Out-of-shape people can hit the ground running

Medical Matters

April 20, 2007|By Judy Foreman | Judy Foreman,Special to the Sun

This week, Larry Haydu attempted something that most people would have assumed was impossible - and perhaps even unadvisable. Haydu, 56, who was almost completely sedentary until last summer, ran in the Boston Marathon.

He and 11 teammates --- all exempted from having to qualify for Monday's race --- ran as part of an experiment dreamed up by exercise physiologists and nutritionists at Tufts University and NOVA, which is making a documentary on the project that will air in the fall.

The idea, said Miriam Nelson, a Tufts nutritionist, three-time Boston Marathoner and the project's chief scientific consultant, is to see whether totally out-of-shape people, some of whom also have chronic diseases and weight problems, can reverse the health effects of decades of inactivity.

Haydu, a licensed clinical social worker, was determined to run the 26 miles, 285 yards in about 5 1/2 hours. He didn't quite do that: he finished in 6:17:01, though no one, least of all Haydu himself, would have predicted that he would at all run, given his history.

How did it feel? "I'm feeling happy and proud that I ran and finished the Boston Marathon," he wrote in an e-mail afterward.

"Surprised and pleased that I am not limping around the house today. I'm sore, but I am loving this sore; relieved for my parents, who were quietly but intensely anxious that this would kill me; relieved for me that it didn't kill me, and that I felt as good and as strong as I did; amazed and gratified when I think of the years I stood on the route admiring the guts of the people who ran by, thinking it was more than I could ever do, AND I DID IT!!"

Thirteen years ago, at 43, Haydu had a serious heart attack while shoveling snow. He had been a high school sprinter and soccer player and, despite a sedentary lifestyle as an adult, still clung "to the notion that I was in pretty good shape, but just didn't happen to be exercising."

The heart attack, he said, "jolted me out of this fantasy that I was still young and fit."

He remembers tucking his then-5-year-old daughter into bed shortly after his attack and catching sight of his shadow on the wall. "I thought, `I am not going to be just a shadow in her life. ... ' I was scared about dying, but I thought, `Goddamn it, I am not going to.'"

He improved his diet, and religiously took his heart medications --- statins, niacin, beta-blockers and a daily aspirin. He even fantasized about running a marathon "but bemoaned the fact that I never would, because I had had this heart attack and was older and hadn't exercised much."

But last spring, his daughter, Jessica, now a college student, learned about the Tufts/NOVA experiment and suggested he sign up. He went through a battery of tests with his cardiologist to see whether it would be safe to begin rigorous training, and, like the other recruits, began regular testing by the Tufts scientists.

The researchers checked cholesterol, C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), weight, body scans to assess the ratio of fat to muscle, and "VO2 max," a test that measures how efficiently the body can deliver oxygen to the muscles.

Until the NOVA show airs, the Tufts scientists won't talk about the medical changes they've seen in their novice athletes. But Haydu provided The Boston Globe with before-and-after test results from his private doctor.

His total cholesterol levels, already within normal range, presumably because of his medications, haven't changed much. But what delights him is that his HDL, or "good" cholesterol, has jumped from a respectable 64 to a dazzling 82 milligrams per deciliter. He's lost five pounds off his already-skinny frame, and is convinced he's gained muscle.

Not that the training has been easy. At first, he recalled, "I went out to run and found I could manage 100 yards." That's about the length of a football field. Gradually, he ran/walked his way up to two miles, then four, eventually running, alone or with the group, five to seven hours a week.

Recently, he and the others ran 20 miles, along the actual marathon route.

The experience, he said, has been as "transformative" mentally as it has been physically, in large part because of the close bonds the 12 teammates formed. The others all finished, too.

The most valuable benefit has been "the whole trajectory around trusting my body. That took a hit when I had the heart attack," he said, "and a mini-hit" when he tore a muscle last winter while training.

Going out in the cold winter months also took a leap of faith because doctors had told him that it was the cold air combined with the sudden exertion of shoveling and his lack of fitness that triggered his heart attack. Nervously at first, then with more confidence, he ran through the winter, often an eight-mile loop through Sudbury, Mass.

By last weekend, he was ready, He'd learned not just to run, but also to manage the "head games" and discouraged thinking that often plagues distance athletes. When he hit the hills on Monday, there was a voice inside repeating: "I'm strong. I can do this."

He also had another secret weapon - his daughter, who ran the final 8 1/2 miles with him.

Running the marathon, he said, feels "like renewing the commitment I made to her when she was 5."

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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