The Mountain of Youth

An unforgiving peak, an aging athlete, and the hot pursuit of happiness.

By Jay Heinrichs

It’s 6 a.m. on my birthday, and I’m standing at the base of a slickrock, weather-torn mountain in New Hampshire wearing nothing but running shorts and “minimalist” shoes. Beside me blasts the Baker River, named after a Colonial-era soldier who warred against and helped to nearly wipe out the local Abnaki. The Abnaki themselves called the river the Asquamshumakee, “Place Where Mist Rises from the Waters.” They called the mountain Moosilauke, “Place That Is Bald on Top.” The meaning suits me: I turn 58 today, and my own top is getting a little thin.

The plan—more of a hope, really—is to turn that number into a blessing by running my age up Mount Moosilauke. That means reaching the top in less than 58 minutes. Nine months of training have gone into this, though the simple act of running counts as an achievement; a year ago I struggled to walk without a limp. Doctors told me I’d never run again. 

Only a dozen people have ever run their age up this classic peak, and as far as I can tell none was over 50. On the other hand, few fellow geezers have been foolish enough to try. The 3.8-mile trail rises 2,800 feet from base to peak, and the winds above the tree line can blow hard enough to pick up a skinny guy like me and toss him like a leaf. The Abnaki had the good sense to avoid the summit, believing that an angry god squatted up there.

My wife, Dorothy, is behind me at the start line, here to cheer me on along with our friends Robert, Jes, and Lydia, all hugging themselves in the cool August mist. This morning Dorothy got up before me and taped my training mantras all over the house. My legs love rocks. I’m strong and light and taking flight. Flow. Focus. Dance. And in the cupholder of my pickup, Relax. More than a thousand friends on Facebook wished me the best.

This mountain is ideal for testing fitness, requiring a painful combination of leaping power and aerobic capacity. Every fall for many years, the Dartmouth ski team, accompanied by a bevy of older athletes, has run up Moosilauke, timed by coaches armed with stopwatches and two-way radios. When I was in my 30s, I would go last in these time trials, more enthusiast than athlete. The only time I impressed anyone was the morning after a night of drinking with a friend: We killed a bottle of scotch at 3 a.m., and then eight hours later I was running, sort of, in the Moosilauke time trial. I somehow made it to the top, a hung-over persistence that impressed the real runners, which stood as the greatest athletic achievement of my life. Until, possibly, now.

 

The problem began seven years ago during a business trip to Dallas. For my morning exercise I had run up the stairs in the 29-story Magnolia Hotel before heading to a meeting. When it ended, I stood up and fell flat on my face. My right hip felt as if it had jaywalked into a truck. I couldn’t move my leg at all. Colleagues rushed out to buy me a cane so I could hobble to a cab for another critical meeting, and afterward I went to the emergency room.

“I think I dislocated my hip,” I told the doctor.

“Were you in an accident?”

“No, a meeting.”

Doctors later diagnosed snapping hip syndrome. My iliotibial band, which runs from knee to hip, was catching against the hip bone on each side. Over the next several years, it cost me sleepless nights and more embarrassing falls. I tried physical therapy, acupuncture, and prescriptions. Nothing worked. I considered surgery, but the surgeon said it would make me even lamer. With enough PT, they told me, I might—might—be able to go on easy hikes again. Running, hiking, skiing, the sports I loved most, were a thing of the past. It felt as if the story of my life, the crazy tale I liked to tell about myself, had ended. Like the time I hit a deer while cross-country skiing in the dark. Or when I made a tight turn while trail running and pulled a tree down, knocking myself out cold.  I’ve surprised bears, otters, and moose, been chased by goshawks, and gotten trapped on the bottom of a river while my canoe plunged over a waterfall. There were epic naps on ridgetop lichen 2 feet thick and daylong mountain runs with friends that turned into marathon conversations. Now I had become a character without a story and was instead just some old lame dude, literally and otherwise.

 “Be grateful,” a nurse told me. “You have happy memories.”

True, but I also had a disease that wrecks so many men in their 50s—depression, topped with a heavy dose of self-pity. I was on meds for a few years and eventually got off them but couldn’t quite shake the depression.

Then one day I made the kind of discovery that seems to come when we need it most. I was poring over a classical tome—a habit I picked up while writing books on rhetoric, the art of persuasion. This time I was curious about the etymology of the word “hyperbole,” wondering if it meant more than mere exaggeration. Turns out it does. Hyperbole comes from ancient Greek, meaning “to throw beyond.”

Throw beyond.

