“It’s when I feel most like me” – the woman who swims through ice
Paul Parkin remembers the exact words he said to his wife Kaye before heading out for a run, even though it’s been four years since he said: “I’m just off out, I’ll be back soon.” However, four miles into that five-mile (eight km) run – “just an easy jog, really” – he suddenly realised things were not good.
“I felt sick, I had the classic arm and chest pain symptoms, and I knew for certain I was having a heart attack,” he recalls.
What follows is nothing short of remarkable and proof of the body’s power to heal. He stumbled on for another mile – incredible in itself – before collapsing in the car park, having banged on a window to ask for help. In the next frantic hours, he was blue-lighted to a specialist hospital, his heart stopped, and finally he was saved. “Don’t worry,” said his surgeon. “We’ll get you running marathons again.”
Despite Parkin’s surgeon insisting he’d be running again before he knew it, he wasn’t so sure. “I’ve always run, but mostly 10ks and cross-country races locally,” he says, modestly admitting he’s represented his home county of Lincolnshire in various national events. “But I have to say I was more relieved at being alive than thinking about my next race.”
His passion for running has also taken him all over the world, as he is a physiotherapist, massaging and loosening up fellow Masters runners (anyone over the age of 35) at World and European Championships.
“It’s fair to say I was very fit,” he says. But he also knew he had to be careful, as his father had died of heart problem aged just 49. “And he was a decent cyclist; not Tour de France level, but pretty good nonetheless.”
Running did take back seat as Paul raised a family and built his career, but he was still serious about it. So, by 2019, with his children grown up, he decided he’d like to devote a little more time to the sport, and in September of that year he raced in the European Masters Athletics Championships Half Marathon in Venice.
“I did OK, but not great given my past results,” he recalls. “So, I asked Kaye when I got back if she minded if I train a little harder and see what I could achieve. I got the thumbs up, so to start with, I went out for that quick five-miler.” It turned out to be much more than just an easy run.
“I knew I had to get back to the car park. I was in severe pain and felt really sick,” recalls Parkin. Luckily for him, there was someone there who wasted no time in calling 999. “I was then taken to Lincoln where there’s a specialist unit and I was fitted with two stents. On the way, though, I remember thinking, ‘We’re never going to get there,’ so thanks to the crew for saving me. My heart actually stopped at one point,” he continues.
It was in this chaos, Parkin also recalls being pushed out into the corridor and being told: “We’ll have you back running marathons.”
Parkin started his cardiac rehab within a few weeks, but even he was surprised at how quickly he was encouraged to progress. “First things first, I had to go and finish that run, so I walked the final mile that I had crawled just a few weeks’ earlier,” he laughs. “And I got up to walking 10 miles (16 km) very quickly. After that, it was about returning to running. I was a little nervous, but I ran a bit and walked a bit to see how everything was going.”
In a strange turn of events, lockdown also did him a favour, as he could devote more time to using his treadmill, where it’s a bit easier to check things such as your pulse rate. “I even ran a half marathon and remember thinking ‘wow’.”
From there, it’s been a case of gradual progression. He returned to running his beloved cross-country races, starting at the back of the field after everybody else had gone. In that way, he avoided the temptation to race.
And after two years, he felt ready to run the Yorkshire Marathon. “I set myself the goal of three hours 30 minutes, as that’s the time used as a benchmark to select the England over-55s team. I managed three hours 48 minutes but towards the end I had to walk for a bit and then couldn’t get going again.”
Since then, he’s improved to just over 21 minutes for 5k, his favoured distance. “I look back to where I was and where I am now, and I can’t believe it,” he says.
World Heart Day is on September 29 and is a reminder to everyone around the world to take care of their hearts. This year’s campaign focuses on the essential step of knowing our hearts.
Parkin is keen to stress that everybody is individual and, of course, you need to consult your surgeon. June Davison, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, says: “Getting back into exercise after a heart attack can feel daunting, but being active can strengthen your heart and help your recovery. Regular physical activity has well-documented benefits for reducing blood pressure, improving cholesterol, and keeping your weight under control, which can all help to reduce your risk of future heart problems. It can also give your mental health an all-important boost.
“Before you start, it’s vital you speak to your GP, nurse or cardiac rehab team for advice on what activity would be the best for you, and how to build up gradually. Starting small can help to build your confidence and get you back on your feet and feeling better. Gentle walking is a good way to start. Do what you can manage, and gradually increase the time you walk for.”
Remember, says Davison: “The BHF’s information and support services can give you help and guidance on any heart question that bothers you, no matter how big or small. To find out more, search ‘BHF questions’ or for further information, visit bhf.org.uk.”
“I joined a Facebook group which includes runners who have had cardiac issues. They are extraordinary. It’s full of people who have flipped their life around. They’ve said to themselves: ‘I need to do this, otherwise I’ll be dead.’ Now they achieve things they never thought possible.”
“The mental side of a heart attack is a big thing, and I constantly worry about how my wife would cope without me. The stress can be a big thing if you don’t take measures to tackle it.”
“Don’t go mad all at once. It’s taken me four years to get to where I am, and I still have to check back. Slow down.”
“You do need to make sure you take it much easier early on in your run. Warm up your heart and lungs. Never skimp on a warm-up.”
Written by Paul Larkins
Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors.
But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide. In fact, he’s still very competitive. In 2022 he ran in the World Masters’ Mountain Running Champs in the over-55 age group and is now looking forward to moving up a category and taking on the 60-year-olds.
He’s also part of the England Team Management set-up in road running as well as being an England team coach in the U18 age group for track and field athletics. Currently, he coaches a group of athletes ranging from 13 years old to 55 at his local club.
Outside of work, Paul loves cooking and driving classic cars. He’s owned everything from a 1966 Ford F-250 pickup to a clapped-out 1987 Porsche 944. He’s married to Elaine and they have a West Highland White Terrier named Benji, who’s not that keen on being timed for every run!