Alan Gassel’s memory of last year’s Bi-Lo Myrtle Beach Marathon consists of going through a pasta buffet line at his hotel the night before the race.
John Somerindyke has a much more vivid recollection of the events of the 2012 race.
The patrol sergeant with the Fayetteville (N.C.) Police Dept. was the first runner who came upon Gassel after he suffered a heart attack and collapsed just past the 17-mile mark.
Somerindyke helped administer CPR for several minutes before Gassel was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center.
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“I’ve seen plenty of dead people over the years, and I thought for sure that guy was dead,” Somerindyke said.
Not only did Gassel survive – after being resuscitated on two occasions by medical personnel – he’s’ back to run Saturday in the 13.1-mile Dasani Half Marathon. And he won’t be running alone.
Somerindyke, 44, has switched from the marathon to the half marathon in order to run alongside Gassel, a 62-year-old veterinarian from the Knoxville suburb of Farragut, Tenn. The two have remained in contact for the past year and forged a long-distance friendship through emails and a few phone calls.
“I very much appreciate him being there and anticipate feeling the bond,” Gassel said. “I want for him to run his own race and enjoy the celebration afterward, if that happens.”
Somerindyke didn’t anticipate having the opportunity to run with Gassel on race day, but he learned within the past couple weeks that Gassel would be running the half.
“I thought maybe he’d be strong enough to run the 5k [Friday] and I could run with him in that, then run the marathon,” Somerindyke said. “I’m surprised he’s up and running the longer distances, so I wanted to take the opportunity to run with him. I thought it would be pretty cool. We’ll run it together.”
Gassel is a veteran of nearly 40 marathons, trained well leading up to the 2012 Myrtle Beach Marathon and felt strong going into the race. “I enjoy them quite a bit,” Gassel said. “I enjoy the training and running of them. I had no forewarning, no premonition of any of this. I was as well trained as I usually am going into one.”
Based on the times Gassel was given by those who stopped to attend to him, he was running one of his better races.
“Truth of the matter, I was running about as well as I can go,” Gassel said. “When they told me what pace they were on, I was like, ‘Oh really, it’s a shame I went down.’”
Gassel had a plaque buildup that became dislodged and caused a blockage in his coronary artery and the subsequent heart attack.
“I remember someone behind me said, ‘Uh oh, man down,’” Somerindyke recalled. “I looked ahead of me and saw him down. I stopped and asked if he needed some water and I didn’t get any response. I shook him and asked if he was okay, and still didn’t get a response.”
Somerindyke, who fittingly completed CPR recertification Tuesday, was quickly joined around Gassel by Pinehurst, N.C., endodontist James Corcoran, his friend Bill McBerry and a nurse – all of whom were running the race.
“Runners have a reputation as being very caring, closely-knit good people,” Gassel said. “I think that was proven on the course for me. I don’t think any one of them thought twice about what their mission was.”
Corcoran gave chest compressions and Somerindyke gave breaths until paramedics arrived within a few minutes. CPR continued around shocks from a defibrillator, but Somerindyke said Gassel was largely unresponsive before he was placed in the ambulance about 10 ½ minutes after he collapsed, according to Somerindyke’s timer.
Gassel says he was shocked five times with the defibrillator and was revived twice, including once in the emergency room.
When he regained consciousness he asked his wife what happened. “She said I had a heart attack,” Gassel recalled. “I said, ‘Get out of town,’ which isn’t an expression I use often.”
Gassel feels fortunate that he was within a few hundred feet of Grand Strand Regional Medical Center when he collapsed, received the needed medical and personal care from the hospital staff, had runners trained in CPR nearby, and had runners there at all. Had he collapsed during a training run, it’s unlikely he would have survived.
“I’m very grateful I was in a community of runners and the ones that were there were extremely attentive and human,” Gassel said.
Gassel read the hospital care notes a few months after his release. For his benefit, he said doctors kept him unconscious and kept his body temperature below normal for 72 hours. There was some concern about brain function if he survived because blood to the brain was compromised.
In addition to having no recollection of race day, Gassel said he’s had some general sequential memory loss and his vocabulary has regressed, though he said that has been improving.
What he has gained is an enhanced appreciation for life, and others in his community and the running community have expressed their appreciation for Gassel’s life.
“It has been amazing for someone nonchalant about life and in this case death, the outpouring of support, affection and concern,” said Gassel, who was visited in the hospital by Somerindyke a week after the race. “I can’t tell you how many people prayed for me individually or collectively.
“ That was probably the most emphatic aspect of this whole thing. That, and I do have a stronger sense of an appreciation of life and recognition of mortality.”
Back on course
Gassel hasn’t let temporary death slow him down very much.
He is the second runner in the 16-year history of the Myrtle Beach Marathon to suffer cardiac arrest during the race, and is the second to return to the race as a participant.
Darryl Long of Charlotte collapsed on the course in 2005 and was kept alive by other runners and rescue workers before he was transported to the hospital for emergency surgery, and he returned to run again.
“I’m back to living. You don’t stay mired in it,” Gassel said. “You try to regain your identity, and some of my identity is as a runner.”
The Chicago native ran the Chicago Marathon in October to keep a streak of 20 consecutive years alive there. His time was 4 hours, 45 minutes and he reached the halfway point in the race in just over 2 hours. Gassel said he felt good and strong after the race. He ran a 10k race on Thanksgiving, and has won his age group in 5k and 10k races since.
Gassel has qualified for and run in the Boston Marathon five times, and his best marathon time is 3:27. He’d like to again finish inside 4 hours.
“If all goes well in the short term I’ll try to recapture a little bit of what I had before for the next Chicago Marathon,” Gassel said.
Somerindyke isn’t concerned about having to slow his pace much for Gassel. “I saw his split time for the half in Chicago,” Somerindyke said. “I think he’s back up to hoofing it again so he’ll probably give me a run for my money.”
Gassel always intended to get back to running despite some understandable apprehension.
“There was a little fear of getting back, but you have to live,” Gassel said. “There’s a certain eye of the tiger that goes with athletic competitions. I can feel the change. This experience has muted that, not from the enjoyment factor but competitive factor. I don’t know if I’ll get that back. I kind of miss it, but at the same time. ”
The heart attack has led Gassel to change his race and training strategy. He trains in run blocks – walking a minute or two for every 10 or so minutes he runs – and employs the tactic in races of 10k or longer. Although he’ll sometimes push his endurance, especially if he’s feeling good near the end of a race.
“I found since I started doing it and got used to it, psychologically you get used to it, too,” Gassel said. “Coming out of the walk you’re ready to start running again. For a lot of us it washes out pretty well and you can do the same time and maybe better by being stronger.”
Saturday’s race will be Gassel’s second start in the Myrtle Beach Marathon, though he isn’t interested in how many he’s started.
“I’ve run none so far. You count them by the finishes,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. I have fond though unusual memories of it. It will be more celebrational than competitive.
“I think it will have a cathartic effect. I think it being Myrtle Beach where it happened, there will be an appreciation that I’m still here once I cross the finish line.”