That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger

John Stamstad is his own weird science project, a 135-pound, mountain-bike-based experiment in the limits of human endurance
By Todd Balf

A wintry sun is setting on the Kentucky hills as John Stamstad waits his turn to rappel a 100-foot cliff at a popular climbing spot called Red River Gorge. It hasn't been a good day. Having accepted an invitation to be the mountain bike specialist for a midwestern squad that will compete in the Eco-Challenge--a 300-mile multisport race to be held in British Columbia in late summer--he's already reconsidering the decision just a few hours into their first training session. His teammates are driving him crazy.

The cocaptain of Team Habitat for Humanity, an ultra runner whom Stamstad likes but also characterizes as "superneurotic," wants him along for a team-building visit to a shrink. The team nutritionist, whom Stamstad sums up as "weird," is pestering him to try his most recent late-night lab epiphany: vermicelli Milanese in a tube. Worst of all, Stamstad has been wandering the countryside since before dawn and still hasn't got his heart rate soaring. Team rules prohibit Stamstad from pushing ahead on his own; he must stay with the others. As he putzed along on the six-hour bike ride, he seethed. It was more of the same during the three-hour orienteering exercise: While the others pored over topo maps and talked about reentrants and parallel errors, Stamstad idled uncomfortably at the base of a woodsy, snow-dusted slope.

"Why don't I jog up to the ridge and get a look around?" he offered, hoping to sneak in a 20-minute aerobic hit.

"Nah, John, you better stick with us," said Jimmy, the nutritionist. A worried look crossed his face. "Hey, everybody, are we all remembering to ventilate?" he cried. "Sweat kills, right?" Stamstad, well layered and still not perspiring, nodded dimly.

Now, on the precipice, he's found reason for hope. For the first time all day, he's focused and happy, even though he's never rock-climbed before. The way he clips in, checks his figure-eight knot, and trusts his weight to the harness, you'd think he's done this a hundred times. The only question is whether his harness loops will find purchase on legs that are not much stouter than his bicycle spokes. For a 31-year-old man whose life is an endless pursuit of athletic overindulgence, a walk off an ice-slicked cliff is good, heart-thumping fun. Just as Stamstad lowers himself into the abyss, his red bicycle helmet gleaming in a flood of sunshine, his head jerks up and his eyes race across the rock as if he's forgotten something critical. "When I reach the bottom," he says. "Do I get to climb back up and do this again?"

Looking at John Stamstad, you'd take him to be a musician, perhaps, or someone who spends too much time hanging around coffeehouses. Nothing about him suggests athleticism. With his shallow, copper-colored beard and shoulder-length hair, he appears vaguely Christlike. He's thin to the point of scrawniness. "You want to know something?" says his wife, Karla, with some embarrassment. "I can't fit in his clothes." Even his conversational style lacks flow. There's a queer, half-beat delay when he's answering questions, suggesting that he's a person who spends a lot more time in his head than out of it.

Yet it is Stamstad's peculiar gift, and sometimes his curse, to ride a mountain bike harder and longer than anyone else on the planet. "I realized that was what I did really well when I raced across Australia four years ago," he says. "On the one hand, it was great to know there was something I could do that others couldn't. On the other hand, it was a little disappointing to realize it was the ability to endlessly push a pedal over and over."

Worldwide, there are just a handful of events that cater to Stamstad's odd specialty, and he has dominated them all, from the Leadville 100, in the Colorado Rockies, to the Iditabike, a 160-mile midwinter race across the Alaskan tundra, which he's won the last four years. He holds several course and world records, including the 24-hour off-road record, set in May of last year in Maine's Acadia National Park, where he pedaled 354.5 miles. His career objective is elegantly simple: "Do the hardest races in the world and try to find the one that breaks me." So far, he's still looking.

