Cyclist Peter Megdal seeks out, and overcomes, difficult obstacles

(Above): Peter Megdal of Dedham rides in the 60 minute time trial for men in the age 60-64 in Mexico in October.


The following article appears in The Dedham Times.

Three-time national record holder explains his approach to improving health

by Scott Heald / The Dedham Times / January 13, 2023

A traditional Romanian proverb states, “A great ship asks for deep waters.”

Perhaps anyone who attempts something objectively daunting, unafraid to pursue opportunities that may not be readily apparent, is the sort of person to whom the proverb alludes.

Peter Megdal of Dedham fits into this category in several ways. In his career he has achieved noteworthy academic and professional success, earning one of the highest academic degrees and later building a thriving business.

The same resolve required to gain a Ph.D., and to buck conventional wisdom to launch a successful company, has paid dividends in the realm of athletics as well. By force of will and dedication to a sport, Megdal has become a record-setter multiple times while showing that a lifelong physical obstacle that very few people confront, and a middle-aged heart condition that many people face, need not be permanent restraints on one’s future, and instead can be part of the path to remarkable accomplishments.

The following is Megdal’s written account of his recent setting of a new United States cycling record for men deemed to face a physical challenge in his age category.

This past October in Mexico, he set a new U.S. record in the hour cycling time trial event for the third time, going a distance of 45 kilometers 550 meters in 60 minutes.

Megdal first broke the national record in 2018, in the age 55-59 category, when he set both the para and his age group record via the same effort.

The paracycling categories range from C1 to C5, with C5 grouping the least of the disabilities. Megdal competes in C5.

His account states:

Everyone has goals. For some people, it’s just to get out of bed in the morning; others may want to become astronauts and rocket to Mars. I have spent years trying to break a world record in cycling. Unfortunately, the last four years have thrown curveballs at me such as heart disease, a broken hip last year, and COVID this year!

On September 27, 2022, I competed at the world cycling track championships in Carson, CA, to attempt a 2-kilometer world championship race. Unfortunately, I had a terrible race and, in the process, contracted COVID. I was probably infected when racing, which could account for my poor performance. To make matters worse, I was also planning to attempt a world record in the hour time trial in Aguascalientes, Mexico on October 17th, just three weeks away. How could I do this after such a poor performance only three weeks earlier?

My wife and I were organizing the event in Mexico, so we felt obligated to go even though I was very ill with COVID. I was able to start on Paxlovid, the antiviral medication that works against the virus. Unfortunately, I had a high fever and could not ride my bike when I would have been tapering to peak for my world record attempt.

This year was a little deja vu as when last year, in 2021, I broke my hip three months before my world record attempt and still managed to break the national record. I didn’t want to go through that again, so I decided not to go… however, my wife had other ideas and encouraged me to go, so we did.

The hour time trial record is considered the most prestigious time trial in cycling, and for good reason. It is challenging since one must go as hard as possible for one hour. No matter how fast or hard you go, the event still lasts a full 60 minutes. No matter if you go faster, the event doesn’t end quicker. It’s the distance that matters! This is unlike any other race.

Pacing is crucial since there isn’t a reward for crossing the finish line sooner than an hour; you just have to keep going, which takes a lot of practice. The first half always seems like you are not going fast enough, but that soon fades, and by the last 10 minutes, you feel like you won’t make it; that is, if you paced yourself correctly. IT’S ALWAYS VERY HARD… and you’re not allowed to eat or drink during the ride. Additionally, you can’t look at your heart rate, power output, or any of that – all you can rely on for information is for someone to yell your lap times to you.

The hour event is always held on a banked wooden track called a velodrome. The fastest track is considered to be in Aguascalientes, Mexico, at 6,000 feet altitude. The banking on this indoor

250-meter track is close to 40%, so about half the time you’re riding on the track, you’re experiencing almost double your body weight in the turns as centrifugal force pushes down.

This force makes you weigh more and stresses your whole body, particularly on the saddle in your sit-bones area. This is extremely uncomfortable, no matter how much conditioning your backside might have. Honestly, my biggest fear was that I couldn’t handle the pain of riding in that same position for the entire hour at full power.

Upon arriving in Mexico, I had only one day to prepare for the event. On Sunday, I went to the track and tested to figure out what kind of fitness I had left after covid and what pacing I could do in terms of lap times. I decided at that point that I would not be able to go after the world record but maybe could go after one of my two national records.

I currently hold the paracycling National record for the hour at 46.250 kilometers/ 28.9 miles and had the master’s 60+ record at 44.935 kilometers/ 27.8 miles in an hour.

Day of race: After settling in and understanding what the track’s temperature was going to be (warmer temperatures are faster but also put more physiological stresses on the body so this is a balancing act to get the temperature right) and what my pace was going to be, it was time to get suited up and get to the start line.

