Racing the Antelope
Review by Don Allison
Those with a knowledge and appreciation of ultrarunning history are most likely aware of Bernd Heinrich’s historic race in The Chicago AMJA 100 Km on October 4, 1981. As a relative unknown at the age of 41, Heinrich blitzed the course and a world-class field to win the race in a time of 6:38:21, a U.S. masters record that still stands, nearly 20 years after is was set. As with most races, there was much more to the story than just a runner clocking a fast time. One learns just how much more in the book Racing the Antelope, a semi-auto biographical account of Henrich’s life, and more specifically, that 100-km in 1981.
Much of Heinrich professional life has been devoted to the study of zoology and animal life. Thus, Heinrich bridges that knowledge with his love for endurance and running and shares it with the readers in this intriguing book. Several chapters sandwiched between Heinrich’s formative years and culminating with the aforementioned 100-km race are devoted to various forms of animal life and how evolution has adapted them for endurance.
The pages are filled with fascinating details of how animals adapted their running and endurance capacities to fit their environment and survive as a species. The insights Heinrich provides about man’s ability to cover great distances on foot are highlighted against the backdrop of how other members of the animal kingdom, such as insects, birds, cats, dogs, and the inimitable Pronghorn Antelope, have similarly been shaped by evolution. It is not simply by chance that humans are able to run great distances during the heat of the day, while other seemingly fitter and speedier species cannot.
No running related book that I know of has ever made such a detailed and informative study of just how we as humans have been shaped by evolution to become the endurance animals that we are today. Although plodding at times, much like the middle miles of a long ultra, Heinrich manages to impart a great deal of science in a well crafted, readable style. Heinrich has the rare ability to offer the reader scientific concepts in a manner that makes them not only understandable, but also enjoyable to learn.
This revealing look into endurance and evolution is woven into Heinrich’s own account of how he prepared physically and mentally for the 100-km. Truly “an experiment of one,” Heinrich tapped into his most basic instincts, distilling the intimidating prospect of running 62 miles at maximum effort into its most basic essence. Running “cannot be defined in terms of anyone’s use or place in a hierarchy or plan,” writes Heinrich. “The test is the race, where credentials mean nothing and performances everything.”
Even knowing how the 100-km in 1981 was going to turn out, the reader is captivated by the anticipation and then the unfolding of the race, in which Bernd Heinrich, through raw physical ability and an unyielding desire, averaged 6:17 per mile for 62 miles to win the race.
Although few of us will ever run 100 km in six hours and 38 minutes, there is much to be learned here. So much of our knowledge of our sport and how we approach our own training and racing follows the same linear path. In Racing the Antelope, Heinrich deviates from that straightforward approach, offering us a completely different viewpoint, a new way of thinking that will perhaps allow us all to tap into our evolutionary development and truly “run like animals.”