non-fiction genre of the 21st century, right behind "the ordinary man who had an extraordinary idea and changed the course of history." So when another author objected that Bernd Heinrich's 2001 book Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life had a title vaguely similar to his own, Heinrich and HarperCollins reissued the book in 2002 as Why We Run: A Natural History. It's done well in paperback ever since.

Why We Run is indeed a natural history of sorts, but it's more importantly a personal history. It's the saga of Heinrich's determination to enter the 1981 national championship 100K race. It was his first such race. He was forty-one years old.

Heinrich was a champion marathoner, but 100K makes a marathon look like the neighborhood fun run. A marathon is 26.2 miles; 100K is 62.1 miles. Preparing for it, Heinrich had to use himself as the ultimate experimental subject. Literally; Heinrich's professional career has been as an biologist, with interests in animal locomotion, musculature, body chemistry, and body-heat management.

Should you ingest a huge quantity of honey before moving a long distance? Bees do. Heinrich tried it. Humans shouldn't. How about olive oil? Don't try that either. Heinrich settled on cranberry juice cocktail as the ideal racing fuel – though in the long run it was hard on his kidneys. Worse, he came to associate its taste with the agonies of ultramarathon running.

Why We Run is really about why and how Bernd Heinrich runs. Its generalizations to evolutionary history are just-so stories of how Man the Hunter evolved as a long-distance runner, chasing prey for hundreds of miles while Woman the Gatherer kept his dinner warm. (This scenario runs head-on into the peculiar fact that in longer races, the competitive gap between men and women narrows, disappearing at ultramarathon distances. How did that dynamic evolve if women spent prehistory fussing with primeval Radaranges?)

If its paleoanthropology is dubious, the biochemistry of Why We Run is fascinating. Heinrich explains in terms of muscle type and metabolism why some people – and some animal species – are sprinters, while others are cross-country runners. Though he doesn't mention Jon Entine by name, Heinrich trashes Entine's notion that black athletes are faster (or conversely, slower but more durable) than whites because of genetic predispositions to develop fast-twitch (or slow-twitch) muscle fibers. Yes, the greatest distance runners in the world come from one small community in Kenya. But funny enough, that community is centered on distance running, and the Kenyan government devotes disproportionate amounts of its budget to culling, training, and promoting the best runners there. The success of some peoples at track and field has nothing to do with genes and still less to do with racial mystique. It has everything to do with training.

Why We Run is a fabulous memoir of training, enlightened by digressions into all parts of the animal kingdom. If it has a flaw, it's that the race starts on page 20 and doesn't end till page 259. But then again, it was one long race.

UPDATE 2.02.07: Reader Julian Jamison points out that the gap between men's and women's running records does not narrow, and is not narrowing, at longer distances.

Heinrich, Bernd. Why We Run: A Natural History. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.