Fit, fast, and falling apart at the seams

December 8, 2012 § 16 Comments

This past year a number of fit, fast older cyclists here in Southern California have keeled over with various heart and cardiovascular ailments. The ones I know have survived. I’m sure that if they hadn’t been active cyclists, the illnesses would have been fatal.

We often treat cycling like it’s some kind of magic bullet against disease. It isn’t.

What cycling does, unfortunately, is mask some aspects of ill health by allowing us to engage in intense athletic activity. When we do the hard workout or finish the hard race, we imagine that we’re healthy. Sometimes, we aren’t.

The longest-lived people in the world, the Japanese, didn’t get that designation due to being competitive cyclists. They’re older than anyone else because of what they eat.

Every time I hear some cyclist proudly crow that “Cycling allows me to eat whatever I want,” I silently reply “No, it doesn’t.”

You can’t argue with the health benefits

I’ve met so many people who went from being a physical shambles to being in great health simply through cycling. A guy I used to be friends with in Japan, an undertaker, had high blood pressure, was about to go on beta-blockers, was at least eighty pounds overweight, had all kinds of joint pains, and looked about twenty years older than his real age of 40.

After one month of easy bicycling along the Tagawa bike path his blood pressure plunged to normal. After two months he’d dropped forty pounds. Once he upped the mileage and got “into” cycling he lost the remaining forty, shed an additional ten or fifteen, and became stronger and fitter than  he’d been since his football-playing days in high school.

While commuting home two weeks ago I ran into an older guy, mid-50’s, who’d also been told to drop fifty and get on blood pressure meds. Instead he started riding, and six months later, same thing: No need for medication, all the excess gone, and he was fit enough to do a daily climb up Via del Monte and a loop around the Hill after work.

Stories like this are so commonplace that they hardly bear repeating, as the pattern is the same. Person is fat and has high bp. Person takes up cycling. Person is transformed.

Cycling as an apology for bad habits

What we talk about less, especially among ourselves, is the other trajectory, the fit and fast cyclists whose lifestyles are posters for bad habits, but who, thanks to decades of hard athletic endeavor, can tolerate the abuse and still perform on the bike. They’re our friends, our acquaintances, our teammates.

Often as not, they’re shedding us from the group or breaking our legs, so who are we to criticize them?

What they also are is getting older, and no matter how tough or how able to tolerate the abuse, every human body has a limit where the booze or the grease or the big belly start to claim their due.  What I’ve seen this past year, and what I expect will become more commonplace as we age, is the “surprising” onset of heart disease among fit cyclists. It’s heart disease that would have or should have gotten underway lots earlier, and perhaps it did, but cycling somehow masked it or allowed the body to continue performing even as the illness progressed.

All this talk about health has made me hungry.

Pass the Hag bars, would you?

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§ 16 Responses to Fit, fast, and falling apart at the seams

  • says:

    Thank you. Great reminder.

    Positively!, tb

    Todd Brown -> 949-400-3522

  • velobob says:


  • Peter Schindler says:

    Getting older takes a toll no matter what you do. And heredity can kill you. I eat healthy food and have done so for all of my adult life. I am not overweight, ride an average oh 10 hours a week and yet I have high blood pressure and have to take medication to control my cholesterol as well as my blood pressure. There is nothing I can do about it, my genes are predisposed to these conditions. The bike makes it better but
    It won’t cure me.

    • Admin says:

      At least you’re on top of it. Lots of cyclists think they’re pedaling their way to immortality, cheeseburgers and all.

  • Pete says:

    Three years, two months, and three weeks ago, at age 48 and 20 minutes after I got home from a hard 35 mile workout, I had a heart attack.

    I’ve been fit, fast, and thin my entire life. I don’t drink, I’ve never smoked, and my diet, though a bit heavy on carbs, has always been reasonably decent (basically: don’t eat anything that has a commercial).

    For 30 years, doctors assured me that I was the model of health.

    For much of the summer of 2009, I was frustrated by my performance on the bike. Suddenly, I was getting dropped like a hot rock on climbs that I never actually *owned*, but where I could at least hang on to the back of the group. I left the A group on Saturdays and started hanging with the boys from B, often struggling to keep up when the pace got angry.

    My thinking through that summer was that maybe time was finally catching up with me, that at 48 I was just starting to slow down, like, of course, everyone does eventually.

    Then I got home that Thursday evening, drank a bottle of water, and, for 30 seconds or so, had the worst heartburn of my life. Then it got worse.

    Then came the flaming fist of Satan himself, sliding inside my body and wrapping around my heart.

    And here’s the frightening part: I knew what was happening, and so did the paramedics in the ambulance, but once we got to the hospital and started talking to doctors, the certainty went right out the window. The EKG was not definitively showing heart attack, I was conscious and highly verbal through the pain (when you’re riding, the ability to suffer more pain than anyone else is an advantage. when you’re dying and still chatting up the nurses, it makes people think you’re not suffering anything like what you’re reporting…), and once they heard my health history, all the doctors in the place decided that of course what I had was a spastic esophagus.

