Usain Bolt Versus the House Cat – By Cameron Stracher ( Wall Street Journal)

August 24th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who shattered two world records last week, may now be the world’s fastest human, but his accomplishments raise some intriguing questions about how he and other humans match up against the rest of the animal kingdom.

At top speed, Mr. Bolt hit about 30 miles per hour as he set his records (he averaged 23.5 mph over 100 meters). The cheetah, in contrast, can reach a top speed of 70 mph and maintain it for about 200-300 yards, long enough to cream Mr. Bolt. The pronghorn can run at about 65 mph and sustain a speed of 40 mph for 40 minutes. The wildebeest, lion and gazelle can all run at about 50 mph. The fastest horse can run a quarter mile at 44 mph.

At 200 meters, where Mr. Bolt just ran 19.19 seconds, the record for a horse is 11.49. At 100 meters, where Mr. Bolt ran 9.58 seconds, a greyhound could cover the same ground in 5.33 seconds. And so, among land animals, Mr. Bolt’s record-setting runs probably place him around 30th on the list of the fastest, behind the white tail deer, warthog, grizzly bear, and house cat (which can hit speeds of about 30 mph).

And yet there are very few animals that could beat a man in a marathon or longer distance race. Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian distance runner who holds the world record in the marathon, averages about 12 mph. True, in the Iditarod sled race, Siberian huskies match or beat that pace, and maintain it for up to six hours a day, eleven days in a row. And the Arabian horse has run 60 miles at a pace of 16 mph, while the fastest human runs just under 10 mph at that distance. But other than those two, there probably isn’t another land animal in the world that could beat the current world record in the marathon of 2:03:59.

Speed is an evolutionary adaptation. The pronghorn has evolved interlocking joints that make it unable to jump but an extremely efficient runner. It can consume between six to 10 liters of oxygen a minute, five times more than other mammals of similar size. Birds have evolved one-way lungs with separate entrances and exits that allow them to burn more oxygen by inhaling continuously. A cheetah, which can accelerate faster than a Ferrari, has leg muscles that permit it to stride 25 feet, and a large tail to keep it stable and prevent spinout.

Some scientists have concluded that man is evolutionarily adapted to running long distances in order to hunt down prey. We have springy tendons in our legs and feet that store energy and release it efficiently. Our thin waist and relatively large butt muscles help keep us upright and stable. More important, our hairlessness, sweat glands and ability to breathe through our mouths enable us to run in heat and over longer distances better than animals that get rid of excess heat by panting.

Distance running has also enabled us to maintain contact with other tribes and to spread information. (Indeed, the first Olympic marathon celebrated Pheidippides’ purported run in 490 B.C. from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a Greek victory over the Persians.)

But the husky and Arabian horse wouldn’t run long distances if not pushed to do so. Animals run because they have to—to eat or avoid being eaten. Man is the only animal that runs simply to do it. Our large brains can convince our frail bodies to keep moving regardless of cost. We may not be the fastest animals, but we can run ourselves into the ground for sport, exhausting our food supply, and making ourselves susceptible to disease, injury and death. That’s a feat no pronghorn can touch.
—Mr. Stracher is publisher of the New York Law School Law Review. He is writing a book about the 1970s and the running boom.

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