Review: When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension

Those interested in Life Extension may enjoy this $3 TED eBook, When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension, by David Ewing Duncan. [If you purchase on Amazon, consider taking delivery to your Kindle Cloud Reader, and reading it in your browser with the Kindle Chrome extension. The highlighting and notes features work decently there now.] Duncan notes that global life expectancy was just 31 in 1900, and has doubled to 65 today. In America, it’s near 80. In Monaco, it’s now 89. In Swaziland its still an inexcusable 32. When I’m 164 attempts to consider what the world would be like if our average lifespans moved a long way toward doubling yet again. It’s a well written and insightful read and I recommend it, but I also found a few areas where it fell short. I hope you agree and if not, please let me know in the comments.

1. Killing the Myth of Overpopulation

Any book on radical life extension should do its part to kill the persistent overpopulation myth we hear so commonly in our mass media. The longer this myth persists, the more shoddy thinking we’ll see in the public about the future. Human population growth was increasingly rapid until the early 1960′s, when it hit an inflection point, and the rate of growth has been saturating ever since. Population growth is now in a phase of rapid collapse. Folks love to argue about whether our accelerating population growth and industrialization up to 1960 were on balance good for our species and the planet. I think it was tremendously net good, and that having more potentially bright and hard working people on Earth was our most important planetary resource in the 20th century, as economist Julian Simon said so eloquently in Ultimate Resource in 1983 and again in Ultimate Resource 2 in 1998. I don’t believe having more human minds is the most important marginal resource today. But fortunately, neither does humanity. Population growth has been decelerating ever since 1962, and absolute numbers of people on the planet will soon go negative. It is the numbers and abilities of our machines that are now growing exponentially. It’s time we acknowledge these obvious trends, and move beyond the myth.

Duncan notes that the global percentage of kids 5 and under was 15% in the 1960′s, and is under 7% today, and still declining. This great piece of data comes early in the book, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough in exploring or explaining its implications. As demographer Hans Rosling reminds us in his “Peak Child” presentations, the absolute number of humans being born annually, 135 million, peaked in 1990 and has been roughly constant ever since, and will soon be declining. Furthermore, the fraction of our global population that is under 18 is now 27%, and this fraction will never go up again, only downward, every year forward. We are no longer a Planet of the Young, as we were when kids were an insurance policy against disease and misfortune. Birth rates are dropping precipitously almost everywhere, and our average lifespans creep up a bit every year as well.

There are 7 billion humans on the planet today, and some project we’ll reach 8 billion by 2025. Circa 2000, the most credible reports had us maxing out at 10 billion by or before 2100. The United Nations now projects 9 billion by 2050, and 10 billion by 2100, and a “high case” possibility of 14 billion by 2100. Unfortunately, I believe UN estimates are systematically biased to overstate the problem. More credible to me, but still probably overstated, are reports of us maxing out at 9 billion by 2050, then steadily declining thereafter, as deaths increasingly outstrip new births. I agree with Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler in their excellent Abundance, 2012, that we should plan for the possibility of 1 billion more souls arriving in Asia and 1 billion in Africa between now and 2050, for a rough total of two billion more people, but I expect we’ll see even less growth than this.

Global population growth collapse is occurring not because of ecodisasters or food or other resource shortages, which are perennially oversold to us by the doomsayers, but because of a predictable shift in human values as social development proceeds. As Ron Inglehart and Chris Welzel have long documented, societies are gaining increasing personal freedoms and increasing evidence-based decisionmaking, which in turn is decreasing social fundamentalism and giving women many more desirable options besides childraising. If technological advances are the primary drivers of this values shift, as I believe they are, and as Inglehart argued in The Silent Revolution, 1977, it is then an obvious prediction that this values shift will continue.

Max Singer, one of the founders of the Hudson Institute, noted in “The Population Surprise,” in The Atlantic Online in 1999:

In only the past twenty years or so world fertility has dropped by 1.5 births per woman. Such a degree of change, were it to occur again, would be enough to turn a long-term increase in world population of one percent a year into a long-term decrease of one percent a year.

Given these trends, I would presently bet that “Peak Human” will arrive circa 2040 with perhaps 8.3 billion of us, a significantly lower number than most demographers now expect. In other words, our population future is most likely something close to the UN’s “low fertility” forecast in the chart below, with just six billion of us around at the end of the century, a billion less than our present state.

