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First Person Running nearly killed me, but it also saved my life

Illustration by Rachel Wada

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I might as well have died – for the second time that month. The cardiologist looked up from my test results and matter-of-factly pronounced my running life dead. I was never to run again. The rest of my appointment was a blur and I left shaken. Stumbling to the car, I got in, called my wife and burst into tears.

I am a runner. My wife is a runner. We run together. We started jogging 20 years ago to stay fit – 20 minutes, three times a week like clockwork. Unless it was raining or cold or windy or we were tired. Unabashed chocoholics, we strove for the minimum to justify a daily chocolate fix.

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Slowly our “fitness routine” grew on us. Faded Rolling Stones World Tour T-shirts dabbed with paint gave way to dry-fit running T-shirts. We had our gait analyzed and switched to gait-appropriate runners. I bought a GPS watch to track distance, pace and calories burned. The latter statistic vital in calculating our chocolate-based refuelling quotient.

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The weather stopped being a consideration. Running became our passion. We ran rain or shine, in bone-chilling cold or asphalt-melting heat – heading out more frequently and for longer distances.

We discovered running magazines – reading the latest theories on how to improve our form or tips on how to avoid injuries. We had regular physiotherapy appointments to treat our inability to put injury-prevention theory into practice!

We entered a 10 kilometre race. We made it to the end without stopping. We did another to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Before long, we ambled through our first half marathon – 13.1 miles! Running became a family affair when the soccer-playing 20-year-old announced he was taking up the sport and would join us for our next half marathon – a mere three months away. My wife and I chortled at his naivety. And then he completed it, matching us stride for stride.

Now we were a team – with a mantra. “No runner left behind!” We would start and finish each race together. We built family vacations around races – choosing destinations such as Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Virginia Beach and Nashville. We added a pit crew when daughters Paige and Ashley Brook joined us. Team Gaskin Cheer Squad would see us off with cowbells at the start, wave inspirational signs such as “All this work for a free banana!” at the midpoint and greet us with high fives and hugs at the finish line. Life was good. Carbo-loading craft beer and savouring the local cuisine.

And then it all came crashing down on a crisp, October morning. A delayed start to the Brooklyn Half Marathon left us chilled to the bone. A nagging knee injury flared up at the halfway point and I started to wonder if the free banana really was worth it.

Team Gaskin pushed on, inspired by boisterous cheering from the thickening crowds. Miles zipped by. Cheer Squad screams of encouragement serenaded the final steps as Team Gaskin sprinted to the finish line.

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I stopped my watch and, without warning, collapsed. Like ice cream spilled on July pavement, my world just melted away. No suffocating chest pain – just a melting sensation as my world faded to black. Cheering crowds – gone. Cowbell-ringing daughters at the finish line – gone. Son ahead and wife beside me – gone. The smile on my face from a race well run – gone. My heart had stopped and I never saw it coming.

This was not supposed to happen to me. Driven by a paternal family history steeped in heart disease, I exercised regularly, watched what I ate (chocolate cake aside). My blood pressure and blood sugars were normal and I took lipid-lowering medications to keep the bad cholesterol superlow. As a final precaution, I underwent an annual stress test designed to detect early signs of coronary artery disease.

Despite all that, I collapsed.

Ever so gently, I drifted back. Voices faded in and out. I sensed a commotion. I could feel my son squeezing my hand, hear him shouting “Dad! Dad, wake up! You’re gonna be okay.” I started coming back to life. I could make out my daughters a few steps away, tear-stained cheeks, being comforted by my wife and medical personnel.

I soon learned that immediate action by finish-line paramedics – CPR, intramuscular epinephrine injections and one jolt from a defibrillator – saved my life.

Tests at a nearby hospital found no evidence of a heart attack, and I returned to Toronto for further testing. A preliminary diagnosis of faulty cardiac electrical wiring led to the ban on running. I was crushed, but further testing found the problem – a 90 per cent blockage in one of my main arteries.

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Physically, I was repaired in a few weeks. Emotionally, I was a train wreck. I was angry. Why had my ounces of prevention not led to a single gram of cure? Why didn’t I have symptoms? Why hadn’t testing detected early signs of my heart disease?

I felt like an imposter, someone who had cheated death. It didn’t help that my family physician stared at me like she was seeing a ghost. Ashen-faced, she explained that usually when she read ventricular fibrillation in a patient’s file, it was the final entry.

Talking things out was hugely therapeutic for our family. Eventually, my family and I came to terms with the paradox that running almost killed me, but it also likely saved my life by enabling me to withstand the immense physical trauma of my heart event. Exercise, even for those with a history of heart disease, is essential.

With my blockage fixed, the ban was lifted and eventually – after an extensive cardiac rehab program and with the full support of my family and close supervision of my cardiologist – I rejoined Team Gaskin Running Squad.

Our mantra, “No one left behind!”, took on even more meaning during our post-v-fib, half-marathon together. Now we’ve added a corollary: “Finishing is more important than finishing strong!”

Howard Gaskin lives in Toronto.

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