The Hot Pursuit of Happiness

What is happiness? And why should you be dumb enough to pursue it?

A quest like the Time Barrier lets you ask big questions while using words like "quest." I honestly believe that an agonizing activity like running up a mountain can make me happy. And I believe that being open to experimentation, ideas, and the great blackfly-filled outdoors can make me happy. 

Why? Because a life shouldn't be measured not in years but in fullness. Mozart died young, and you can't say he didn't live a pretty full life. Ditto Jesus. Ditto Joan of Arc probably. What if I could be lucky enough to live fully right up till the moment I sprint across the finish line of life and croak without a single hospital stay?  

Our culture tends to do the opposite. One third of hospital costs in this country (a figure I need to factcheck) goes toward the last year of life. People going gently, and expensively, into that good night.

Research seems to show, on the other hand, that a fit middle age makes for an active, and relatively hospital-free, old age.

Back to happiness:

I’m running backwards in time, and it isn’t pretty. The dry mountain air makes my bronchial tubes honk each time I exhale. Something—glycogen depletion? Lactic acid? Tears of pain?—coats my eyeballs with a cloudy film and obscures the next boulder. And this ancient riverbed is nothing but boulders, left by recent glaciers.

“Boing,” I tell myself. Don’t run. Boing.” I boing, pretending I’m lighter than I am.

I gulp a breath and check my watch. Thirty seconds within my Margin of Youth. If I maintain this pace I’ll break the Time Barrier, jump back through the years and officially become younger than my recorded age. Fewer than a dozen people have broken the Time Barrier, and no one over fifty has ever done it.

This is no science fiction; it’s real. The Time Barrier lies at the end of the Gorge Brook Trail atop Mt. Moosilauke in New Hampshire. To break it you must run your age—reach the 4,800-foot summit in fewer minutes than you’re old in years. Most who have done it were in their forties.

They’re the heroes of Gorge Brook, a slick path with VW-sized rocks that rises 2,800 feet from trailhead to summit in 3.7 miles. This happens to be the ideal elevation gain and distance to measure an athlete’s aerobic fitness. The Dartmouth College ski team has used Gorge Brook to test the oxygen uptake of its skiers every fall. In the old days you got kicked off the team if you failed to make it to the top inn less than 50 minutes. Since then, the trail has been rerouted around flooded or eroded stretches, increasing the distance to the top. It’s getting increasingly difficult to run one’s age. The Time Barrier lies that much farther away.

But the trail is the least of my worries. I have a bigger concern, a mortal one: I’m getting close to my genetic sell-by date, turning fifty-eight this August. Both my parents died at sixty of genetically heritable diseases. Three of my four grandparents died in their fifties, of cancer or wasting neuromuscular diseases. In fact, only two ancestors—in a genealogy that extends back to the Spanish conquistadores—have survived into their sixties. I’m not saying I’m doomed. My doctors tell me I’ll last much longer than my forebears. But I’m not sitting around to find out. “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” Shakespeare wrote. I’m not wasting time, I’m going to bust through it. Or try to.

To break the Time Barrier before my next birthday, I need to run up the Gorge Brook Trail within fifty-six minutes and fifty-nine seconds. That would have been easy twenty years ago, when I regularly ran the trail in less than fifty minutes. But this trail, ascending a mountain ruled by an angry Indian god (in colonial times you couldn’t pay the local Abenaki to summit) doesn’t cut any slack for age. My muscles have weakened, and scar tissue and arthritis and circulation problems and free radicals have done their work to push me gentle into that good night, that sad decline. This isn’t not about cheating death, though. It’s not about cheating anything. I’m going to play by the rules, even while the rules change with every year that goes by.

I’ve been trying for the past six years to run my age. My best time in this period: sixty minutes and three seconds. In other words, so far I’m not getting younger than I am, I’m getting older. The Time Barrier is beginning to look like a hardened site. But I’m not finished. This year, with the help of new nutrition, workouts, techniques, a panel of experts, and my own native type-A obsession, I’m going to break it. I’m going to run my age if it kills me.

Which at the moment feels entirely possible. I’m only a third of the way to the top, and already my knees aren’t lifting as high as they should. I’m not boinging, I’m thudding. My right hip is catching fire. I reach another time checkpoint in the trail: my Margin of Youth has slipped by ten seconds.

So here’s the good news. In preparing for this run, and in six years of failed attempts, I’ve conducted a one-man experiment that offers secrets for your own pursuit of reverse aging. I found methods to lose weight almost without trying. I created my very own time zone that gives me two hours of freedom every day. I’ve plucked training tips from physiologists, sports medics, nutritionists, physical trainers, weightlifters, and athletes. I discovered a treatment—legitimate, well researched—that kills pain and restores tissues without drugs or surgery. I found ways to go off antidepressants and overcome depression. And in the middle of all this self-induced agony, I’ve found joy. I’m the happiest man  in pain you’ll ever meet.

And what I’ve done—all that research, all that work and experimentation, can help you break your own Time Barrier, getting yourself younger, fitter, healthier—well, more awesome. You don’t have to do half of what I did, either. Not even a quarter of it. Not that I’m an athlete myself, or ever was.

But I’m about to be. I hope.