As we evaluate the likelihood of the low-fertility future, we must consider at least the following driving forces:

1. Society’s ever-increasing focus on sustainability as wealth grows,
2. The global web’s growing ability to quantify the negative environmental impacts of people,
3. The increasing social freedoms of women,
4. The decreasing marginal value of humans vs. machines to global productivity (see #2 below),
5. The inability to significantly extend average human lifespan before AI arrives (see #3 below),
6. Our likely growing lack of interest in remaining biological after AI arrives (see #4 below).

Consideration of these forces makes it very likely to me that global human population must shrink inexorably after we reach our peak. If true, our ascent and subsequent decline from the state of Peak Human should arrive a full generation before the technological singularity arrives, if the latter event happens circa 2060, as I would presently guess. To move beyond these guesses, we need more acceleration-aware (“accelaware”) forecasting, and more reference class forecasting to reduce the bias and deception in past population forecasts. Let’s hope this continues to happen.

2. Acknowledging Machine Productivity.

Duncan notes that one of the big social issues our governments will face in the future is funding our social security and health care, as these programs are ever more expensive and as the ratio of working youth vs. aging elders continues to decline. Health Care is now 17% of GDP in the US. This percentage will obviously only keep growing in the future, as medicine starts to actually work (remember it really didn’t, for centuries) and as more people want to live longer. In fact, growth in the health care industry as a fraction of GDP is one of the best indicators of our collective desire for longevity.

What is unfortunately not mentioned at this point in the book is that working humans are less and less economically productive vs. machines in our Presingularity Era. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee describe in Race Against the Machine, 2012, people are increasingly going to be thrown out of work by ever more productive machines. So having more humans working is increasingly irrelevant to funding our future programs, as this recent excellent article by John Markoff“Skilled Work Without the Worker,” NYT, 8.19.2012, reminds us. We want to give the existing humans the best jobs we can, and that will greatly stabilize our societies and improve human well being and happiness, but increasingly, those jobs won’t be of central importance to improving our planetary intelligence or capabilility. That role is rapidly moving to our machines.

We need to wake up and admit that the human exponentiation era is over. Biohumans are now in growth saturation, and will soon (circa 2040, just 28 years from now) be in permanent population decline. Our machines are just beginning their exponentiation phase, and we can expect trillions of physical and virtual machine intelligences on the increasingly miniaturized and evolvable hardware platforms of the near future. That’s good, because it is ever smarter and more efficient machines, not humans, that will most improve our precious social contract going forward. Let’s acknowledge and document this fact, so we can get better STEM education, entrepreneurship, funding, and policy going on in America now, not a decade from now.

Discussing how we will pay for all this health care and social security going forward, Duncan cites bioethicist Tom Murray, who states “It’s hard to see how we will be able to afford [health care for 120 year olds in the future] when we are struggling now to pay for people who live to be 80.” This would have been a great place to point out that the solution will happen in two ways. First, we’ll decide to reallocate more of our economy to health care. Our priorities will shift, driven by aging voters in all developed societies. Second, we’ll build a whole lot more smart machines, either now if we’re smart, or later if we’re dumb and unforesighted. Duncan reminds us that U.S. Social Security will be out of funds by 2033. That’s a good place to mention that robots will be driving our cars and wiping our ass for us on our toilets in 2030. Guess which of these two trends matters more. It’s the technical productivity and smartness of our machines that really matters. The rest is just politics.

3. Admitting the Difficulties of “Radical” Life Extension in Biology.

After many years of reporting on biotechnology, Duncan states: ”It’s unclear, however whether this [coming biotechnological] “fix” for aging will be a modest bump of perhaps 10 to 20 percent, or dramatic enough to take us to age 164 or beyond.” Duncan should read Jay Olshansky and Bruce Carnes’ The Quest for Immortality, 2002, one of many good books that clarifies just how difficult it will be for us to make aging interventions in human beings. Improving our lifespans by 10 or 20% over the next ten to twenty years is a very laudable and achievable goal. But anything significantly beyond that is simply fantasy, at least for the coming generation. With persistence, intellectual rigor, and a bit of luck will very likely discover a number of therapies that will bring impressive new longevity and wisdom to our species, adding ten, twenty, perhaps even thirty healthy years to the lifespans of those using them. It would be lovely and transformative to see more seasoned, pragmatic, and high-functioning 100 year olds operating in our social, economic, and political spheres, as my friend Sonia Arrison describes in 100 Plus, 2011.

