I thought, without question, that I was watching someone die right before my very eyes.
It was a warm spring morning. I was running barely 100 yards behind Leroy Townsend, a then-45-year-old ex-Marine, husband and father of three. He was in the middle of a pack of runners who had just crested a long hill in University City, and I saw him briefly bend over to stretch. He straightened up and took a few steps; in the next second, he crumpled to the asphalt in a heap.
Those of us trailing him surged to his aid, summoning several runners in our group who were a few hundred feet further up the road from him, waiting at a busy intersection. Leroy appeared to us to be having either a seizure or a heart attack. His face had been bloodied in the fall, and his eyes were open but blank, fixed in an expression that still sometimes haunts me. After several taut minutes in which he seemed to be worsening, a nurse who runs with us started administering CPR. And I thought, Oh my God, he's not gonna make it.
This was a year ago. Turns out the problem was actually heart-related angina -- he had a serious blockage in an artery that required him to have a stent implanted 13 days later. The stent may have saved his life, and almost certainly saved his running career: Leroy went on to run the New York City Marathon this past November, the Thunder Road Marathon in December, and the Frosty 50K in Winstom-Salem in January. Saturday, on the one-year anniversary of his surgery, he'll run the Country Music Marathon in Nashville.
I run with him occasionally and often see him at races. I am, without question, watching someone live right before my very eyes.
Q. So what do you remember about the incident?
I remember feeling pretty good. I felt really strong coming up the hill. At the top, my right hamstring started tightening up a little bit, so I decided to take a minute and stretch it out. I tore a hamstring a couple of years ago and it took forever to get back out there, so I'm pretty quick to stop and stretch in the middle of a run nowadays. Anyway, I remember bending over to stretch and as I started back up, things started to go dark. I thought that I was starting to go back down to my knees to clear my head, but don't remember anything else until I kind of came to in the back of the ambulance. Next thing I know, I'm trying to remember what month it is and what I was doing.
Q. What did they tell you at the ER?
When I checked out, they found absolutely no reason for me to have gone down like that. They ran CAT scans, EKGs, blood work, X-rays, et cetera, and found absolutely nothing. I was in great shape is what they said. The only thing they could point at was me bending over to stretch and then straightening up too quickly, causing the blood to rush away from my head. The docs told me I was great and sent me home. Two days later I biked for 20 miles, four days later, I ran for 6 miles.
Q. And then ... another incident, right?
Yup. The next day, I went to the zoo with the family and some friends. I wasn't feeling great -- just not quite right -- then when we stopped to have lunch, I was standing in line to get hot dogs for the kids and I started having trouble getting my breath and felt like I was going to drop again. It kind of passed, but I told my wife we needed to head out, and as we were walking out of the zoo it continued to get a little worse -- tightness in my chest, shortness of breath. Anyway, our friends took the kids home and Linda [my wife] took me to the emergency room up in Asheboro, where they ran the same tests that they had that Saturday and came up with the same results. Everything checked out perfect: They said to go home and make an appointment to talk to my doctor about it.
Q. So then what?
I had a stress test run by a cardiologist's office, and they found something odd in the EKG under stress. The doctor told me to stop the test, wrote me a prescription for Nitroglycerin, set me up for a cardiac catheterization, and sent me home with instructions not to do anything strenuous at all until after the test. I had the cardiac cath about a week later and they found a little over 95 percent blockage in my left anterior descending artery. I had a stent implanted and was discharged from the hospital the next afternoon. The procedure has become fairly commonplace these days, thank goodness. However, there are still risks associated: The possibilities of puncturing the vein used as well as the potential of damaging the artery with the stent.
Q. So the two incidents -- mild heart attacks?
They weren't heart attacks as the artery was never "fully" blocked. They called them cardiac-related incidents. Angina. It could have been a full-blown heart attack relatively easily. All that needed to happen was for some plaque to dislodge and block the remaining 4 or 5 percent. Luckily, they weren't heart attacks, so I had no permanent damage to my heart.
Q. What was going through your mind during all this?
All I remember thinking about was my kids, how would they feel if suddenly I wasn't there for them. I kept thinking about how I had to get through this for them more than anything.
Q. How long after the surgery did you start running again?
I started on the stationary bike three weeks after the surgery, and I started running at Week 4. The biggest issue was healing up the insertion point for the catheterization, since they go in through the femoral artery.
