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On Nov. 3, I drove to Hamilton's beautiful Confederation Park to locate the spot where I died. Much like the weather on that day one year ago, it was sunny and crisp when I visited, with enough wind to rustle the leaves and make my eyes water. But unlike a year prior, when it was crowded with enthusiastic runners and cheering spectators, the park was now deserted, with only a small crew cleaning up from the half-marathon held the day before. Apart from a cyclist or two, and a few people walking, I was alone on the paved trail by the water's edge.
A year earlier, my daughter Sydney and I had been racing from the top of the Niagara Escarpment down to this spot on the shores of Lake Ontario, in the Road2Hope half-marathon. Sydney pulled away quickly, quietly determined not to allow me to finish before her again, as I had in our two previous races. I felt fine about that; I'd been focusing on cycling that fall, having completed a 140-kilometre GranFondo at an average speed of 30 km/h and cycled to the top of Mont Ventoux, a tortuous part of the Tour de France. I could see Sydney's pink running jacket well ahead, as I surveyed the runners in front of me. The panoramic view of the lake with the trail of runners was stunning.
About 200 metres from the finish line, I stumbled and collapsed face down on the pavement. After I failed to respond, a spectator rolled me over. I had stopped breathing and was without a pulse. The spectator and a very pregnant nurse practitioner started CPR and were soon joined by St. John Ambulance volunteers and race medical personnel with an AED (defibrillator). Those involved estimate they performed CPR for at least 15 minutes. There was a faint pulse when I was loaded into the ambulance and taken to Hamilton General Hospital, where I was put into a medically induced coma for two days. All this I found out after the event.
Standing over the spot where I fell, I tried to summon memories of that day. I remember very clearly running down Red Hill Expressway toward the lake, crossing the orange pedestrian bridge over the QEW and along the footpath. I remember the crunch of the gravel on parts of the footpath and running beside two women, the older of which appeared to be coaching and trying to motivate the protesting younger one to keep going. I remember thinking how good it felt to be outside and running, and that's it. The next thing I recall was waking up two days later in a bright hospital room to the tired and worried faces of my wife and children.
It didn't seem familiar, the spot on the path. It didn't feel like I'd ever been there before. From where I stood, I could see the medical tent from the previous day's running events being taken down, 100 or so metres away, just over a small rise. But no memories of my own event or what happened before it came rushing, or even trickling, back. Whatever thoughts I'd been thinking, things I'd seen or felt at this point in the race, were gone.
Given the nature of what had happened there a year ago, I felt a surprising lack of any emotion as I stood over the spot on the path. But it is a very pretty and peaceful spot.
According to data from the GPS watch I was wearing that day, I had my cardiac arrest where the path curves gently toward the lake, just before the final straight 300-metre stretch of the course. I would surely have realized how close I was to the finish line and would have started my finishing sprint. The data on my watch indicated my pace did increase just before this spot, as did my heart rate – the latter more dramatically than the former – jumping to 165 beats a minute and then suddenly to zero. But I have no memory of this, of being at this particular spot or of feeling anything but the joy of racing.
If my misadventure last year in Hamilton was a message, I'm unclear what it is. I'd been diagnosed with arteriosclerosis six months earlier, just weeks before my 60th birthday, and was religiously taking my meds. I'd been advised to keep running, as the health benefits of exercise outweigh the potential risks, in my case an estimated 3 per cent probability of an adverse heart event. I had been running and cycling all summer and, just days before the event, checked in with my cardiologist about running the half-marathon. What happened to me surprised us all.
One consequence of the experience is I don't fear death or, more precisely, being dead. I did hesitate when presented with the Do Not Resuscitate option on a liability waiver I was expected to sign, prior to a stress test at Toronto Rehab. If I had a cardiac arrest on the treadmill, I didn't think I had the psychological strength to go through this again. Not wanting to provoke the attention of the staff, I signed the form. Once back home, alone and away from the distractions of hospital life, my thoughts and feelings had me on a roller-coaster ride, fuelled by a powerful sense of loss. My heart recovered faster than I did.
As I left the spot by the lake and walked back to the car, I received an e-mail from one of my running partners in Toronto, with a link to CBC News: Hamilton Road2Hope Marathon Runner Dies after Collapsing. He was 56 years old and fell just a few metres from the finish line of the half-marathon. He'd made it further than I had a year ago. Remembering those faces staring at me when I awoke from my coma, I felt very sad for his family.
With the car windows shut tight against the wind, and watery eyes, I headed back to Toronto.
Ted Guloien lives in Toronto.