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July 11, 2018

Summer Reading Inspiration: “Why We Run: A Natural History”

By Matt Weickert, Contributor

It’s here. The dog days of summer are officially upon us, and it can be a free but burdensome time for athletes. Whether you’re in a long build phase or tapering to smoke some rivals in a summer race, it can be hard to get out the door on a day when you’d rather watch Netflix than face the steamy pavement for a few thousand steps.

What exactly is motivation anyway? The first definition I checked came back with “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way”. In other words, this is the answer to the “whyyyyyyy?” question that can become quite loud when the alarm goes off before the sun comes up. Here is where I would suggest bug-chasing, race-winning, cabin-building, experiment-conducting Renaissance man Bernd Heinrich’s meditation on the subject called Why We Run: A Natural History. Heinrich is a bonafide runner through-and-through and he reveals his legitimacy in this realm and many others by pulling from a wide variety of compelling insights to attempt to answer this ambitious question for himself. His primary vehicle for investigation is his commitment to, preparation for and execution of winning the 100km National Championship in 1981 at the ripe age of 41. You also get to learn your VO2 Max is nothing compared to migratory birds (583 ml/kg/min!) and other humbling facts from around the animal kingdom. What’s great about this easy read is that it is packed with inspiration that will get you fired up to punish yourself both in training and on race day.

The species-level view on running is fascinatingly pertinent to you.

“Almost everything we know about ourselves has been built on knowledge learned from other organisms…
we are hardly more unique or even special than most others…”

This read will awaken inner drive whether you’ve been running for years or if you proudly don a “0.0” sticker on your car (you smug devil you). Heinrich artistically connects a wide range of facts and experiences which resonate on the human level. He reveals running as being part of the very essence of who we are, both anatomically and ethereally as a part of nature. This arduously simple activity is versatile enough to translate into explorations of biology, history, philosophy, psychology, and even poetry. WWR appeals to far more than the runner in a reader, it appeals to the human condition as a whole by tapping into the desire for purpose, pleasure, prowess, and prestige. Along the way you are treated to visceral childhood stories, explorations on behavior and physiology of exhibits from all over the animal kingdom, and the epic journey of answering the internal call of “go for it now or you’ll regret it forever” as the author sets out to be a national champion the longest race of his life. This collection of stories and facts are riddled with wisdom-packed musings that can slip in nicely with a paragraph or hit you upside the head. Heinrich strikes a balance between heady and strikingly minimal. “To become a runner, I just ran” all the way to describing how “we can be molded by fierce dreams that allow us to perform what we’d otherwise be incapable of accomplishing”.

Heinrich shares patently insider running wisdom while also appealing to the commonality among all of us.

“[W]e are all born natural runners…”

To the degree that Once a Runner is beloved for its exclusivity, WWR is wholly inclusive. Heinrich reveals a striking number of deep similarities we have in our connection with the rest of the animal kingdom while maintaining awe and respect for incredible performances that are extraordinary and not readily understood. At the same time, Heinrich shares nuggets that immediately resonate with long-time runners. From the anxiety of taking on a rival that would surely reveal that “I was not a good runner. I just tried harder” to the struggle of a college career that didn’t take the originally planned path to the rush of having the nerve to take on a big goal, Heinrich humanizes the endeavor of running for distance quite naturally. Throughout the book there are pithy reminders of the universality that running experiences yield like “Bystanders can’t tell who is up front from who is way back in the pack. Just as in real life.” Heinrich demonstrates a thorough understanding of the full spectrum of experience that is running, from the bliss of moving freely to the dead-tiredness of slogging through mile after mile.

You’ll develop a better understanding of the physiology and psychology behind running.

“We are psychologically evolved to pursue long-range goals.”

This work covers the whole gambit in defining the “why” of running, from the broad observation that “movement is life” and that running reasserts “our kinship with ancient man, and even with the wild beasts that preceded him” to the nuts-and-bolts mechanisms by which we create these experiences. You’ll find yourself nodding along when he shares his realization that “it is hard not to try when you think you can do something, when you have a chance at success” and feeling appreciative for his explanations of VO2 Max, mitochondria, and blood transport after the wise reminder that “a runner must acknowledge physiology, the medium through which excellence is exerted.” The bonus here is that you also learn about Sandpiper migratory patterns, the Jumping Frog Jubilee in Calaveras County, One-Humped Camel blood plasma, and many other tidbits along the way. Heinrich is able to find inspiration in any direction thanks to his deep understanding of what connects all things of organic matter.

Heinrich cuts away all the BS details in training and racing

I wanted my training to be as pure and elemental as my racing would be. No heart monitors…No stretching and weight-lifting…No fancy shoes with baubles and bubbles, nor stretch pants and synthetic warm-ups. No pills of any sort—not even an aspirin.”

