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The Starting Line

The prognosis for heart patients with viral myocarditis isn’t good. Survival isn’t guaranteed; and no one expects you to survive and run a marathon three years later.

When I left the hospital, my goal wasn’t to run a marathon. Marathon runner wasn’t on my bucket list. I was winded getting from my bed to the bathroom. I wasn’t a runner. I was overweight and unhealthy, and that’s why I ended up in ICU with congestive heart failure in the first place. But it’s hard to live along the Boston Marathon route without thinking about running a marathon at least once in your life or in my case, being annoyed at the inconvenience of road closures on a work day. 

I thought that the Boston Marathon was about running a marathon. That’s only part of it.

Until I participated as a spectator in the 2011 Boston Marathon, the spirit of the Boston Marathon was over my head. It’s one of those experiences that you have to encounter firsthand to understand. It’s much deeper and more profound than language can communicate.

What I expected was to be impressed by the elite front runners. And I was very impressed. They’re world-class competitors and should be celebrated. I mistakenly assumed that the world’s most famous marathon was an ode to their incredible athleticism.

The elites are not the spirit of the marathon. It was when the charity runners came through carrying flags for the fallen, and supporting so many other causes that I was actually moved to tears. I wrote about it in detail in my first book.

When I felt the emotion in my bones, that’s when my desire to run the Boston Marathon surged but I was certain that I had missed my opportunity. I had a failing heart and it took 55 minutes for me to walk under a mile to find a spot to watch the race. I had to rest for a bit on a park bench to catch my breath. I couldn’t walk a mile, let alone run 26.2 miles.

At first, my goal was much more simple. I didn’t want to die, so I made some lifestyle changes. A few of the changes were the obvious ones that most heart patients have to make. Fried foods? Gone. Processed foods? Gone. Cheeseburgers and fries? Gone.

I knew I had to be more active.

I’m not sure you can call what I did at first running. I looked more like a blob consuming space over a short distance. At least no one was ever in my way mainly because anyone could hear me wheezing a block away so they had plenty of time to move out of the path. If I was in a foot race with a sloth, the sloth would have beat me.

I kept doing it. I’m a stubborn guy. When I was younger, I ran track to be with a girl I liked. I was good at running, but not good at running and getting good grades. Like the character Danny Zuko in the film, Grease, I lasted part of one season. I didn’t get the girl anyway.

I continued to put one foot in front of another and eventually I started doing it in rapid motion. When you do something long enough, you become known for that thing. In other words, I continued running and along the way, I became a runner. A Pathetic Runner, for sure, but I was a runner.

The key to staying consistent with exercise is doing something you enjoy. Hockey is my #1 sport – to watch and play. I joined an adult hockey league at the local recreation center. Most amateur hockey leagues have a ‘no hit’ rule but after showing the guys that I was the “Bobby Orr” of the Framingham amateur hockey circuit (aka beer league), a much-younger defenseman cross-checked me in front of the net. I ended up with a broken rib, a broken finger and dislocated my right shoulder. After a rotator cuff repair surgery, I decided watching hockey might be a better pastime than playing it and started to focus exclusively on running.

From my new book.

False Alarm - An Excerpt

Three weeks before Boston, I ran a 20-miler with a couple of friends. I was really proud of my time: 3 hours and 12 minutes (9:37 per minute mile). After the run, I went with them to have coffee, lots of water, and a couple of eggs and bacon. Bacon is from God. A few hours later, when I was at home, my heart began racing. I felt dizzy and nauseated - like I did the day I had congestive heart failure.

Fighting back panic that I could feel rising, I turned to my wife and said, “My pulse is racing. It’s 90 beats per minute (bpm).”

“How the hell do you know that?” she fired back, not believing me.

“I’m a runner. There’s an app for that,” I replied. “I need to get to the ER.”

She drove me to the ER at Milford Hospital. If you’ve ever complained about how long it takes to see a doctor in the ER, tell them you’re experiencing chest pain after finishing a long run. I was checked in right away, which only increased my anxiety because then I knew that it was serious.

The triage nurse paged the doctor and personally escorted me to a bed for closer examination by another ER nurse. My pulse was closer to 100bpm by that time. They asked me about my earlier run and about what I had eaten. The nurse checked my troponin heart enzymes, which thankfully were normal. That meant it had to be something else.

The nurse inserted an IV and I was directed to X-ray for a look at my chest. It turns out that I was dehydrated. After receiving a half gallon of fluids, my heart rate receded back to 55bpm.

I went home and felt fine.

I felt a little silly for having caused so much drama, but it was another reminder how important it is to take care of my body, which includes hydrating a lot - before, during and after a run. Especially a 20-mile long distance run.

More from my new book.

Nightmare in Chicago

On race day, I needed to get up before 4 am. An MFP member picked me up for an early dinner near the hotel. We talked about running, of course. We also talked about our mission trips. I had been to Brazil and she went to Haiti. Not running due to an injury, but like so many in the group, she was going to support the tribe.

I had packed my suitcase amongst the walls of packing tubs back home, as I simultaneously prepared for move-out day. I have a laminated checklist. It was the brainchild of another running member. As with most great ideas, it developed as a need to resolve a problem. Her problem was due to the fact that she’d forgotten a sports bra (an important part of women’s running ensemble) and had to make a quick trip to Walmart for a sports bra a few hours before the start of an out of town marathon.

I pinned my bib on a short sleeved, Hope For Young Adults wicking shirt in anticipation of the weather. I laid out my sunscreen, Roo for my GU gels, electrolytes, Body Glide, compression gear, shorts, socks, and Garmin with a heart rate monitor strap. The checklist made me feel confident. Finally, I reached in my suitcase, set aside my worn short run shoes and pulled out a pair of almost new trainers, and that’s when I discovered my worst fear.

I had two left shoes.

More on this in my new book, Unstoppable.
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