The Unexpected Runner
Jeff Breece is a heart attack survivor turned runner who blogs at JeffBreece.com.
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This is a story about a man who had not worn running shoes since he was 17… until last year after a surprise heart attack.
I was the kind of man who used to identify with work so much that I’d sometimes lose sight of myself. The bittersweet twist is that I truly enjoy my trade. Building cool things and solving problems for businesses. I finished school in my late 30’s while working full time in order to jockey for a cross Country move to Texas so that I could become even more embedded in corporate life. After spending the better part of a high stress decade I decided to come home in order to better care for family as they began to age. With that move came a career change whereupon I left an industry I’d worked within for nearly 20 years and jumped into software consulting.
Fortunately I work for an outstanding company where I’m surrounded by extremely creative and driven people. I just wasn’t prepared for the level of engagement that various clients have the ability to command. Two years into my new career, after the better part of a decade of inactivity and amazing Texas BBQ, I had a heart attack at the age of 47 in April 2015.
When you have a myocardial infarction (MI) you are given a lot of information to churn through, as well as suggested changes in diet, recommended rehabilitative exercise regimens as well as addressing the changes that occur in your body regarding emotional well-being, physical and chemical variances and examining your family’s medical history (genetic) component all factor into the meditative spectrum of what we holistically call our “health and well-being.” It was through the cardiac rehab process where I learned how to begin to trust my body again. Post MI some people are left full of fear and confusion… I was not exempt from this. Fortunately my colleagues, friends and family surrounded me and I pushed through the first part of this period with only one false alarm trip to the ER because I was not adept at reading the signs my body was giving me.
It’s funny looking back on those weekly cardiac rehab workouts. I met men and women spanning the ages of 32 to 67 with various forms of heart disease. I began to think of these folks as a form of family and to internalize just how inescapable this new chapter was to become. So it was one evening running on the treadmill that I noticed I had tears on my face. Not being overly emotional this surprised and confused me.
Rehab was progressing and July was approaching. I mentioned earlier the last time I ran was when I was 17. It was in a little town called Forest Ohio where my favorite Aunt and Uncle live. They’d taken care of me for my parents on various trips and were also the folks who worked hard to penetrate my singularly closed teenage brain so many decades ago. With July comes the Tree Town Festival and the 5k I ran when I was 17. I began to entertain the idea of running this again as a heart attack survivor. I talked with one of the trainers and she gave me my first running plan… ever. On her recommendation I went to a local shop, got some good shoes, and started hitting the trails on my own outside as the weather continued to slide into Summer.
It was during those longer runs where I’d not necessarily experienced a runner’s high but I did, on many occasions, experience a form of peace with what had happened and what might happen. Sometimes I’d find myself with tears on my face momentarily but instead of sad I felt grateful. Grateful to be here. To be able to push myself to run first 12 then 8 minute miles. So I did the Tree Town Trot, the race in Forest I mentioned earlier, and had a great walk and conversation afterwards with my aunt. I went on from there to be the best man in my friends wedding in Portland Oregon mid July, climbed two mountains with him, ran a half marathon in October, a 15k in November and then, laughably, a 5k for the Diabetes Association in December with a group of guys from my Yoga studio at the time … in a speedo. Sidenote there was that we raised the most cash as a team overall so it was worth the humiliation of my photo making the local news against my efforts to hold back from the starting gate in order to not get too close to the limelight.
All of us who have heart disease or who support friends and loved ones with various conditions are lucky to enjoy the time we do together. I think that’s the single biggest thing I’ve learned from my experience over the past 12 months. I think it’s the source of my tears while running every now and then to this date.
While I’ve come to love running, and recently placed second in my age group in a local 5k, it’s not about the running or the speed. It’s about movement. Enjoyment. Gratitude. Honestly… if and when I have a second cardiac event and am lucky enough to survive it again there will be that inevitable period of adjustment and redefinition. And if the day comes when I can’t run anymore then maybe I’ll walk or do Yoga. Either way, I feel like it will be the same thing, just a different activity. Letting go and being flexible is hard work. Just like learning how to run was initially. You have the choice to rise to face the challenge or to let it beat you down.
Keeping a positive outlook on life is not easy as your sphere of influence begins to retract. However, sometimes, you discover strengths you never knew you had until you lose something first. I try to focus on today as a method of dealing with the anxiety. When the negative thoughts creep back in I try to focus on the fact that, so far, “I’m not having a heart attack right now.” Is another one possible? Yes. But it’s not guaranteed either.
My blood pressure and cholesterol levels are better now than they have ever been. In some respects I feel healthier than I’ve been for probably most of my adult life. I’m training for another half marathon at the end of this month. My ultimate goal, today, is to do a full marathon this Fall. In the meantime I’m enjoying simply doing every single training workout with a clear head and open heart.