Finding a Mentor in Nature- Bernd Heinrich
by Jason Mazurowski
Running through a snowy, spruce-fir forest before dawn is an experience that – in itself –borders on surreal. But on this particular morning, the silence, the stillness, and the glitter of hoarfrost in headlamp beams all complement a bizarre reality: It’s January in the North Woods, and I’m following in the snowshoe tracks of an ultrarunning legend.
The air is exceptionally cold, even for Maine. At these temperatures snow takes on the consistency of styrofoam, squeaking and crunching beneath our feet. We stop frequently to examine fresh tracks – bobcat, coyote, moose, snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse, flying squirrel – these woods are alive, even in the coldest, darkest nights of winter.
We broke trail here several days ago, and by now it is packed and sturdy beneath our feet, despite a dusting of fresh snow. I opt to slip microspikes over my running shoes, but Bernd prefers to travel like a true Mainer: snowshoes, wool pants, and a blaze orange knit cap. He seems as unphased by the subzero temperatures as he is by the steep climb up the back side of Adams hill, and I still find it hard to believe that he is older than me by nearly half a century.
For 30 years, Bernd Heinrich has invited graduate students to his log cabin in Maine for an immersive, week-long field course in winter ecology. After taking the class as a student the year prior, I’d been asked to return again, this time as a teaching assistant. On this particular morning, I had restarted the wood stove, and ventured out for an early lap around the hill, when I ran into Bernd doing the same. I asked to join, and he obliged.
Bernd’s career is eclectic and unparalleled, driven solely by his unending curiosity. At 79, he lives full-time in an off-the-grid cabin in Maine with no road access or running water, chopping wood for heat and hauling water from a well. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest living naturalists – a modern-day Thoreau – and he has written over 20 books (which he continues to crank out at the pace of about 1 every couple of years).
When tasked with an intriguing question or problem related to the natural world, Bernd does not stop experimenting or making observations until he has become the world’s leading authority on the matter. To date, he is touted as an international expert on raven intelligence, insect thermoregulation, animal physiology, and – of course – running.
He began to experiment with ultrarunning around the age of 40, and before long he had set American records in the 100k, 200k, 100 mile and 24-hour races. Bernd’s journey to the 100k national record in 1981 was the culmination of several years of experiments, and the subject of Why We Run, his only book about running to date. It details the trial and error that comes with training for a relatively unknown, poorly-understood sport while living in the backwoods of Maine with a pet raven. At the time, there weren’t any books, magazines, or youtube videos to learn from. No nutrition plans, no gels or running vests. It was a new frontier.
Eventually Bernd found the secrets to success in the same place where he finds all other answers: in Nature. He believes we are all distance runners – and we always have been – just as cheetahs are built for speed, chimpanzees are expert tree climbers, and sandhill cranes are meant to migrate across continents. Our genes hold the answers to the sorts of things that coaches, and trainers obsess over. We need to explore, experiment, and pay attention to our physiology to unlock our potential. But most importantly, we have to run.
Years ago, as an aspiring scientist, and life-long runner myself, Why We Run changed the way I viewed two of my life’s great passions. A couple pages into the book, I knew I had encountered a kindred spirit, and I wondered what it would be like to sit down and share a beer with the man.
From that point on, running was no longer something I felt that I had to do to stay in shape, nor was it an exclusive endeavor, separate from the rest of my life. Running was life. Running became a means to explore nature, to follow my curiosities and passions, and to make daily observations. Running started to make me a better naturalist, and being a naturalist began to make me a better runner.
Perhaps the single greatest theme that I gleaned from reading Bernd’s books, was that there is simply no substitute for doing. If we want to be a great runner, writer, scientist, or naturalist, reading books or adhering to training plans will only get us so far. There is inherent risk in trying something that has never been done before, but ultimately there’s the potential for irreplaceable rewards.
When a years-long search for the perfect graduate school turned up empty, I took a risk. I applied to a program that encouraged curiosity and big ideas, and required the broad skill set of a scientific naturalist – and I didn’t think I stood a chance of being accepted.
But the risk payed off. Somehow, I was admitted. Serendipitously, Dr. Heinrich was among the program’s faculty.
To arrive here, in the middle of winter, to a cabin I’ve read about in books, expecting answers and wisdom from a legend would be a mistake. Despite his accolades, his achievements, and his expertise, Bernd is still a learner. He’s the first to admit that he couldn’t possibly claim to know everything when there is still so much out there to discover. Which is why, at nearly 80, he climbs trees and dives into swimming holes with the same joy and excitement as a 10-year-old.
Every walk in the woods – the same woods where he’s spent most of his adult life – he encounters something new. As graduate students follow him through the forest, there is never a clear line between student and teacher. Bernd is learning alongside us, with us, as we all ask questions, propose hypotheses, and design experiments.
The best mentors don’t claim to have all the answers, instead they retain the curiosity and the passion to continue asking questions. Bernd decided to try and set records simply because he wanted to know what a human body was capable of, and nature was his mentor. How far, how fast could these ultrarunning hominids go. What is our species’ true potential? The single greatest thing I learned from Bernd, is to continue asking the same of myself.
Perhaps this is the best way to learn from a legend. To meet on a snowy trail in the woods before dawn, trudging along in silence watching and listening to what the morning has to offer. Out here we’re all just students of the natural world, and nothing more.