Southport parkrun regular Sue Cooper tells us how parkrun helped her reconnect with running following a cardiac arrest, and then became so much more.
I’ve always loved running. When I was little, I used to pester my sister to race me back home from school and I’d never dream of walking anywhere if I could possibly run. It’s now more than 30 years since I ‘joined the running boom’. At first I trained on my own but then I bit the bullet and joined a local club, Southport Waterloo. Running with others and doing proper training sessions made a big difference and I made real progress. I was introduced to the joys of cross-country mud in the winter and track fixtures in the summer. I loved it. Running has given me such joy, such a sense of achievement and so many friendships. I could never imagine not being a runner.
Then, in April of this year, the unimaginable happened. One morning I went out for a run feeling perfectly fit and well but didn’t come back. I had collapsed having suffered a cardiac arrest. There had been no warning, no dizziness, no breathlessness, nothing. It just happened.
I was lucky to be spotted very quickly by someone who knew how to do CPR and was able to attend to me. I was taken by ambulance to Southport Hospital where I was put into an induced coma for two days. Against all expectations, I came through it and I made a full recovery.
I had known for a few years that I had a heart condition, as it had been picked up by chance during a routine investigation. I have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle becomes thickened. It’s an inherited condition and there’s no cure. However I have no symptoms and I’ve probably had it since my late teens.
The weeks following the cardiac arrest were very difficult. I kept reminding myself that I was lucky to be alive but there were so many ‘what ifs’. What if I hadn’t been spotted quickly? What if I’d chosen a more secluded route for my run? What if I’d just stayed at home? On and on it went, round and round in my head. Then there was the ‘big one’, the inescapable fact that I’d probably never be a runner again.
After the collapse, I had been put on medication to lessen the chances of it happening again and I’d had an ICD implanted, which is meant to deliver a ‘shock’ if my heart does stop beating. I was also sent on a ten week cardiac rehabilitation programme which was all about learning to exercise in a safe way. People on the programme had a whole range of heart conditions and most were a good deal older and less mobile than me. We did lots of gentle aerobic activities and lots of stretching and strengthening exercises. The aim was to build up to doing 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five times a week with a good warm up and cool down. Moderate meant raising the heart rate a bit but still feeling you could hold a conversation. The ‘enemy’ was NOT doing any exercise. We were all encouraged to resume or start up regular physical activity once the course had finished. Slowly it dawned on me that I might be able to do some running again, so I plucked up the courage to ask the question. Yes, it was perfectly fine, provided I only ran at a moderate pace and must abandon any thoughts of racing. Well, I could settle for that!
My first few runs were truly terrifying but the problems were really all in my head. I would imagine myself collapsing at every street corner, even though I knew my ICD would protect me and had been put there to allow me to ‘get on with my life’. In time these fears faded and I started to enjoy myself but I really missed being able to run with others. I couldn’t risk doing training sessions with my club and there wasn’t much point in paying to enter local races when I could only jog. Then I thought about all the parkruns I’d done in the past and how this would fit perfectly into my new exercise regime. I would be running with other people, I could find my own pace and, above all, I’d be back in the running community that had been such a big part of my life.
So early in July, I went along to Southport parkrun, lined up at the back of the pack and set off. That day still stands out for me. How lovely the park looked that sunny, summer morning and how lovely to be running in company but with no concern about how well or how fast I was going. It was so good just to savour the joy of running. I could even have decided to walk it that Saturday, many people did, and it would have been just as enjoyable.
Now, Saturday mornings start with the Southport parkrun. I’ve run it many times and been a volunteer too. It’s become a big part of my life and really gives me something to focus on every week.
If you’re living with a heart condition we’d love to have you join parkrun UK’s official Facebook group for parkrunners living with heart conditions to share advice, tips, opinions and stories on all things related to parkrun.
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