In June of 2012 I ran a 5k after training with my learn to run group from the gym I worked at. I performed okay considering everything, took 3rd in my age group and placed 39th out of 215 people overall. I ran a 4:30/km pace for the race, which was not a PB but decent.
Four weeks later I couldn’t run for three minutes. No one has ever been able to explain what happened but my suspicion is that during a swimming race with my wife I had a mild heart attack because it knocked me for a loop for a couple of days. Then the next week I got on a treadmill and couldn’t run. Nauseous, pressure in my chest, pounding, etc.
Once I got my echocardiogram and stress test it finally got figured out. I had not only a faulty heart valve (which I had my whole life and didn’t know it) but something called a dilated aortic root. Not completely severe requiring open heart surgery, but enough to affect things. In case you’re wondering what that is, it’s a swelling at the base of my aorta, the largest artery coming from the heart. If the swelling ruptures, then I’m dead. In minutes. Gone.
So what did that mean? No working out. No increased blood pressure. No exertion. Too risky, they said.
Imagine all the things you love suddenly getting ripped away from you. All the things you do that make you feel strong and accomplished. What you do for a living.
For months I tried to grasp it and had a really hard time. Workouts fell away. No idea what I could do to help myself. I felt weak and like a loser for not being able to practice what I preached. I’d try to lift weights and have to stop after ten minutes, even mild stuff. I could walk, but jogging for more than 5 minutes made me feel awful.
And I was scared. I had a little girl on the way and now I have another. I didn’t want to leave my family alone because I was too prideful to let go of the fact I wasn’t an athlete any more. I was scared of dying. So I stopped living.
Then I found out I could walk. That was a start. Got into race walking and did a ½ marathon walking in 2:45. 18 months ago. I remember I was very emotional at the start line. I was actually wearing a holter monitor at the time just in case anything happened. I never thought I’d be able to do that again but I was okay. And maybe, just maybe that meant I could do more.
So maybe if I can do that, I can start to jog. So I did. Started with 3 minutes jog, one walk. Like a beginner. Built up, one minute at a time. 6 minutes jog, two walk. 7 minutes jog, two walk. Every step I was paranoid about what might happen. I had to tell my wife exactly where I was going in case I didn’t come back. I had to work out at my studio only if someone else was there so if I collapsed they might be able to do something. But at least I was still working.
About a year ago I finally went to a respirologist who finally decided to red line my heart and see what happened in the hospital where I was safe. My VO2 max was still above 40 and I could push 195 watts on an ergometer (for about 20 seconds). After two years of not exerting myself. And I was good – tired, but good. That gave me hope. I got on the bike at my gym religiously, building up from 20 minutes bit by bit to 45 and then starting to push power numbers. Still afraid to run, plus it was winter anyway so I wasn’t about to start. Got to 245 watts for 20 minutes, or 3.0W/kg – not bad for someone my age who hadnt worked out hard for two years.
Why am I telling you all this?
Today I ran 6k. Continuous. For the first time in three years. The final 2k was uphill. And it felt fucking amazing. When I stopped at the top of my street and walked home there were tears in my eyes and I was pumping my fist. You know why? I never thought I’d be able to do that again. And this is from a guy who has run two marathons and over a dozen half marathons.
Three. Years. Imagine someone telling you it would take that long to be able to feel strong again. To feel like you were an athlete again.
I’m going to declare right here on my blog that I have entered a 5k race in September, and you know what? I’m going to beat that time I set three years ago. I’m not just going to beat it, I’m going to crush it.
How did this happen? Careful progression. Not taking my body for granted. Listening to it and backing off when I have to. But never, ever, ever stopping. Can’t do that? Find something else you can do. Not progressing? Change things up. Try. Try. Try. And try again. Just don’t stop.
Like one of my favourite motivational speeches says, life is this game of inches.
And I know, if I’m going to have any life anymore, it is because I’m still willing to fight, and die for that inch. Because that’s what living is. And I know when I add up all those inches, that’s going to make the difference between winning and losing. Between living and dying.
Fuck you heart disease. Fuck you faulty valve. Fuck you doctors who told me I can’t.
Nothing can beat you unless you let it.
So what are you going to do?
I’ll see you in September.