I stared at the book, and suddenly the idea came to me. Recovery wouldn’t be my focus. I wouldn’t try to get rid of the pain or walk normally or be satisfied with my memories. I would throw beyond—do whatever I could to set back the clock, to not just walk or hike but run, and not just run but run up this spooky mountain in quirkily record-breaking fashion. It was impractical, pointless, and stupid, seemingly impossible, and I laughed aloud.

For years I had taught rhetoric to anyone willing to listen. This time I decided to turn the tools of persuasion on myself. Bear with me, people. We can do this.

 

When I told my regular doctor what I planned to do, rather than calling me an idiot she gave me the name of a sports medicine specialist in Vermont. “He runs and skis,” she said. “He’ll get you.”

Dr. Peter Loescher was experimenting with a procedure invented in New Zealand called neural prolotherapy. It entailed multiple injections of dextrose into the nerves. “Your gluteal muscles are weak because they’re constantly firing from the pain,” he explained.

And then he proceeded to give me 330 shots in one session.

While sweating through the stings, I thought about how painful running up Moosilauke would be. This isn’t therapy, I told myself. It’s training. And somehow the idea—that I wasn’t just recovering but throwing myself way beyond—made the pain not just tolerable but sort of cool. I returned for more shots weekly, needing fewer injections each time as the pain diminished. I supplemented the shots with at least an hour a day of resistance training, foam rolling, and stretching. After a few months my hips stopped snapping. I walked with a subtle limp.

I began waking at 4 in the morning and running up the meadow behind our house. I trained an average of three hours a day. My weeks consisted of two days of high-intensity intervals; one long, slow endurance run; two medium runs; a recovery day of stretching; and a rest day, plus three or four easy runs throughout the week. To find the time to train, I altered my sleep schedule as if I’d traveled east two time zones. I called it Jaylight Savings Time. The downside was that it cut into my social life, and I missed watching Netflix.     

That wasn’t the only sacrifice. In order to carry minimal weight on my 5-11 frame, I gave up drinking and cut out just about every enjoyable food. I dropped to a ribs-baring 144 pounds. My wife suffered at least as much as I did. Embracing me must have felt like hugging a birch tree, though Dorothy preferred calling me a “whippet.” Friends asked her delicate questions about my health. I bored her to distraction with explanations of the distinction between anabolism and catabolism. Yet she supported me through it all.

And now here she is standing behind me at the Moosilauke start line on my birthday, along with our friends. The trail ahead rears up from the Baker River like a shying horse. It’s all ascent from here, or, as trail runners like to say, this run has only one hill. I draw a deep breath, trying to look confident, and start my watch before mincing down a jumble of rocks and across a slippery bridge that spans the Baker. I take rapid little steps with high-pistoning knees, struggling to increase my rhythm to the ideal 180 beats per minute. The Gorge Brook pounds past me.

Forcing myself to smile even while gasping for air, I whisper a one-word mantra for this first stretch:

Relax.

I’ve always been an evidence-based, show-me skeptic, one of little faith. You won’t catch me willingly trying anything with “alternative” in front of it. I resisted using mantras at first but had run out of reasonable options; crazy was the only one left. Besides, every coach and athlete I spoke to insisted that mantras work. So every day, when my alarm went off at 4 a.m., I said to myself, Make this a glorious day. I began the day with breathing exercises, repeating ridiculous expressions:

Running is my natural state.

I’m for real, a true athlete.

Each run makes me stronger.

My legs love rocks. I flow up rocks.

I’m strong and light and taking flight.

Every morning, again and again, I breathed and recited these sentences, and gradually they stopped sounding trite and began to seem true. By golly, I was strong and light and about to take flight!

I extended my use of mantras and divided the mountain into four sections: Relax, Flow, Focus, and Dance. Once a week for several months I arrived before dawn in order to run in first light, pausing to rest between sections. Athletes call this interval training; in rhetoric, it’s called chunking. It makes the impossible seem like a series of doable steps.

To help myself relax, I make myself smile, employing a theory known as cognitive ease. Research shows that people are more persuadable when they feel comfortable and powerful. Smiling helps me believe I’m a bona fide athlete, I’m having fun, and that running up steep, slippery rocks hardly hurts at all.

It hurts a lot. Smile.

Because the snow lingered on the mountain well into May, I was limited to this first chunk, between Trailhead and Last Water, until June. Then the snow turned into mud so deep that more than once I had to crawl out of gooey sinkholes, more mud wrestler than trail runner. Undeterred, I tell myself Relax right up until the brook vanishes into the spring known as Last Water, where hikers can still reliably fill their water bottles before continuing their ascent. I enter the next section.

