I set out to cycle a Double Century from a Walmart Supercenter in Union, NJ on Saturday morning at 6:30 am. My intended destination was Island Beach Park on the Jersey Shore, just south of Seaside Park. The temperature was merely 30 degrees when I began my adventure and I was woefully under dressed because I had expected it to be warmer. Soon my hands were numb, my feet were frozen, and I couldn’t feel my face. Only about twenty minutes into my journey, already freezing and uncomfortable, a Volkswagen with a bike rack tooted its horn twice at me. The driver gave me a wave and a big thumbs up. I nodded back and waved appreciatively. I interpreted the driver’s acknowledgement as his way of saying, “It is still dark and below freezing. I know what you are doing is hard and takes determination. I respect and applaud you for your efforts.” Well, then again, maybe that’s not the idea the driver meant to convey at all. But it doesn’t really matter. All that truly mattered is what I thought. That’s what makes all the difference in the world because the mind is such an incredibly powerful force. Perception is everything. My interpretation of the driver’s thumbs up made me feel a little warmer and pedal a little faster.
Humans vs. Automobiles – Do Our Parts Wear Out?
As I began mentally and physically preparing for this undertaking, I shared my intention with a few friends. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority held the view that cycling 200 miles is unhealthy. I was initially slightly irritated by their responses, but later realized that this ingrained belief is a symptom of their fundamental, subconscious concepts about aging. You see, these people unknowingly revealed their philosophy of aging. The more I encountered this common position, the deeper I began to probe. I typically heard, “Yea man, that’s terrible on your joints. It’s so unhealthy to do something like that.” Or, “It’s not good for your body. You’re going to wear out your heart. You’re going to ruin your knees. You’re going to destroy your back.” One friend, who happens to be considerably overweight, actually shared such a sentiment while eating potato chips and drinking beer. I asked if he saw any irony in our conversation and he just stared blankly at me. The people in his ideological camp believe that the human body is a lot like an automobile. They think both the automobile and the human body have all these moving parts that wear out from both use and with the passage of time. They would say that I am not just using my body parts, but I am abusing them, a surefire way to shorten the life of my parts and accelerate the aging process.
I, however, have come to believe we are nothing like automobiles. In fact, we aren’t really like any machinery in existence. Why? Because we have the capacity to heal ourselves. We do it constantly and we do it quite well. If you break your arm, it will heal. When you work out, you tear your muscles. Not only do they repair themselves, but they come back stronger, adapt, and become better capable of dealing with the same stress you throw at it in the future.
Hormesis is defined as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress. Examples include ischemic preconditioning, exercise, dietary energy restriction and exposures to low doses of certain phytochemicals.2 Lifting weights is a stress many people expose their bodies to. The weight lifter will adapt to the stress of lifting weights and grow stronger. Soon, the weight lifter will have to increase the stress by increasing the weights he or she is lifting of perform additional repetitions to experience the same beneficial adaptive effect. The technical term for this positive adaptation is hormesis. The cyclist and the runner also experience hormesis and must increase pace or distance to continue making gains. In fact, there are countless types of stress one can benefit from in countless arenas, including one’s metabolism and brain function. Hormesis can even be applied to aging. Exposure of the cells in the nervous system to mild and transient bouts of stress may increase their resistance to the adversities of ageing.3
Incredibly, many studies have even shown adaptive benefits of hormesis as a result of exposure to radiation.4 Just like with weight lifting, cycling, running, and even caloric restriction, the key is to get the dose of the stress just right.
Two months ago, when I started this whole thing as a 186.6 lb fat guy, a 25 mile ride, if I could complete it, might have killed me. Now, a 50 mile ride is really no big deal to me. I wouldn’t even be concerned about riding a Century. Why? Hormesis. While I remain in some pain as I write this, I will heal. Not only will I heal, but I will emerge stronger from my experience, both physically and mentally.
