SEPTEMBER 10, 2015
My journey toward physical fitness and ultimately attempting to complete a marathon (or many of them) started, ironically enough, while trying to get fit in the first place. I have never been a runner and have never liked to run simply because IT HURT!! Running hurt my knees and hips, which were worn down by a childhood of playing every sport imaginable year-round. Running hurt my lungs, the capacity and function of which were somewhat restricted by a lifetime of asthma and allergies. Running hurt my feet, which are flatter than Kansas. Plus, running hurt my psyche, which didn’t like hearing myself breathing hard just to catch my breath, didn’t like hearing my feet pound the ground, and didn’t like going around in a loop in the neighborhood while others rode by me in a happy fashion on bikes, skateboards, roller blades, or anything else that went faster than I did at 2 mph!!
In May of 2014, while walking the 2.5 mile loop trail at Ancil Hoffman Park in Carmichael 3 times per week trying to lower my blood pressure and drop at least 25 needless pounds that had built up over the previous two decades that were my 30s and 40s, I felt a “tickle” in my chest directly below my sternum each time I accelerated past the slow warm-up of the first half-mile of my route. The “tickle”, as I can best describe it, didn’t hurt, didn’t cause me to stop my exercise, and didn’t alarm me too much. It went away after about 30 seconds and didn’t return during my 5 mile or 7.5 mile walks. It was an odd sensation but nothing to worry. After all, I was 51 years old but felt 22 on the inside, never smoked, and was already on prophylactic blood pressure medications. I ignored the facts that my father died without warning at 59 on a golf course from a heart attack, that I had high pressure job that caused major stress in my life, was going through a divorce, and didn’t have the best diet in the world. It was just a tickle—no big deal—and was probably asthma or allergies causing my lungs to slightly hurt. No big deal.
Later on that month, I noticed during my walking routines that the tickle came on sooner, lasted longer, and started involving a pinching sensation in my left upper arm. I also began noticing the tickle at home when mowing the lawn, taking laundry upstairs, or any exertion whatsoever. Hmm. It was time to start worrying.
I called my doctor’s office for an appointment and they told me their first opening was in two months if it wasn’t an emergency or illness. I took the opening two months out and didn’t give it a second thought. A day later, the doctor’s assistant called me and said they had an opening the next day. Reluctantly, I took the sudden opening, thinking that I was probably making too big of a deal out of this. I told my doctor about the tickle in my chest, the short pinching sensation in my arm, and my family history. A chest X-ray was negative. Blood tests showed high cholesterol and triglycerides, which I already knew, but nothing else. My GP then ordered a stress echo and EKG, which I had completed three years earlier with no problems whatsoever. Unfortunately, this time, there WERE problems from the EKG and stress test—one completely occluded major artery that fed 80% of my heart muscle, and partial occlusions of my two minor arteries. In June of 2014, it was off to surgery, performed by the same cardiologist who three years previously told me my heart test results were fine and a complete waste of time in his estimation!!
The post-surgical discussion with my heart surgeon was staggering and inspiring at the same time. In the surgeon’s opinion, based on the occlusion he found in my major artery, had I not had the surgery when I did, I would have been dead within a few days and no more than two weeks from a heart attack. Had I waited for the appointment two months out that my GP first offered me, I never would have made it to that day.
My thoughts immediately turned to my father, who smoked for 40 years, never exercised, and ate poorly and STILL made it to 59!! Me? I wouldn’t have made it to 52. Stunning. My surgeon also discussed the normal results from my cardiac testing just 3 years before, and how things got so bad so quickly since then. We discussed diet, exercise, and elimination of stress, all of which I had control over. We also discussed genetics, which I had no control over. I had a choice—live “right” and get another 30 years minimum out of this journey, or go back to my old ways and maybe get another 5 years of labored existence. I chose the former.
It was during my post-surgery convalescence at home that I started looking into lower impact options for my exercise routine in order to avoid running. I began reading articles on race websites about speed-walking long distances and the health benefits from that. I began walking 4 miles per night once I got the green light to exercise. I stretched those walks into longer and longer distances, sometimes going 8 miles or more during an evening or weekend morning. I started feeling great!! I tidied up my diet too and religiously took my heart meds. Within a month, I had lost 20 pounds from my pre-surgery weight and was walking every day for at least 4 miles at 4 mph. I even spent 17 days in Italy two months after my surgery and ate all of the wonderful foods (and wine) that Rome, Tuscany, Florence and Venice had to offer, but by exercising every day on my trip I actually lost 2 more pounds during my Italian vacation!! This wasn’t so bad after all!
Fully motivated by realizing that I could take a long trip, eat generally unabashedly and STILL lose weight, I began thinking about how to use my new walking regimen to better use. I read about the Portland Marathon and how it is “walker friendly.” After consulting with my cardiologist and other friends who ran marathons in the past, I decided to sign up for it. I had a year to train for it and I figured it wasn’t any different than hiking to the top of Pyramid Peak, which I had done twice in the distant past. Besides, by the time the marathon in Portland rolled around, it would be just slightly more than a year since my heart surgery and a great way to celebrate my recovery from it and the start of my new, healthier lifestyle.
In the spring of 2015, I heard about the new Pony Express Marathon in Sacramento. I contacted the race director, Rebecca Gordon, who was a long-time family friend and one of my “mentors” in my “walk/run” training. Rebecca advised that the Pony Express will be walker friendly, too, and that it will be a great target in May of 2016 for my training program after completing the Portland event in the fall of 2015. Based on her encouragement, I was the first person to sign up for the Pony Express even though I haven’t even completed the Portland event!! I figured that if I failed to complete the race in Portland, I could use the Pony Express as a goal for the next step in my training program.
My training so far for the Portland event has been an extension of what I was doing already prior to signing up for it. I walk-run at least four 4 miles five to six nights per week. On weekends, I try to complete 6-10 mile walks each day. I reviewed Hal Higdon’s training regimens that have been posted online and have used those as guidelines as well. This summer I completed 4 half-marathons, each time posting faster times than my previous efforts. I “walked-ran” in all of those events and finished under 3 hours every time. I was sore near the end of each race, primarily in my hips and left knee, and had cramps in my calves afterward each time. But by learning about diet and hydration both pre- and post-race, my symptoms after each race have been fewer and less intense each time. I’ve purchased better running shoes and compression socks and calf sleeves to practice with to see if they will be helpful during the Portland event.
I am now less than 4 weeks away from my first marathon. I recently completed an 18 mile training walk that, frankly, left me wondering if I’ll be able to complete a full marathon even if I walk the entire distance. It’s intimidating. I’m worried about completing the race. I’m worried about what I’ll feel like when the race is over. I’m worried somewhat about failure. Instead of setting the goal of just completing it, I’ve decided that I’m going to beat 7 hours as a finish time. But no matter what happens in Portland next month, I know how close I came to death and that even ATTEMPTING this race is something that I never would have contemplated one year ago. For me, success will be just lining up at the starting line on October 4 and giving it my best shot.