Don Wildman Profile – The Circuit
The World’s Healthiest 75-Year-Old Man
Don Wildman can run like a Marine, snowboard like an Olympian, and bike like a Tour de France champion. Not bad for a 75-year-old.
By Susan Casey
On any given day, in a private gym above Malibu’s Paradise Cove, a handful of men show up to attempt a workout known as the Circuit, more than three thousand repetitions of weight lifting and balancing and abdominal exercises. (Click here to read more about the Circuit, including what exercises are included.) If you’re thinking that three thousand is a huge number of times to lift or pull or curl some heavy object, you are right. Which is why the Circuit has developed a reputation for causing some of these men to — there’s really no subtle way to put it — projectile vomit. Its twenty multipart exercises are cycled through six times in a complicated sequence, but the Circuit’s ground rules are simple: Once you start, you don’t stop until it’s done. There are no water breaks, no substituting easier moves when the going gets tough, and obviously no whining.
“We’re starting with thirty reps!”
A deep growl booms out from the center of the room, where Don Wildman, the Circuit’s master practitioner, wearing faded jeans and a Sonic Youth T-shirt, stands barefoot, holding a pair of fifty-pound weights. Muscular, lean, six-two, with a trim beard, he looks like Sean Connery, if Connery had borrowed the body of a U.S. marine. This gym, filled with cutting-edge equipment, occupies a wing of his home. I’ve heard about the Circuit, I’ve heard about Wildman, and I’ve come to see for myself what, exactly, is going on in here.
Behind Wildman, Jason Winn stands at the squat rack. Winn, twenty-six, played quarterback for Texas Tech and now races mountain bikes. And next to Winn, sitting at the neck machine, is Tim Commerford, forty, the bassist for Rage Against the Machine. Sixty-five percent of his body is covered in black tribal tattoos. This makes for a lot of ink, as Commerford is six-two and looks as if he could rip a phone book in half.
Wildman himself is a world-class athlete in several sports. In recent years, he has competed in the Ironman Triathlon nine times, the three-thousand-mile Race Across America bike race, the Aspen downhill ski race, and the New York and L.A. marathons. In the sailing world, Wildman made history by winning all three of the Chicago Yacht Club’s famed Mackinac races in one season. He snowboards the Alaskan backcountry with Olympic downhill champion Tommy Moe. Two years ago, he paddled through the entire chain of Hawaiian islands on a surfboard.
That outing was proposed by Wildman’s friend and training partner Laird Hamilton to raise money for autism research. Hamilton, at forty-four a surfing legend who’s been called the Chuck Yeager of his sport, is famous for his off-the-charts training program, featuring workouts that prepare a person to launch himself onto the face of an eighty-foot wave. His body needs to withstand three g’s of force, pressure that would incapacitate most people. If he falls, he must survive thousands of tons of angry water slamming down on his head. It’s an extreme kind of extreme, which is why, in person, the six-foot-three-inch, 215-pound Hamilton comes across like an action figure sprung to life. In the scope of Wildman’s exploits, it makes perfect sense that he’d be training with the likes of Hamilton, someone equally unfamiliar with the concept of moderation.
Except that it doesn’t make sense. Because Don Wildman is seventy-five years old.
In the gym, Wildman clicks his iPod into the stereo and we begin lifting to the howls of Marilyn Manson. In case you’ve never tried it, thirty reps of anything is about fifteen more reps than your body would prefer to do. And because there’s no resting between exercises, Wildman explains, “you’ll go into oxygen debt, so you’re getting a cardio workout along with a weight workout. Your body doesn’t know where to pump the blood first. That’s why people puke.” As if these things were not daunting enough, each exercise also contains a twist or two intended to add difficulty. Upright rows, for instance, are performed while balancing on an inverted — and highly unstable — Bosu ball (picture a giant Super Ball sliced in half). Chest presses are done sitting upright, with legs outstretched to work the core and hip flexors.
Thirty minutes in, I’m getting the message: The Circuit challenges everything, especially the psyche. The duration of the thing is overwhelming. Commerford, moving to biceps curls, wipes sweat from his shoulders. “I cannot keep up with the Wild Man today,” he says. “Haven’t been in here enough lately.”
“Gotta get you back in the church!” Wildman yells from across the room. Then he turns to me: “You missed abs on that last one.” I backtrack, do the missing forty crunches. By this point, the windows have steamed up. Weights clank, accompanied by audible breathing and occasional grunting. The only one who has enough energy to talk, it seems, is Wildman.
