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BixenstineMythbuster: Ed Bixenstine

Professor, psychologist, writer, world-champion athlete

Date of interview: December 2008

On a cold and blustery December afternoon, 82-year-old Ed Bixenstine — professor, psychologist, writer and world-champion athlete — shared tips for staying physically fit.

He also shared his thoughts on the need we all have to stay emotionally and spiritually engaged with life in order to age successfully, live gracefully and make good memories for ourselves and those we love.

Tell us a bit about yourself — when and where you were born and raised, about your family, where you went to grade school and high school.

I was born in August of 1926, which means that things started getting kind of tough by the time I was 3-4. I had a younger sister named Hope. As the Depression worsened, my parents — both of whom were teachers because back then you could teach if you'd graduated from high school — moved to Anderson, Indiana, where they heard work might be available at a new GM plant.

You grew up during the heart of the Depression. How do you think that shaped the person you are today?

The Depression shaped all of us [who were born in the 1920s and 1930s]. It made us frugal. Even today, when my wife [Anita] and I have quite a few pennies, we still pinch pennies because there is always the feeling that there is something we should be saving our money for. [Chuckles] In our case, that's our 14 grandkids.

You served in the Navy in Montana. What was the Navy doing in Montana?

Update: Ed Bixenstine wins 5th duathlon!

Benjamin Rose Institute MythBuster Ed Bixenstine won his fifth Duathlon World Championship in September 2009. The competition was held in Concord, NC.

Bixenstine's time of 3 hours and 3 minutes was moire than 13 minutes faster than his 2008 World Championship time. Sixteen members of the Kent, Ohio resident's family were on hand to cheer him on.

Congratulations, Ed!

When I graduated from high school in 1944 I went immediately from there into a Naval Officers Training program, which was at the Butte Montana School of Mines in Butte, Montana. [Laughs] We were guarding the nation from invasion by sea.

All of us in the program carried a heavy college load — 20 or 21 semester hours — in the sciences because a good bit of what Naval officers needed to know had to do with math and mechanics and engineering. After the war ended [in August of 1945], the whole program transferred to the University of California at Berkley, where we had more of a regular college curriculum.

You started out in college as an engineering major and ended up with a Ph.D. in psychology. How did that happen?

As I began choosing courses on my own at Berkley, I discovered that what I was most interested in was philosophy and psychology. I didn't see where I could go career-wise with philosophy, but I did see a future in clinical psychology. When I came home from the war, after a year working at General Motors, I went back to school at the University of Illinois to pick up what I needed to get my [Bachelors] degree in psychology. Then I applied for the graduate program there and did a lot of work under O. Hobart Mowrer, who was truly my academic father. [Chuckles] He was a real maverick. I think that was one of the things about him that appealed to me.

When and where did you meet your wife, Anita? Is, she, too, a psychologist?

I met her the first day of graduate school at the University of Illinois. She was standing in the lunch line at the student union with a group of people I knew, and they introduced us. She was in the field of speech therapy and speech disorders.

It was love at first sight. We married March 26, 1949, and the first of our five children, Bart, was born when we were both still in graduate school.

When you came to Kent in 1956 — at the age of 30 — did you think you'd be spending the rest of your life in a small college town?

Not really...We did have the opportunity to move on, but decided to stay because I liked my job and Anita and I liked the town, the people, and the community our kids were growing up in.

In 1982, in your mid-50s and at what many would call the "height of your career," you retired from teaching. So the question is: what were you planning on doing when you left academia?

I didn't really retire. I shifted from a full-time focus on teaching to a part-time focus on teaching and a more fulsome focus on clinical work. I started [with partners] a private practice. Mostly, I worked with adults and people with marital issues, but since it was a group practice we were seeing children, too.

I had a bit of an itch all along to do private practice because even while I was in my faculty role — teaching and doing research — I was looking around for situations where I could practice. [Chuckles] That's one of the reasons I helped organize the faculty's union.

