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Heart-pumping research

Durango hopes to become the Silicon Valley for sports technology

I'm breathing hard through a mask, sweating, slobbering, on the verge of passing out. I better stop before I fall off this stationary bike in a heap.

This test isn't about me, although I have learned that my fitness level is somewhere short of Todd Wells' and somewhat above-average for someone my age. OK, absolutely nowhere close to Wells, a Durangoan and three-time U.S. Olympian in mountain biking.

This is about helping develop a product that gives athletes – perhaps both high-level pros such as Wells and weekend warriors such as myself – more insight into their training regimen. It's also about supporting a Durango-based exercise research center that is trying to establish itself.

The Durango Performance Center is partly the brainchild of Dr. Bruce Andrea, a local cardiologist who has big dreams of making Durango a mecca for such heart-based research. The center's knowledgeable and motivated director is Rotem Ishay, a native Israeli who starred as a mountain bike racer at Fort Lewis College and his home country.

The center is partnering with New York-based InfraSonic Monitoring, which is in the process of developing a monitor to measure a heart's cardiac output. Such a device would be valuable not only to athletes but to heart patients, as well.

I'm one of about 75 locals – some racers, and a couple of dabblers such as me – who are participating in the study. The test involves being weighed and measured, pinched with calipers to check body fat, stuck with a half-dozen electrodes, fitted with a breathing measuring device and riding a stationary bike.

During the pedaling portion, we keep a cadence to match an escalating wattage output. The equipment measures the body's reactions, and if that's not enough, an FLC exercise-science student pokes our finger every few minutes to check the blood lactate level. It's a tiny needle prick. But how can I say this without sounding whiny? My fingertips are sensitive.

OK, so by now you should be wondering what has brought together a New York company, a Durango research center, Fort Lewis College students and a common recreational athlete. To explain, let's start in the Mideast.

Ohad BarSimanTov grew up in Tel Aviv, Israel, got a doctorate at Binghamton (New York) University in electrical engineering and hooked in with a startup called InfraSonic Monitoring, or ISM.

So you've noticed the Israel connection. Ishay is from Netanya, just north of Tel Aviv. While earning a degree in exercise science from FLC, Ishay interned at the Performance Center. He stayed on, conducting tests and research with Andrea on subjects such as altitude adaptation and lactate variances. When he started reading a mass email last year from BarSimanTov about cardiac-output testing and noticed the obviously Israeli name, “I just gave him a call right away.”

They talked for about two hours, and when Ishay was in New York for a race – he's hoping to make the Israeli mountain bike squad for the 2016 Olympics – he dropped by to meet BarSimanTov.

ISM was looking to do research to validate a device that will strap to your chest just like a heartrate monitor. This one would measure cardiac output by determining stroke volume (amount of blood being pumped out the left ventricle per beat) and multiplying that by heart rate.

FLC became involved through Ishay's former advisor, exercise-science professor Melissa Knight-Maloney, who is eager to work with the center and give her students some real-world, hands-on experience. That's an emphasis at FLC, she said.

“It's something a lot of undergrads don't get to do,” she said. “Our kids who go to grad school feel they're two to three steps ahead of their peers.”

Several FLC seniors – Forest Schulke, Noah Dillon, Alex McWhorter and Kevin Savage – are taking the data acquired during the tests and using it to do their senior theses.

The research subjects are various ages and abilities, and both sexes. What researchers want us to do is pedal increasingly harder, reach anaerobic threshold and keep pedaling until we reach our limit – whatever that is. Ishay said one thing they'll study is the correlation between stroke volume and anaerobic threshold (measured by blood lactate). Does stroke volume drop as the threshold is reached?

“There's limited literature on that,” Ishay said. “One of the main purposes of endurance training, I would say, is increasing your stroke volume. Having the ability to monitor your stroke volume during training is crucial.”

BarSimanTov said his former advisor at Binghamton now is an “entrepreneur-in-residence,” helping to develop new businesses and technologies. As far back as the 1950s, he said, NASA tried to develop heart-output technology but couldn't make it small enough to be useful.

BarSimanTov needed some test subjects in a controlled environment; finding a passionate researcher who also spoke Hebrew was too good to ignore.

“They were very enthusiastic about doing it,” BarSimanTov said. “I think that's the most important part.”

Once a beta of the monitor is created and lab tested, ISM will need athletes to use it. The Durango Performance Center hopes to be involved in that stage. BarSimanTov said that if all goes to plan, there will be a product on the market in 2016. That will be good for him because right now, he's working on speculation without a salary.

“That's pretty much our plan,” he said. “It's exciting, and I guess that's why I'm doing it. It's not like it's a secure job.”

The Performance Center is getting a lump sum and an amount per athlete tested. It's a start, but Dr. Andrea is looking at bigger things for the future. His cardiac practice, which operates next door to the lab on the second floor at 1201 Main Ave., still subsidizes the center.

“This is right up our alley as far as how we want to diversify our cash flow,” Andrea said. “This is an industry-supported research.”

Developing tools for measuring heart output or the effects of altitude or lactate levels – that's where Andrea wants to head. He sees Durango, where high-level athletes and outdoor opportunities abound, as the Silicon Valley for sports technology.

“I really think Durango could be that.”

This story was changed to delete a sentence that said venture capital is used to fund ISM. johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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