Posted: Thu, May 30, 2013 | By: Exercise
by Jason Sussberg
A funny thing happens when I film with biotech scientist and telomere expert Bill Andrews: I run a lot. This trend continued when I arrived in the Himalayas in Northern India to film Andrews racing in an impossibly cruel 138-mile ultramarathon at 18,000 feet.
When I showed up, I wasn’t expecting to run a half-marathon there in some of the tallest mountains in the world—that was the furthest thing from my mind as I prepared for a difficult shoot under extreme conditions. But as it turned out, all that running that Bill and I had done in the past served me well.
My first run with Bill was from the driver’s seat of a rental car. I was driving while the film’s co-director and cinematographer, David Alvarado, filmed Bill from a rental hatchback for the benefit of the camera. David and I are directing “Long for This World” - a feature documentary on radical longevity and the scientists behind this timeless quest. Bill is one of three scientists of study—the others are Dr. Aubrey de Grey and Terry Grossman—in our film. Besides being a biotech scientist hell-bent to cure aging (his own included), Bill Andrews is also a successful ultramarathoner with an impressive runner’s resume.
I showed up in Reno to film with Bill Andrews this March for one of many shoots for our documentary. We had scheduled to film around the lab, but plans had changed. Bill needed to take a break from trying to raise funds for Sierra Sciences to map out a race course using a GPS on his wrist for Molly Sheridan, his then-fiancée, in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. The race course he was charting uses foot trails, so Bill had to map it out by running the route.
I asked to come along in hopes that I could film him running. I quickly ditched the camera when I realized how long and far we would be going. I don’t often get to talk to film subjects at length without camera gear in tow, so it was a relief to chat and connect without the presence of the camera. By the end of the day we had run 16 miles and only partially mapped the course. A 16-miler is a walk in the park for an ultra-marathoner like Bill, who regularly competes in 100-mile races. I’m a reasonably fit, casual jogger, but this unexpected run completely drained me, mentally and physically.
Midway through our exhaustive run, we ran into a gold-panner. Bill initially took him for a field biologist, but he was in fact prospecting for nuggets in the gold country of Auburn. Interestingly, that was the term John Furber of Legendary Pharmaceuticals used to describe Bill Andrews: prospector. Sierra Sciences is trying to find it’s gold in the form of a small molecule that will turn on the telomerase gene and thus, according to telomere theory of aging, lead to cellular immortality. The idea is to find the drug that will express the enzyme soon enough so that the 60 year-old Andrews can cure his own aging, and subsequently the rest of humanity, thereby ending human’s universal mortal struggle against itself (you can watch the trailer from our movie here to hear Bill explain it himself).
What does running an ultramarathon in the Himalayas have to do with defeating aging? Well—Bill happens to be obsessed with both and we are around for the ride. As filmmakers, we are looking for metaphors, trying to put people’s passions into logical storylines.
From a storytelling perspective, it’s great—defeating death and running a 138-mile, 60 hour nonstop race at 18,000 feet is the stuff of mythology. As Molly Sheridan, Bill’s wife put it,
“Anti-aging goes right along with ultramarathon running because people don’t think either are possible… We have incredible bodies that can do a lot when you just train them to go there and a lot of it is the mindset. It’s the same with anti-aging.”
Being a scientist, Bill isn’t one for storytelling fluff—he cites research from the University Colorado Boulder on the telomere length of runners at various ages. In every case, the telomeres length of the runners were substantially longer than their non-running controls. But, speaking as a runner, we run because we like running and any positive health consequences are a pleasant externality that vindicate this odd desire to lace ‘em up and let it rip.
We arrived in the Ladahk region of the Himalayas eleven days before the race commenced to acclimatize to the high altitude. The oxygen deprived air has serious health consequences even for those who spend their lives at such elevations. Two of the more serious disorders are HACE and HAPE. The former is a brain swelling edema that could result in the brain busting through the skull causing death, while the latter is a serious pulmonary edema where the lungs fill with fluid and could result in death.
The race medics gave lengthy demonstrations about the seriousness of even minor high altitude afflictions, but it didn’t seem to cause any of the 11 elite runners to reconsider. The days we spent the acclimatizing, prepping for our shoot and filming the backstory of the race. Midway through the acclimatization period, there was a non-advertised, non-hyped marathon in the city of Leh affiliated with the ultramarathon. As a casual jogger of sealevel trails of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, I didn’t really consider participating. Plus, I didn’t want to shirk my filmmaking responsibilities. But, after talking with the ultra runners, who view a half-marathon at 12,000 feet with the same nonchalance and passivity they would view attending a Sunday brunch and matinee, I decided to run the 13 miles in the rarified thin air of the Himalayas.