At the start of timed races, you are locked into a holding device that grabs the bike and will not release until the timer counts down to zero. So as the bell went off, I had no doubts that I had to stay at a steady pace and go as hard as possible within reason and pace slightly below what was predicted to break the National record – this was around 19.8 seconds each lap. Also, I had to manage my pain when I sat on the saddle by gently lifting off to unweight myself once or twice every lap to ensure I had the endurance to last.

I’ve done this attempt the past four times, and the pain was so excruciating as I was pushed into the bike saddle. Every time I went for a record, I had to let up at the end because I couldn’t handle the pain of sitting. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Nutritionally, I also did things differently: this time, I took in three grams of sodium and several 100-calorie gel packs full of carbohydrates right before the start to ensure I had enough fuel on board. After the start, no food or drink is allowed! The salt helped me hang on to the water that I drank as long as I could and gave me enough sodium that my muscles could work well… as it turns out that I’m a heavy sweater and also have a high sodium content in my sweat and can sweat out as much as 2 grams of salt an hour, so I had to be careful to make sure I maintained my salt and fluid levels before I started the event. My wife was my lap counter, and my coach, Todd Scheske, gave me lap times.

The first 10 minutes or so were great. I kept within the range I wanted, and everything looked good and felt good. But as I progressed, fatigue began to settle in. At 30 minutes, I noticed that I was starting to have some pain sitting down, breathing harder, and getting more exhausted. So now the questions began: did I have enough fitness after three weeks off from a bad case of covid; did I recover enough; could I stand the G forces in the turns?… I didn’t know, so I slowed down a little. I wanted to catch my breath because I wasn’t sure I could complete the race, and at this point, I was slightly ahead of the National record I set last year and knew I could afford some rest.

I wondered if I could hold this pace as time passed, so I backed off a little more. My lap times went from 19.5 seconds per lab to around 20 seconds per lap. Now my speed was over 28 miles an hour. My overall average pace was close to 28.3 miles an hour. My speed was still pretty tight, and I became more confident as time passed. My wife was calling out that I was very close to my para-cycling record, so I pushed it hard with about 15 minutes to go but paid the price of going into oxygen debt (not a good thing in an event that is 100% aerobic) before the hour was over.

Then came the last five minutes, and they were excruciating! I wasn’t sure I could make it and wanted to quit – the mind plays crazy games in these types of efforts. Filippo Gana, who just broke the professional hour record, said he wanted to crash or get a flat tire so he could stop, and he’s the best in the world!

As time ticked down, and so did my laps, I could not believe the joy I felt when I could stop peddling. It was more relief than happiness. Soon after, I got official confirmation that I had broken my national record by over two laps, over half a kilometer, putting me in the record books for my third national record. The previous record stood as the world record for eight years until a New Zealander set a new world record.

I couldn’t hide my disappointment because I was going for the world record and had this extraordinary issue with being ill with COVID right before my event. But still, I couldn’t deny that I had broken a record that I thought was unattainable, given that I had been so sick just two weeks before.

Recently, Megdal spoke with The Dedham Times about this experience.

Major excerpts of the conversation follow.

The Dedham Times: Who set the previous national record for the Mens 60+ age group?

Peter Megdal: I set the M60 record in 2021 against a guy that held both the national and world record up until two years ago, when the world record component of that was broken by a New Zealander. The new and current world record for M60 is 47.3 kilometers per hour (29.4 miles per hour).

Prior to this, when I was 58 I tried to set the 55 to 59 year old (M55) world record. Although I fell shy of the M55 world record, I did set a national paralympic record, because I’m also a disabled athlete. There was no previous national record for the disabled category, which is not grouped by age but rather by type of disability.

In 2021, at age 61, I tried to break both my para record and the world record for the next age category, Mens 60-plus year olds. I was unable to break the world record or break my own pararecord, but I did break then current-standing national record. And at age 62, I broke my own national record while vying for the elusive world record.

The way that it works is, they time you for an hour and it’s how far you go in an hour. This year I did 28.3 miles (45.55 kilometers), so I did about 4/10 of a mile an hour faster or about 700 meters further than I did last year.

Last year I broke my pelvis three months before. I was on crutches for a full month. So I only had a few months to get back into it. This year I got COVID two weeks before. I actually got really sick. I wasn’t even going to go.

We had organized the event. This is something you do as a one-off deal. You have to rent the track, you have to pay for officials, you have to pay for timers and travel to do it. We go down to Mexico, at an altitude where the air is thinner. We had seven athletes of different age groups and nationalities to disperse the cost, because it’s somewhere around $25,000 to do all that. So we divide that up, and it makes it a little bit easier. We had organized it, so we felt obligated to go.

