First, this is a “good story” with a happy ending…so far.

For the better part of my entire life, I thought I was as close to invincible as was humanly possible. With all the running I have done, I thought no physical challenge was insurmountable. It took 59 years, but, a few years ago that all changed in a heartbeat.

For more than a year, I had been experiencing difficulty breathing as soon as I would start my run workout. For the first 10-15 minutes, I had to run and then walk just to be able to catch my breath. This was embarrassing, to say the least. It felt like I was running at altitude. It also seemed like angina-type symptoms. After about one to two miles, the discomfort seemed to either go away or at least become less painful. I seldom ran with others, choosing instead to run alone because I didn’t want anyone else to know “my little secret”.

Like most people, I know my own body very well and I knew something wasn’t right, that something was very wrong. I proceeded to have all the normal tests done: pulmonary, heart, EKG, inhalers, echo tests, stress tests and on and on. The good news, nothing was detected. The bad news, nothing was detected. In fact, although my fitness level wasn’t close to what it was in my 20s and 30s, I am much fitter now than most folks my age walking the planet or any age for that matter, and as such, the stress test showed nothing out of the ordinary. Then what the heck was causing this nagging, non-stop breathing issue?

Unfortunately, I do come from a family that has a history of heart disease, in particular, a higher-than-normal cholesterol level. It is simply in the gene pool. I only realized this about 10 years ago and started taking a cholesterol-lowering statin for it. However, I had a bad reaction to the statin (mainly muscle cramping) and as such got frustrated and stopped taking it for quite some time. I eventually experimented with different ones until I came up with the one that worked.

Through a methodical process of elimination, I tried valiantly to determine what the cause of my condition was, but I kept coming up with no answers. Was it hot weather or cold weather, running up hills, running after eating or drinking something? What was causing this? I even went on a run with my cardiologist, Dr. Aaron Baggish, but, of course, I could not replicate the problem right then and there for him to diagnose first hand.

After a year and a half of this, I had had enough and Dr. Baggish ordered a CAT scan. The result, in his words, “severe blockage and chronic ischemic heart disease.” The word that jumped out at me more than any other one was “severe”. Really? Severe? I was devastated and really scared. How can this be me? I’ve run across the darn country averaging 45 miles a day, run hundreds of marathons, run more than 140,000 miles, done the Ironman in Hawaii numerous times and had just run 59 miles on my 59th birthday. Really? Severe?

Dr. Baggish immediately scheduled me for an angiogram at Mass General Hospital. I thought, okay, go in, maybe get one stent, leave and start running again the next day…all fixed up. Problem solved. 

Not so fast.

As I lay on the operating table, I nervously looked up at the monitor and saw the image of my arteries looking like the twisted branches of an oak tree. My jaw dropped as the doctor pointed out the blockages and narrowing in many of the arteries…no, not just one. I started counting them on one hand and then stopped when I ran out of fingers. The doctors determined it would be more risky to operate than not to and wheeled me out of the operating room. As I was leaving, I was thinking to myself, how much more time do I have? Is this possibly…terminal? I usually don’t get emotional but I broke down uncontrollably. So much for being Superman.

After some heart-to-heart discussions with my doctors, it was decided that since I probably put myself in this position, it would be up to me to get myself out of it.

Have I followed the best nutrition plan all my life? Hardly. A few of my mottos have been, “anything and everything but in moderation” and “sleep is overrated.” I realized for the first time in my life that these just might be flawed statements.

I always rationalized that whatever I ate, I burnt off. However, it’s like putting a bad grade of gas in your car. The car will still run, but your engine will “gunk up” in no time. And, I always thought I’d sleep enough when I’m dead. There is even a song that says so. And, I’ve been told, that stress can be a factor in heart disease too. There seemed to be a confluence of factors coming into play here and I had created them all (with a little help from genetics).

I can personally name a half dozen friends who were really good athletes, who, in the past 10-15 years, went for a run and never came back. I thought “that could have happened to me” but how lucky am I that I am getting a second chance. I never believed that I would “drop you-know-what” on a run, but now I wonder if I actually could have.

People often use the expression, “at least he died doing what he loved to do.” Well, I do not want to die doing what I love to do and what I love to do is run. Dying in my sleep when I am 110 seems like a better option to me.

The biggest lesson I have learned from all of this is that being fit does not necessarily mean being healthy. Seems like a simple statement — because it is. I’ve spent my entire life focused on being fit but not really focused on being healthy because I thought one meant the other.

Well, that’s all changed now. I only needed one warning. But, interestingly enough, even though I wasn’t healthy, being fit saved my life because my other arteries were healthy and developed enough to overcompensate for the blocked arteries, but my fitness also masked my underlying problem, something all “fit” people should take notice of.

It’s been three years since my rude awakening and second chance. I’ve done a complete 180 degrees in my lifestyle. I totally changed my diet (no meat, no fat, no soda, no beer, no anything that is bad for you) and I’ve lost 27 lbs. I started eating the right food, especially more vegetables and fruits like apples and other high-fiber foods, which had been lacking in my diet.

I started swimming and lifting weights and hooked up with a personal trainer and a nutritionist and have been taking dietary supplements. My cholesterol level dropped more than 100 points. I went back to Hawaii and did the Ironman Triathlon World Championship again for the ninth time and now I am training to run the World Marathon Challenge: 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents!!

When my doctor gave me my new results all he said to me was “you overachiever.” Hey, this has nothing to do with overachieving, I just want to stay alive a little longer. I got the message loud and clear!

And, guess what? I now no longer have a breathing issue! Yahoo! And my running is the best it’s been in 15 years.

Why do I share all this background? Well, at first, I didn’t want to tell anyone this story…no one. Why? Because I was embarrassed about it and I also didn’t want to burden anyone with it. And I’m not good with sympathy and all that that comes with it. However, after processing it all and after talking to some close friends about it, I realized a few things. First, I needed a support group myself…of family and friends who care. They actually “rescued” me. My wife, Katie, has been my biggest supporter…what would I do without her? And a number of others have helped educate me on what this all means and that this is not a unique situation… and that has made a huge difference.

I also realized that my story is important and needs to be told because there are many people out there just like me who have caught this just in time and others who don’t even have a clue that they are currently in big trouble. They deserve a second chance, too, but they need to take action right away.

If just one person hears my story maybe we can help one more person get a second chance. Maybe this is the awareness boost someone needs to read. Maybe that someone is you.

If you take anything away from this – it’s that EVERYONE NEEDS TO GET A REGULAR PHYSICAL AND GET CHECKED FOR HEART DISEASE, no matter how fit you think you are. Do it before it is too late. Truth be told, we are not invincible, even though Superman went down when he came up against his weakness — kryptonite.

I have a beautiful wife and five children with the youngest being 7 years old. I want to be around when she graduates from college and has her own family (although, I may be so old by then that I will be in an assisted living facility, but we’ll leave that for another day). Frankly, I’m still praying that I haven’t missed the “health bus” myself, but I am grateful that my destiny is now in my own hands, right where it should be.

And back to the beginning… After I finished my cross country run in 1978, my brother put a slideshow together which included the Bee Gees hit, “Staying Alive”. I loved that song. I love it even more now.