Anyone who has experienced high altitude for an extended period knows just how much of a toll it takes on your body. Just lounging around at 12,000 feet causes headaches, brain swelling, chronic shortness of breath, UV damage to eyes and skin, muscle loss and dehydration. Just imagine adding a 60-hour 138-mile race to the mix boggles the mind.
I joined the half-marathon for the same reason the ultra folks came to the Himalayas; I wanted to see if my body could do it. The ultra runners assured everyone around them that the half marathon was just for fun and uncompetitive. Not for me, I wanted to break two hours and place really well. Mark Woolley, a headmaster of an international school in Madrid, ended up winning the race. I was vying for second against John Sharp, a chatty telecom engineer from Texas who reminded me of Beck, from Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the famed-tale of a Himalayan climbing adventure gone terribly wrong. John was a Tea Partyin’ Ayn Randian, lecturing on fractional banking and global warming-is-hoax to anyone within ear shot. Finding common ground on bombastic and illegal American foreign policy, I found John’s hard-partying Texas style quite agreeable. I was closing in on the finish line up Shanti Stupa when Bill Andrews yelled “go Jason!” causing Sharp to pick up his pace and cross the Finish line seconds ahead of me. Acting semi-proud of my 1:54 half-marathon, I quickly reminded myself that it’s less than 1/10 (!!) the distance of the real race.
During the acclimatizing period, we filmed Bill and Molly, the ultra-running power couple, getting married in a Buddhist temple in Leh. The wedding was as beautiful as it was confusing. A lama friend of Bill and Molly performed the touching ceremony in Ladahki ending with Bill asking, “Okay, so are we married?”
The wedding finished something that began in Ladahk two-years earlier during the inaugural year of the race. Bill and Molly were two of three racers that took the initial plunge. The grueling race begins at Kardung Village which lies approximately 14,000 feet above sea level. The first leg is a 26-mile (essentially a full marathon) climb to 18,000 to Khardung La pass. In 2010, the ultra-couple paused during the race to perform a commitment ceremony before continuing the race with what they thought would be two full days of non-stop running and well over 100 miles to go.
Molly describes what happened next as “just surreal.” Bill would withdraw from the race because of a life threatening gall bladder infection, which he insists is non-running related. Molly withdrew after 100 miles after hearing the gravity of Bill’s health. After a week waiting to stabilize at the local hospital, Bill flew home to have surgery. Not wanting to remain with a DNF (did not finish), Molly returned the following year and became the first American women to finish the race. This year, Bill came to finish what he started in 2010.
Earlier, Bill declared to the camera that he will finish the race or die trying (a riff on Sierra Sciences’ motto, “Cure Aging Or Die Trying”). The stakes were high: he wanted to slay this dragon.
The eve of the race Bill’s blood pressure sharply increased, concerning the medics. They presumed it was just pre-race nerves and the pressure of having a documentary crew following his every waking move - mea culpa!
Once the race began, Bill fell into his element, swiftly slaying Kardung La and making it to the cutoff point hours ahead of what he expected. Running throughout the night, he came to a stop at the town of Karu to give necessary relief to his ailing feet, grotesquely blistered and battered. By morning, Bill became alarmed that his health had taken a turn for the worse. After an emotionally reassuring visit from Molly, then acting as a race ambassador, Bill continued the race and ran the final 70 miles over the next 24 hours, crossing another peak of 17,000 feet during a nasty blizzard and hail storm.
Bill finished 5th out of 11, becoming the oldest person to finish the race at 60 years-old. To the surprise of the filmmakers, being an ultra-running 60 year-old is not uncommon, strange or unhealthy. In fact, most of the runners we interviewed expressed the idea that being older is an asset. The logic goes like this: the older one is, the wiser one is, and thus more patient and mentally strong to stand up to the overwhelming mental chatter that tells one “stop running, what you’re doing is nuts!” Lynne, a resident nurse from Manhattan, called herself a “young pup” at the age of 47. None of the runners were scandalized by Bill’s age; they unanimously agreed that it was the general public’s view on aging ultra runners being unhealthy and extraordinary that was shocking.
So, let me return to my earlier question: What does running an ultramarathon have to do with curing aging? According to Bill, who is searching for funding to continue his search for the elusive molecule, it shows that this 60-year old must know a thing or two about staying young forever.
Photos by Jason Sussberg
Jason Sussberg is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and producer, focused on BIG ideas in human progress and social justice. He co-founded Dogpatch Films, and he co-directed Long for This World - Live Forever or Die Trying, with Structure Films.