By Dave Baker
May 19, 2007: While participating in a sprint distance triathlon, I suffered my first ever DNF. I went to my doctor two weeks later and found out the life-altering news. My left anterior descending artery, commonly called the “widow maker” was 100 percent blocked (bad Genetics, not lifestyle). I did not present any of the normal signs or symptoms of a heart attack. During the race, I thought I was overtrained and coming down with a chest cold. The irreversible damage had been done and unfortunately, a portion of my heart was killed off, decreasing my ejection fraction (The amount of blood pumped out by the heart on each contraction) to half that of a normal heart.
In cardiac rehab after a lifesaving operation, I was only able to walk 200 feet before becoming out of breath. After four months of cardiac rehab, I was allowed to workout on my own without being hooked up to a cardiac monitor. I was given strict orders to never go over 75 percent effort in my training or racing – if I ever chose to race again.
One month shy of one year, I completed my first half-Iron distance triathlon. I was on pace to finish in 6 hours, but with slight cramping in my quads starting at mile 7.5, I stuck with my game plan: enjoy the experience and avoid damage to my body and avoid stressing out about not breaking 6 hours. It was a wonderful experience, and the cramps actually allowed me to take the time during those last miles to think of how far I’ve come since walking those 200 feet post-operation.
May 17, 2008: I lined up to participate in the same race that just a year prior, I almost lost my life too. My goal is to finish healthy and to stick with the 75 percent rule where the need to “red line” your heart is the norm in a sprint (plus to face some demons and get a gorilla on my back).
The emotions that I am feeling range from complete fear to a pure calm. Long story short, I finished. I faced my demons, conquered the fear, and somewhere along the way, I tossed a gorilla off my back.
In one year I went from nearly dead to the podium with a second place finish. I have no doubt that it was the years of training for this sport that made the right side of my heart so strong it kept me alive until an operation could be performed.
Baker, a 50-year-old professional lifeguard, firefighter and EMT, plans to continue his triathlon training.