“People come here and say, ‘This is madness! What the hell are you doing this for?’ ” he says, working his way through a set of shoulder presses. And it does seem fair to ask whether, maybe, two thousand repetitions might be enough to do the trick (especially since most people his age consider lawn bowling a fine workout). That kind of thinking is alien to Wildman, just as it is to the hardcore group of regulars who adhere to the same philosophy: When it comes to endorphin production, more is more. Along with Hamilton, Commerford, and Winn, the group includes John McEnroe, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios, and another dozen ultrafit men. In Wildman’s crew there are stuntmen and ski racers and motocross riders. There’s a sheriff, a restaurateur, and an ultimate fighter. There is the occasional celebrity (Sean Penn, John Cusack, John C. McGinley) or rock star (Kid Rock, Eddie Vedder). And one time, there was NBA star Reggie Miller.
“Ohhh, Reggie got torn up by this workout,” Commerford says. “I saw him the next day, andman.”
“Well, that’s because Laird tried to kill him,” Wildman says, shaking his head. “We definitely did all six rounds that day.”
Thing is, for Wildman and his crew, this kind of behavior isn’t abusive at all — it’s fun, heavily laced with lactic acid. “It’s just that our play is harder than 99 percent of other people’s work,” he explains.
The immediate question regarding Wildman is, of course: How? How is it that while other seventy-five-year-olds are complaining about their hip pain, Wildman is saying things like “I prefer heli-snowboarding because you can get more air off the cornices”? How can a septuagenarian be someone about whom John McEnroe, forty-nine, winner of seventeen grand-slam titles, says, “He reminds me of myself in a way, but he’s on a whole different level”? How, in other words, has Wildman managed to buck the basic rules of human physical existence, in which years lived do seem to have some correlation to whether a senior citizen will opt out of, say, paragliding from the top of Aspen Mountain?
You want to know the answer, because despite the promises of stem-cell therapy and genetic manipulation, the offerings of the $70 billion antiaging industry have so far proved deeply unappealing, involving such things as starvation diets and cryogenically freezing your head. While it’s true that one of Wildman’s adages is “When you stop moving, it’s all over,” and that his diet is low on meat, fat, junk food, and alcohol, and that he takes about fourteen different supplements a day, basic high-quality stuff such as calcium, vitamin C, B complex, CoQ-10, and hyaluronic acid, and that he swears by glucosamine for his knees, Thai massage for recovery, and a little-known technique called “prolotherapy” to shore up his ligaments — while all of this is true and helps him avoid unnecessary deterioration, none of it really explains how, at the three-quarter-century mark, Wildman is keeping pace with pro athletes decades younger than he is, guys like Hamilton, or Chelios, one of the toughest players in the NHL.
“On to the next activity!”
Finished with the gym, Wildman strides out into the late-morning sunshine. Commerford, who’s about to go on tour in Australia and Japan, has rehearsal. Winn is busy with Bonk Breaker, his energy-bar company. That leaves me to continue on to Wildman’s “next activity,” mountain biking in the hills that rise sharply from the section of the Pacific Coast Highway behind his house. There are other things I’d rather do, all of which involve lying down, but Wildman appears to have more energy now than when the Circuit began. I follow him into the kitchen, where he pours us both a triple espresso. He’s explaining why he won’t be taking a water bottle on the ride. “It’s an extra two pounds to carry,” he says. “Believe me, two pounds can make a difference.” No water? “I’ll look over at Don’s mouth when we’re riding and there’ll be white coming out of the corners,” McEnroe says. Wildman shrugs, “It freaks people out, but I got used to it. We never take water.” His eyes are a piercing light blue, and often they’re roving, noting everything and running it through a very serious filter, but at certain times, like now, as he’s explaining how his body can go without liquids, they take on an uncommon intensity seventy-five years in the making.
Wildman grew up in Los Angeles in the thirties, the only son of a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal preacher. Listening to promises of eternal damnation for the unfaithful, he concluded early that religion was a process of “scaring the bejesus out of people.” At fifteen, he found his calling on the football field instead. But the same aggression that worked in the stadium got him into trouble outside of it.
Fistfights led to an appearance in juvenile court. There was an unfortunate incident involving the torching of a decrepit set of bleachers. Probation and curfew ensued; Wildman chafed at the restrictions. When one of his buddies suggested that the best way to regain full autonomy would be to join the Army, he thought, That doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
It was a bad idea. The year was 1950. “The next thing I know, I’m headed for Korea,” he says. A combat medic, Wildman was shipped directly to the front line. The first sight that greeted him was a freshly decapitated corpse. “I was seventeen years old,” he recalls. “I’m seeing this stuff and I’m thinking, I want to get out of here now.” That night, while he was shuttling the wounded to a field hospital, the position was ambushed and most of his company killed. Wildman escaped by running down a frozen riverbed. “And that was the first day.”