    Twelve hours later, the enzyme study finally confirmed what I knew, and ten minutes after that I was flat on my back, completely dissociated from my own body via the magic of Fentanyl, and watching in horror as the dye exposed the clear, sharp, sudden end to the branching tree of flow where my left anterior descending artery should have been. They cleared that out, installed two stents, and sent me back to the cardiac ward.

    Post-op, the surgeon who installed the stents looked me straight in the eye and said, clearly and deliberately:

    “Frankly, sir, your level of fitness and the length of time you’ve maintained it is the only reason you’re alive right now.”

    Three years later, I’m still riding with the B group. I’m not going to be the scary fast 50+ rider I once thought I was going to be, but I’m alive, having more fun- both on and off the bike- than ever before.

    So I’m not sure what the point of this comment really is, other than to sort of complicate your analysis. Fitness never gives you a free pass for bad behavior; sometimes fitness makes it difficult for your doctors to see things they observe clearly in the less fit, and then, sometimes, fitness saves your life.

    • Admin says:

      Well written. Thanks for making sense out of my rambling. Glad you’re alive and pedaling.

    • Jprummer says:

      Wow, that was a close one. I had a friend die in the hospotal of a heart attack with a similar story. They didn’t thing he was having one either because he was a fit cyclist. The B group is a lot more fun anyway.

  • CB says:

    Ask Jim Fixx about exercise and heart disease…and family history.

  • R. White says:

    Sorry about the verbosity, but these are important anecdotes, given the subject-at-hand.

    A note about BRADYCARDIA that you may need to tell the paramedics(hopefully not):
    Bradycardia is an abnormally slow heart rate(minus 60bpm). It can be a genetic trait, but it also can be achieved through massive amounts of aerobic exercise. A nurse once told me that I should carry a note with me explaining my condition so that any emergency medical staff would not think that “they were losing me”. Sober advice. I found myself in an ambulance at one point(skiing incident) and overheard that paramedics telling the hospital that the inbound patient was Bradycardiac(sp?) and that they were going to administer adrenaline and some other medication to stabilize my heart rate(30bpm). Being conscious enough to understand, I explained my bradycardia to them and they relented. It would normally be considered seriously low given the preceding trauma(I also had learned from experience to relax “post-impact” where most people are in a panicked state). I’m not sure what can happen if you are incorrectly given drugs to elevate your normally low heart rate, but the last thing you want in emergency care is to create artificial symptoms that mislead the doctors in your diagnosis. Come to think of it, I should probably update my Road ID to reflect my medical condition…

    ROAD ID: GET ONE; if you care about what happens to you in the ER. Put your Health Ins. Provider & ID Number on it at the very least.

    Heed this: I had Blue Cross AND Blue Shield PPO’s; on admittance(cycling accident), UCLA ER couldn’t verify my insurance. I was unconscious and didn’t have any info attached to me. My friends didn’t have the info. UCLA was going to stabilize me and transport me to COUNTY. Trust me, you DO NOT want to end up in COUNTY. I was in pretty bad shape and needed a 5-hour surgery and a week in the ICU. Serious stuff. Safeguard: Call UCLA admin. and St. Johns and get your critical info into their system now.

    Ride SAFE.

  • Nickel says:

    A timely discussion in my case. My father died suddenly of a heart attack at 66 and both brothers, one older and one younger, have been stented-up and on medication for years. The older one collapsed and died this spring at 58 while out sailing and the younger one is keeping himself going as long as he can before having his first bypass surgery. I’ve been tested, poked, and prodded over the past 15+ years and the most they’ve come up with is average cholesterol, bradycardia, and mild AF, the latter two presumably brought on by a lifetime of endurance athletics. When I seek reassurance that I don’t have to worry about a ticking time bomb going off inside me, I’m told that my lifestyle and level of physical activity are different and that they will protect me. No one is saying stop, slow down, or change, they just say keep at it. I had a crash this spring and suffered a broken hip some weeks before my brother’s demise. Having packed on an unwanted ten pounds during recovery, I’m more determined than ever to get back my usual level of fitness, not that easy with a broken hip as it turns out. I guess my point is like others have said – fitness isn’t a free pass to over-indulge especially when there are other hereditary factors at play. When I think of my brother and see the condition of some guys schlepping themselves around, it doesn’t make sense at all that he is gone; same with my dad. My ambitions have become more modest but I’ll keep at it – it’s not my ticket to indulge, it’s my best chance at reducing risk.

    • Admin says:

      Well said. It’s not a free pass. Really sorry about your dad and brother.

      On the weight-loss front, check out my other blog,

      It’s not for everyone, but some of the principles are applicable to any weight loss regimen.

      Those last ten pounds–or five, or two–are fiendishly hard.

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