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Vol. LIX, No. 21
October 19, 2007
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Science, Cycling Require Tenacity
NIDDK Scientist Pedals His Way to 'Ancien' Status

Dr. Lothar Hennighausen Dr. Lothar Hennighausen
NIDDK's Dr. Lothar Hennighausen can now rightfully call himself an "ancien."

Every 4 years in August, thousands of bicyclists descend on Paris to compete in an event called Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP. The 1,200 kilometers (750 miles)-including 10,000 meters (30,000 feet) of elevation-are a challenge to human endurance. En route from Paris to the port city of Brest on the Atlantic Ocean and back to the French capital, riders face hills, adverse weather and round-the-clock cycling. Those who finish in 90 or fewer hours become anciens (or anciennes, for women) and have their names entered into PBP's logbook dating back to the first event in 1891.

NIDDK scientist Dr. Lothar Hennighausen joined more than 5,000 riders in a quest to finish this year's race. He considers the sheer will to overcome exhaustion, sleeplessness and foul weather- allegedly the worst in two decades of PBP-in order to complete the race a fair approximation of what scientists go through in guiding projects to completion.

"Almost 30 percent of the riders did not make it to Paris and were shipped back in overcrowded trains," he said. "I teamed up with a Belgian whose seven companions had dropped off and slept somewhere in the wet grass at the side of the road, trying to recover for the final stage. For hours we kept each other awake and shared food and stories. After 83 hours and 1,227 km, I pulled into the final controle (checkpoint) in Guyancourt (Paris). I had accomplished my most demanding project ever."

Hennighausen says, "The rules that govern success in ultra-long distance cycling and a research career are surprisingly similar-passion, focus, organization and tenacity, just to mention a few. Those traits can be placed into one simple category-resource management. Resource management is key to successfully conducting a scientific project as well as to finishing PBP in the allotted time."

A research scientist for almost 30 years and a principal investigator at NIH since 1985, he "applied the lessons I learned from my professional passion to my life passion, cycling. I approached PBP as a scientific and engineering project, something I could relate to. In return, PBP taught me lessons about life, which I now apply to science."

His preparations included learning to repair his bike under any conditions and whipping his 55-year-old physique into shape by riding more than 5,000 miles since last January, including treks in the Appalachian Mountains and Bavarian Alps.

He estimates that he burned some 36,000 kilocalories in the course of the PBP, which required a "constant influx of easily digestible calories, water and electrolytes.

"Finding your own comfortable speed, which you can maintain forever even under difficult conditions is critical both for PBP and research projects," he observes. "The roads of Brittany were littered with cyclists who had failed to live by this rule, and the same is true in science."

He is especially grateful for the teamwork that can be common to both scientific and athletic pursuits: "It is comforting to know that colleagues on the same path are willing to pitch in-if they also benefit from the mission. On long flat stretches, you can draft off other cyclists and thus save energy, but you also must be be willing to ride in the wind and pull others. If you are not a team player, you will always ride alone and face strong headwinds."

He concludes, "Passion, planning, focus and tenacity are vital ingredients to success. Without passion we would not enter new challenges, without planning we would not proceed, without focus we would not stay on track and without tenacity we would not finish.

"There are always dark hours during a 4-day bike race and in a scientific project and it is so easy to quit. Before you do, think twice or even three times. Failure might haunt you forever. In my experience, passion and tenacity will get you over the last hill or through the last experiment." NIH Record Icon

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