After deciding against shooting himself in the foot as an exit strategy, Wildman set about figuring out how to survive. He took comfort in the discovery that everyone else he met was as terrified as he was, figuring, If they can take it, I can take it. He became a platoon leader and then a sergeant. Also, he became stronger, lifting weights and packing seventy pounds of muscle onto his naturally thin frame. In the manner of a pragmatic convict, Wildman searched for bright corners in a dark situation. Even now, he can’t quite believe that he made it out alive. “I had so many close calls — I’d felt sure I was going to be killed. And the thing was, most of the guys who thought they were going to get killed did get killed. When I got off the boat back in the U.S., I kissed the ground.”
Humans waste a lot of energy worrying about things. Might get cancer, might go bankrupt. Might marry the wrong person or screw up at the office. Emerging from war, Wildman no longer had these kinds of concerns. At twenty, he’d crawled out of the darkest of pits, and in comparison, 1950s America looked like one big, golden party. Anything was possible. And no matter what went wrong now, it wasn’t likely to result in death. “My father gave me a piece of advice once,” Wildman says. “He said, ‘Never walk. Always run.'”
Wildman ran. In the year after he left the service, he got married, saw the first of his three sons born, and took on as many jobs as he could. He plastered walls during the day, sold life insurance at night. Weekends he worked at Burbank’s Vic Tanny gym. Back in the fifties, going to the gym wasn’t a popular pastime. Men worried that exercise would lead to dangerous enlargement of the heart; women feared the prospect of developing bulky muscles. And it didn’t help that the gyms themselves had a kind of fly-by-night aura, with people buying memberships only to return the following week and find that the club had closed down.
It was a sketchy, unformed business and Wildman thrived in it. For one thing, he believed deeply in what he was selling — the transformative power of exercise — and, in turn, people believed him. Leaving the other jobs behind, he rose to the top of Vic Tanny’s network of a hundred clubs, and then branched off to start his own company. “I wanted to be the largest health-club operator in the world,” he says. To do that, Wildman created clubs that people saw as desirable places to be, as opposed to vaguely disreputable sweatshops filled with snorting bodybuilders. He updated the equipment and the ambience, the message and the image, to make exercise appeal to the mainstream.
Eventually, Wildman’s company, Health and Tennis Corporation of America, owned two hundred health clubs. In 1983, he sold the enterprise to Bally Entertainment Corp., and it became Bally Total Fitness, which today has about four million members. Wildman officially retired in 1994, at age sixty-one, not because he’d lost his passion for the business but because having a job — even one in the fitness industry — made it difficult to snowboard a hundred days a year.
“The ride takes about an hour,” Wildman says, fastening his helmet and clicking into the pedals of his $5,000 carbon-fiber Cannondale Scalpel. “This is the easy trail.” Thank you, God. I’ve heard the stories, and apparently the first rule of going mountain biking with Wildman is: Don’t.
The trail is called Winding Way, a name that evokes the image of gentle and meandering curves. This is a cruel misrepresentation. It begins on a 15 percent grade and heads directly, indefinitely, uphill. While I fumble with my gears trying to find one big enough to ride in, Wildman shoots off ahead.
Along with Winding Way, his other favorite trail is called Three Amigos, and by all accounts it’s a vicious three-hour ordeal. “After that ride, I couldn’t walk,” says the six-foot, 190-pound Chelios, describing his first time up it with Wildman. “I fell twenty-five, thirty times. I was bleeding, my legs were cut from branches.”
Most people would be happy simply to survive such a course; Wildman prefers to race it. Though Hamilton cannot be beaten, even when handicapped with a fifty-pound weight on his bike, and Winn is a bit of a ringer, Wildman can sometimes take Commerford, McEnroe, and a few of the others, and the rivalries are intense. “As you can imagine, I’m not a guy who takes losing very easily,” McEnroe says. “But Don — it’s like he has an extra gear.”
Though Wildman claims he doesn’t mind losing because it makes him want to try harder, it’s clear that he brings competition to everything he does — even parenthood. “I grew up training like a madman,” says John Wildman, forty-nine, Don’s youngest son. “Don had me doing this push-up regimen where he would pay me five dollars every time I could do five more push-ups than the last time. Before I was ten, I could do several hundred in a row.”
