A change of heart

A change of heart

Daniel Grayson says running saved his life.

The Urbana man had been running marathons for nearly a decade when he learned last year that his left coronary artery was almost completely blocked and his right coronary artery was 75 percent blocked. He had several other blockages of between 70 and 80 percent as well.

When an angiogram revealed the blockages, a doctor told Grayson’s wife, “We don’t know why he’s alive.”

The angiogram also revealed why Grayson did not suffer a heart attack, or even experience any angina, in spite of the blockages. His body had produced numerous small collateral blood vessels that kept his heart supplied with oxygen. The growth of the collateral blood vessels was induced by exercise, his doctors told him.

Grayson was an avid squash player for many years, and he lifted weights and did some running. But it wasn’t until he retired from the faculty of the University of Illinois math department in 2007 that he took up running seriously and began training for marathons.

Blog PhotoHe has participated in the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon every year since its beginning, as well as running marathons in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Kyoto. (He’s completed the full 26.2 miles for seven Illinois Marathons. He ran 17 ½ miles in 2015 before stopping when the race was canceled due to thunderstorms, and he didn’t finish the 2017 marathon.)

Grayson ran his first eight marathons at times between 4:05 and 4:25. But in 2014, his times began slowing significantly. He finished the 2016 Illinois Marathon in 5:09.

When he ran the 2017 Illinois Marathon, he hoped to complete it in five hours. He ran with the five-hour pace group, but after just a few miles he was having trouble keeping up with them.

“I developed a strategy where I would sprint to catch up to the pace leader, then walk to catch my breath. I did that several times, then thought, ‘This is nuts. This is not going to work for 26 miles,’” Grayson said.

His house is near mile eight of the marathon, so he dropped out at that point.

Blog PhotoMany runners would be tempted to write off declining race performances to getting older. In fact, people told Grayson that was the logical explanation for his slowing race times. But he knew that was not the reason he wasn’t running as well. He had looked at studies on the decline in athletes’ performance due to age and saw that it was a relatively slow and uniform decline until after age 70.

Grayson was well aware of the history of heart disease in his family. His mother had a heart bypass at age 55, and she died at age 66 -- the same age Grayson is now -- from complications from another heart surgery. His father lived to age 85, but he also had serious heart disease and was preparing for surgery when he died.

That family history was one of the reasons Grayson has been a regular exerciser.

“I always thought that because I was running and because I was relatively slim, I would avoid the heart disease, but obviously I didn’t,” he said. “When I started slowing down, I just started saying to people, ‘My arteries are getting clogged. I’m slower and slower.’ And it turned out to be true.”

Grayson saw a cardiologist in 2014, when he began noticing his declining running performance, and he passed a stress test. He went back last fall with a chart he made of his average pace for the first 10 kilometers of each of his marathons, showing his pace had declined 30 seconds per mile each year since 2014. His doctor ordered a CT calcium scan, which looks for calcium deposits associated with arterial plaque. It indicated high levels of calcium deposits, so Grayson had another stress test and the angiogram.

He had triple bypass surgery immediately when the blockages were discovered in November 2017.

Ten days after his surgery, Grayson began taking slow walks around Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. He worked up to walking between two and four miles per day, keeping track of his heart rate and his blood pressure and seeing a steady improvement. He eased into slow running by late December and completed his first five-mile run post-surgery in early February, at a 12 minute-per-mile pace. He was up to 11 miles by the third week of February, and he ran 17 miles this past weekend at an 11 ½-minute-per-mile pace.

He plans to run the 10th Illinois Marathon on April 28. He said he’d be happy with a time of 4:45 and ecstatic with a time of 4:30.

“I’m slower than I would have hoped. I’ve lost a lot of general fitness, (but) I think the heart is ready to go,” Grayson said. “I feel great and I’m getting the miles up.”

He and his doctor agree that his story demonstrates the importance of athletes paying attention to what their bodies are telling them and take declining athletic performance seriously as a symptom of potential heart problems.

“People kept telling me it’s just age, but I always dismissed that advice. It was so clear to me that I was declining based on my running times,” Grayson said.


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.

Photos: Urbana's Daniel Grayson went from running marathons in under 4 hours (top photo, running the 2013 Illinois Marathon in 4:22) to slow walks around Meadowbrook Park following his triple bypass surgery this past November (bottom photo). But the former University of Illinois faculty member is hopeful to run the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon on April 28. Photos provided by Daniel Grayson


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