Trail runner, Philip van Wyk, remembers his heart attack ordeal while out running in the Paarl nature reserve

Trail runner, Philip van Wyk, remembers his heart attack ordeal while out running in the Paarl nature reserve

A story of fitness, trail running and a heart attack

When my wife got out of the car in front of the ER, I told her I would not be able to get out. Tears were forming in my eyes as I thought at that moment it would be the last time that  I saw her and my thoughts went to my kids at home. It almost sounds like a cliché, but at that moment I made a conscious decision to fight, to live and enjoy my responsibility as a husband and father. I got out and walked to the wheelchair.

Moving emotion and drama to one side for now, this is my story of a heart attack while trail running.

Back in November 2019, 2 weeks before the  UTCT 100km, I went for a heart sonar and a cardiac ablation, although the ablation part never happened. Luckily, as it was hectic enough that something is poking around  in your heart, making it go crazy, all the while being wide awake. The reason being a rhythm problem that the doctors were worried about, which turned out to be a magnesium shortage. I was cleared to start running again three days after being in ICU and ran my first 100km two weeks later. Whoohoo!!

Fast forward to May 2020, and after starting training with Coach Neville in January of 2020, I was running like never before. Running up climbs I had to walk before and overall, feeling amazing and very fit.

I woke up at 5am on the 23rd of May and was looking forward to a 25km trail run in Paarl Mountain reserve. It’s actually open in lockdown, so keeping to the rules of my 5km lockdown radius, I could still enjoy a big part of the trails up there. At 6am my running partner joined me (she is super-fast) and off we went for a fun morning out on the trails. As we came down the mountain at about 20km, feeling awesome and cruising down at 4min/km pace, I started feeling a pain in my back and chest. So, pushing my pride to one side I stopped to rest at the top of a short hill and that’s when things went south.

I tried to run again, but no go. Then I tried to walk and managed a few steps before sitting down with pain like never before. At that stage I thought it was a spasm in my back. It was cold so I manage to move to a sunny patch a few metres away and sat down while my chest was screaming at me. I phoned my wife to come and get me, but as this was not the first time that I wanted a lift, she was in no hurry. If you run enough this is something that will happen sooner or later. The please come and get me part, that is.

While I was sitting, people stopped and gave advice (it was very crowded between 8 and 9am with this crazy training window during Covid-19) on low glucose and offer sugar treats (thank you for trying to help) until a doctor who was out on his morning ride stopped. Luckily my running partner had a Disprin with her so I took it at the doctor’s orders, while he phoned ER at Medi Clinic to arrange that they leave Covid-19 testing and instead get me stabilised as quickly as possible.

I will not go into all the detail, but God had the good sense (I say that with the utmost respect) to put the Doctor, who was part of the team looking at my heart rhythms in 2019 in the ER exactly at the time I came in. He knew me inside out. Wow, I’m telling you if that is not a nice gesture from God, I don’t know what is.

Forward to writing this story and what happened. Basically I was fit as a fiddle Saturday morning with no sign of cardiovascular disease (by the way, there is still no sign) and while running a very small piece of plaque in the coronary artery came loose and formed a blood clot that completely blocked the artery in the right side of the heart. Cardiologists called it a major heart attack. A big part of the right heart was cut off and for obvious reasons the rest of the body does not like it that much.

The solution was simple enough, open it up and put in a stent to close the very small imperfection on the inside of the artery. I can tell you it’s the best feeling in the world when the artery opens up. Instant pain relief.

The miracle in all this, besides the fact that I am alive, according to the cardiologist, is the fact that my heart shows no sign of a heart attack. Everything is functioning as it should and after 10 days of walking, I should be able to start running again.

Everything just worked out perfectly that day. From my running partner who had a Disprin (probably saving my life), the doctor on his morning ride, the doctor in the ER, the amazing nurses, the cardiologist and without a doubt my wife, who stayed super calm and collective during this ordeal.

And the cardiologist’s advice: Keep on running and start training again as soon as possible. We are human and anything can happen, even to a seemingly healthy individual like myself. The fact that my heart is strong and that I’m fit helped more than I would imagine according to the cardiologist and recovery is exponentially faster when fit.

Am I worried that it can happen again? You bet I am. Will it stop me from running, heck no, only with a Garmin in reach for safety.

Coach Neville

For the past 22 years I have helped hundreds of runners achieve their dreams, using the Recovery Based Training System I have developed. 

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