But I can see no believable way mere human beings will develop therapies that push us significantly beyond our current maximum of 122 years of age. There are just too many independent ways that our molecular biology accumulates error and increasingly malfunctions with age. We fall apart at an accelerating rate from the inside out after we reach sexual maturity. All metazoans do this. I’m sure the AIs will eventually be able to figure out how to redesign our biochemistry and genetics to minimize error. But don’t expect humans to do this, it’s far too hard. The sooner we admit how difficult it is going to be for human-era medicine to push our lifespans much past 120, the sooner we can adjust our sights to achievable futures, and wake up to the fact that the universe is providing us with another option: moving our intelligence to machines.

4. Acknowledging the Advantages of Life in Silicon

This is tough stuff to discuss simply and seriously, as most audiences simply won’t believe it, but we’re already far enough into the machine era to point out the many advantages machines have over over biology in sensing, thinking, remembering, learning, adapting, self-improving, and resource efficiency. It’s most reasonable, when we are willing to overcome our humanocentric bias, to not expect more humans in the future, but rather the emergence of what Steven J. Dick calls a postbiological civilization. Duncan gives a brief nod to machine intelligence, uploading, and cryonics in his book, but he doesn’t mention chemical brain preservation or the Brain Preservation Foundation, the nonprofit I co-founded in 2010 with Ken Hayworth, to investigate whether the synaptic connections that store memories, personality, and identity in human brains can be reliably preserved at the end of life via either chemical preservation or cryopreservation.

It’s too bad he didn’t cover our work. If either or both of these processes can be proven to preserve and retrieve long-term memories in well-studied neural circuits in model organisms such as worms, flies, slugs, and mice, we’ll have objective evidence that these technologies preserve neural information. The training, preserving, scanning, and successful reconstructing of critical elements of a model organism’s long-term memory might happen within this decade in fact, and steady progress is being made in the neurobiology and simulation of memory. We would then have a serious rationale for doing brain preservation for science, for memory donation to our kids or future society, or to achieve full identity reanimation in the postsingularity future, per the patient’s preference. Most interestingly, if chemical preservation works, it could turn out to be a suprisingly inexpensive option, available at death for few thousand dollars in several countries within the next decade.

It is doubtful that more than a small fraction of humans prior to the singularity will be interested in trying out these technologies, even if they were nearly free. Perhaps only the 1% that are presently interested in “Immortality” in Duncan’s surveys. But I expect that if just 100,000 people elected to do this at death, in any society in which inexpensive and validated brain preservation was an option, I believe it would have a substantial effect on the values of that society, shifting it to become more science, progress, future, sustainability, preservation, truth and justice, and community oriented. In fact, I think brain preservation may be the single most powerful technology available to create such a social values shift in the decades prior to the singularity. That is main reason I think it’s worth investigating. Visit our website if you’d like more info on these technologies and the work ahead of us to verify them.

This review is getting long, so I’ll stop here. Those of you who’ve read all this way deserve a few bonuses. I hope you enjoy them!

Bonus 1: Stock Tip. As Duncan reports, based on a conversation with David Sinclair at Harvard, GlaxoSmithKlein (NYSE: GSK, P/E 14) is presently working on an oral compound that will activate SIRT1, a lifespan-regulating gene. If they get it, as seems reasonable, they’ll have a pill that could give humans as much as 10% or so of additional healthy lifespan, while protecting us against all kinds of age-related diseases. You may recall that in 2005, Sinclair increased the lifespan of mice 24% by giving them resveratrol. He formed a company, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which was bought by Glaxo for $720M in 2008. It looks like they’ve since discovered since then that it isn’t resveratrol that activates SIRT1 but some chemical analogue. They discontinued work on resveratrol in 2010 and have been working on an analogue since. It’s a reasonable bet that they’ll get something that does eventually work to some degree, and if they do, it will probably be the biggest single advance in longevity medicine we’ve seen yet. Even if they don’t, the stock looks to me like a good two to five year hold. Due your own due diligence first my friends!

