Dave McGillivray is still hoping to run the race in April for his 47th straight year.
While we tend to obsess over preventing injuries and maintaining strong bones and muscles, most runners don’t pay much mind to their heart health. After all, a solid amount of physical activity is a known preventive tool for keeping your ticker in top shape.
“When the doctors came in with the news, I was surprised, angry, and disappointed,” McGillivray said in a phone call with Runner’s World. “It’s hard to accept the fact that something like this is happening to me—especially when I thought I had reversed this disease.”
In October of 2013, when he was 59, McGillivray said he was diagnosed with severe coronary heart disease. “I saw my life flash before me on the monitor that day,” he said, referencing the imagery showing the worsening blockage in his arteries.
Immediately, under the watch of his cardiologist, Aaron Baggish, M.D., he committed to eating healthfully, taking vitamins, sleeping more, upping his fitness routine, and reducing the stress in his life.
“In 2013, it was a tough year for all of Boston,” he said. “My days were stressful, and I’d often find myself shoveling down dinner at 8 p.m., because that’s when I had time.”
He figured the combination of stress, bad dietary habits, and his family history of cardiac problems were likely driving up his cholesterol levels. And high levels of “bad” cholesterol can be harmful, since it can lead to fatty buildup in your arteries that can cause a blockage, the American Heart Association says.
So McGillivray cleaned up his diet—eliminating beer, soda, and meat—slept more, and got on a regular training schedule. One year later, he finished the Kona Ironman World Championships and “felt better than ever,” he said.
McGillivray kept up his healthy regimen after the race, and in the last two years, X-rays revealed that he had reversed his coronary disease by 40 percent. “I felt that I was finally beating this thing,” he said.
But his physical state started worsening a few months ago. In January, he finished the World Marathon Challenge, completing seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. “I felt fine during the races,” he said. “But after I got home, I started feeling discomfort. It felt like a burning sensation in my throat and chest.”
Whenever McGillivray headed out for a run, he had to take walking breaks, and his runs resembled a shuffle. “I wasn’t able to elevate my heart rate very much at all,” he said.
Following Baggish’s recommendation, McGillivray underwent an electrocardiogram and other tests to analyze his heart and lungs, but nothing showed up. “I had a sneaking suspicion that it was my arteries,” he said. Finally, an angiogram (an X-ray that detects artery blockage)—his third in five years—revealed that one of his major arteries had 80 percent blockage, while another had 40 percent. As for treatment, bypass surgery is likely the best option, McGillivray said.
“I know I’m not the fittest person out there, but I try to live a healthy lifestyle, and this is a rude awakening for me,” he said. “It just goes to show that fit does not always mean healthy. And while they might not cure heart disease, diet and exercise are still important.”
His hope is that, with treatment, he’ll be able to recover in time to run Boston again next April, racing the course (after most of the field is done) for his 47th year in a row.
“I have a lot of great people around me who are saying, ‘You’ll be out there running like you did before,’” said McGillivray, who notes that his wife, Katie, and their children have been incredibly supportive. “I’m trying to stay positive and find the silver lining: We caught this early, so I have a chance to run again.”