Some animals are fast–like really fast. Some humans are also pretty fast, but none of us can compete with the fastest animals out there. But when you think about it, life isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. While straight speed is a lot flashier, there’s a lot of merit and utility to endurance running. So let’s give some recognition to the less flashy. What animal is the best endurance runner? What animal runs the longest?
The Gray Whale
One of the first things you thought of was probably animals that seasonally migrate. Which is a fair thought, many animals have pretty impressive migratory patterns.
Among the most impressive migratory animals is the gray whale, whose annual migration is the longest of any mammal out there. They go around 12,000 miles round trip from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to coastal California. Other fun facts include how gray whales were nicknamed “devil fish” because they react aggressively to being shot with a harpoon. Like being angry because a tiny hairless monkey shot you with a pointy stick is an abnormal reaction.
Zebras have some of the longest migratory routes of land mammals, the longest of which pushing 300 miles. They also bring us closer to the best endurance runners of the animal kingdom, since swimming for a very long time is impressive, but it’s also not running.
With a top speed of around 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour), zebras aren’t faster than some of their predators, they can run for much longer. They can maintain an average speed of 30 miles per hour for about 12 miles without stopping.
Honestly, the ostrich just gives us an excuse to remind you that they have velociraptor feet.
But they also have pretty neat feet, they’re basically springs attached to the bottom of their feathery bodies. Ostriches could, in theory, run an entire marathon in 45 minutes with a maximum speed of 50 mph (80 kph) and the ability to maintain an average speed of 30 mph for over 20 miles–outclassing the zebra.
Here’s the thing, with a lot of impressive animals, people like to frame things in terms of “how fast could they do a marathon” or look at how long the animal can maintain an arbitrary speed. But those animals still get tired, and the goal is to find animals that can just keep going.
That’s where humans come in. Believe it or not, we’re actually some of the best ultramarathon runners. We can’t go fast at all, but we can go for a really long time. Take Dean Karnazes, who holds the world record for endurance running–he ran for 350 miles (563 km) for 80 hours and 44 minutes straight without stopping.
The only animals that have been shown to compete with humans when it comes to this kind of endurance are sled dogs, the longest of which was the Beringia-92 and was completed in 201 hours.
But what makes humans so special? For starters, humans are persistence hunters, which is a hunting technique that relies on slower movement and tracking of prey for so long the prey just gets tired. It’s like having a little snail chasing you all the time, except it never stops. Ever.
What makes humans exceptional persistence hunters is our hairlessness and our sweat. It keeps us from overheating, which means we can keep going after something long after it needs to cool down.
While our legs are also well structured for running, one of the big keys is your gluteus maximus. Which is a more technical way of saying “our butts help us run.” It’s the largest muscle in the human body and is key to letting you run upright (your butt muscles aren’t really used for anything else, you don’t even use them much while walking). It’s because the gluteus maximus has little role in walking that evolutionary scientists believe our butts are the way they are for running and persistence hunting.
It’s not the same as running a marathon, but you can trying doing a typing marathon for your hands here.