We all have different reasons for running, but I’ve heard very few as inspiring as Everett’s. When I began coaching Everett in October of ’07 I had no idea he had been on life support less than 4 years prior. He didn’t mention anything but “occasional back pain”, under the medical related section of the Run SMART Project profile form. So, I was a little surprised when Everett finally told me his reason for running, after the PF Chang’s Rock & Roll Marathon. Everett managed to drop his marathon PR by 24 minutes in that race. I still consider the biggest mistake I’ve made as a coach to be that I didn’t drive the 120 miles to Phoenix to see Everett run it. We spoke a few days after the race to talk about recovery, training and goals. Towards the end of the conversation Everett told me why he runs. I didn’t know his story prior to that day.
Fast forward to December of last year and Everett is injured. He was having some kind of hip/ back pain, and wasn’t able to run more than a couple of minutes before being forced to stop. I wrote him a cross training schedule and he found a physical therapist in Atlanta. As it turns out the PT was quite good and had Everett back on his feet within 5 weeks. But, as we all know 5 weeks is quite a while when you’re in the middle of marathon training. Everett was only 7 weeks away from the Atlanta ING Marathon. He decided to run the half marathon instead and give it his best. He phased back into running and gradually built up his mileage and intensity over the remaining 7 weeks. It all paid off… Everett bested his previous half marathon PR by 1 minute, running 1:56:23.
Everett handled his setback with as much poise as any elite I’ve ever seen. He stuck with the cross training, the physical therapy and came back from an injury that could have sidelined him for a much longer period of time. I asked Everett if he could write his story so the rest of us would understand why he runs, and how he is able to handle setbacks with such composure.
Why I Run
August 14, 2003. Millions remember it as the day of the largest blackout in history. Fifty million people were suddenly trapped in elevators, or lost their air conditioning and other creature comforts. In Manhattan, commuters resorted to walking off the island to get home. Me? I was on life support after eight hours of open heart surgery. Fortunately, the emergency generators worked fine.
My leaky aortic valve was easy to hear with a stethoscope at age three. It inevitably became more leaky with each passing year. It’s a common defect–Barbara Bush and Robin Williams are fresh examples, but something like 1-2% of people have a valve problem. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to participate in a wide range of sports, including sprinting and hurdling in high school. In retrospect, I couldn’t reach my full potential. Each annual checkup with my cardiologist added more weight to a growing sense of doom. Eventually the prognosis was, “you’ll need a new valve sometime in middle age.”
From memories I can piece together the evolution of the technology from 40 years of annual checkups. Because I have so much company, it advanced dramatically. Grainy black and white images became doppler echocardiograms, providing clear images of blood flow around defective valves. Noisy ball and cage replacement valves became pig valves and tilting disc valves. My sleek pyrolytic carbon device should last the rest of my life. Running can’t wear it out. Also, because I was followed closely, my heart didn’t get enlarged to the point where it couldn’t return to normal size, except for a couple of inches of aorta, which is now polyester. I owe a lot to my surgeon and my cardiologist, but the most to the giant who pioneered these procedures, Dr. DeBakey.
Back to the drama; it wasn’t over with the historic blackout. As the weeks went by, I was supposed to be feeling better, but I found it difficult to walk more than a few feet at a time. Crossing from the parking lot to the entrance of the grocery store terrified me, because I knew I couldn’t evade the cars racing about. At my 1-month followup visit I collapsed in my cardiologists’ office. I had no blood pressure. I was hustled upstairs for emergency surgery, correcting the problem and getting me on the path to recovery. Walking became jogging and jogging became racing two years later.
So, when I respond to the inevitable cocktail party question, “why do you run?”, I explain that I have a lot more motivation than most to stick to Vince’s schedule. I share my story because I think it’s valuable for people to understand that I’m here today because my family and I were aggressive about seeking out and following the best medical advice. Then I say, “I run because I can.”