Bonus 2: Eat, Fast, and Live Longer. This lovely 2012 BBC Horizon show introduces Intermittent Fasting, the most valuable single life extension practice available to humans today, in my opinion. I expect it will give you up to ten years of additional healthy life, and make you significantly smarter, more energetic, more disease-free, and more vibrant in the process. But regardless of how much life extension you get in the long run, the body and brain benefits (BDNF, neuronal autophagy) that you get every day will be immediately obvious to you. Unlike what Duncan says in his book, caloric restriction is actually quite easy to do if you do it the right way. Intermittent Fasting is one of the great ways to reduce your calories by just getting a little hungry for a few hours every day. Daily hunger does very similar things to your body as daily exercise. You need it, but only in moderate amounts. Doctors are today clueless on the value of being a little bit hungry on a daily basis, and our modern society pushes us to eat at the slightest twinge of hunger or the smallest imagined (not actual) dip in our blood sugar. We let our guts run us, but the science is now there to definitively show the amazing benefits of being driven by your brain, not your gut, which contains 100 million neurons and has a primitive “mind of its own”. In the next ten years, a lot more people will understand that “A Little Hunger Makes You Younger”. I’ll post more on this later on, but for now, enjoy the video. When you are ready to try what the video talks about in daily practice, to prove the benefits experimentally to yourself, I recommend starting with the free eBook at Fast-5.com. I’ve been doing it for 9 months now and will have more to post on this exciting topic when I hit 12 months.

Abundance, 2012 – Why You Should Read This Book

Every few years a few truly great general interest books on technology, human problems, and social progress come along. Books like Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962. Toffer’s Future Shock, 1970. Piel’s The Acceleration of History, 1972. Drexler’s Engines of Creation, 1986. Moravec’s Mind Children, 1988. Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, 1993. Stock’s Metaman, 1993. Simon’s The State of Humanity, 1996. Brin’s The Transparent Society, 1998. Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, 1999. Rhodes’s Visions of Technology, 1999. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999. Wright’s Nonzero, 2000. Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, 2001. Wallace’s Moral Machines, 2008. Kelly’s What Technology Wants, 2010. Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011. Kenny’s Getting Better, 2011. Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, 2011, and Bowles and Gintis’s A Cooperative Species, 2011. Now comes Diamandis and Kotler’s Abundance, 2012, a member of this rare and special class.

To read books like these is to improve your ability to think, to see viable futures, to create and take control of your life’s path, and to live in a way that best advances society as a whole. In short, they upgrade your world view, by addressing the most important questions and conversations of our era. How do we best steer our accelerating technologies to create social progress? What are the great human problems our technologies create? What greater problems can they solve? How and why does technology improve itself even in spite of human failings? What is technology becoming, and how is it changing us?

Abundance helps us understand that we are not entering a “post-scarcity” world, but rather an abundance world. Scarcities and competitions will persist at the leading edge of civilization, and the winners will profit more than everyone else. But at the same time, our accelerating technologies are creating vast new abundance in living standards, and so much capability to take care of our environment, that the scarcities of today will be distant memories just a few generations from now. As long as we rise to the challenges.

Peter Diamandis, Founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, Co-Founder and Chairman of Singularity University, and pioneer of the personal spaceflight industry, is eminently qualified to write this book. He is both a visionary and an accomplished entrepreneur, with a passion for new horizons, and a deep ethical interest in global development. His practical, results-oriented perspective permeates the book, and frankly, it jumps right into the reader’s psyche long before the end. His co-author, Steven Kotler, is a writer of vast experience, and it shows. Of all the books listed above, Abundance is perhaps the easiest to read, and digest. The writing is amazingly straightforward and clear. You can finish it in just a few evenings. If you are an influence leader with your family and friends I recommend getting a copy for them as well. If they are reading- or time-challenged, get them the MP3 audiobook. For special books like this, I recommend listening to the audiobook first in your car, then reading and annotating the book a week later. There’s no better way to deeply understand important ideas than to hear them more than once by different modes, then to summarize them when done. If you can, post your thoughts on the book in an Amazon Review, and discuss and debate it with others when you are done.

If Diamandis and Kotler don’t do a video documentary to follow up this achievement, that would be a shame. The images and themes in this book are so well chosen, I’m convinced that Abundance: The Movie would change millions of lives and minds. The book shows how to get beyond hand-wringing and finger pointing for those who want to create a better world. Instead, we can actively seek out and celebrate examples of what works, incentivize innovation, aggressively back the best of the innovators and disruptors, and help clear the many roadblocks out of their way. I found Abundance to strike a realistic balance between sustainability and innovation. It makes clear we aren’t just here to be change-averse stewards of the past, or the status quo. Humanity craves more freedom, intelligence, ethics, and ability, not just for us, but for every living creature. Increasingly, we’re figuring out how to achieve what we dream.

