Why We Run (formally: Racing The Antelope)


By Bernd Heinrich
304 pp. Ecco. $12.69.

“Why We Run” gets a thumbs up (👍) rating due to it’s uniqueness. That said, it takes more than just being different to rise above this site’s many run-based book reviews. Author Bernd Heinrich has a Ph. D from the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s a naturalist. A biologist. A professor. His high level of intelligence is indisputably conveyed throughout “Why We Run”. (Yes, in an attempt to “keep up”, I found myself re-reading several passages.) Also, accomplishing a 2:22:34 marathon PR, Heinrich’s a lauded runner. In all, the book stands out because of Heinrich’s method for delivering all those traits, both knowledge and skill, therein.

Heinrich’s humbleness is appreciated. He doesn’t claim to be either especially intelligent, or fantastically fast. Except, in both cases, he has every right to stake those claims. He can also lay claim to an extraordinary life lived. As a child, his family flees post WWII Germany for Maine’s western forests. It’s a different time. Days spent shoeless and shirtless, darting around that New England’s forest region. You get the sense there’s a vacuum of human interaction, resultingly the wildlife is often referenced as Heinrich’s friends. That said, as an older gentleman now living out his life in the same locale, it’s fair to guess he prefers that area’s isolation. His father, an entomologist, generally doesn’t earn Heinrich’s heart-felt praise, largely refraining from ever shining him in a kind light. However, a begrudging child to parent respect is conveyed. What he does embrace is his dad’s profession in zoology. The reader gains an understanding for how his childhood interests expound to greater things (ie, for work his parents take leave for Africa leaving Heinrich to be raised at “Good Will School”, he gains a reputation there for embracing his time in the outdoors with wildlife, and earns praise for his high school Cross Country racing). Then, Heinrich turns it up a notch. He parlays high school running success into study at the University of Maine and joins that institution’s Cross Country and Track teams. However, early on, Heinrich hurts his back weight lifting, consequently moving him to greater academic focus. That scholastic-intensive leap then leads him to ultimately seek a Ph. D, studying “extrachromosomal DNA” at UCLA.

“Physiological”. It’s a term often found in these pages. “Why We Run” now turns it’s focus to Heinrich’s preparations for racing the 1981 Chicago 100K. It’s his run improvement methods that sets this book apart. He simply isn’t satisfied with the typical experiments runners engage during race build up (ie, trying different fuels, or gear, or sleep patterns, etc.). What does Heinrich do? He extends his extensive knowledge for how different insects and animals perfect their endurance and speed mechanisms. For example, how a camel’s hump impacts it’s ability to weather great heat, or how different bird species fuel themselves for world wide travel as the seasons change, as well as the tree frog’s methods for regulating the all-night stamina needed when calling (ie, croaking) for a mate. Frankly, the examples just presented do little justice for Heinrich’s in-depth investigations, both in terms of total species analyzed, but moreso the discourse transition he makes to a highly academic-based conversation that not infrequently had my head spinning. Now the “why”. Heinrich’s intent is to turn these knowledge dumps of different animal physiologies into the reader’s gain. As in, parlaying those animal abilities for great stamina and velocity, to humans (where applicable, of course).

Constructive criticism? This is a reach (indicating just how very good the book is), but perhaps “Why We Run” could be more forthcoming with it’s journey into academia. The common reader’s likely in for something far different than he or she has ever experienced with other run-themed books. It’s a challenging read! My suggestion, or question, is could greater awareness be extended for what we readers are really in for upon making this literary selection. Frankly, it’s unknown to me how this could be accomplished. Perhaps some form of caution on the book’s cover declaring it’s contents to being intensive, university-level jargon (I’ll repeat, I’m reaching).


#DidYouKnow courtesy “Why We Run”: Some members of the Maine-based “Penobscot” tribe are (or at least were) designated runners, their purpose being to chase down deer and moose. These “pure men” were prevented from any sexual activity. It was thought that any transgression would impair their breathing, as well as make their testicles clack when they ran, warning the deer.

At the end of these posts I commonly share the means for #Follow -ing the author. Unfortunately, I’m unable to locate any Bernd Heinrich social media handles. Instead, perhaps this OutsideOnline.com article will provide further insight for those eager to extend their Heinrich learnings.