My wife said, ‘Just go and see what you can do. You can collect data.’ It’s so technical to do these events, that it’s a good idea to get data. I’d just gotten well. I think we left on a Saturday. I just got feeling better on Wednesday, right before we left. With COVID, you just never know how your lungs are going to do. I was unable to train for two weeks. So I said, ‘I have to really pace it well and I have to be really careful.’ I paced it perfectly and was able to add on distance to my previous record.

DT: What does a typical day or week of training involve?

PM: It varies throughout the year. I’m going for hopefully my last attempt for a while in 2023. I want to try to do it while I’m healthy. I haven’t had a good run of it, because I have not been healthy. I took some time off in November, but now I’m training probably somewhere around five to seven hours a week, which is not a lot. In terms of mileage, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 miles a week, maybe 150 miles a week. I’m doing indoor training. When I say hours, I probably should include weightlifting and swimming. It’s probably a total of around ten hours a week.

As the season progresses – I usually do these events in September and October – you really have to start training about eight to ten months ahead specifically for that event. You don’t have anybody else on the track. You’re not racing against anybody, per se, head to head. You’re just going for a distance – not even for a time, because the time is set – it’s an hour. It’s on a specialized bike, it’s on a specialized track. These are indoor velodromes, 250 meters, made out of wood. So it’s a very, very specific type of event.

In the beginning of a season, like now, I’m riding my road bike, I’m riding my mountain bike. As I progress through the season, I start to do more specific training. By July, I’m riding my bike between 300 and 450 miles a week, which gets me up to 25 hours of pure bike-riding. Remember, I’m 62. That’s kind of a tough nut to crack at my age. But most of that mileage is what we call base mileage. So I’m not riding really hard.

I would do 100, 120 mile rides where I’m averaging somewhere around 18 miles an hour, which is relatively easy for me. Last year in preparation I did a 110 mile ride at almost 21 miles an hour, which was a lot harder. That was actually in Massachusetts, with a lot of traffic lights. So I had to stop. You have to shut off your computer until you get back going again.

On an open road like up in New Hampshire, that would have been maybe 21 or 22 miles an hour for over 100 miles. In a typical week in peak season, I’m averaging probably 17 hours, which would translate into 300 miles, going all the way up to 450 miles in a week.

DT: When did you first begin cycling?

PM: I first started riding my bike in a competitive aspect, not racing but just trying to get really fit, when I was 17. At that point I was taking competitive karate, and I was riding my bike to the gym for training for karate, and I just really enjoyed it, and I got more into it.

By the way, my new coach is a former semi-pro cyclist. When we were there (in Mexico), he was training and coaching the current world record holder for the junior category, 18 years old and under. I saw him there, he was really good, so I hired him. He’s coached several world record holders.

DT: What is the physical challenge that allows you to compete in cycling as a para?

PM: My disability is a right club foot that I’ve had six surgeries on, including a complete fusion. My right leg is 30 to 40% weaker than my left leg. This was from birth. My doctors have been asking that I do another foot operation because of deteriorating health of my right foot and leg. But I’ve been declining to do so because of the pain involved and there’s no guarantee that my foot will get better. Two of my four doctors recommended amputation of my right foot.

DT: What do you do for a living?

PM: I got my PhD in biomedical engineering when I was 49 years old. It was focused on nutrition. I published in some nutrition and medical journals when I was in graduate school. I did a study on farmed versus wild salmon and how to identify it – we developed a technique in the lab to do that – because there’s a lot of counterfeiting going on. People sell farmed salmon and they call it wild. I also did a study on insulin and blood sugar, which I published when I was in grad school, because I was interested in all this sort of stuff.

Then when I graduated I went into the pharmaceutical industry and worked there for a few years. I didn’t like it. Then I got diagnosed with heart disease. I suspected something was wrong because I was going slower. I saw a cardiologist. They did an angiogram on me and found out that I had a bunch of blocked arteries.

So like anybody else I said, ‘Just fix it. I want to get back to my old level of riding my bike.’ It turns out that if you stick a stent in somebody who’s already relatively healthy to open up their arteries, it may or may not do anything for them. For me it didn’t do anything, so I continued to get worse.

Having this PhD in biomedical – I dealt a lot with human physiology and so forth – I decided to really study this, because both my parents and my grandfather and my uncle all died from heart disease. My younger brother had a heart attack about that time and died from it. My older brother had heart disease. I could kind of see the writing on the wall. I did not want to die, so I literally quit my job in the pharmaceutical industry.

I was working on Crohn’s disease and arthritis and stuff like that. I quit my job and put all my focus on finding a cure. Over a couple of years of studying this, I put myself on a program. I was going to Mass. General Hospital for treatment, and I was working with my cardiologist. He knew I was educated.

