Ants and birds beat me by a mile
By Marlene Farrell
I love how disparate parts of my life collide when I least expect it. They throw me off guard and provide me with a lovely “Ah, hah!”
Right now I’m thinking about ants and running. Ants are my recent obsession. Not from a pest-control perspective, but from that of a curious explorer, taking a “Journey to the Ants” with authors Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson. In this amazing book I am learning about ants’ myriad ways of labor division, resource gathering, reproduction and colony construction. All these elements come together and raise ants to preeminence in many ecosystems.
Running is always an obsession, but in March it monopolizes larger chunks of my brain as I devise training schemes, start to trail run and dream of future races. But what does running have to do with these busy hordes of insects, each less than an inch long?
The athletic geniuses of our species have pushed the limits of what we think humanly possible. Usain Bolt can run 23.35 mph when running for 100 meters and Patrick Makau can run 12.72 mph when running 26.2 miles. But we are out of our league, physiologically, when we think of pronghorns and cheetahs. Perhaps if we made the cheetah or pronghorn run backward, Bolt would stand a chance. Or if we strapped an eight-pound weight to their heads (to mimic the human head, our evolutionary choice over quadrupedal locomotion), Makau might cut the tape.
How often do we consider other, less conspicuous inhabitants of the planet and applaud their speed, agility and endurance? Holldobler and Wilson magnify the world of leaf-cutter ants to the human scale. They explain that while foraging, a leaf-cutter ant runs the equivalent of 10 miles at a 16-mph pace. Not too impressive, perhaps. However, then the forager picks up a burden of 600 pounds or more and runs back to the nest at a 15-mph pace! This “marathon” is repeated multiple times in a 24-hour period, for the sake of colony success. There is no massage, dinner buffet or propping one’s feet up for these serious athletes. The foragers often run their routes until they literally fall over. Dead.
Another book that added perspective to my sense of endurance is “Why We Run” by Bernd Heinrich, a biologist, award-winning nature writer and ultramarathoner. Heinrich studies long distance migratory birds. Their feats, when fully comprehended, are mind-blowing. We humans have our 100-mile races and 24-hour endurance runs and even, for those looking for extra challenge, the multi-day events across deserts or the Antarctic. But consider the white-rumped sandpiper. It has a complete journey of more than 9,000 miles, almost from pole to pole, twice a year. The middle chunk of the journey, of just under 3,000 miles, is done non-stop over at least three days and nights. Birds may not suffer rocks and creek crossings and steep climbs as encountered by a trail racer. Rather they cruise at 15,000 feet, where drag is minimal, but so is the oxygen. And there’s no aid station table, laden with salted potatoes, sandwiches and candy, just around the next bend. These migrants carry their aid station on their backs, or more correctly, around their tummies, where they store enough fat to sometimes start at double their finishing weight.
To compare my pedestrian miles to the achievements of ants and birds is a humbling experience. My legs will never be as slender or as numerous as an ant’s. There’s no way for me to hollow out my bones like a bird’s. Like my feathered and six-legged friends, my evolutionary history is one of movement. Long distance running and walking, to be exact. My brain evolved to devise ways to run a little less to reach my goal. My ancestors might have been bee-lining for a fresh carcass, while I run tangents and hug the insides of curves to shorten a race course. I marvel at my athletic betters, under my feet and above my head, while I do what I do best, putting one foot in front of the other. And that fraction of day I devote to endurance exercise really feels quite small, compared to those animals that have made it their livelihood.
Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth writer and long-distance runner who has qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She also helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club.