Follow Your Heart and Listen to Your Body

A feeling of jubilation and relief filtered through my body as I crossed the finish line this past May in Eugene, Oregon. My inner voice said, "Thank you, Mr. Heart, we did it!" At age 52, I had just completed my 10th marathon! After 26.2 miles and 3 hours, 27 minutes, I had yet another Boston and New York Marathon qualifying time under my belt. No marathon is easy; however, this one had a special significance given that my prognosis some years earlier was at best, bleak. In 1995, I was working for a global transportation company and traveling in Asia on business.

Part way through the trip, I was called back to a board meeting in Atlantic Canada. Next thing I knew I was on a plane flying from Hong Kong to Fredericton, New Brunswick, via Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, for a two hour meeting, then on home to Vancouver via Toronto. After one and a half days of travel and over 11,000 miles, my body was tired and beat up. The following week, I thought I could sleep my way back into shape. By week's end, however, I was not feeling any better, and then it finally hit me. I was driving a colleague to the airport and gradually felt my heart rate increase to the point where I was close to blacking out.

I quickly asked my colleague to grab the wheel and together we guided the car to the curb. A cold sweat covered my body as the lightness of day reappeared. For the first time I spoke in silence to my heart, "Mr. Heart, please slow down."  It was the beginning of a special relationship. I was in denial about what was happening, even while it was happening. I asked my colleague to drive the remainder of the journey to our destination. When we arrived, I declared that I was feeling much better and drove solo back to my office. I knew, however, that I was in trouble when my heart pounded in my chest so loudly I could hear it in my ears. It was comforting to hear the friendly voice of my Doctor's assistant as I described over the telephone what had happened.

I was told, however, not to move, and an ambulance would be dispatched immediately. I quickly downplayed the whole event for fear that I was going to be taken out of my office in an ambulance. I was not going to let that happen. Instead I drove, once again solo, to my doctors' office. As I sat in front of my doctor he quickly performed an ECG and as he watched the monitor and the exiting tape, he declared that I was not having a heart attack after all. I was immensely relieved. While my heart beat was high, it was not in the danger zone. The doctor told me to go home and get some rest. Within 2 days, I was sitting in front of my new cardiologist (Dr. K) with the results of my positive stress test. In this case, positive is not good!  

It only took about 4 minutes on the treadmill and my heart was beating in the danger zone, at 220 plus beats per minute. Here I was at age 38, not overweight, reasonably active, wondering what was next? Mr. Heart do you know what is going on? Dr. K explained that the best way to really know what was going on was to have a heart catheterization. This entailed examining the blood flow to the heart and testing how well my heart was pumping. Dr. K inserted a thin plastic tube (catheter) into an artery in my leg. From there, he advanced the catheter into the chambers of the heart and into the coronary arteries.

I was awake and anxiously asking questions as if trying to learn the end of the inning score with his every move. Finally, Dr. K declared that the blood flow to the heart was fine and he wanted to see me in several days. Yes, Mr. Heart you did well today! I was now talking to Mr. Heart as if he were a person! As each day passed, I became more anxious about my diagnosis. I felt tired all the time and had difficulty doing any strenuous work. Cutting the lawn or carrying my newborn son, Andrew, in a backpack was more than I could handle. Each day, I mustered just enough energy to get through my work day.

Finally, the day of discovery had arrived. It was either a viral or a bacterial infection that had caused an inflammation to my heart muscle. The medical term is viral myocarditis. The inflammation had done significant damage to my heart muscle, to the extent that it was now only operating at 30% of its normal capacity. Dr. K explained that hopefully, the heart would not deteriorate any further and compassionately looked into my eyes and said, "Don't worry, I will find you another heart if you need it." Did this mean that I could lose my new friend, Mr. Heart? Dr. K encouraged me take an entire year off from work to rest and recover.

Being one of those A-type executives who believed that they were invaluable to their company, I kept working. About the only exercise I did was walking and feeling sorry for myself. I kept my condition a secret, and adapted and adjusted to my new lifestyle with Mr. Heart. Every six months for a period of three years, I went for a treadmill stress test. Each time the result was not good; however, my heart was showing some signs of recovery. The good news was that it did not appear that I would need a heart transplant. Mr. Heart was going to make it, and together we were going to get through this.

From this experience came my inspiration to do something that few viral myocarditis sufferers ever consider. Could we (Mr. Heart and I) run a marathon? Some years earlier I had noticed a majestically framed Boston Marathon Finisher's Certificate on the office wall of a business colleague. I inquired what it was like to do the Boston Marathon and he confidently explained that it was the pinnacle of his running achievements. He assured me that I could do it. It was at that moment, I wanted to run the Boston Marathon. Dr. K was not sure; however, he cautiously endorsed my goal with those same compassionate eyes I had seen three years earlier and suggested a moderate goal would be a good place to start.

During the first year of training, a fast walk became a slow jog. It was not easy to convince Mr. Heart that this sedentary life of relaxation and early retirement was over. We worked through the struggles and the setbacks of training. We joined a running club and trained with other runners who shared the same passion for spending time on their feet. Ironically in my bid to rally in the face of adversity, running allowed me to come to terms with my own vulnerabilities. Later that year, we were ready for our first 10 kilometer race. As we lined up with 1,000 other runners, I could feel Mr. Heart whispering to me as the pre-race adrenalin massaged us both. The starter's gun sounded and we were off.

Feeling the drag of other runners, we sped off en masse. We settled into a consistent rhythm as we watched other runners pass us. It did not matter who the others were or how fast they went, because we (my heart and I) were still together. The time melted away quickly and in the distance, we saw the finish line. Could it be true -- 55 minutes -- yes we were under an hour? Mr. Heart, we did it!Motivated by our success, we continued training and in November of 2001, we completed our first 26.2 miles together at the New York City Marathon. We were disappointed by our results, given that Mr. Leg did not permit us to run the way Mr. Heart and I had planned.

Nonetheless, with 40,000 other runners that day, we finished! Our victory was the combined teamwork of Mr. Heart and me. Today, Mr. Leg and all of his adjacent muscles, tendons and bones have become integral parts of our team. Since 2001, I have run 25 half marathons and 10 marathons. It was on my third attempt that I qualified for the Boston Marathon and in April 2005 I proudly placed that medal alongside my finishers' certificate in a special frame on my office wall, just how I had seen at a colleagues' some 11 years earlier.

Today, depending on my schedule, I run between 25 and 50 miles per week. I guess you would say I am hooked. As I crossed that Eugene Marathon finish line on May 3rd, I reflected on our amazing journey. This has been a journey about having the ability to listen to my body talking to me. So often in life, we do not listen to what our body is telling us and ignore the inner voice that guides us. As I run I feel a sense of freedom and elation as my heart rate increases for the first couple of miles, and then we settle into a symbiotic rhythm as my mind shifts to a state of calmness. This is where Mr. Heart and I are most deeply connected, feeling his guiding beats watch over me. Thank you Mr. Heart.

About the Author

William McKinnon, for 20 years, has led several major corporations in the logistics, security and food sectors. Most recently, he followed his passion for wellness and shifted his career focus to become a Leader with bHIP Global. bHIP Global is a worldwide distribution company that brings unique, category leading health and wellness products to market across the world. William is an industry speaker on how to build global distribution and has helped many to achieve their goals. For more information about bHIP Global, please visit www.william.teaminmotion.comWilliam can be reached at or 604.541.8488.