'I don't like to be defeated'
Cole Hendrix was several weeks into the training program for what was to be his first marathon, the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon on April 26.
He was running 15 miles on a cold mid-February day, with temperatures in the single digits, accompanied by the other runners in his training group.
The heart-rate monitor he was wearing showed his heart rate was a steady 175 beats per minute — at the high end, but well within the maximum for a healthy, fit 28-year-old man — and his pace was about 8:05 a mile.
The line on the monitor that indicates his heart rate dropped when Hendrix stopped for water. It resumed its former rate when he started running again. There were a couple of small blips in the line during the next 2 miles. Then, at 121/2 miles, the line bottomed out.
That’s when Hendrix’s heart stopped.
Growing up in DeKalb and later just outside St. Louis, Hendrix’s main sport was soccer. But he also ran on the track team in high school. Ever competitive, Hendrix was trying to qualify for the varsity team as a freshman. During the qualifying runs at practice, he was running as fast as he could, trying to stay with the seniors.
He collapsed — the first and only such incident until his marathon training run in February. Hendrix was taken by helicopter to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where he spent five days undergoing tests.
The diagnosis: exercise-induced syncope. Syncope is a sudden and temporary loss of consciousness, common and generally benign in young adults, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. However, syncope that happens during exercise, rather than following exercise, can be a sign of a more serious condition and merits further tests, says the academy.
Doctors told Hendrix and his family he would probably outgrow the problem. Hendrix took beta blockers for several years, and he wore support hose while playing soccer and made sure he was well-hydrated.
And his parents talked to him all the time about the incident, which they named NED — Nearly Experienced Death.
“We talked about it. ‘Cole, if you feel weird, what are you going to do?’” said his father, Jay Hendrix.
The plan was for Cole to immediately lie down so he wouldn’t fall and hit his head, and to help his blood pressure return to normal.
Hendrix gave up competitive soccer in college after tearing his ACL for the second time. And with him getting older and no longer pushing himself so hard physically, NED was no longer at the forefront of their minds.
In 2008, Hendrix came to the University of Illinois, where he’s been working on his Ph.D. in crop sciences. His thesis is written; he’s received two job offers, with two other job possibilities in the offing; and he planned to defend his thesis in May.
He began running more seriously a few years ago. It helped fulfill the competitive drive soccer once did. He started running with the Second Wind Running Club and got to know Paula Cler of Villa Grove, now his girlfriend, at the club’s fun runs.
Hendrix trained for the Christie Clinic Illinois Half Marathon last year, finishing in 1:43:44. Many of his friends in the running club were marathoners, and Hendrix wanted to be one, too. It was another way to challenge himself. So last summer, his goal was to “run with a purpose.”
“When I would run, I would put on my game face and go after it,” he said.
He would gauge himself against other runners, and pick out someone at a race he would try to beat at the next race. He could feel from the way he was running that he could be competitive.
The 15-mile run left from Body n’ Sole Sports in Savoy at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. It went north to Champaign’s Hessel Park, then runners stopped at Body n’ Sole for water and continued back south through Savoy.
Paula Cler and her sister, Elizabeth Jones, were both training for the half-marathon. Cler saw Hendrix once or twice when their paths crossed along their routes. He looked OK, she said. When Jones passed Hendrix, she thought he wasn’t as upbeat as usual, but it could have been the cold.
Brian DeMuynck and Ryan Anderson were running in the same pace group as Hendrix during marathon training runs. As the group started out on the second half of their run, Hendrix “fell off the pace a little bit, and myself and Ryan fell back with him,” DeMuynck said.
Hendrix mentioned he wasn’t feeling great. Less than a mile later, he told DeMuynck and Anderson, “Guys, I’m feeling dizzy.” Then he went down.
DeMuynck caught him as he fell, and he and Anderson yelled for the rest of the group, a little ways ahead of them, to come back. DeMuynck held Hendrix’s head and shoulders in his arms and tried to talk to him while Anderson knocked on doors in the neighborhood. Several residents responded, calling 911 and bringing blankets to cover Hendrix. Other runners watched for the ambulance, so they could direct it to Hendrix.
The paramedics gave Hendrix CPR as soon as they arrived, then twice more in the ambulance on the way to the emergency room. He was hospitalized until March 10.
Jay Hendrix has moved temporarily into his son’s Savoy apartment to help care for him while he recovers.
Hendrix now has a pacemaker and defibrillator in his chest. He’s walking for exercise, but he won’t run again until his cardiologist tells him he can. He still wants to run a marathon eventually.
“I don’t like to be defeated,” he said.
The cardiac arrest left him with impaired memory. His memory of anything after Christmas 2013 is shaky at best. Memories and time periods sometimes merge in his mind. But he is improving. He recently was able to remember his entire address correctly. Earlier, he would confuse his current address with his parents’ address and his college address.
Conversation is easy, but he can get confused if he gets too many questions at once or is faced with too many decisions.
He recently resumed his job working at the UI’s South Farms, and he’s trying to get back to where he can handle his schoolwork again. He had been teaching an applied statistics class, and the graduate students he was teaching a couple of months ago are now helping him.
He hopes he’ll be able to defend his thesis in December — “I’m ambitious, so I’m shooting for that.” — or next spring.
“He’s a fighter. He’s not going to give up,” Cler said. “Little by little, every day (while he was hospitalized) there was something. I don’t think a day went by that there wasn’t something good that happened.”
Hendrix and his family are moved by the support he’s received from runners, his classmates and professors, the people he knows from the Regent Ballroom, where he and Paula dance, and Cler’s family.
“People sprang into action to help Cole. Thank goodness he wasn’t out there by himself. We’re so grateful for that,” his dad said.
“All these people are rooting for him,” Jay Hendrix added.
Hendrix gets a bit emotional when he sees his friends shake his dad’s hand and ask how he’s doing.
“I may not remember the instant they helped me or how they helped me, but I recognize (a lot of people) have helped me get through this,” he said.
“I don’t necessarily feel I’m just graduating for myself,” he continued. “I feel there are all these people I’m graduating for. It’s a welcome burden to have.”
Some things you ought to know about running safely:
Carry ID: Carry identification that includes information about any medical condition and an emergency contact. Or write your name, phone number and medical information on the inside of the sole of your running shoe.
Run with others: Run with others if you have a medical condition, and make sure your running partners know about your condition and what to do in an emergency. If you run alone, tell a family member where you’ll be running.
Stay connected: Carry a cell phone with you. Know how to tell a 911 operator your exact location in case of emergency.
Know how to help: Think about what you would do if a running partner had a medical emergency. Learn CPR.
Photo: Cole Hendrix at the Countryside 10K in Sidney in 2013, with his girlfriend Paula Cler, center, and Paula's sister Elizabeth Jones, left. Photo provided.