The well-researched Heinrich is refreshingly simple when it came to the actual training and race strategy. To be a runner, he simply ran. Like Beyonce singing the National Anthem a capella, or Kevin Durant sinking free throw after free throw, it takes countless hours of dedicated involvement to be able to nail the essence of a task. Heinrich’s entire career of biological research lead him to the elegant conclusion that “biological laws don’t dictate, they describe”. I absolutely love how beautifully bare-bones his training is, taking full advantage of the directness and elegance that this fundamental act of running embodies. He shows his level of familiarity and self-trust to assess the training needs of the biggest goal he’s ever taken on with “No protocol. Only guidelines.” His diet plan? “I was confident my body would know [what to eat]”. Heinrich’s preparation for the race was not exempt from setbacks and doubts. He injured himself building his cabin in the woods and needed surgery only a couple of months before the race, he struggled with getting his nutrition correct for the distance, and generally had to grapple with the fact that there is inherent uncertainty when taking on anything that is pushing limits.

The point of training is to be some form of tired most of the time.

“[W]hat had at first been a chore, had become a ritual, and the ritual a habit, I did not have to think about it. I just did it…”
“Stress is the expenditure of energy. You can’t live without it.”

Beyond the motivation to embrace the runner in all of us, Heinrich offers some particularly useful snippets of training motivation by detailing the laborious process of conditioning himself to race 100km at a championship level. The last few chapters of the book really nail this and induce grind-mode to any athlete who’s put in big training days. He talks strategy and does the math a scientist would do to quantify the importance of good form by showing the math on a 150-lb runner who goes up-down only 3 inches with each step over the course of 100km (he will have lifted his 150-lb body mass a distance of about 2 miles). He also offers much-needed flexibility in his training plan, acknowledging that “each day is different” and that this whole endeavor is “an experiment of one”.

Race day pump-up material galore. 

“Racing mentality requires a steady, unflappable calmness, and also a devil-may-care abandon where all the stops are pulled. Success requires uncompromising logic, and subservience to an overall goal that has, as life itself, no logical basis whatsoever.”

Heinrich was completely unknown in this race. He was just a dude in the rural Maine woods who ran tons of miles in between felling trees and conducting research, and he had the nerve to confront the possibility of being a champion. The race recap itself is a beautiful wrap-up of the book, where Heinrich draws on the lessons learned throughout his childhood experiences all the way up to his research of the animal adaptations he highlights in previous chapters. Any competitor who has taken themselves to the edge of their capabilities will feel a rush as Heinrich describes entering a flow state where his mind goes completely blank or his mantra “…above all, never stop…” As is standard in the privilege of achieving anything worthwhile, he dug deep and wrung every morsel of energy from his war chest of training and knowledge by “drawing deep now, on life…Let there be enough of it to draw from.”

“Not to give an inch is to give everything”
“The test is the race, where credentials mean nothing and performances mean everything”

Then Heinrich beautifully layers in the transcendent wisdom that is found at the brink. It is these kind of profound experiences that manifest wisdom of trying to rationalize running with logic, realizing that “logic is less an instrument for finding the truth than a tool that we use to help us justify our lower emotional centers direct or demand.” He explains that more is needed, like this thing called “faith–a combination of ignorance, deliberate blindness, hope, and optimism”. Heart rates will quicken as the realization “…I can win, I can win, I can win. I feel a shiver all over my body” and Heinrich narrates “I draw deep now, on life…Let there be enough of it to draw from.” He knows that “now is all that matters…This moment” and articulates the significance of his time and place in this race while also ignoring the deafening demons of indifference that say “Why?” to which there is no logical answer.

“The number I am making now is pure. It will define the limits of my animal nature–it will be the measure of my imagination, achieved by gut and spirit.”

That number was nothing short of incredible. He won the race and beat the previous North American Road 100km record by 13 minutes, he still holds the record for master’s.

“How precious you’d think this moment is now, if you’d had it, ever…I’ve come through–into a heaven where merely being there is the sweetest ambrosia.”

To boldly take on life requires killing the demons of indifference that say, Why? Why? Of course, there is no answer. The ultimate honor is in creating this answer for oneself. Bernd Heinrich offers a thorough look via his personal and professional experience that generously reveals universal truths any reader can — and should — adopt. Like the !Kung Bushmen who share the spoils of the hunt with their friends around the campfire, Heinrich graciously shares the story of his ultimate chase.

So go get your miles in, and seek to experience the answer of the call rather than explain it. We were made to hunt.

Matt Weickert has been running competitively since the confusing days of middle school. His current masochistic event of choice (besides writing) is the marathon, most recently finishing 80th in the Boston tsunami of 2018. He was a team state XC champion in high school and went on to get his ass kicked in the SEC for 4 years at Mississippi State before settling into post-collegiate solo training. In between working as an engineer and running impractical distances, Matt likes to write about the universal lessons and experiences that are provided through running. Check him out on Twitter @RunMattW.

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