No running from trouble

No running from trouble

It was a hot, humid, mid-July morning, and when Scott MacAdam of Champaign finished his 6-mile run, he didn’t feel very good at all.

He went to work, but he began feeling even worse at the office.

“My leg started cramping up, and my chest was cramping and my stomach was cramping. My body was cramping all over. And I passed out in my office,” MacAdam said.

His alarmed co-workers called 911, and he was taken to the hospital. The 62-year-old MacAdam believed he was severely dehydrated. As soon as he was hooked up to an IV, he began feeling better right away.

The doctors and nurses asked him repeatedly whether he had any chest pain, any numbness or tingling in his arms, or any pressure in his chest. No, MacAdam told them.

They did some blood tests, then recommended an angiogram. MacAdam was adamant there was nothing wrong with his heart. He was a longtime runner who ran seven days a week and had completed 70 marathons. He had no chest pain. He was not going to have an angiogram.

But his daughter, who was visiting, insisted on it. And the test revealed three severely blocked arteries. The doctors told him he’d had a heart attack and would need bypass surgery.

Blog PhotoEven then, MacAdam had a hard time believing he had serious heart issues. He sought a second opinion before having bypass surgery in mid-August.

“Looking at athletes and how they approach heart health, there used to be this notion that athletes are immune to heart problems, and it’s not true,” said Dr. Ashraf Al-Dadah, an interventional cardiologist at Prairie Heart Institute in Springfield.

While exercise lowers the risk for heart disease, it does not abolish it, Al-Dadah said. It’s important to look at risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, family history, diabetes and age, he said, and to get regular screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

Most runners know the story of Jim Fixx, a well-known runner and author of a 1977 best-selling book on running, who died from a heart attack at age 52.

“He’s the classic case because he had very severe risk factors,” said Dr. Ken Bodine, a cardiologist at Carle. “He had the attitude that running made him invincible and he actually ignored symptoms.”

MacAdam has a family history of heart problems. His father had a quadruple bypass at age 62, the same age MacAdam is now.

“Running is great because it helps all these things — blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar — but you still have to pay attention to them,” Bodine said. “The family history is a really important thing. Sometimes you just can’t outrun that.”

MacAdam has been a runner since his 20s, when he started his career and found himself sitting behind a desk all day. He quickly got hooked, and has run 6 to 8 miles a day since then. He had only missed three days of running in 2016 prior to his heart attack.

Of his 70 marathons (including 10 Boston Marathons), his best time is a speedy 2:58, which he ran in Columbus, Ohio, in 1994. He ran the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon this spring. And just two weeks before his heart attack, he ran the Freedom Celebration 5K on the Fourth of July, during which he “just felt terrible.”

“In hindsight, in my runs over the last six months, I felt more winded, and my times weren’t very good. But I attributed it to getting older,” MacAdam said.

His wife, Laurie, said, “Marathoners don’t listen to their bodies. They ignore pain.”

In fact, MacAdam acknowledges he almost never had a checkup. He began taking cholesterol medicine about five years ago because his LDL levels were too high, but he didn’t stick with the medication. He’s now taking medication for cholesterol and high blood pressure and aspirin.

Bodine and Al-Dadah both said runners have a high pain tolerance and are used to pushing through discomfort on runs, so it can be easy for them to dismiss feeling bad as simply a poor run.

“Runners are very attuned to their bodies and what’s going on. If you start noticing something different, that’s a tipoff that’s something going on,” Bodine said.

It may not be as dramatic as a stabbing chest pain, but more likely a heaviness or pressure in the chest and shortness of breath, he said.

Al-Dadah said symptoms of a problem in athletes can include a precipitous decline in performance, where they notice they aren’t running as fast, can’t run as far or tire out very easily.

One of MacAdam’s first questions of his doctors was whether he’d be able to run again. Laurie MacAdam was concerned about that as well.

“When I heard open-heart surgery, I thought, ‘He’s never going to run again. He’s going to be depressed,’” Laurie MacAdam said.

“It’s such an integral part of my life,” Scott MacAdam added. “It’s just a good stress relief for me. I can’t imagine not exercising.”

A week after his surgery, he was working out on the stationary bike at his health club. He’s been doing that nearly every day since the surgery. It’s a way to get back into exercise again in a setting where he can stop immediately if he starts to feel bad.

“It’s good to be sweating again,” he said.

He hopes his doctors will clear him to start running again soon. MacAdam plans to run the Illinois Marathon next spring, and his doctors have told him he should be able to do so.

Bodine said athletes who have had a heart attack or heart surgery can return to exercise as long as they do it gradually. Most patients will go through a cardiac rehabilitation program so their return to exercise is monitored.

He suggested people with many risk factors who want to start an exercise program see their doctors first to be sure they start out safely. Bodine noted that the population of runners has changed significantly since the 1970s, when most long-distance runners were quite serious athletes.

“It’s different now,” he said. “Nearly everyone is out there, and some are still overweight, some are still smoking and some are eating an unhealthy diet.”

MacAdam urged other runners not to be as stubborn as he was and refuse to get checkups. He said athletes should pay attention to their family histories and listen to their bodies.

“If you’re feeling any pain or shortness of breath, don’t try to be a hero and push through it,” he said.


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at


Photo: Scott MacAdam runs near his Champaign home. Photo by Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette



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Paul Wood wrote on September 22, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Really, really interesting story.