One of the most consuming chapters in Wildman’s competitive life began in 1982, when he caught the first televised Hawaiian Ironman triathlon. The race, composed of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon, was touted as the ultimate physical challenge. As if to illustrate this, the women’s leader, twenty-three-year-old Julie Moss, collapsed two hundred yards from the finish and for ten minutes attempted to drag herself to the line, staggering and crawling. When she touched the finish line, she collapsed in a puddle of urine and her eyes rolled back in her head. It was one of the most horrifying moments ever documented in sports. Watching it, Wildman was impressed. “I told my wife, ‘Hey, there’s this new sport I want to try.'”
“Don dragged me and all my buddies into training for the thing. And then he beat us all,” John Wildman says. “I did not do subsequent Ironmans.” His father did. After being told he’d won his age group, Wildman was dismayed to learn that he’d actually come in second to a Canadian named Les McDonald. The following year, Wildman returned, seeking to claim the gold, only to lose to McDonald again. Ditto the third year. Over seven years, a pattern emerged: Wildman would lose to his rival, a superior runner, but he’d narrow the gap. The eighth year, Wildman won.
After forty-five minutes of climbing, I can’t see the summit — or Wildman, until he doubles back to warn that a Doberman named Baby might charge me a little farther up the road. On recent rides the dog had bitten him, lunged at McEnroe, and knocked Commerford off his bike. I look at Wildman hard. I’ve fallen three times where the grade became so steep that I couldn’t turn my pedals, and I’m already bleeding from the knee, hip, and elbow. I don’t need a set of teeth sunk into my leg. “I thought you said this was an easy, hour-long ride!” I say, my voice cracking.
“Yeah, Laird holds the record,” he says, with a hint of a smirk. In other words, it is just a quick spin — if you’re Laird Hamilton.
I’m beginning to see why Hamilton and Wildman found one another. They both believe nothing is so hard that it can’t be pushed just a little bit harder. Nothing is so new or radical that it can’t be tried. Wildman describes their meeting, in 1996 at a heli-skiing lodge in British Columbia, as “two-part epoxy.” Hamilton admired Wildman’s snowboarding skills; Wildman admired the thickness of Hamilton’s neck. They didn’t spend much time together on the trip, but two years later they crossed paths in Malibu and discovered that they lived less than a mile apart. “We started banging iron, and I fell into his routines,” Hamilton says. “I wasn’t really a biker until I met Don.”
And Wildman wasn’t really a surfer. But when Hamilton invited him to come to Kauai and then asked if he wanted to try tow surfing on a twenty-foot swell, Wildman actually did it. He slid his feet into the straps on Hamilton’s six-foot board, picked up the water-ski rope, and let Hamilton, on a Jet Ski, fling him onto waves the size of two-story buildings. He got walloped by two before making the third. “The power, it felt like a Mack truck hit me,” he says. “I went, ‘Whoa! This is pretty good.'”
When most of us do something that could potentially result in severe injury, resistance intervenes in the form of terror. Like Hamilton, Wildman appears to be missing that gene. To them, getting hurt is simply an inconvenient by-product of doing what they love, nothing to get emotional about. Both men have had multiple broken bones, dislocated joints, and torn ligaments, and as for stitches, Hamilton “stopped counting at a thousand.” In addition to an expansive pain threshold, the two men share the same orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Neal Elattrache, one of the athletic world’s most sought-after specialists. In 2005, Elattrache reattached Wildman’s right shoulder to his body when he tore all four tendons of his rotator cuff jumping out of a helicopter in Argentina. After painstakingly installing many screws and plates, Elattrache was dismayed to hear reports that Wildman had been seen shortly after the operation, riding his mountain bike. Then, six months later, Wildman had to have his knee pieced back together after he fell while racing an eighteen-year-old kid on a snowboard, sending his femur crashing into his tibia. When I asked Elattrache about all this, he sighed. “Some people’s bodies can go through more than others,” he said. “Don is an extreme case of that.”
Winding Way is becoming steeper, and I tip over again. Wildman gets off his bike and helps me up, nodding his approval: “I always say, It’s not a ride unless you get some blood.”
That’s it. “I’ve had enough,” I say. I’m about to become one of the cautionary tales.
“Another two minutes and we’re there,” he says. “You can’t turn around now.”
The damn thing is, he’s right. I can’t. And in that moment, I understand how Wildman inspires people to fire on all cylinders: If you spend time with him, you find yourself wanting to be more like him — and he isn’t turning back before the summit. And so even though it’s more like another ten minutes before we crest the diabolical peak and head down the long, hypothermia-inducing descent, when I tell Wildman later that I’m glad we went on the ride, I mean it.
