Bernd Heinrich is a biologist. His specialty is animal locomotion, musculature, body chemistry, and body-heat management. He’s also a runner, and a pretty amazing one. In 1981, Heinrich set an American record of 6:38:20 for the 100K. He also holds American, world, and master’s records for the 24-hour run (156 miles, 1388 yards) and the 100 mile (12:27:01).
“Why We Run: A Natural History” is about Heinrich’s 100K record-setting run, and about how he prepared for it, physically, cognitively, and psychologically. It also offers a fascinating look at how Heinrich’s understanding of animal biology informs his approach to running ultras.
if you’re looking for a straight-ahead book about running ultras, this isn’t it. Heinrich takes a long time to get to the meat of the matter re his successful record run. On the way, he talks about his youth, his studies, and some very detailed stuff about beetles, bees, antelopes, and birds. But it’s worth it. it’s like sitting down with someone who’s very bright and very curious and who likes to talk. I’m sure Heinrich in person is a pretty intense guy, but I think I’d enjoy meeting him. There’s a lot of knowledge in this book, and many good insights for anyone who’s keen on running long distances.
One of Heinrich’s insights is that runners, and particularly ultra runners, have the gift of far vision – not in the sense that they can predict future events, but that they’re able to “see through” where they are now (i.e., running at a particular time, place, and pace) to what it will mean to finish at a particular time. It’s a fascinating thought, and one that merits more reflection.
The final chapters of the book are exciting. They convey very clearly and very lyrically what it’s like inside one’s body and head near the end of a 100K record run. (He ran 100K in six hours and 38 minutes. Think about that for a moment!)
Reading “Why We Run” brought me to new wisdom about myself as a running animal. It did that in a biological sense and a philosophical sense. I know more about my body because Heinrich taught me something about biology. I know more about my running because he taught me to understand why I feel the way I do when I run long distances. Heinrich’s insights have taken me further along the road to becoming a more complex and – I hope – a wiser human being.