Singularity University, co-founded by Peter and the eminent futurist and innovator Ray Kurzweil, is an educational and entrepreneurship organization dedicated to defining and addressing the grand challenges of human development. I am an advisor at SU. Every year I’m privileged to meet the 80 students of their Graduate Studies Program, and every year I’m blown away by the vision, drive, ethics, and creativity of these students. I’ve also known several of them before they attended SU, and it’s magical to see how much more practical and effective they become once they’re part of the SU network. Peter and Ray have created an amazing environment, and it begins with the right mindset, the right world view. Unless you can afford to attend their GSP or their shorter Executive Program, reading this book is the closest you’ll get to creating the Singularity University mindset for yourself. I have been thinking about these issues as a technology foresight professional since 2000, going on 12 years now. This book left me significantly more optimistic, practical, and empowered than when I began, and I’ve got several friends now reading it as well.

Abundance, as I see it, has four main themes: 1. Mental blocks that keep us from seeing the world as it really is, 2. Grand challenges of global development, 3. Accelerating technological progress, and 4. Accelerating human ingenuity. Part One tackles the mental blocks that keep us from seeing accelerating change, and challenges us to improve our perspective. I think these 48 pages are the most important, for most people. If you have time for nothing else, just read this section. Part One helps us see how our culture and our human biases conspire to keep us cynical, passive, fear-driven, selfish, ignorant, and disconnected. Meanwhile planetary acceleration continues faster every year, with or without the awareness of us as individuals, organizations, or even nations, and it’s a strongly positive sum game for global civilization. The Chinese researcher who discovers the cure to the cancer that your partner will get in twenty years will soon be your hero, or she should be. The more innovative, wealthy, intelligent, and “cooperatively competitive” the world gets, the more human conflict migrates to where it belongs, at the leading edge, in the world of creative ideas, not in the realm of human rights, securities, and freedoms, which become increasingly clearly protected and defined. Will America turn away from its long history of openness to immigrants, freedom, thought leadership, and technological greatness, and increasingly reward ideology, bigness, and cronyism? The choice is before us.

Parts Two through Six alternate the last three themes. We’re introduced next to Exponential Technologies, and we begin to appreciate the disruptions to come, and the special tools that every wise society needs to employ. The reader considers a special set of Grand Challenge problems, and their looming solutions: The final spurt of Population Growth (in Africa and Asia only, it’s pretty much over everywhere else). Sanitation. Water. Food. Energy. Education. Health Care. Freedom. Potential pitfalls of exponential technology like the growing rich poor divide, corruption, pandemics, military conflict, and terrorism are relegated to the Appendix. This is nervy yet ultimately a smart call. Abundance focuses our attention on all the problems that can be noticeably improved or eliminated in the next ten to twenty five years. The problems in the Appendix can and will be solved as well, but likely not nearly as fast.

The fourth theme, rising human ingenuity, collective intelligence, and cooperative competition (institutions and rules for competition that maximize GDP and innovation per capita, see Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail, 2012, for a lot more on that) is treated in two groups of three chapters, so in essence it’s the largest theme of the book. While Diamandis and Kotler make an excellent case that our Grand Challenge problems can be solved. They also make it very clear that these solutions won’t happen if we don’t keep striving. As always, a subset of motivated, visionary, talented, and practical entrepreneurs, innovators, policymakers, and philanthopists will lead the way, and the billions who are presently marginalized will do most of the heavy lifting, in pursuit of a decent quality of life, not the diversions of luxury.

Books like Abundance help us to get our bearings in a sea of change. They remind us where we are, and where we are going. The more people read them, the more purposeful and effective we all become. We’ve got big problems to solve, and Abundance is one of the best guides to the near future that you could ever ask for. I hope you’ll read it, learn it, and share it far and wide. Let me end with Peter’s 16-min TED talk, which is a great entry into the book.

Order of Magnitude Challenge: How to Achieve 10X Your Normal Performance

Dear Readers:

An updated (2017) version of this article is now available on my Medium blog:

Ten Tips for Running Long (26.2M+), With Just Five Hours of Running Time A Week

How do you run 50 miles in one go, when you typically only run five?
More generally, how can you achieve a 10X performance improvement in your endurance abilities in life?

Let me share my experience in case it may help you too. The American River 50 Mile Endurance Run (AR50) is a gorgeous trail run between Sacramento and Auburn, CA. It’s the second biggest 50 in the US, about 900 runners do it. I ran it in 2011 in 12:34, just 26 minutes faster than the cutoff time of 13 hours. I took lots of 5 minute rests and had some great snacks at the plentiful aid stations the last thirty miles, but I had to keep mindful of the time. My safety margin kept slipping away at every aid station, but I was also that much closer to getting my finisher’s jacket, which I got at 6:34pm (6am start). It was an amazing experience.