Whenever Wildman wants to go stand-up paddling in the surf, which is on most days, he walks about three hundred yards from the sunny-yellow, Mediterranean-style house where he lives with his wife, Rebecca, down a tropically landscaped path marked with pink footstones, to his one-bedroom beach house. Located on the sand in Malibu’s Paradise Cove, it’s the ideal place to park a squadron of toys, including three dozen surfboards, kayaks, paddles, wakeboards, inflatable boats, a four-wheel-drive golf cart, and four Jet Skis. When you add this to the gym, the putting green, the aviary of exotic parrots, the garages filled with mountain bikes, road bikes, and tandem bikes, it’s easy to see why Chelios, who lives next door, calls Wildman’s five-acre compound “his own little amusement park.”
On a clear January morning, I pull into the driveway and park next to Wildman’s Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet. The $150,000 car is painted matte black, its proud Teutonic crest smeared over by an imprecise hand. “Got a guy to do it for $500,” Wildman had told me. According to him and Hamilton, there are two acceptable color schemes for any vehicle: matte black or dull khaki camouflage.
Wildman answers the door. He’s wearing a knit cap pulled low over his ears, baggy jeans, and a faded red T-shirt emblazoned with a skull. Anyone seeing him from a distance would take him for a skateboard punk. When Wildman wears a short-sleeved shirt, it’s hard not to stare at his biceps. They’re perfectly defined, as though baseballs have been sewn beneath his skin, and it’s only the skin itself that gives any indication of the owner’s age. Wildman predates sunscreen, and the result of his decades outdoors is a patina of tans gone by.
In the kitchen, Rebecca, a pretty, slim blond in her fifties (with an Ironman and four marathons under her belt), is making a salad. It’s Sunday, and a football game is on. Wildman gestures toward the screen. “The problem with most of these coaches — they’re not inspirational,” he says. “You see this guy from Seattle, Holmgren, who’s supposed to be so great — and he’s got a forty-inch waist! Three chins! What the hell is that about?”
He pours water into a glass and mixes in a packet of amino acids, enzymes, and minerals called Neuro1, created by Bill Romanowski, the former linebacker and four-time Super Bowl champ, to help in the aftermath of countless concussions. Its purpose is to nourish brain tissue. “If the brain stays young, you’ll stay young,” Wildman says. He’d made the same point when telling me why most of his friends were decades younger than he was. “When you’re around young people, they think they’re gonna live forever — and it’s contagious,” he’d said. “Rebecca always says I never hang out with people my own age, and I say, ‘Yeah! Because they’re so friggin’ negative!’ “
It’s true that everywhere in this room, in this house, in Wildman’s life, there is evidence of a curious and optimistic mind. You can see it in the pair of black-eyed toucans sitting on the giant copper ring, and in the books that line the shelves of his library. You can see it on the walls, where Picasso etchings hang next to paintings done by friends. But most of all, you can see it in the pictures. There are dozens of pictures of Wildman’s family, on mountains and boats and beaches, at parties and celebrations, at the finish lines of marathons and triathlons; pictures of him with Ronald Reagan and at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wedding. There are many pictures of Wildman and Rebecca kissing. A digital frame flashes images of Wildman standing on a surfboard next to Hamilton; at a Pearl Jam concert with his grandson. Looking at them, it strikes me that for all of his physical triumphs, Wildman’s real genius lies in the sport of living itself.
“Hey, have I ever showed you the Magic Twanger?” Wildman says suddenly.
“Come outside for a second.”
Wildman walks to the three-hole putting green on his lawn. Beside it, a birdbath holds a pyramid of golf balls. He drops a handful on the ground, and then he reaches for an odd-looking club that’s leaning against a lawn chair. He holds it up. “This is the Magic Twanger,” a putter he invented and marketed in the nineties. It has a bulky, square face that allows a golfer to emulate Sam Snead’s method of putting between his legs, rather than angled off to one side. Wildman, who has been known to play as much as ninety holes of golf a day, had admired the innovation, but golf rules forbid it because it looks ungainly. With the Twanger you can still use your body’s center line, but your legs are in regulation position. To demonstrate, Wildman taps a few in. The Twanger is a superior design, he says, but it never caught on.
Listening to him, I remember something that Hamilton said: “Don’s always on the cutting edge. That’s why he’s ageless.” I mention this to Wildman, who thinks about it for a second. “Some of my contemporaries say, ‘When are you gonna grow up?'” he says. “I hope I never do! I’m trying everything not to grow up.” He walks toward the edge of the green. “And when I think I’m doing things that are grown-up, I go, Uh-oh. I’m slipping. I’d better get onto some new adventure.” He laughs and leans over the Twanger. It’s a long-shot putt, uphill and off-kilter, from an improbably far distance. The ball snaps forward, rolling wide toward the rough and away from the flag. But then at the last possible instant it hooks, as though rerouted by an invisible hand, and it drops into the hole.