Flow.

The trail flattens out a bit from Last Water to First View, letting me pick up speed and run with what ease I can muster. The state of flow is fleeting, requiring a constant effort to achieve effortlessness. Nature, like life, does everything to throw you off your stride and interrupt your rhythm. Frequent travel, injuries, and illness all sought to interrupt my training, and I came to realize that doggedness is even more important than motivation. Torrential rains have washed out part of the trail and forced a reroute that lengthens my run. It’s nature’s version of an aging event, adding 30 seconds or more—the equivalent of half a year—to my total. I don’t try to psych myself up for the change. Instead I give myself no choice, keeping my flow all the way to First View.

Here, at 3,000 feet of elevation, Dartmouth student volunteers have chopped down trees to open up the vista, and on a clear day the vast Presidential Range is visible to the northeast. But today I don’t look at anything but the trail. I blast through First View, force myself not to peek at my watch, and head toward the steepest part of the trail, First View to Bright Corner.

Focus.

Exercise-induced asthma kicks in as I navigate the mixture of scree and car-size boulders. I croak with every exhalation. My legs feel as if they’re rusting in the morning mist, and my eyes film over, blurring my vision—a side effect of low blood sugar. I’ve had mild hallucinations on this stretch of trail, spotting people who didn’t exist, glimpsing spectral moose, hearing ravens utter human sounds. The angry god atop Moosilauke may be having his way with me.

Why am I doing this? Why can’t I be a normal person and enjoy my approaching golden years instead of trying to prove something that no one but me cares about?

Focus.

I think about my childhood—which in retrospect was much happier than I remembered—and about all the times I’ve hurt my wife’s feelings. There was the move to New Mexico, which I thought we had decided on mutually until Dorothy heard me accept the offer over the phone and burst into tears. Then the abortive dot-com startup in Connecticut that lead to unemployment, followed by a big-shot publishing job … my life, like my hip, seemed to be tightening up with every move. I began second-guessing myself.

Focus.

I dash up a second steep stretch, then a third, where the trail turns left and the rising sun hits my back. The temp at the trailhead had been an alarming 62, more than 20 degrees warmer than ideal, with 80 percent humidity. And now the brutal, unbridled rays of heat. Even in my prime years I dreaded this turn. I would slow to a walk or stop altogether, bent over and gasping. I used to think of this place as “Where I get hot and fall to pieces.” Today I call it Bright Corner, and the final stretch approaches.

Dance.

 I have systematically renamed everything meaningful; redefining terms can help paint a rosier reality. The hard parts of Moosilauke are now “fun parts,” the ledges “rocks,” and the pain “suffering.”

I learned about suffering from the legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who famously said that while he wasn’t the best at running, he could suffer more than anyone. He bore more, pushing his imperfect body to one record after another. To “suffer” means to allow, even welcome. It moves beyond pain, because this welcoming of the overwhelming isn’t pain at all. It’s life with all the stops open.

The trail rises up a series of steps—rocks levered into place long ago by strong volunteers—and then narrows to less than a foot in places, with a spectacular view toward the northwest, which I studiously ignore. Another set of steps leads to a promontory where I use my hands and feet to ascend. I top out to my first look at the summit across a barren, lonesome ridge.

The path dips into a col filled with stunted spruce and sharp rocks that perverse geology has tilted on their sides like upended radial saws. They rip the thin fabric of my shoes and bruise the soles of my feet, and still I must sprint as fast as I can here to gain time. Instead of feeling frustrated at the paradox of prancing through radial saws, I’ve convinced myself to think of this stretch as pure dancing—not pretty dancing, but dancing nonetheless.

I emerge from the stunted trees onto the ridge. Thankfully, no wind today. A tiny speck of orange appears in the distance: the summit sign. I’m out of gas with nothing but desire to take me the rest of the way.

Or maybe it’s not desire so much as a strange, compelling form of happiness. Recent studies of psychedelic drugs have shown similar states in people given psilocybin, a milder cousin of LSD. Volunteers given the drug reported feeling at one with the universe and emit John Lennonesque utterances like “Love is all!” I felt like this once before, while climbing Mount Rainier to celebrate my 40th birthday. I was with a group of capable, friendly men, two of them former guides on the mountain, and we took a more technical route than the usual climb. As the least experienced of the bunch, I was scared the whole time. The effort of climbing on glacier above 14,000 feet while shouldering a heavy pack felt like running back-to-back marathons. Yet the higher we got, the happier I became. I could feel my ego dropping away, as if I became less important and somehow joined the beautiful, white-blue landscape, my dear friends, and … something even larger and holier. Seriously, I felt at one with the universe. And now, as I float along the ridge on Moosilauke, I feel the same way.