I said, ‘Let me see what I can do to reverse this, because I want to go back to being a better cyclist.’ At that point I was really going downhill. I was not doing well in races, I wasn’t feeling good in races. I was not symptomatic. So I spent two or three years amassing all the technical data that I could in terms of drugs and diet and what worked to turn back the clock, reversing the plaque in the arteries, because I didn’t want any more stents put in.

The long story-short of it is, after being successful at this – because my power got better on the bike, I was feeling better – I asked the doctor to do another angiogram, which is when they look at the heart arteries, to see if they’re opened up. Sure enough, when he did a second angiogram, about four years after I had my first one done, all my arteries had opened up.

I actually have pictures of that that I posted on my website. I started a company where I do education and consulting for physicians and the general public. I teach doctors different ways of treating heart disease, to get cardiologists to understand that you can reverse this. And I’m a poster child, of course, because most people with heart disease don’t turn around and get better to the point where they’re setting national records and going for world records.

Generally you see people who have heart disease getting what I call palliative care. Doctors gave me a stent in my heart and said, ‘Go home and live a good life’ without any real concern about where I am going to be ten years or twenty years down the road.

The vast majority of people who are treated with cardiology the way it is today generally get worse. If they’re treated really well they get worse slowly, or they might stay stable. But the target for cardiology is not to have people reverse their disease.

In 2018 or 2019 I started my company called Curing Heart Disease, LLC. I have a website, which is www.curingheartdisease.com. Go figure that URL was available, which just goes to show you that nobody even thought about curing heart disease.

I call myself cured because now my heart is getting better with time. I removed the things that cause heart disease. Of course, stress is a factor, but the main thing that causes it is really the food that we eat.

I’m not the first one to discover this. Dean Ornish and others have found a diet to work. There are studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine that show this, but to get the cardiologists to turn around and look at this is a different story.

Even my cardiologist at Mass. General Hospital did not prescribe to me this diet. He didn’t even talk to me about it. I had the notion in my head at the time that you could reverse it, because I had read something. He basically said, ‘Theoretically you can reverse it.’

Fast-forward to today, I work with individuals, corporations, hospitals, or anybody that’s interested in getting educated. I have an educational website (curingheartdisease. com), which has some educational videos. There are some blogs on there, it has a white paper of the treatment I put myself through. So somebody could emulate that.

I work with individuals that either want to prevent heart disease, or that have heart disease and want to have better care. I’ll work with them and their physicians, and particularly I work with my physician at Mass. General directly with my clients now, because he sees what I’ve done.

I’ll bring clients in and I’ll sit with a client and him, and we’ll discuss a treatment plan. Of course, he’s a physician so he makes the ultimate decision. I just do advocacy for the patient to help them understand, because doctors don’t have the time to really explain everything.

I actually do a lot of pro bono work – I work for free for a lot of patients. I work on a sliding scale if patients can’t afford my fees. I do speaking engagements – I have several lectures on my website, which I think are quite exciting because people ask me questions.

I’m writing a book now, trying to formulate a road map to tell my story, but also from my story to have born out of that the motivation that somebody might have. Not everybody can set a national record that’s had a heart attack or heart disease. That’s not my point.

My point is, say you’re 75 years old and you’ve had a heart attack. Generally the way doctors will treat you, they have algorithms, they have treatment programs that they follow.

Generally what that is is to get their LDL cholesterol below 70. They may or may not go through a cardiac rehab. The doctor might tell them to maybe quit eating hamburgers. But they don’t go through a really detailed list. Basically you’ve got to go vegan – a whole-food, plant-based diet.

I did a press release last year. There were some magazines and periodicals that picked it up. But it hasn’t gained the traction that it needs to get. Having been a patient and being treated in a manner that wasn’t complete, or at least I wasn’t presented the options. Almost nobody is being treated the way that I treated myself, in terms of the aggressive treatment with diet and with medicines.

I’m not anti-medicine. I was on the most powerful anti-cholesterol drugs you can get on. I’m trying to get the word out, just for people that are interested. And I’ve got a plethora of clients now who went through the program and really can see that cardiology itself is not out there to cure you. That’s not the way they do it.

My ultimate goal is to help people. All my lectures are free. They’re accessible on my website for free. The idea is for me to be the poster child to say, ‘Hey, look: If you’re 50 and had a heart attack, you’re 60, you’re 30, whatever, you don’t have to worry necessarily about getting worse. Some people will maybe get worse. But from the research I’ve done, following the program of taking the medicine and doing the diet, almost everybody gets better.

DT: That is fascinating. I’m sure there are so many Americans, I am among them, who can say, ‘Somebody in my extended family or my close family has had heart disease.’

Editor’s note: To learn more about Peter Megdal and his efforts to help others who are confronting heart disease, please visit www.curingheartdisease.com.

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