Last Sunday, toward the end of a sunny afternoon perfected by a wind just brisk enough to tingle my lungs with a reminder that I was breathing, our little riding group turned up onto a gravel road that leaped out of the valley at about 10 percent and would climb more than 1,700 feet in four miles. I felt loose, and strong, and within a few strokes gapped two of my friends. Another matched wheels with me for a few feet, then rose out of the saddle and danced away. I shifted up two gears and stood on the pedals. Then I did something my new doctors, specialists at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic Heart Center, had warned me to never, ever do: the math.
The process that led me to crunch the numbers of my cardiac mortality amid an exquisite ride had begun five months earlier, when Ed Burke died of a heart attack while climbing a hill in Colorado during a group ride. Burke, 53, was a physiologist who helped shape cycling’s principles of aerobic training, and of using protein drinks for recovery. Even if you never knew Burke, he influenced the way you ride. I’d asked myself the Jim-Fixxian question that every cyclist who heard of Burke’s death at least momentarily pondered: If it happened to him, with all he understood, couldn’t it happen to me?
In my case, the question ran deeper than newsy curiosity. My father died of a heart attack at 45; his brother at 53. And when I heard about Burke, I was, at 38, temporarily bedridden with a herniated disc. Over 11 days of immobility, I watched my 4-year-old daughter first miss our daily roughhousing and playacting, then become accustomed to amusing herself without me. I could not only imagine Natalie growing up without her father, I could see it happening. I vowed that when I could move again, I would do as much as I could to determine my own destiny. And I had, reading everything I could find about cardiac health and embracing a battery of tests at the Cleveland Clinic, named the country’s best hospital eight years running by U.S. News and World Report.
Back on the hill that Sunday, five months of medical statistics and analysis combusted. I knew, for instance, that a study in The New England Journal of Medicine put the chance of exercise-induced death at 1 per 13,000 for a typical man who, like me, exercises vigorously more than 140 minutes a week. I also knew, thanks to a $600 Advanced Metabolic Marker Profile blood test, that I’m not typical: A spiral of DNA that’s turned out to be just one more curse I inherited from my father–in particular a predisposition for my body to produce way too little of a specific type of cholesterol called apolipoprotein AI and slightly too much of another called apolipoprotein B–makes me genetically 4.4 times more likely than the average guy to die of a heart attack.
I downshifted. I sat in the saddle. I watched Dave rise away. The labored breathing of my two trailing friends grew louder and closer. I set my jaw, then punched up some gears–and more numbers: Ride aerobically, my doctors had told me, at around 70 percent or less of your maximum heart rate and your risk of dying is about the same as when you’re sitting at your desk, or watching a movie, or doing any of life’s routines. But rise above aerobic intensity, which I was about to, and your risk increases about 7 times. Intellectually, I understood that the equations I jammed together were as incompatible as Campy and Shimano. But I could not stop the calculation: four rides a week times 52 weeks times 22 seasons divided by 7 times 4.4 into 13,000….