In the process, Stamstad has put his 5-foot-9, 135-pound body through stupefying amounts of abuse. His injuries, surgeries, and chronic aches and pains would make an NFL lineman wince. Two years ago at the 24 Hours of Canaan, a team relay race in West Virginia, Stamstad charged on despite a first-lap crash that left him with a compressed neck vertebra. For the remaining 23 hours of the race, he was unable to move his head or summon any upper-body strength. "I couldn't watch where I was going, which sucked," he says, "and I couldn't move my arms to lift my front wheel, which doubly sucked."

The team placed second, and Stamstad took home a few hundred bucks--big money, given that his victories typically earn him little more than a free T-shirt and PowerBars. Such is the nature of Stamstad's over-amped milieu: heavy mileage, few rules, and next to nothing in prize money. "It's just man versus man, man versus self, and man versus nature," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, that describes everything that matters. People don't understand how riding for 24 hours straight can be a rush, but it is."

Much of the rush comes from Stamstad's ability to thrive in situations that tend to break other people down. In long-distance races, all sorts of Jekyll and Hyde acts occur. Friendly people get nasty. Quiet ones get belligerent. What gives Stamstad satisfaction is that at the end of a race, he seems to be the same person he was at the beginning. Because he struggled with depression as a young adult, the fact that he can keep it together at such high stress levels is no small prize. Each race--with all of the emotional twists and turns that greet him en route to a finish and usually a win--is like a massive therapy session.

"My dad drank a lot," he says, "and I guess our family fit the profile that they talk about when they talk about alcoholic personalities. But that all changed for me as soon as I started winning bike races. My self-esteem improved tremendously." The harder the event, the bigger the potential emotional payoff. "I'm taken to my absolute limits," he says, "both emotionally and physically, and that's the draw--surviving through that challenge of failure. The vast majority of people go their whole lives without ever having done any one thing to the best of their abilities."

To help keep mediocrity at bay, Stamstad prepares for races with the intensity of a mad scientist. Leisure reading material includes medical textbooks and journal articles on such subjects as creatine loading and branch-chain amino acids. He's current on nutritional theories and regularly picks the brain of endurance guru Bill Vaughan, cocreator of the PowerBar and inventor of a pudding-like energy paste called GU. He buys complex carbohydrates in bulk for homemade energy drinks. (Add potassium, sodium, a pinch of creatine, some flavor, and presto! Stamina Man fuel.)

But Stamstad also believes in the restorative though as yet medically unexplained power of Mountain Dew and Krispy Kreme donuts. He argues in defense of Twinkies, Little Debbie snack cakes, and Pop-Tarts, noting that none of them freeze on the trail and all excel in calorie-to-cost benefit. (Little Debbie oatmeal-creme pie: 170 calories, at 11 cents.) He also spends a lot of time in hardware stores looking for solutions to life's little problems, such as the cold feet and frozen drinking water that plague long-distance riders in winter. Bubble wrap for the toes and weather stripping for the drinking tube are what he's come up with. He derives profound glee from his low-tech wizardry and says he'd like to write an article on how to dress for the Iditabike by shopping at Wal-Mart. "Sometimes cheapest is best," he says.

Stamstad's idiosyncrasies only heighten the almost mythical aura that surrounds him in the endurance community. In the parking lot after the Eco-Challenge workout, his teammates yank out foil-wrapped energy bars and Gore-Tex outerwear while Stamstad dons chinos and gnaws on a doughnut he picked up at a gas station. Some of the others shake their heads. It's not hard to imagine how demoralizing it must be to chase some skinny guy all day only to watch him refuel on stale crullers.

"He's got a garbage gut, but it doesn't seem to slow him down any," says teammate Will Burkhart. "He's so good that he takes the team to another level. We even have a rig set up on his bike so that he can tow the slow riders. One of our teammates commented that a lot of his buddies want to come on training rides just to see John. It's like they want to see that this guy actually exists."

