Sunday, December 20, 2009

why we run

Why We Run: A Natural History was loaned to me by my brother-in-law Lino, a marathoner currently training for the Boston Marathon. I was telling him about a Radiolab program on stress and how it explained how stress is a left over biological reaction to bad things in one's life, like being chased by a lion. The adrenaline rush which would help our forbears spring away, is just stomach pains and ulcers now. The drop-and-run reflex that voids the bowels of pursued animals is both a lightening of the load for flight, and a potential diversion. It also signals a shutting down of non-critical systems (digestion) to allow for more energy to flow into flight and preservation. And it why we feel weak in the bowel when nervous or under stress. Lots of stuff shuts down when we're stressed, including growth and normal repairs. That's why stress is so bad for us.

So I'm blabbering, the same way I am now, telling him all this and he's interested (I think) and we chat about it a little and that's that. A few months later I'm telling him another story that I heard about how humans function, based on studies of animal models, and he tells me about this book he's just read: Why We Run. He told me it gets a little scientific at points, but otherwise it's good. The author is a runner who compares people to animals to figure out how man evolved to be able to run, and possibly why. Sounds like my kind of book.

Benrt Heinrich is a scientist, and an author, but maybe a runner first. Or maybe he's a naturalist first, because running to him just seems natural. As a biologist he studies nature, unlocking it's secrets to better understand us, and why we are the way we are. Humans are just animals, but why we've evolved to be this way is mostly lost to history. Heinrich helps us to rediscover our lost animal, and how the body machine works; how it evolved for very specific tasks, like running, and how we can reconnect with our natural selves by expressing this natural behavior.

The writing is fun, thoughtful and interesting. The mix of science and autobiography, woven through with ultramarathon race preparations, informed by his studies, make for a exciting (yeah, I said it) read. If you're not interested in science, nature or running, I don't think this book is for you. But if you are interested in one or more of those things, this is an easy to read, well written jog. By the time we got to end of the race, I felt like I was running along with him, offering encouragement and hoping he would make it.


  1. Phil,

    Why did I not see this Blog post before the Holidays? Now I have next years gift. Thanks so much for posting this.

    Christian Schaller

  2. I think I know who this is for! I'll let Lino know as well. Let me know how he likes it. - Philo


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