I wanted the challenge of a full day of running/hiking on trails, and to see how much harder it was than typical marathon. Many folks say a marathon is 20 miles of easy plus a mentally and physically hard 10K at the end. By comparison I’d say the 50 is 30 miles of easy with alternating hard and easy stretches afterward. It’s much more mentally than physically challenging, and that’s its real allure. Beat 50 miles, and you feel superhuman for the rest of the year. Marathons will forever after feel short, as well as other mental challenges that require all-day endurance and focus.

In 2012 I ran it in 12:21. Not much faster, but the second time I had no blisters, and a lot more fun. In 2013 I ran it in 10:24, a major improvement (almost two hours!) due to some strategies described at the end of the post. I enjoy the process of improving a little bit each year (not hard with a 50, if you start easy!) and I presently see this run like an “annual checkup”, a great way to measure just where I’m at, physically and mentally, with respect to endurance challenges.

Here’s the kicker: I don’t have much time to dedicate to athletics, so I typically run just 10 to 15 miles a week, usually just 5 miles at a time. So the AR50 requires an order of magnitude more endurance than my typical runs. I’d like to tell you that if you are in reasonable physical shape, and use smart strategies, you can do long endurance challenges too, whatever they might be. Here are some tips:

Believe in your abilities, and discount conventional wisdom. Most running coaches might roll their eyes, and tell you what I just did won’t work. But they’d be wrong, and I’d never have tried if I’d stayed with conventional wisdom. There are certainly many ways to fail in a challenge like this, especially if you enter with superlight mileage as I do. 160 of the 850 AR50 runners DNF’d in 2011, a typical ratio. But there are also many ways to succeed too. Everything starts with believing in your innate abilities. They are in there, and a challenge like this will draw them out and put them on display in front of you. They may be weak at first, and you may want to quit halfway, rationalize, get sorry for yourself, get depressed, etc., but if you persevere, listen to yourself, don’t judge, let the emotional storms pass, a new stronger, calmer, smarter you will emerge, very pretty to see in the light of the challenge. Yes, you can prevail!

Find the right strategies, tools, and habits.  The most important prerace strategy for an endurance run is to go in healthy. I personally prefer a pesceterian diet, intermittent fasting (more on that at the bottom of this post), and three or more hours a week of variable heart rate cardiovascular exercise.

Ralph Paffenbarger in 1986, studying Harvard Alumni, collected the first evidence that we humans gain a longevity benefit all the way up to 3,500 calories of cardio activity per week, or about five to seven hours a week of sweating exercise, depending on how hard you train. According to Paffenbarger, if you do less cardio than that you are leaving longevity on the table. This also means that more cardio than that will likely kill you earlier. Longevity researcher and caloric restriction pioneer Roy Walford found this with mice. At first exercise extends their life, but then more actually shortens it. Ouch!

It also helps to do High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as part of your exercise, at least once a week. Short bursts of peak effort, followed by short recoveries will build your peak power, endurance, and VO2 max better than any other form of training, as described in Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, 2004. The beauty is that intervals take no more time than regular exercise, just more willpower. So they train your resolve.  Do them at least once a week and that will keep your heart strong and your mind in the game.

To combat boredom and avoid injury, I like to cross train (mix up my exercise), to get that 4-5 hours of cardio (Paffenbarger Ideal). Each week I try to do three 5 mile runs, one or two 30 min swims, and either a road cycling (90 mins) or Bikram Yoga (90 mins of high heart rate and sweating) session. I may swap any of these out for things like basketball, tennis, dancing, ultimate frisbee, or a skatepark session.  For one of my weekly runs I try to do intervals with the local Palo Alto Run Club at the Stanford track, or at my local high school track. This ends up being three to four hours of cardio a week, on average, which is about an hour a week below the Paffenbarger Ideal. Doing more running would be the easiest way to get that extra hour of cardio, I just can’t seem to do it, yet.

The last prerace strategy that matters for the AR50 is that you need be reasonably fast already on short runs. As I said if you run slower than a 13 hour pace they won’t let you finish the last half of the race (they bus you back to the start). If you can run a flat road marathon in 4:10 (my PR is 3:45), or a half marathon in 1:58 (which used to be my typical, but now I’m running 1:30), you’ve got what you need in terms of base speed. Use the excellent McMillan Running calculator to predict your 50 mile time based on other runs you’ve done.