His career began innocently enough. In the summer of 1985, Stamstad, then 20, and a friend rode from their hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, to Fort Collins, Colorado, in eight days. They rode at least 100 miles a day for a week, and then on the last day did 200 miles. Stamstad adored the journey: the freedom, the calming blankness of long, seamless stretches of road. Marathon cycling soothed some of the old wounds. It both demanded and produced an emotional honesty that Stamstad says he could find no other way to express. "When you break your body down that far, you also break down your inhibitions," he says. "A lot of times you can fake your feelings, cover them up. But at three in the morning during a 24-hour race, nothing is hidden."

His first major race, in 1986, was the 550-mile Bicycle Across Missouri, in which he placed third. In 1987, just a few credits shy of a degree in psychology at the University of Wisconsin, he dropped out to ride his bike and be a snowboard bum in Colorado. But chronic leg problems laid him up for most of the year. He relocated to Cincinnati, took another shot at the Bicycle Across Missouri, and wound up dropping out halfway through with severe symptoms of mononucleosis--the only race he's ever quit. It would be close to two years before he raced seriously again, setting in motion a pattern that continues to this day. "The history of my career is the good followed by the very bad," he says. "I've been washed up by illness and injury four or five times."

In the winter of 1992, Stamstad gained cult status when he finished third in his first Iditabike despite five flat tires and temperatures that reached 35 below. Later that year he was disqualified from the first (and last) Trans-Australia Off Road Challenge for mouthing off at the race organizer. He refused to quit, hailed down some tourists to serve as support crew, and unofficially raced the remaining 1,500 miles to Byron Bay.

The Australia event gave Stamstad a name among his racing colleagues as something of a puritanical curmudgeon. It's a reputation he's lived up to. At the Iditabike a few years ago he blew up at the starting line, livid that some of the top racers weren't carrying their 15 pounds of required gear. He believes that headphones should be outlawed in long-distance races, saying, "You should have to be alone with your thoughts." Last year when he set the 24-hour off-road record in Maine, he groused that the route was too easy. He aggressively fought to have his record thrown out and blasted women's record holder Amy Regan for exaggerating the difficulty of the course.

"I think it's great he's got something that he loves," says Karla, an outgoing social worker who likes to ride and hike and beat up folks at the local tavern's Foosball table. "But he can get a bit obsessed."

In 1993 and 1994 Stamstad won most of the races he entered. He also paid dearly, with major crashes and injuries that kept piling up. The suffering was worth it, he says, for in 1995 his hard-riding style caught the attention of the promotional types at Ritchey Design, who put him on salary as a team rider. He now makes $12,000 a year plus bonuses, which affords him modest luxuries like a health-club membership and the occasional spring-training road trip, provided he eschews hotels and bunks in his sleeping bag.

"I can even throw a ten spot in my seat bag," says Stamstad, who used to take off on 120-mile rides with only a quarter for an emergency phone call. "And that's living so large, I just laugh sometimes."

"Should we decide to make this an easy day?" says Stamstad as a torrential rain batters him and his longtime training partner, Willy Geoghegan. They've been pedaling through Alabama's Chewacla State Park for an hour and, not being remotely familiar with the area, have run into problems. A turn past a sign reading high crime area dead-ends at a wide river. The next turn leads to a sulfur mine and a joust with large, aggressive earthmovers. As they return to the paved road and the sheltered picnic table where they started, they regretfully call it quits.

It's the low point of a spring-training week that has otherwise been wonderfully exhausting. From their base camp in Auburn, where they've slept on a friend-of-a-friend's basement floor, Stamstad and Geoghegan have covered ground. They've ripped their way down bike trails and highways stretching from Birmingham to Montgomery, affectionately trying to crush each other.

Stamstad trains with an appetite that few--not even Geoghegan, himself an accomplished racer and compulsive hammerhead--can match. "I'm pretty good at hanging on with John for about seven and a half hours," says Geoghegan. "Beyond that, it's just not easy for me."

