50 years of running with a heart condition: Lawrence's story
Lawrence Woodley’s been a keen runner for more than half a century. He tells Rachael Healy how he’s adapted his hobby to accommodate his heart condition.
Lawrence Woodley has been a runner for more than 50 years. Even heart problems won’t end his love of the sport.
Lawrence, now 81, got his first taste for running when he was invited to take part in an insurance industry cross-country competition. “After that, I joined an athletics club in South London, where I progressed to a reasonable standard,” he says.
The first time I broke two minutes in a half-mile race, the chap who won the junior race was Steve Ovett. We're going back that far!
He began track running in summer and doing cross-country races in winter. “I enjoyed learning the craft and performing in all sorts of club races,” says Lawrence. “The first time I broke two minutes in a half-mile race in Brighton, the chap who won the junior half-mile race was Steve Ovett [gold medallist at the 1980 Olympic Games]. We’re going back that far!”
Club runs brought Lawrence lots of enjoyment and he even took part in 17 marathons. The fact that he was good at it helped, of course. “You stick to something where you seem to get a fair amount of success.” But the ability to run any time and anywhere was the biggest appeal. “If I want to play any other sport, I can’t really do it on my own,” he says. “If you want to go for a run, you don’t need anybody else.”
Lawrence winning a quarter marathon in 1986
Diagnosis and adapting to gentler exercise
Lawrence’s job in insurance took him all over the UK, and with each move he would find a new athletics club to indulge his love of running. He now lives in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria, and in November 2014 he started taking part in his local parkrun in Newby Bridge. He completed the 5K in a comfortable 32 minutes each week, and his competitive streak re-emerged as he attempted to beat the times of another keen runner of a similar age. But soon Lawrence’s times slowed to 36, then 38 minutes.
“Suddenly, I found I wasn’t even on the same home straight as him,” says Lawrence. “I would start perfectly normally, but after about 500 yards it was such an effort. I couldn’t understand it. On one occasion, for the first time in my life, I dropped out.”
If I want to play any other sport, I can’t really do it on my own. If you want to go for a run, you don’t need anybody else
In early 2015, Lawrence made a doctor’s appointment. His heart rate and blood pressure persuaded his GP to send him to hospital for further testing. He was diagnosed with left ventricular systolic disorder – a condition where one of the chambers of the heart becomes less efficient at pumping blood around the body, which can lead to heart failure. Lawrence was put on the waiting list to have a CRT-D pacemaker. These can help people with heart failure, by making the heart beat more efficiently.
In the meantime, he was told that he could keep active, as long as he didn’t push himself too much. He continued to take regular gentle exercise and started marshalling for the local parkrun. “You need people who point the way and make sure people don’t stray,” he says.
In August 2016, Lawrence had his pacemaker with defibrillator fitted. “It took about two hours,” he says. “But it’s in there now. It saved my life, as far as I’m concerned.”
Lawrence with his wife Jane
Building up gradually and keeping going
Lawrence began to scale up his level of activity again. “I didn’t have the energy to be running up hills, so I’d walk up the hill, then run down,” he says. “Eventually, I’d start running near the top, then go down, then start running just a bit earlier, until I was running nearly the whole way up the hill. That was my way of building up my capabilities.”
He still takes part in parkruns, but not every week, and also runs in the woods near his house with Jane. “I’ve had a lot of fun out of running in my own time,” he says.
My sentiment is ‘Keep on running’. That’s the song that was playing when I first ran the London Marathon and I still say it to myself
Jane and Lawrence also stay active with gentle hikes and walking holidays. “We get these little books that contain guided walks,” says Lawrence. “Some of them are quite hilly, which can be a struggle, so I just take it steadily and rest when I need to.”
Lawrence has faced more health problems since his heart diagnosis. He sometimes experiences a pain in his leg known as claudication (cramping pain caused by narrowing of the blood vessels in the leg), and has recently been diagnosed with bowel cancer. But he’s fighting on and is determined to stay active.
“It just means that I’ve gone from jogging to ‘toddling’, as I call it,” he says. “But at least I’m still able to do it. I’m a big fan of walking too – sometimes I walk a bit, then run a bit. I’d say to people who are working, get off the bus two stops before you need to and walk the rest of the way.
“But I can’t recommend running highly enough. My sentiment is ‘Keep on running’. That’s the song that was playing when I first ran the London Marathon and I still say it to myself when I go running now.”