Friday, June 20, 2014

A Very Bad Day - or - Lucky to be Alive?

Last weekend started off like a lot of weekends for me: an early alarm, a quick bite and cup of coffee, then a drive to a nearby trail race. In this case, I'd be running the Sour Grapes Trail Half-marathon for the third year in a row. The race was part of the 2014 UMTR Trail Race Grand Prix Series, a competition that I did well in last year but for which I had a lot of catching up to do this year.

I arrived in plenty of time, found a decent parking spot, picked up my number, and went about a typical warm up: a bit of walking, a mile or so of easy running, a few basic stretches, and heading for the start. Nothing out of the ordinary, in fact I was feeling pretty good.

The organizers got us lined up and sent us off. As usual, the faster-younger-more talented types rocketed off the line, leaving me and the rest of the pack to follow. I was probably sitting in about 15th place, more or less, about where I'd expect to be. With 13.1 miles to go, no need to push the pace early.

We rounded a couple of corners, and hit the first tiny little hill. We weren't even half a mile into the race at this point, but "something" happened to me right there. I felt a kind of flutter in my heart, and started breathing a bit heavier than I'd expect to be. Hmm. No pain. So I slowed down, thinking maybe I'd overdone the caffeine that morning, just needed to get my breathing under control and I'd be fine.

About a mile later I felt some tightness across my chest muscles. What the hell? Could I be having a heart attack? No way, I'm still running, only a few people have passed me, this is just a bad day. Maybe I was tense on the steering wheel during the drive, so I shook out my arms, slowed a bit more, tried to control my breathing.

Boy, did it feel like a bad day. For the next 3 or 4 miles I was forced to slow down to about 8:25 pace, well off what I thought I'd be able to do. But I was able to keep running, so I ignored my sensations and plugged on.

In fact, I plugged on all the way to the finish, which was a disappointing 20th place in about 1:47:00. Results. Compare that to last year's second place in 1:32, and you can see it was a bad day.

It was about to get so much worse.

I really felt crappy after the race. Super-tired, nauseated. and a bit woozy. Maybe I was bonking? I grabbed a banana, had some electrolyte replacement drink, toweled off, changed into dry clothes, and hit the road home. Still felt awful.

About 20 minutes into the drive, I finally admitted to myself that something was really not right. Stubborn fool. I pulled off the road, called my wife. She said, "Get to a hospital". She was right. I asked Siri to find me the nearest one, she obliged and I pulled into the parking lot of St. Gabriel's Hospital in Little Falls, MN.

I strolled in, sweating profusely and feeling light-headed. I told the receptionist that I might be having a hard attack. Within a couple of minutes I was on a bed and chewing children's aspirin, as the staff ran preliminary tests. It wasn't long before the doctor told me that I was indeed having a heart attack.

Okay, let me just pause here for one second. I was having a heart attack, one which had started almost 2 hours before, in fact I just ran something like 12.5 miles on trails WHILE HAVING A HEART ATTACK. Clearly, my capacity for denial is pathological, and my pig-headedness about finishing races had now put my life in danger.

I was so scared, it's hard to describe. Alone, and informed that I'd now have a wild ride in an ambulance for about 30 miles to get to St. Cloud Hospital, where they had specialists in cardiac catheterization waiting to help me ... I put my life in the hands of the professionals. I guess the fact that I'm writing this proves that it was the right thing to do.

The next few hours were a surreal and painful and frightening blur. I recall moments, like banging through the hospital corridors on a gurney, having my pants pulled off fast, receiving anesthesia, feeling almost out of my body, being told that I'd had a significant heart attack, and that I'd had an angioplasty and a stent implanted in my right coronary artery.

Then, I was in a recovery room. My typical, beloved type of trail race weekend had begun so normally, and now here I was.

My heart, shocked by this whole thing, couldn't seem to find a rhythm. After a couple of hours of my EKG bouncing all around, they sent me back to the Cath Lab so that they could insert a temporary pace maker for the night. I spent the wee hours in and out of a restless sleep, my heart pounding out a faster-than-normal and heavy-feeling beat, while intense thunderstorms pounded outside of my window. Like something out of a bad movie.

Eventually, I began to bounce back a little. On Sunday morning they turned off the pace maker, and my heart hung in there (mostly, still some funny beats now and then, they told me that was to be expected). I finally got a bite to eat. They came to my room Sunday evening to remove the catheters from my femoral artery (painful, very painful). By Monday morning I was able to take a few tentative steps out of bed, and by Monday evening I was able to be moved to a step down unit called Telemetry, which I always thought had something to do with launching satellites into orbit but apparently is basically a way to monitor things from a distance.

By Tuesday afternoon I could head home. Still scared, and now with a body filled with new and probably-long term chemicals (medicines) to help keep me alive: blood thinners, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, and statins.

I had almost zero of the risk factors, and had just had my annual physical about 5 weeks ago - passing with flying colors. I do have a father who's had bypass surgery, but he smoked for years, didn't really exercise, and loved his eggs and bacon. Still, those darn genetics are just enough to get you. A heart attack? Me? Never!

Well, wrong!

I've now got a long road ahead, to work on recovery. The cardiologists said that my overall heath and fitness will not only help me make a "complete recovery" (well I hope so), but that in fact without it I would have suffered this episode earlier in my life and might not have survived it. So there's that.

I start cardiac rehab next, and if all goes well I'll be back running in several weeks. Not sure about any of this right now, of course, because I'm still wobbling around in a mixed up emotional and physical fog caused by fear, dread, anger, indignation, embarrassment, and drug-induced side effects. I know I've got to give it some time and work through everything. Of course I wish it had never happened in the first place.

I want to thank my loving wife for being strong and taking care of so many things through this crisis. And for someone who hates driving on the highways, she managed to come see me every day even through blinding rain storms and terrible traffic. Of course I'm also very grateful to the nurses, doctors, and everyone else at St. Gabriel's and the St. Cloud Hospital. The latter really was a top-notch experience.

As the weeks unfold now, I'll try to be more diligent about sharing here what I experience and what happens to me on this next leg of my life journey. I've got to get back up off the ground, dust myself off, and move forward again. I'm a pretty determined fellow, so I am confident that this hurdle can be overcome. But I'm damn glad to have help along the way, and I'm lucky to be alive.

Take care of yourselves, our time is so short and so precious.

Hope to see you out on the trails in a few weeks time, fate willing.


  1. Holy smokes, how terrifying! Glad you are to tell the tale. Best wishes for a smooth road ahead!

  2. For someone to have recently gone through all of this and to remain so eloquent is absolutely remarkable! Your mind (and will) acts as though it functions without knowledge of your body... even to a degree greater than the disciple you learned as a runner. Amazing! Glad you are still with us Doug.. ��

  3. Doug! I am happy you are alive.Praying for a full recovery.

  4. Glad you're still with us, Douglas! What a scary thing ! Sending best wishes!

  5. Wow that sucks - you'll be weak as a kitten for a while, but you'll be back before you know it. Best of luck.

  6. Thank you for sharing this Doug; a reminder this could happen to any of us. I also appreciate your positive attitude. Best of luck in your recovery, I hope to see you out on the trails again soon!


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