Portland, Maine Long-distance running helped Bernd Heinrich develop and refine his theories about evolutionary traits that make it possible for some humans to essentially run faster prey like antelopes into the ground.
The University of Vermont biology professor is an ultramarathoner, one of a tiny segment of the running community for whom 26 miles is not nearly enough.
At 62, Heinrich recently set out to defend his championship in the Maine Track Club's 50-mile race, relying on what he regards as a unique combination of skills.
The ability to sweat makes it possible for humans to run hour after hour without overheating and being forced to stop in order to cool down. Heinrich believes the capacity to focus the human mind beyond immediate pain and imagine rewards like winning a medal is a key to long-distance running.
Those skills have made humans well-suited to the sport, even outrunning faster animals like antelopes that possess high aerobic capacity but lack the endurance of some humans.
"The ultimate weapon of the long-distance runner is the mind," Heinrich said. "When it gets painful, you have to think about the rewards up ahead. You have to keep that dream in your mind."
With a few exceptions -- migratory birds, for instance -- other animals are unable to look toward those kinds of long-range goals and stick with them, he said.
Heinrich's theories were spelled out last year in his book, "Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life." He looks at a variety of animals -- from camels and antelopes to bumblebees and frogs -- to gain insights that carry over into running.
"Running has given me a lot of my perspective," he said. "A lot of my research is related to exercise and endurance, temperature regulation, metabolic factors, what kind of fuel to burn."
By writing the book, which was reprinted this year in paperback under the title "Why We Run," Heinrich managed to combine his academic interests and the sport he has pursued most of his life.
Heinrich moved from Germany to the United States as a child and ran track in high school and college. Aside from a few years when he set running aside, he continued to race or jog for the fun of it, and his competitive streak remains intact.
Training's the same
He said it was obvious that his times were getting slower as he aged, even though he was able to maintain the same training regimen he followed when he was younger.
"It's interesting that when I'm running, I feel at the time that I'm just as fast," he said. "I feel that the clock is just going faster all the time. But the clock doesn't lie, and I just have to accept it."
Most remarkable about Heinrich, according to Don Allison, publisher of UltraRunning magazine, is his speed relative to his age as well as his longevity in a sport in which many runners burn out after only a few years.
Allison found Heinrich's theories on running unique, fascinating and thought-provoking, but noted that he lacked the scientific background to corroborate or challenge them. "It's a completely new angle," he said.
As a marathon runner, Heinrich recorded a personal best of 2 hours, 22 minutes in the late 1970s in California and had a couple of top-50 finishes at Boston.
He was content with marathons until he noted that he was passing a lot of runners toward the end. He figured that his own physiological characteristics made him a better candidate for longer runs.
At one time, Heinrich held the U.S. records for 100 miles and 100 kilometers. He also held the distance record for a 24-hour run, completing more than 157 miles during that period.
At the recent Maine Track Club race in Brunswick, which drew a field of 22, Heinrich opted to run the 50-kilometer (31-mile) option, when it became clear he wasn't going to beat his earlier time in the 50-miler. He finished first in the shorter race in just under 4 hours and 5 minutes, more than an hour ahead of the runner-up.
His training for the race seemed no different than for runners half his age. He was running 100 miles a week before he scaled back to between 20 and 30 miles the week of the race.
'People need exercise'
In 1981, during his record-setting 100-kilometer race in which he averaged just more than 6:38 minutes per mile, Heinrich tanked up on cranberry juice at various intervals. In his recent races, he has shifted to Gatorade and ice cream.
Despite his ultrarunning records, he doesn't see his performance as anything beyond what most people could achieve if they abandoned the couch potato lifestyle that comes with sitting in an office all day and not having to chase anything down.
"People need exercise," he said. "If we don't have it, we're in trouble."