During your weekly runs, try to do as much as you can of a technique called Chi running or “barefoot running“, wearing minimalist shoes as often as you can to build up strength in your feet for any short (5 miles or less) run. The most important thing to remember with this kind of running is that the sole of your foot is your friend, and the heel is not your friend. Try to spring off from and land on your forefoot or midfoot, with your heel only very lightly touching each time, not striking, as we do when we are tired or lazy. Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running, 2009, will give you some good tips on the technique, and Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, 2011, is a great book to get you psyched to run more this way in general. In Chi running, every footfall is both a dance and a meditative, nearly effortless act. It’s the way you would run if you were a Tai Chi practitioner. It’s the way your body and mind are built to run. You want to land as light as possible, and on your forefoot as much as possible, and you’ll spare your joints and muscles the shock and damage of repeated heel strikes, as well as greatly build up your lower leg musculature. Your feet become like iron, your body like a cat.

As for your mind, it helps to think of yourself like Kwai Chang Caine walking across the ricepaper in my favorite philosophical TV western series Kung Fu, 1972-75. Make your impressions on the Earth as light as possible. Make no rips in the rice paper, grasshopper, and you will be running in tune with the ground, your body, and the Universe. It’s an extremely fun and meditative act to run like this, even if you can only do it for just minutes at a time at first. It will recenter, calm, and replenish you, believe me.

The most important gear I can recommend for the race is running in Hoka Mafates, a super thick-soled yet ultra-lightweight shoe that most of the running world doesn’t yet understand. Though you don’t want to run in these for your short runs, as they would make your feet weaker over time, the Hoka is the ideal shoe for your long runs, to keep your feet from getting beat up. It’s also a great recovery shoe.

I also strongly recommend a good shade hat like the Columbia PFG, to keep the sun off your neck, and a white long sleeve open mesh shirt, like the Heat Gear T-Shirt by Under Armour. It’s also a great idea, on hot days, to wet down your shirt at the aid stations, to keep your cool, and to take your shirt off for the last two hours, when the sun gets lower. Shirts and hats with ice/sponge pockets exist now too. The Craft Kona Body Control top, worn by triathletes, is excellent for regulating body temperature in races. It has one ice pocket sewn into it at the neck, great for dropping ice into it at the aid stations. If you run in heat a lot, you can take these garments to your tailor and get more ice pockets sewn in, and line them with a thin sponge, so that as the ice melts, it cools the sponge, and runs down your shirt and head, but doesn’t freeze against your skin.

On race day, the most important strategy is to go out very easy, and run your first half much slower than you want. I currently do the first 25 miles in 5 hours (12 minute miles). This gives me lots of power for the second half. Also very important is eating and drinking regularly. I recommend the chicken noodle soup broth (3 cups per station, instant blood plasma substitute, instant awesome feeling!) whenever you can find it.  Postrace, a protein shake on recovery will have you feeling amazing afterward. This year I’m walking almost normally (typical post marathon stiffness) the next day, and I’ll rely mainly on swimming for my cardio for the next week.

Do it with others. Doing the challenge with a lot of other motivated people has been one of things that makes it fun. Striking up relaxed conversations with others who are on the same pace, and running an hour or more with them on the trail is also seriously motivating. Sharing our strategy tips and regularly asking “How are you feeling?” allows us to stay in tune with our bodies, and the conversation makes the miles disappear.

Listen to yourself.  One of the great benefits of a good challenge, beyond accomplishing it, is how you get changed by doing it. An endurance challenge is all about paying attention all along the way, so it improves your ability to self track, and to be here now.  You learn to quickly adjust your stride if you are feeling tightness or pain. Pay attention to your needs, stick with successful strategies when you find them, and keep varying and experimenting when you aren’t sure how to fix a problem.  Good self-monitoring also helps you get better at staying just within your bounds, so you don’t overdo it and lose the opportunity to challenge yourself again next week. Try to push your ability to tolerate reasonable pain, but don’t feel bad about dropping out (DNFing) if things get too bad. Just showing up regularly to compete is a big win in itself.

Break it into small steps. How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time, according to the folk saying. Everything big is best completed in small, digestible chunks, well-chosen and well-rewarded on completion. On the trail, I didn’t think about running the whole race, just think about getting through the next 10 minutes. Once completed, reward yourself with a drink, a bit of food, a quick trail stretch, or some other bonus. In the rocky sections of the trail, where toe stubbing and tripping is common, I learned to focus on each footfall, and anticipate the reward of getting to the next smooth section, where I could look up at the scenery again.