Q. How did it go initially?
It went really slowly to begin with. Certain things that you are used to pushing through with your body during a run you become acutely aware of -- all the little pains that really aren't anything turn into something in your mind after something like this.
Q. And when did you sign up for your first post-stent marathon?
I was already signed up for New York. I'd gotten in because of being rejected in the lottery the three previous years, so I was very focused on getting better to be able to run it, even if I was really slow.
Q. Were your family and friends concerned about you returning to running with such vigor? Were your doctors concerned? Were YOU concerned?
Everyone was concerned about my running. My family just wanted me to take it easy and start back slow. There were certain people who were there when I hit the pavement that were extremely protective and made sure that I was never alone, especially on my long runs. The doctors weren't so much concerned about the running; they also weren't necessarily crazy about me running marathon distances either. I guess I was a little concerned, but you know, I don't think that the running is increasing my risks of heart issues. If anything, it's decreasing my overall risks and increasing my lifespan.
Q. How'd that first post-stent marathon go?
NYC was a blast. I went nice and easy and just took everything in. It was incredible. I took about 100 pictures during the run and felt great. It was the first marathon I've run where I really didn't hit the wall. Probably all the stops along the way helped out.
Q. And then you signed up for another, right? And then another?
Yeah, I signed up for Thunder Road kind of to push a friend of mine into signing up for it. He had been complaining about not having any targets or goals and was on the fence about signing up, so I signed up and then chastised him until he signed up too. Then after that, I signed up for the Frosty 50K just because [I'd be able to run it with] a bunch of really great people. It looked like it would be fun, [and we did it at] a nice easy run/walk pace.
Q. Are you trying to prove something?
Nope, I'm just having fun now. I do need to keep exercising regularly because of my heart disease, and the kids are really getting into the running, too. All of my kids run races. The oldest [Cameron, 16] is in cross-country in high school and has already run a half-marathon with me. The two youngest [Joshua, 8, and Emily, 6] have both run multiple 5Ks already, and they really enjoy getting out there. It's a good habit to keep up.
Q. Have you had any issues with your heart since the comeback started?
No issues with my heart. I've had issues with my back, shoulder and neck from where I took the header into the curb, but nothing so far with my heart. Knock on wood.
Q. Do you ever have flashbacks to that morning that rattle you, even temporarily, while you're out on a run?
Yes, of course. It took me some time to get used to pushing through things again, just all the little pains that you feel when you are running that you kind of ignore when you're out there for any length of time. Plus the other muscular and skeletal issues kind of added some aches and pains that could have pointed to a heart-related issue. Just had to get used to the stuff.
Q. Do you realize you might be an inspiration to others?
No, not really. There are a lot of people out there who are dealing with or have dealt with incredibly difficult issues and just keep on keeping on. I don't feel like I'm anything special when you get right down to it. If I can inspire my kids to do the best that they can with their lives and give back as much as possible to others, then I'm happy.
Q. Are you going into Nashville like it's just another marathon, or do you think it'll be an emotional day for you?
I don't think it will be emotional. I just hope that I have a good run. Hopefully I can get under 4 hours again, maybe even a PR -- that would be great. But even if I finish in over five hours, the best thing is that I'll be out there running it. It could be a lot worse.
Q. What did running mean to you before all of this stuff, and what does it mean to you now?
Running is a great way to relieve stress and clear my mind, plus a wonderful way to meet an incredible bunch of people. I really look forward to getting out there and just having fun. I know a lot of people think we're crazy, but it really is fun most of the time. That's not to say it's not hard sometimes -- it definitely is -- but that's part of what's so good about it: pushing yourself out there and finding out your limits. If it ever gets to the point where I really just don't enjoy it, I'll quit. For some reason, I just don't see that happening, though.
Q. Is there a moral to your story?
I guess I’d say, talk to your doctor about your overall health. Even if you feel and appear to be in great shape, ask about taking a stress test. The issue that I had never showed up under normal circumstances, only on the stress test. All of my other indicators were perfect, even my cholesterol levels were great. The only other advice I would have would be to get a Road ID. I know that there are going to be a lot of people out there going, "Yeah, yeah, blah blah blah, whatever." But even though the group we run with knows each other, without that information, it would have taken a lot longer to get in touch with my wife and the EMTs would have been flying blind as far as my overall health, drug allergies, conditions, et cetera. I have been wearing one forever, even when I thought I was in good shape I was wearing one. And it's the first thing I changed after the surgery -- I put my medication and stent information on the new one and have been wearing it ever since.