Here’s a great story that I found this morning on my Google Reader: WOW!
By Rich Bockmann
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
WEST WINDSOR — Elliot Gordon ran his first marathon in 1984 at the age of 42. A quarter of a century later, while in training for what would have been his 43rd marathon, the interior wall of his aorta ruptured, and he was suddenly given a painful reminder of the lessons learned from one of life’s most challenging tests of endurance.
“Running, in real measure, saved my life,” he says.
In that 1984 run, Gordon completed the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., with a time of three hours and 45 minutes. The accomplishment motivated him to make a goal of perpetually chasing better marathon times. The challenge of competing against himself soon became an integral part of his life.
“I started out with one a year, sometimes two a year, on rare occasions three,” he recounts. “I’ve run the New York marathon, London twice, Rotterdam.”
“Whenever you sign up (for a marathon) things are different,” he said.
While in training, he would run 30 miles a week, two-hour runs on the weekends, striving over periods of years to make small gains and shave the minutes off of his times. “In running, small improvements are measured as big gains,” he said.
In October 1992, a month after turning 50, Gordon ran at a pace of 8:11/mile to finish the Atlantic City Marathon in 3:42:12 — a time that stands today as his personal best. While he recognizes that this time doesn’t put him in the company of elite runners, he’s still proud of the achievement.
As the years went on and Gordon’s body did what ageing bodies do. The paces got slower, the times got longer and he progressed through a few age groups. But it would take more than four-hour-plus times to keep him from running.
He was training to compete in the April 2009 Boston Marathon when he fell ill. Just 15 days before he was set to run, while sitting at his computer at home, he became dizzy. He got down onto the ground so that he could avoid injury when he inevitably fainted.
The next thing Gordon knew, he was regaining consciousness in the intensive care unit at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He had suffered an aortic dissection — a tear of the inner wall of the body’s largest artery. Such an event gives those who don’t die immediately a 50 percent chance of being alive when they reach the hospital.
If those odds aren’t daunting enough, Gordon was first brought to the University Medical Center at Princeton, where he says his dissection was diagnosed as a seizure. After his wife, Linda, contacted his cardiologist, an echocardiogram was ordered and Gordon was finally sent to the hospital at University of Pennsylvania, where he was once again given a 50 percent chance of surviving as he was prepared for surgery.
“The surgeons said I survived because my body was in such good shape. Had I not been training for Boston, I would have died.”
The surgeons were able to save his aortic valve, replacing the aorta itself with a Teflon tube, but the news at this point was far from encouraging. “My chest was still open. They weren’t sure what was going to happen. I was basically just a piece of meat.” He was again given a 50/50 chance of survival.
As he lay in his hospital bed, many of his major organs were dangerously close to failure.
“In order to save my life, they pulled as much blood to my major organs as possible.”
With his extremities drained of blood, he started to suffer from medically induced gangrene. “To the extent I’m alive, that worked.” Gordon was told that his feet had played a significant role in saving his life; now the tips of his toes were turning black. Amputation was being discussed as a possibility.
Gordon kept coming down on the fortunate side of those 50 percent probabilities, and over time his liver regenerated and his condition improved. He was beginning to make small gains.
After a month and a half in the hospital, he was released on May 14. He was 25 pounds lighter and afflicted with a number of health conditions resulting from his ordeal. Three times a week he would travel to St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton for dialysis treatments that he considered somewhat disruptive.
“As a lifesaver, dialysis is wonderful; as a lifestyle, it is barbaric.”
As a goal, his doctors set 20 percent kidney function as the mark that would be “good enough to keep you alive,” he says. Once this goal was reached, and he was off dialysis, Gordon’s life could return to some level of normality.
He was anxious to begin running again, feeling that the act itself would signify recovery. Gordon signed up at his local gym and got on the treadmill, but even though his will was ready, his body was not. The still gangrenous toes would open up, and his shoes would turn red with blood. “I had to relearn the lesson of patience.”
Day after day his physical condition made slight improvements. He got well enough so that he could run from his home to the rubberized running track — the one he had voted against as a taxpayer — at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South. It was unbelievably difficult to run — an experience he likens to running though molasses, but he was happy to be making improvements. “As everyone passed me on the track, I just smiled.”
He was now running 15-minute miles, but in the world of a runner, this was discouragingly slower than the under-10-minute miles he had been running in 2008.
When he complained that his body simply couldn’t perform as it had, his doctor told Gordon that his body had essentially aged 20 years as a result of the dissection.
Little by little, stride by stride, Gordon improved his times, and on Nov. 20, he ran his first post-dissection race. He completed an 8K in Philadelphia in a time of just under 58 minutes — another achievement.
Thinking about the way competitive running fits in his life, Gordon recalls an experience he had when he was a commander in the Navy Reserve. He wanted to be promoted to lieutenant commander and as soon as he was selected, his first thought was: “maybe I can make captain.”
Today, Gordon’s descending aorta still has a residual dissection, so it’s important that he maintains a healthy blood pressure through diet and exercise. “In theory, I’m living with this time bomb.” With only 20 percent kidney function, he doesn’t feel that his body is quite up to the grueling demands a marathon puts on the body.
“Human nature being what it is, I think to myself, maybe I can do a 10K.”
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