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Bernd Heinrich on his 'unusual' life as a runner and biologist in Maine


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new book out today explores a life of scientific discovery in nature and some extraordinary feats of the human body.

Jeffrey Brown went deep into the woods of Maine for our story.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Bernd Heinrich: Oh, tiny babies, just hatched.

Jeffrey Brown: At 81, Bernd Heinrich is still studying the natural world around his home in the mountains of Western Maine.

Bernd Heinrich: You know, there's data being created. Might as well use it.

Jeffrey Brown: He's a renowned biologist, best known for his work on insect and animal physiology and behavior. He's also a renowned runner. He no longer races in the ultramarathons he set records in, but he still takes a jaunt of five or more often rugged miles many days.

You know this is unusual, right?

Bernd Heinrich: I don't care if it's unusual.


Bernd Heinrich: It definitely makes me feel more alive. They say, if you stop moving, you start dying. So, I don't want to stop moving.


Jeffrey Brown: His new book combines his two lifelong pursuits, and the animal under observation is himself. It's called "Racing the Clock."

Bernd Heinrich: This is one of the big topics in biology, is a biological clock. How does that clock work? Because things are so geared to time. So, that is a theme, because I'm connecting it now to the running.

Jeffrey Brown: You write in this book, aging is a trial of one.

What do you mean by that?

Bernd Heinrich: I'm doing an experiment, and I can't have somebody else do it.

Jeffrey Brown: Just getting to Heinrich isn't easy. He lives alone in a cabin, or camp, as it's called in Maine, he built 10 years ago.

Bernd Heinrich: And there you see a fight.

Jeffrey Brown: An older camp nearby is used to keep books, photographs and files and provide shelter for the students at the University of Vermont, where Heinrich taught for decades, who still attend his winter ecology session each year, COVID permitting.

This is largely off-the-grid living, without running water. He draws his water from a well and chops his own wood for heat. There's a small solar panel for charging the computer and satellite dish to access spotty Internet service.

In his science, Heinrich says, he looks first for patterns in nature and then for the differences, the anomalies that offer a way in.

Bernd Heinrich: Anomaly means that there should be some reason for it.

Jeffrey Brown: A reason why something's not going to pattern?

Bernd Heinrich: Yes. So, if you only see one pattern, you can't even think about it. It just is. But when you see a different one, then you can ask why.

Jeffrey Brown: He's been asking why in 24 books, including two on one of his best-known subjects, ravens, a bird not usually found in great numbers here. His work with them began with one of those anomalies.

Bernd Heinrich: I heard, ah, ah, ravens making this noise. And I says, well, I have never heard them make that noise before. What's going on?

And I says, I will bet you there's some big food there. And so I went up there about almost a mile up into the hills there. And, sure enough, there was a moose, and it was covered with brush. You couldn't really see it. I think a poacher had killed it there and then covered it up.

But the ravens had found it and they were feeding there. And, all of a sudden, there were a lot. So where did they come from? Did they attract each other? No, they're not supposed to do that. You get a big pile of gold, you hide it. You don't let anyone know.

Jeffrey Brown: What's going on individually and then as a group?

Bernd Heinrich: Yes. So that took like 20 years.


Jeffrey Brown: That included raising ravens himself to study their behavior. And some of them would accompany him on his runs.

Heinrich ran short distances, the half-mile, in high school and college. Long distances came later. At 39, he won his second marathon in San Francisco. A year later, he won the Boston Marathon 40-and-over masters division, and then: even longer distances, with U.S. records set, including 100 kilometers in 1981; a 24-hour 156-mile run around a track in 1983, 100 miles in 1984.

He's kept the beat-up old pair of running shoes from his competition days, and kept running as he's aged. From the start, he says, the fascination was to see what he could do, how far and fast he could run.

And the scientist in him was always at work.

Bernd Heinrich: Just a little baby one.

Jeffrey Brown: He studied how insects regulate their energy output and metabolism to achieve endurance, and then his own behavior and potential, sometimes to comical effect.

Bernd Heinrich: I didn't take anything for granted, like fuel. I tried -- I shouldn't even mention all that I tried.

I tried beer and olive oil and honey and all the things that are not even mentioned. And I fell flat on my face a lot of times. So, I thought that was kind of fun to find out. And then you wonder, why did you fail? Well, it's because of that. Now I know. I'm not going to drink a jar of honey to run.

Jeffrey Brown: He's had accidents through the years from his outdoor life and surgery on both knees.

But, somehow, in ways he can't explain, he hasn't worn down.

Bernd Heinrich: Maybe it's like Friedrich Nietzsche said. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I don't know. But there might be something to it.

Jeffrey Brown: A man who studied animals all his life looks at the animal that is man and sees this.

Bernd Heinrich: We are built for running.

Jeffrey Brown: But most of us don't run.

Bernd Heinrich: Yes. Well, of course. We run for, basically, emergencies, but we try not to run if we don't have to, because, of course, we want to save energy.

So the bird isn't going to fly 1,000 miles unless there's a purpose behind it. If he doesn't have to, he's not going to fly. So, most of us don't. We don't have to migrate. We don't to have -- the grocery is right there. We don't have to go far. We don't have to travel. But we have the capability.

Jeffrey Brown: The question is, do we want to use it?

Bernd Heinrich says he can only offer one man's experience, but, as you can see, his answer is clear.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Western Maine.

Judy Woodruff: Celebrating Bernd Heinrich. We are in awe of your energy.

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