Make it epic. Choosing the American River for my first 50, the second largest and most beautiful 50 in the country, certainly made it easier. The scenery, running next to water the whole way, was gorgeous. I kept reminding myself what a special experience it was, how few people get to run 50 miles of gorgeous trails in a day. Whatever your order of magnitude challenge, see if you can do it in an epic way. Take time throughout to reflect on the special nature of what you’ve committed to do, and to ask yourself how you might be changed or improved by successfully completing it.

2012 Update: Minor speed improvement this year, from 12:32 to 12:21 (9 minutes). Again, I did no prior training, but this year decided to duct tape the pressure points on my toes before the run (not the whole toe, as they swell, but most of the way around). I also added an inch-wide band of moleskin across the top of my three biggest toes. This made my feet a whole lot stronger, and I came out with no blisters, unlike 2011. Otherwise everything went the same, except it was mentally easier the second year.

2013 Update: Breakthrough year! I dropped from 12:21 to 10:24 (1 hour, 57 mins faster!), finishing 391st out of 900 runners, and handily beating my goal of running under 11 hours, to qualify for Western States 100 (I may never run 100 miles, but it’s fun to see if I can qualify for it). This year we had perfect overcast weather for the first 35 miles, which I’d guess cut a half hour off my time. I also cut my aid station rest times down to just a few minutes each, which probably gave me another 25 minutes. The last hour of speedup came from five weeks of weekend runs before the race, and something called optimized fat metabolism (see below). In sum, I did four things differently this year. I’ve listed the strategies in ease-of-adoption order below, in case you’d like to use any of them yourself

1. Antiblister Socks. This year I switched from duct taping my toes to an amazing antiblister sock combo, Injinji Lightweight socks underneath Cool Max double layer Wrightsocks, a combo I discovered at Fellrnr, a great ultrarunning site. Wow! No blisters, and no more taping of feet. I use these on all my long runs now.

2. Hoka Mafate 2’s, a size too big. Fellrnr wears Modified Nike Free’s, cutting out the top of the toe box, so his big toes  and little toes don’t get compressed by the shoe. I’m lazier than that, so I bought the new Hokas, but got them a size too big, so I had lots of room in the toe box. This allowed me to wiggle, stretch, and scrunch my toes during the run, which kept my feet very happy.

3. Five weeks of training, Sat and Sun only. Looking over ultra training plans on Fellrnr’s site, I decided two long run days, back to back (Saturday and Sunday) for five weeks before the race, with a one week rest after, would be good extra practice. So for five weeks I ran a slow 2.5 hours on Sat and 2 hrs on Sun. I just headed out the front door and ran to somewhere interesting, then turned around at half time, to minimize the time and mental energy invested in these long runs. Try audiobooks and music to keep such long runs interesting.

4. Intermittent Fasting and Optimized Fat Metabolism. For the last two years, I’ve been doing the Fast-5 intermittent fasting (IF) eating regimenallowing your body to get just a bit hungry, for a few hours, five times a week, by eating only five hours a day on Mon-Fri (skipping breakfast and lunch), with normal fast-5dieteating on weekends. See The Fast-5 Diet, Herring, 2005, for more. But that alone didn’t speed up my times last year. What I did differently this year was add Optimized Fat Metabolism (OFM) to my training. What that means is that in my long and slow weekend runs, all I brought to eat was a bit of good fat (avocado, or almond butter or coconut manna on cheese) which I ate only when I was the_art_and_science_of_low_carbohydrate_performancestarting to bonk. Also I shifted my regular daily diet to eating fat first Monday to Friday, like a whole avocado, before eating anything else, to increase the percentage of good fat calories in my diet. Along with intermittent fasting, these OFM strategies teach your body to burn your stored fat better, giving you extra energy during your long runs, and in your normal workday as well. Most people, who eat at the first twinge of hunger, forget how to burn their body’s fat, and can only burn their glycogen stores, which are 10X less than your fat stores. So you have a lot less internal energy your body can tap as a result. For more, read the excellent The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, by Volek and Phinney, 2012. I’d guess that OFM gave me some extra speed in the second half of the race, but how much is hard to guess, as I also did the five weeks of long prerace weekend runs as well.

Now that I’ve knocked down my 50 mile goal, I’ve decided a good new goal will be qualifying for the Boston Marathon. My last marathon (2006) I was about a half hour too slow to qualify, but with these new tools and strategies, I’m seeing possibilities again that simply didn’t exist before.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you find some of this useful for your own journey!

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