A typical day for Stamstad begins with a five-hour ride, followed by a one-hour jog from his house to the University of Cincinnati physics building, where, with his hands clasped behind his back, he makes ten trips up and down 16 flights of stairs, taking three steps at a time. It's Stamstad's favorite, most unfun workout: no windows, no distractions, no relief. The Alaskan tundra looks like Maui after months of stairwells. The day concludes with an hour on the wind trainer. Stamstad says that he knows he's mentally ready for a race when he can do a five-hour stint on the wind trainer, maintaining a heart rate of 155 beats per minute while staring at a blank wall.

Two years ago at the Iditabike, an exercise physiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina named Steve Bailey conducted a study of Stamstad and several other top competitors. Throughout the race, Stamstad's mood didn't fluctuate; he remained calm and focused. In a test that measured bewilderment and fatigue, he scored the same results at the finish of the race as he did at the start. During prolonged exercise, says Bailey, glucose stores go down and levels of free fatty acids and free tryptophan (an amino acid) go up, boosting energy. According to one school of thought, the increase in free fatty acids and free tryptophan also results in elevated levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Bailey is among those who believe that high amounts of serotonin make athletes more sensitive to fatigue.

"The hypothesis we're working with," he says, "is that fatigue during long periods of exercise isn't muscular in nature, but a perception in the brain." If that's the case, it could partly explain Stamstad's high pain threshold. According to Bailey's Iditabike data, Stamstad's blood analysis showed significantly lower levels of free fatty acids and free tryptophan than those of the other athletes in the race. "Either John doesn't experience pain like other people do, or he's better able to deal with it," says Bailey. "My guess is that it's probably a little bit of both--part training effect and part genetics."

Last spring, Stamstad also played guinea pig at the Ohio State University exercise physiology lab, where he stunned researchers with one of the most impressive aerobic efforts any of them had ever seen.

Stamstad pumped along on a stationary bike at 100 percent of his VO2 max for two solid minutes, and he's capable of sustained work at 87 percent. Elite athletes can generally deliver sustained performances at 80 or 81 percent of their VO2 max; former world-best marathoner Derek Clayton performed at 85 percent. The bottom line? "Stamstad definitely has elite physiology," says Tim Kirby, the supervising physiologist at the Ohio State lab. "And while that explains his ability to do more high-intensity work for longer periods of time, I'd also suggest that what he can do goes way beyond physiology."

In other words, he's good at playing head games with himself. "High intensity--pain--makes you think twice about what you're doing," says Stamstad. "It takes an enormous amount of strength to win a two-hour mountain bike race, but no matter how hard you ride, you never get to the point where you say, 'God, I don't know if I can make it.' In longer races you always reach the point where it's easy to stop." Stamstad's secret seems to be that he eliminates the quit-or-not-to-quit argument altogether. "I just make the decision before the race that I'm going to finish, no matter what," he says. "That way, I never have to decide whether to quit, because it's just not an option. If you go into a race saying, 'If I get really tired, I'll just drop out,' no matter how mentally strong you are, you'll take the easy way out."

Stamstad began this season with typical pain and excess. Emptying his tires of air and pedaling furiously in order to plow through the soft, deep snow of the Iditabike route, he was one of the few competitors to ride rather than push their bikes for most of the 160 miles. He finished in 23 hours, more than four hours ahead of the second-place finisher, longtime Alaskan rival Rocky Reifenstuhl. Three months later, he became the first rider ever to solo the 24 Hours of Canaan, besting half of the 380 five-person teams.

His plans for the season also included the 24 Hours of Adrenaline near Toronto, another 24-hour race called Montezuma's Revenge in Colorado, the Eco-Challenge, and "maybe something they're putting together in Japan." Someday soon, Stamstad plans to time himself on the 1,000-plus-mile Iditarod route and the Great Divide Trail, a behemoth that when complete will run 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico. If organizers ever get rid of the cumbersome support crews and accede to his wishes in creating a more gritty Race Across America, he'll do that, too. But his big dream is to race across each of the seven continents. Race across Antarctica? "Sure," he says. "Win that and six others and you got a true world champion."

Todd Balf is a contributing editor of Outside.
Photographs by Norman Jean Roy

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