I think of Dorothy waking up extra early to tape my mantras all over the house, and of the thousand friends on Facebook wishing me luck. One, who had been with me on Rainier, wrote, “My hand will be on your back.” I have to focus just to keep my eyes from tearing up.

One last scramble up a small pinnacle, and I slap the sign at the top and punch my watch. There’s little chance of a time less than 58 minutes—the day is too warm, and I feel too good to have given the effort needed. But goal or no goal, I’m happier than I’ve felt in many years. I savor the moment, gazing out toward the neighboring White Mountains, before checking my watch for the first time since the start.

54:53

I blink hard, my vision still cloudy.

54:53

I stare at this representation of my age in minutes, which means I have set back my personal clock more than three years. And for a brief moment I consider: If conditions had been ideal—if the trail had been dry, the day cooler, the air less humid—could I have run myself right back into my 40s? It’s possible. Yet the thought doesn’t give me any more joy. That would be impossible.

Researchers who conducted the psychedelic experiments say that the one-with-the-universe, love-is-all effects tend to last at least a year. I’m writing this more than a year and a half after that moment on the summit and can still feel the connection and the love. In the time since, I have decided to try other hyperboles, other impossibilities, using the same tools of self-persuasion. Last year, for example, I wrote a novel. (Few people would want to read it, but still—up until then I could not think of myself as a novelist.) And this summer, when I turn 60, I may attempt another hyperbole. I’ll set myself up for failure and try to talk myself into succeeding. I will relax, flow, focus, and do some crazy dance. My friends will have their hands on my back.

Meanwhile, on this summit, at this moment of my glorious 58th birthday, I look up from my watch and don’t feel like yelling or raising my arms in triumph. Instead, I whisper, “Thank you.”

The angry god has no reply.

 

Jay Heinrichs is the editorial director of this magazine. He’s the author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.

 

Sidebar: Stuff I Learned

 

One big reason to “throw beyond” with a hyperbolic goal is to gain an education. My effort to run my age up a mountain taught me a number of things:

Create a personal moon shot. Putting people on the moon was hugely expensive, scientifically impractical, and deadly. But for decades after Neal Armstrong stepped down from the lunar lander, people said, “If we can put a man on the moon…” Aristotle called this kind of thinking argument from strength. If you can do the nearly impossible, the merely difficult starts seeming easy. The moon shot made us a better, more can-do people. Your moon shot can do the same for you.

Relax, Flow, Focus, Dance. These words started out as my “mantras,” little training reminders for each section of the mountain. But I’ve come believe that they work for every scary goal. I deal with my fears (Relax), establish habits (Flow), overcome distractions and setbacks (focus), and, at the end, find the joy.

Use setbacks for your story. Every time nature or my own laziness or stupidity screwed me up, I turned it into a plot complication. No one would see a movie where the hero walks a trouble-free path to success, right? So every time my plans went astray, I made myself think, “This is getting interesting.” And then I heroically ate less the next day, or changed into a dry pair of shoes.

Create your own time zone. To find the time to train, I put myself ahead two hours, going to bed earlier and getting up earlier every day, as if I’d traveled east two time zones. Instead of thinking, “This is ridiculously early” when the alarm went off, I simply told myself I was on Jaylight Savings Time. This was my very own time, free of emails and calls, TV and other distractions. The downside was, no one else was on Jaylight Savings, which cut into my social life. And I missed watching Netflix. Now and then I like to travel back to Standard Time and feel normal.

Specialize weekdays. My physical training centered on two days a week of high-intensity intervals; one long, slow endurance run; two medium runs; a recovery day of stretching; and a rest day. Since then, I’ve tried to divide my work life the same way: two intense days, a day working long hours on a fun project, two regular days, a day of pure fun, and a day of rest. The schedule adds variety to the week, and I actually end up getting more done. Plus it makes work seem like training, which sounds cooler.

Seek happiness through awe. Researchers say that “awe experiences”—putting yourself in the presence of something large and sublime—help fight depression and make people more compassionate. I believe that you feel greater awe when you’ve overcome obstacles to confront something vast and scary. The more your ego drops away, the more you feel connected with the wonders, and wonderful people, around you.