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In the Long Run

by Tom Weaver
photo by Sally McCay

While running alongside Bernd Heinrich for the early part of his 15-mile workout, words of Ralph Waldo Emerson come to mind. The transcendental sage left most of the woodsy rambles to his little buddy Henry David, but he whole-heartedly endorsed walking the walk. Emerson could have been describing Thoreau and the lithe 62-year-old Professor Heinrich both when he wrote, "In every efficient man there is first a fine animal."

Heinrich, of course, is many things – teacher, raven researcher, and author among them – but first he is that fine animal. By measure of a stopwatch, a very fast animal who has set American records at ultra-distances that make a 26.2-mile marathon look pale. His most recent mark was in 2001, an American record for men age 60 and over in the 50-mile run.

Though the ever-active biology professor has stayed in fine shape by nearly any standard through the years, his workouts during his late forties and fifties had more to do with climbing into tree stands or hauling carcasses through the woods to study ravens than logging major miles to prepare for a footrace. That changed as Heinrich simultaneously set to work on his 2001 publication "Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life" and began to eye, as though it was prey, the new competitive age category his sixtieth birthday promised.

Running along Spear Street into a stiff south wind, Heinrich says, "I wanted to become very familiar with the motion of running again. I wanted to feel how the arms coordinate with the legs." He swings his arms and strides deliberately to emphasize the rhythm and nuance of actions most take for granted. "I wanted to be conscious of all of that again and feel what it is like to be very tired, to reawaken all of those memories."

For this author, who has received the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing, getting his endorphins dancing is essential to scholarly and creative work. "You get out there for hours at a time and you’re away from a lot of distractions, you can free associate. Besides, I need to work off a certain amount of energy," says Heinrich, who retires from the UVM faculty this year.

Writing books or running ultra-marathons are both beasts that demand diligence and endurance. Working up a hill, the professor describes the parallels of his pursuits with quick phrases between deep breaths, the conversational shorthand of one at home with the anaerobic good life.

"With writing you have to keep everything in the mind, keep at it all the time," Heinrich says. "Step back from a project, it’s just like stepping off the track."