Runner Returns to Marathons After Heart Attack

Marc PesseMarc Pesse, who played rugby while attending his university in Switzerland, enjoyed the pre-training runs. He even considered himself a casual runner for several years.

But then his priorities shifted: heavy travel demands from his job and then starting a family. The combination of added stress and limited exercise took its toll, and Pesse decided to embrace running again in 2011 “to shed some of the accumulated weight and spend some time with myself.”

Not only did he rediscover his love of running and lose weight, Pesse found that the physical activity helped him “function properly socially and professionally. There is a meditative quality to running outdoors which I find truly regenerative.”

Runner Returns to Marathons After Heart Attack

While Pesse embraced running, he found that registering for races kept him focused on a training schedule. “I started ramping up the distances and ran several marathons, including the Jungfrau Marathon, which is an epic mountain race with an amazing alpine backdrop,” he said. “I also clocked a personal best at the Zurich Marathon, under 3:30. I branched out into triathlons and completed a couple of half-Ironmans.”

Marc at the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland

‘Please don’t panic.’

At 43, Pesse was in the best shape of his life.

Then one day, he didn’t feel right during an early morning swim — “it was really difficult. It felt like my lungs were on fire.” After going to work, Pesse headed to the doctor. “You know it is going to be rough day when your physician says, ‘Please don’t panic.’”

Pesse recalls trying to tough it out that morning. “There is a lot of talk in the endurance community of ‘pushing through,’ never quitting,” he said. “I had fully embraced that ethos at the expense of listening to my body.”

He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where doctors unblocked one of his coronary arteries and put a stent in.

“It turns out I have elevated lipoprotein(a), a condition which is correlated with a higher incidence of cardiovascular events,” Pesse said. “Not much can be done about it for now, so it is just something I will have to live with and make sure I minimize other cardiovascular risk factors.”

After recovering, Pesse was determined to return to endurance events. It’s worth noting here that Pesse advises that this is not for everyone. “Anyone having suffered any type of severe cardiovascular event should only be conducting intense physical activity with the approval and under close supervision of their treating physician,” he warns. “Running a marathon post heart attack worked for me, but may not be the right decision for everyone.”

Pesse was fortunate that his medical condition was diagnosed quickly and that his recovery went so well that he went for his first run a week after his heart attack.

“In general, the advice of the medical community was that endurance sports were not the cause and that keeping it up could only be beneficial,” he said. “They diverged in how soon and how much I should do – that was a bit confusing — but were generally supportive. I went for my first run seven days after the heart attack, so in a way I never stopped.”

In his unique comeback, the mental part was tougher than the physical.

“For me it was important to get back out there as soon as possible,” Pesse recalled. “When you fall, the first thing you want to do is to get back up. I was lucky that the damage to my heart was minimal. If anything, the challenge is more mental. Every minor chest pain makes you wonder whether it is happening again. One should also not forget how rough this is for your close relatives – they were understandably concerned during my first long runs.”

Return to racing 

Pesse’s return to running went so well that he ran his first half marathon six months after his heart attack.

“My first marathon post heart attack was going to be in Zurich, but I experienced some discomfort mid-way,” he said. “Having promised myself to listen to my body more, I quit. That’s something that I would have found impossible to do prior to my heart problems.”

Instead his first 26.2 finish after the heart attack was — appropriately — in a city that represents resilience and toughness.


 
“New York ended up being my ‘comeback’ marathon,” he said. “For me, post-9/11, NYC is very much the epitome of resilience, so I found the symbolism quite powerful. I can’t say that I was more worried about my heart than usual on the starting line. If you are going to suffer a heart attack, it is probably better to do it in broad daylight in front of a crowd with paramedics every mile than alone on a long run in the early hours of a Sunday morning.”

For Pesse, of course, crossing the finish line meant more than his previous conquests.
 
“Finishing was emotional and I found myself crying as I wound my way through Central Park,” he remembered.

“Someone told me when I came out of the hospital that I should view my heart attack as a gift. It did not make any sense at the time. During cardiac rehab, I started meditation and yoga. Over the last two years, I have come a long way to re-connecting my body, my feelings and my mind – a connection which had got lost at some point in time. While I suffer from a chronic condition that will never go away, finishing New York was a symbolic step in a journey to recovery. So yes, while I don’t wish it on anyone else, my heart attack was a gift that is helping me become a better person, kinder to myself and more empathetic towards others.”

A guiding hand from MTA

 Marathon Training Academy Coach Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles was among those who helped Pesse during his successful comeback to marathon running.

“I was looking for someone to help build a structured training program that was adapted to my specific circumstances, allowing a gradual build-up,” he said. “There are not that many ‘post-heart attack marathon’ training plans out there, so coach Jenn’s guidance was invaluable in helping me put myself together again.”

Pesse was also inspired by the close-knit MTA community, created by Trevor and Angie Spencer.
 
“The members of the MTA community, their own journeys, their struggles and their achievements are a constant source of motivation,” he said. “I also want to thank Angie and Trevor for putting together an extremely informative, fun and inspirational podcast.”

Now that Pesse has successfully returned to endurance events, he is also back to envisioning big goals.
 
 “I have registered for a long-distance cross-country skiing event to mix things up,” he said. “The Boston Marathon is on the bucket list, so I can see the need for more coaching in the future.”

Speed drill

Name: Marc Pesse
Hometown: Switzerland
Number of years running: Six years since my post fatherhood hiatus
How many miles a week do you typically run: Depends widely due to travel, but I try to get at least 15-20 miles in
Point of pride: Getting back in touch with my body
Favorite race distance: Half marathon
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Tea with milk works for me… go figure
Favorite piece of gear: My Garmin multi-sport watch
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Anything from “Two steps from hell” will help if I need a motivational boost
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: It is not now how often you fall, it’s how often you get up that matters

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