Running on a Broken Heart

A middle-age couple’s plan to compete in an ultra-long-distance race becomes even more extreme when doctors discover one of them has an alarming medical condition.

The red bandana that covered my face bandit-style slipped as I ran. Douglas firs spiked upward, black silhouettes against the night sky. My headlamp threw a puddle of light onto the dirt road. A van passed, churning up a cloud of dust. Lost in its haze, I coughed and ran off the road, my eyes burning. In the distance, I saw lights and ran faster. I entered the relay exchange, kissed my husband, and gave him the baton. Jeff checked that his heart monitor, strapped to his wrist like a watch, was on.

We were running Oregon’s Hood to Coast relay, 1,000 teams racing 200 miles from snow-capped Mount Hood to the Pacific. Each runner ran three legs, often on steep hills and isolated roads. All of this over forty hours, living in a van with five of your teammates, sleeping little or not at all.

As my husband raced into the darkness, I caught my breath and began to worry. 

We had already been looking forward to the race for months when Jeff’s chest pains got worse. A doctor scheduled an angiogram—the latest in a long line of -grams and scans, an unending series of poking and prodding he’d endured over the previous few months. Jeff was nearly a decade older than me, tall and fit at fifty-eight. He ate well and exercised, but his family tree was rotten with heart disease.

After the angiogram I arrived at the hospital to collect Jeff, but he was in a bed, hooked to  a control room’s worth of machines. While I was ready to burst into tears, he was grinning from ear to ear, clearly still under the influence of his anesthesia.

“Sweetie, guess what? I got stented,” he said, slurring his words through a crooked smile.

The doctor fiddled with one of the machines. He looked up.

“He had a 99% blockage so he got a stent. We’ll keep him overnight since his blood pressure was elevated during the procedure,” the doctor said, “But he’s fine now.”

Jeff’s blood pressure hadn’t just spiked. It went so high, I learned, that a nurse requested a new machine, convinced the one they were using was broken.

Due to the pain medication Jeff was in good spirits. Great spirits, actually. My husband, who didn’t drink and whose hardest drug is extra strength Motrin, was flying higher than Sputnik.

“You’ll be better than new in a few days,” the doctor assured him.

“Will I be able to play the piano?” he asked.

“Of course,” the doctor said.

“That’s good. I’ve never played it before,” he said. A couple of minutes later, I plugged his phone charger into a socket on the bed. Jeff stuck his tongue out, bugged his eyes and pretended to be electrocuted.

They hadn’t just unclogged Jeff’s arteries. They’d uncovered a Catskills comedy act.

I was relieved. He was fine. The doctor said so and Jeff seemed happy—although that was most likely chemically induced. But when I brought him home the following afternoon, something had changed.

“I’m going to lie down,” he said, shuffling slowly and slightly stooped over, like a little old man. His voice sounded smaller. And he kept the tiny vial of nitroglycerin on him at all times, as if it were a talisman. Over the next few weeks Jeff seemed stronger, but still, something inside him had shifted.

“Want to take the dogs for a walk?” I asked him one perfect summer afternoon. We both usually enjoyed taking a long walk—our afternoon work break—a chance to get some exercise and find out how each others’ day had been going.

“Can we make it a short one?” Jeff asked. He eyes had bags under them and he seemed more delicate, as if our rescue greyhound—the world’s most gentle dog—could drag him down the street. I held his hand tightly while we walked our dogs, feeling veins closer to the surface. I’d never noticed them before. I blinked rapidly, to keep my tears inside.

The previous few years had been bad ones. As happens once you hit middle age, you’re routinely thwacked with reminders of your own mortality. Death was a constant backdrop, the unwanted ambient scenery of daily life. Jeff had lost his father. My friend’s husband had been killed in a hit and run while bicycling. Friends had started to die. Cancer. Heart attacks. Accidents. More and more, we were forced to erase dead friends from Facebook. Seeing their ghosts flickering on the computer screen was too much, a reminder that life could be deactivated more quickly and thoroughly than a social media account.

A few months before Jeff’s angiogram, our neighbor had asked if we wanted to join his

team for the Hood to Coast race. Because we had absolutely no idea what the race entailed, we’d immediately said yes. But now we wondered if it was a good idea.

His doctor said he could run. But all the nurses at cardiac rehab, where Jeff spent three mornings each week, told him it was a bad idea. No one leg more than seven miles, they pointed out, but he wasn’t going to get any rest, and if he did have a problem, there would be no one to get him.

“It’s not worth it,” one said.

The cardiologist assured him that he’d be fine, but insisted Jeff wear a heart monitor and walk if it beeped. So the day of the race, Jeff strapped the heart monitor around his wrist.

On his first leg, he met another man wearing a monitor. They ran together, talking about stents and critiquing area hospitals. When Jeff handed off the baton, we hugged each other.

But the night leg was different. He would be running at two in the morning, up and down a mountain with no cell phone coverage and no way to get help. I offered to run his leg of the race for him but he assured me he’d be fine, promising he’d run slowly.

So there I was racing toward him. I pulled the bandana off my face, handed him the baton and gave him a kiss. I silently pleaded that he’d be safe.

I watched him disappear into the darkness. Our team crawled back into our van and drove to meet him. They didn’t know how afraid I was.

Seven miles from there, I stood near the chute. As runner after runner arrived, I got more worried. Where was Jeff?

Suddenly I saw his silver hair reflecting the moonlight. He handed off the baton and the words poured out.

“It was all uphill at first and then I flew! I broke six minutes for one of the miles—first time in years.” Jeff started laughing. “I haven’t run like that since my thirties.”

The fear and the tentativeness had vanished, like he’d sweated it out during the race. He was pre-stent Jeff. And like that, on a dark road somewhere in the Oregon countryside, I got my husband back.

*   *   *

Sue Sanders‘ essays have been published in the New York Times, Real Simple, Salon and others. She’s the author of Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore, a parenting memoir. Sue lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.

Matt Wiegle is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Philadelphia. Brief office inventory: Cat cat cat cat desk chair desk.