You have published two novels and write poetry. When and how did you get started writing?

When did I start writing? [Chuckles] That's a tale.

When I was preparing for my comprehensive [doctoral] exams in 1951 and 1952, I'd study so intensely that at the end of the day I was so jacked-up I couldn't sleep — despite the fact that I was exhausted. So I started writing a book, a cowboy book. Every night, I'd type for a couple of hours, then I'd be able to go to sleep. By the time I was done preparing for my exams — that took about six months — I was done with the book, too...[W]hen I passed my exams, I put the manuscript in a box.

I didn't get it out again until around 2000. With time on my hands, I decided I'd transfer it to digital, and when I did that I started doing some rewriting. Ultimately, the rewrites increased the length of the book to the point where I decided to publish what I'd written as two books: Purgatory Sands and Marshall Sands and Mrs. Molly. I self-published them, one in '06 and the other in '07.

[Laughs] Those books took a little over 50 years to get published and I think of them as a collaboration between a young man and an old one.

But those aren't the only books I've written. When I was in private practice I had a client who was very troubled and having panic attacks that dated back to an incident that happened the previous year...Out of that clinical case, I've written a book that I'm working on getting published.

The poetry came about because — around 2003 — Anita and I got involved in getting the Portage Democratic Coalition started. That took up so much time that I had to find a way to write that wouldn't require me to devote huge amounts of time to it. That's when I discovered poetry and the personal reward that comes with writing poems. You can write a poem in a couple of hours, but then [chuckles] you revise and revise and revise.

Are the plots and characters in your books based on real events and people, perhaps even yourself?

On that, I'd have to say yes. The westerns are somewhat autobiographical in that they are the story of a young man striking out on his own, going out to seek his fortune, coming up against a variety of situations that test him, shape him. The first one is definitely a coming of age book. The second book, however, is a romance. In the creative non-fiction book based on one of my clinical cases, everything is real but of course I've used pseudonyms for all the characters.

Today, you're not "just" an author, you're a world-class athlete, too. Were you always athletic?

Definitely. I played ball — any kind of ball — when I was in grade school. And when I got older, I was always playing basketball at the local YMCA, and I played handball and did some wrestling there, too.

But it wasn't until I came to Kent in my 30s that I got involved in sports again. Some faculty members played handball at the local gym and invited me to come play with them. It took a while, but eventually I ended up beating them all.

In my 40s I graduated to running. Anita had started running and she entered a race and won it. When she came home showing off her trophy, I got interested in running and started running with her. Eventually, I entered a couple of races and won them.

How did you get started doing international competitions?

Our oldest son, Bart, who's been a runner since high school, introduced me to international competitions. He'd been competing for a couple of years and in 1986 he suggested that I enter a team duathlon — where one person did the running and the other the biking — in Cleveland. He ran. I biked. We won. After we'd won a couple of contests together I finally went out and purchased a racing bike.

He'd been competing internationally [in International Triathlon Union sanctioned contests] for a couple of years and in 2002, he suggested I compete, too. It was an age-bracketed competition — those I'd be competing against were in the 75-79 range — so I knew I'd be competing with my peers.

I prepared hard, but I didn't prepare hard enough. It was grueling. I ran and biked for almost 5 ½ hours — this was in the mountains of Austria — and I was the only one in my age group who finished, so of course I won [and brought home a gold medal].

In September of 2008, you won a gold medal at the International Triathlon Union's meet in Rimini, Italy . How many other medals have you won?

There was a gold for the first one in Austria in 2002. In 2004, in Belgium, I came in second and took a silver medal. In 2005 in Australia, the pedal came off my bike, so, I thought about giving, up, but this Australian [standing on the sidelines] convinced me to go ahead and finish the race. That year, I took a silver medal, behind a Canadian guy I'm always matched against. In 2006, we went to Newfoundland, Canada , and this time I beat the Canadian and won a gold medal. In 2007, I went to Hungary, and I took a gold, and, as you mentioned, in 2008, in Rimini, Italy, I won another gold.

