Up and running after a heart attack – Mark’s story
After suffering a heart attack, Mark Harrison found solace in running. He tells Rachael Healy about discovering the ‘runner’s high’, and why he’s raising money for the BHF.
“It was just a lazy Saturday. The day before, I’d had fluttery feelings in my chest and put it down to indigestion, but the next morning the pain started and got worse and worse.”
Mark Harrison, a teaching assistant from Staffordshire, was just 39 when his quiet weekend became a health emergency. As the pain in his chest intensified, he knew something was wrong, but he never expected it could be a serious heart event.
“I’ve always been really slim, so I never really exercised or worried about what I ate. This was completely out of the blue.”
Kate, Mark’s partner, rang an ambulance and 10 minutes later paramedics had arrived and were administering medication. “They did an ECG and they were really calm,” says Mark. “But when we got to the hospital there were people waiting and they said to me straight away: ‘You’ve had a heart attack.’
Road to recovery
Mark was taken for an angioplasty and had a stent fitted. After three nights in hospital he returned home, but his journey back to health would last a further six months. He was offered a place on the University Hospital of North Staffordshire’s award-winning cardiac rehabilitation programme, where he met rehab practitioner Paul Stern.
“He was absolutely amazing,” says Mark. “PE wasn’t my thing at school; I’d done cross country and stuff, but nothing had ever stuck. Paul took me through different things like the rowing machine, the bike and the treadmill. I did little bits of each and my confidence grew.
I found running was something I could do and Paul was really supportive. He just said: ‘If you’re comfortable, then do as much as you feel you can.’”
This advice stuck with Mark. When cardiac rehab finished, he decided to keep on running and began challenging himself to cover greater distances. (Remember: if you’ve had a heart event, check with your GP before taking up a new form of exercise.)
“When I came out of hospital, it was just a short walk for a few minutes. After a while, I’d run for five minutes around the block. As time’s gone on, I’ve built up the distance and the length of time. [In 2013] I ran about 700 miles, and I’ve done five half marathons and eight 10k races.”
Last year, Mark set himself a goal of running 1,000 miles and decided to use the challenge as an opportunity to raise money for the BHF. “I know the valuable work that you’re doing for people who have been through what I’ve been through,” he says.
“If it wasn’t for their work and the people at the NHS and people like Paul Stern, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing and I wouldn’t be here. All the help that I got over the last three years, I just want to give a little bit back.”
Mark found that, together with support from Heart Matters and the NHS, running has helped his physical and mental recovery. “It’s just brilliant; it’s time away from everything. Sometimes I think things through, and sometimes I think of nothing at all,” he says.
He even discovered that running could be a useful study aid. Last year, as he was completing a BA in early childhood studies, evening runs brought academic inspiration.
“I found that when I was running, I’d think of phrases to use for my dissertation, so I’d grab my phone and record a few sentences. I just feel brilliant when I come back from a run.”
I just feel brilliant when I come back from a run
Mark’s most memorable running experience happened in 2012. After months of slow-but-steady training, he signed up to the Newcastle-under-Lyme Seven (now the Newcastle 10k).
“I’m a volunteer for the Samaritans and I have a colleague who runs. He said: ‘Do this race with me, have a go, I think you’ll be ready for it.’ That was the first race I did, and I had a really close friend and my brother running with me. That was really good.”
Mark believes anyone who’s ever considered running should just go for it. “Give it a try,” he says. “It’s really cheap to do – all you need is a half-decent pair of trainers, and everybody’s got a pair of shorts or tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt.
“Even if it’s just running for two minutes, give it a try for a couple of weeks. If you don’t like it, fine, but I’d guess if you do it for a few weeks or a couple of months, you will become hooked. You’ll become addicted and you’ll have to run. I have to do it now. I have to run.”
Running with the BHF
You could get running and raise funds for the BHF at the same time. We’ve got some major runs coming up in the next few months:
Register online and find our training plans, tailored to all fitness and experience levels.