The average age for an ultra runner to compete in an Ultra Marathon for the first time is 36 and the average participant is 43.5 It is simply not a young person’s sport. As such, and with so many brutal miles participants endure, one would think incapacitating injuries and burnout would be quite common. However, a study of over 1000 ultrarunners indicates that only 2.7% of participants stopped competing in ultramarathons due to injury.6You might be thinking, “But John, you wrote in a previous blog that, “studies suggest moderate exercisers have longer telomeres than those who are sedentary as well as those who are heavy exercisers, such as ultra marathoners. According to the Blueprint for Aging that accompanied the lab results of my telomere analysis, surprisingly, you can exercise too much. Overtraining is not only bad for your muscles, it is also apparently bad for your telomeres.’”7 The reason heavy exercisers generally have shorter telomeres, however, remains unknown. In my view, it’s not the rigorous exercise that shortens their telomeres, it is the fact that they are likely in a near constant state of overtraining. The data on exercise in humans is simply unclear. In The Telomere Effect, Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Epel state, “One remarkable study of ultrarunners found that their cells were the equivalent of sixteen years younger than those of their sedentary counterparts.”8 I have concluded that the conflicting information related to this issue all comes down to a matter of dose. Those ultra endurance athletes with shorter telomeres are getting too large a dose of exercise (stress). Meanwhile, other ultra endurance athletes whose telomeres are biologically sixteen years younger than their sedentary peers are getting the right dose.The day after my ride, my heart rate variability was the lowest I had ever seen it. I was in the red zone. As such, I needed to let my body rest and recover. I could certainly have trained the very next day, but I did not because I knew I would have been doing damage to my central nervous system by not giving it time to recuperate. Two days after my long ride, my resting heart rate remained slightly elevated, but surprisingly, my heart rate variability had practically fully recovered. I was already in the green. By day three, both my resting heart rate and heart rate variability had fully recovered and my central nervous system was in optimal shape to begin training again as hard as possible.
When I shared my intention of cycling a Double Century, more than one person also said, “that’s insane. Why would you want to do that? What would be the point?” One also said that such an endeavor is counterproductive and would do nothing to make me a better cyclist, healthier, or fitter. In fact, he argued, it would likely injure me. He’s right. But, so am I. Here’s why.I have no fantasies of becoming an Olympic or Professional Cyclist. I don’t even want to compete in it at any level. Instead, I fantasize about lengthening my telomeres, thereby reversing my age at the biological level. I am a hormetic (one who practices hormesis). I am applying stresses to my body that I believe will make me stronger and better. In the process of doing so, hope to complete a resume of amazing experiences and accomplishments. My decision to tackle a Double Century Ride had a considerable psychological component. In fact, the psychological impact may far exceed the physical. Afterall, how does one know what he or she is capable of if he or she never really tests him or herself? I earned my first small victory completing a century ride. These small victories are giving me self confidence; self confidence to do more to further improve my fitness and take on new, and bigger challenges. I believe this will have positive effects on my average telomere length and production of telomerase. I also believe these physical challenges will ultimately benefit several of my biomarkers of aging. Remember, one of my guiding principles is that if I can improve as many biomarkers of aging as much as possible, my telomeres will follow.9 If I keep earning small victories, I will begin to believe I can accomplish just about anything I set my mind to; even reversing my age at the biological level.
Most people aspire to live “the good life”. They want to be so wealthy that they don’t have to work, giving them the luxury to do whatever they want, including nothing at all. They may want to spends days sleeping and nights partying. They may dream of gorging themselves on culinary delicacies from around the world. They may fantasize about never having to lift a finger to clean, or do laundry, or cook, or cut the lawn, or fix things around the house. They may want to spend all their time eating ice cream and relaxing with drinks on a beach, or engaging in video game marathons, or watching an endless stream of movies. Admittedly, there was a time when exactly that type of life appealed to me. That is no longer the case. Such a prosperous life would indubitably be rather comfortable. But would it happy, healthy, and long?No! It would unquestionably be none of the above! If you want to be strong, happy, healthy, and live long, you must make yourself as UNCOMFORTABLE as possible. Doing things that are easy, or accumulating things or experiences that you can just buy, is pointless because they yield little pleasure or sense of accomplishment. There is no effort required. People who live an easy comfortable life, plain and simply do not live nearly as long as those who live a hard, very active, challenging life. In laboratory settings, it is the emaciated, half starved mouse that obsessively runs on the treadwheel that will live longest. It is not being comfortable that keeps you alive. It is precisely the opposite. Just like with most things in life; anything really good ain’t easy. You’ve gotta earn it.