Usually I'll finish a race — I run 10 kilometers, then bike 40 kilometers, then run another 5 kilometers — in a little under three hours. That last race, in Italy, was against some fierce headwinds — and it was raining, too — so I finished in 3 hours and 19 minutes.

At 82, you've got the body and constitution of someone 10-15 years your junior. Diet-and exercise-wise, what do you do to maintain your fitness level?

Exercise-wise, I'm working out almost every day. On Mondays and Fridays I play handball with a group and we "have at" each other for an hour-and-a-half or so. Tuesdays and Thursdays I'm in my basement gym, where I ride the stationary bike and work out with weights and do stretching exercises, too. On Wednesday's, I do a long 7 or 8 mile run and if the weather is right, I'll bike, too. On Saturday, I rest, but on Sunday, I do a really long run and, if it's getting close to an event, I'll do an hour on the bike, too. And of course, when I'm getting ready for competition, I train harder and longer.

As you age, your body uses energy differently, so diet-wise both Anita and I have cut down on our calories. And somewhere along the way we became "followers" of the Adkins Diet. We don't eat a lot of sugar. We don't eat a lot of carbohydrates. And we only use olive oil for our cooking. And, even though the Adkins Diet focuses on taking in more protein, we don't eat a lot of meat. We tend to get our protein from cheese, soy milk, and lean meats, such as chicken. And we are big salad eaters.

Diet and exercise-wise, what do you do to prepare for competition?

That's when I do eat carbohydrates. You need to "stoke up" on carbohydrates when you are going to be using a lot of energy. In the evening before the race, I'll have a spaghetti meal and in the hours before I race, I'll have carbohydrate-rich drink or a so-called "power bar."

And when I'm training for a competition, I increase the time I put into biking and running. I try to run more than I'll be running in a race and bike more than I'd be biking in a race. And I try to simulate the race length and terrain and the kind of all-out effort I know I'll be putting out. [Chuckles] It's fairly easy to do the kind of preparation I need to do around Kent because [with all the hills] the terrain is so varied.

Mentally, what do you do to prepare for competition?

In an emotional sense, I get my mind ready for the effort I'm going to be putting out. I tell myself, as I'm out running hard or biking hard: This is how the race is going to feel. This is what you need to be doing. In a way, I'm sensitizing myself about what to expect and I'm adjusting my attitude so that I go into the competition knowing what I'm going to have to be doing, what I'm going to have to put out.

In reality, I'm creating a little bit of anxiety for myself, but it's the kind of positive anxiety that builds anticipation and excitement and that helps align my mind and body to work together. [Chuckles] And I listen to my main cheerleader, Anita.

It seems to me that you've taken a very holistic approach to maintaining your health. With your writing and other activities, you're actively working out your mind. You're actively working out your body. What are you doing to "work out" your spirit?

That's a good question. At one point I thought about going into the ministry, but I'm not that religious, thought I'm a spiritual person. I pray, and through prayer I strive to achieve things that I feel are valuable in life and for life. And I have a personal conviction of what God is and, more importantly, isn't. To me, God is the mystery that is there, always striving to make you think and question and do better. And be better.

The Myth Buster Program is all about successful aging. Your response to that last question and your background in psychology makes me wonder what your criteria for successful aging are?

To me, the very phrase successful aging implies that you are aging with purpose, that you think about the future, that you have something that you to look forward to. And that you are doing things that are done in the interest of attaining that future.

On my website ( www.vebix.net ), I've made it plain that I don't approve of retirement. That — retiring in the conventional sense — is almost an invitation to pack it all in, to invite the end. That means, at least to me, that to age successfully you are looking forward to each day, living as gracefully as you can, and making good memories for yourself and your loved ones.