Bernd Heinrich: Master of Peaking

by Mark Dorion

Though we both lived in northern New England in the early to mid-1980s, I only got to meet and run with Dr. Bernd Heinrich on one occasion: The 1984 Lake Waramaug 50 Mile and 100 Km.

I remember standing next to him, stretching, in the state park restrooms near the start. We both kept tying and retying our shoes (we both wore the old tan Nike air Mairiahs) as runners often do just before a race. Bernd turned to me and said “It’s so hard to get them just right.”

This quote is a good metaphor for all of us: it is very hard to get things to go “just right” on race day, no matter how much we plan and re-plan or tie and re-tie our shoes. But Bernd Heinrich regularly did manage to get things “just right” as evidenced by his numerous wins, outstanding efforts and US records throughout the 1980s.

1984 was one of Bernd’s most impressive years. On April 29 at Lake Waramaug he went out hard, close to six-minute pace, then proceeded to reel in ultra legends Ray Scannell and Ray Krolewicz, as he soared to a 5:29:01/7:15:01 double win.

This performance was just a warm-up for what was to come three weeks later. On the Terry Fox track in Ottawa, Ontario Bernd went through 50 miles in 6:03:11, then slowed only slightly in the next 50 miles to 6:23:50, for a 12:27:01 US 100-mile record. Interestingly, two years earlier Stu Mittleman used a Lake Waramug 100 Km win as a warm-up for a US 100-mile record three weeks later.

Ultra historian Nick Marshall had the following observations about Bernd’s early 1984 running in his 1984 UltraDistance Summary: “It was all part of a good spring for Bernd. He had a new book published, In a Patch of Fireweed. Like with his previous Bumblebee Economics, this volume earned critical accolades from both scientific and general interest reviewers. Often runners don’t know much about the backgrounds of individuals whose athletic accomplishments may be very familiar to them, so it is quite nice to see one of our sport’s stars gain recognition as a successful pioneer in a totally unrelated field.”

One thing about Bernd Heinrich that was quite different from many of today’s faster ultra runners was the infrequency with which he raced. Because of his scientific research he often was out in some exotic wilderness location (often a month or two in the Namibian desert of Southern Africa spending hours stalking scarab beetles), thus unable to train or race for long periods of time. But when he did start training it was with a consistency and rapidity that most of us could not think about attempting, with 20 milers regularly run in 2:00 and, when peaking, as fast as 1:52.

As evidenced by the attached times at all distances, Bernd was fast from the beginning of his competitive running career in the mid-1950s. He explains why he ran even as a small boy: “When I was a child in Germany my family called me Wiesel (Weasel) because I was always running through the forest. It feels easier than walking and it’s faster.”In other ways Bernd was and is typical of most ultrarunners. After the pain and all out effort of his US record 100-km Bernd said “This, I promised myself, would be the only ultra I would do in my life. . . I did eventually break the promise I had made to myself (and to my wife) to not run others.” Sound familiar?