Going into this endeavor, I had read that I would be most likely to quit between miles 80 and 100. I started to think about quitting even earlier, at mile 75. John the Pessimist started whispering in my ear, “This is crazy! Stop the insanity! Why are you killing yourself? You aren’t even halfway there. Quit now. Stop at one of those Pizza places, get a pie, and a six pack of beer. Spend the night at a hotel.” But I kept pedaling. By the time I was at mile 100, my average speed had dropped from 15 or 16 miles per hour down to 10 or 11 and was still dropping. I thought my leg muscles were beginning to fail because they were exhausted. That’s when I decided to drink some water and eat a Pure Organic protein bar and some Gu, my first bit of food and water of the trip. Gu is an energy gel popular among endurance athletes that comes in assorted flavors that has 450 mg of amino acids, 125 mg of sodium, and 20 mg of caffeine.The transformation was nothing short of amazing. I was back up to pedaling at 14 or 15 mph and felt totally reinvigorated as I pedaled down the long road of Island Beach Park. Clearly, I had used up all the fuel I had consumed before beginning my journey. Like my approach to breath work in a cold shower, I really took this endeavor much too lightly. The fact that I was in such bad shape so early on was evidence that I failed to prepare properly in two senses. 1. I didn’t train nearly hard or long enough. 2. I was woefully inadequately nutritionally prepared. If I had hydrated and eaten all the way through the ride, it would have been significantly easier on me. I also should have loaded up on some high quality carbs the day before. I figured I could relatively easily accomplish my goal through brute force and sheer force of will. I was beginning to realize how grossly mistaken I was.The energy jolt I got from the protein bar and Gu began to fade by mile 125. I was bonking. Pessimist John returned to say, “The sun is setting. It is getting cold. You have 75 miles to go. Your friends were right; this is stupid, pointless, and counterproductive. You are injured. If you continue you may not be able to walk or work for a week. This is nothing more than a macho exercise in stupidity. You’re such a loser. You’ve failed at pretty much everything you’ve ever tried to accomplish. Why should this be any different? Quit now before you further injure yourself.”John the Optimist barked back, “Shut up, Pessimist! John can finish this epic ride. He just needs to ignore you and keep pedaling.”I replied to them both, “Ok guys, I am going to turn my monkey brain off and just pedal. Pessimist, you will owe me an apology when I finish this damn thing.” For the rest of the ride, I had an energy bar or shot of Gu every twenty five miles and tried to do the least amount of thinking possible.
It was 11:30 pm, seventeen hours after I began, as I slowly rolled back into that Walmart parking lot, cold and shivering. I could not have been going more than five miles per hour. A fast walker could have passed me. My entire body was wracked in pain. My neck, back, elbow joints, hands, and especially my knees were all in agony. Yet, I was smiling triumphantly.Make yourself uncomfortable and do something awesome.
1 Leary, K. (2017, December 1). Aging Expert: The First Person to Live to 1,000 has Already Been Born. Retrieved from https://futurism.com/aging-expert-person-1000-born/
2 Mattson, M. P. (2008). Hormesis defined. Ageing research reviews, 7(1), 1-7.
3 Mattson, M. P. (2008). Hormesis defined. Ageing research reviews, 7(1), 1-7.
4 Luckey, T. D. (2006). Radiation hormesis: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Dose-response, 4(3), dose-response.
5 Dupont, D. Ultramarathoners Are Older and Less Injured Than You Might Think. Retrieved from https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/ultramarathoners-are-older-and-less-injured-than-you-might-think
6 Dupont, D. Ultramarathoners Are Older and Less Injured Than You Might Think. Retrieved from https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/ultramarathoners-are-older-and-less-injured-than-you-might-think
7 Loehr, J. (2017). How Old are you Really?. Retrieved from https://www.reversingmyage.com/blog/how-old-are-you-really/
9 Loehr, John. (2017). On Hypothermia and Age Reversal. Retrieved from https://www.reversingmyage.com/blog/on-hyperthermia-and-age-reversal/