The Heart Attack I Never Saw Coming

As a 51-year-old life-long endurance athlete, a heart attack was never on my radar. My blood pressure and cholesterol were both normal and I had a resting heart rate around 50 bpm. I immersed myself in the endurance lifestyle for the love of it. A strong, healthy heart was the logical byproduct.

Once news spread of my condition, support poured in from friends and family, but they all had the same question: how could an active and healthy athlete suffer a heart attack? They wanted to know if there were warning signs or if I should quit running.

These were the same questions running through my head. I’m sharing my story with you so we can all understand what happened and why we should take the warning signs seriously.

In March of this year, I was in the middle of basic winter training: running 30-40 miles and cycling 125 miles per week. Seemingly overnight, I went from peak form to experiencing shortness of breath and chest pains during exercise. I couldn’t keep up on the bike with my training partners and my running pace took a dive. Every movement became a struggle.

I went in for a physical, including an EKG, echocardiogram, and treadmill stress test. All results came back normal and I was assured, “It’s not your heart.”Over the next few months I was put on antibiotics, steroids, an an inhaler, but nothing helped.

As summer came, nothing improved. Despite being unable to perform at my usual level, I kept trying to train. Every step I ran and rotation on the bike, I struggled to breath in enough air. There was no joy left in my workouts. I was gaining weight and losing strength with no solution on the horizon.

In the middle of July, I wasn’t feeling good on my Saturday morning ride. I was queasy with a headache and had an even harder time keeping up with the group. I turned around after 20 minutes to head home. As I was pedaling, my chest started aching and the pain spread to my left shoulder and arm, neck, and jaw. Even though they said it wasn’t my heart, I checked the heart rate monitor and it was normal. I stopped and stretched, thinking it could be a cramp in my chest or shoulder area. In hindsight, it clearly a heart attack, but I couldn’t see that and continued riding eight miles home.

After feeling weak and sick for a while, my wife finally convinced me to go to the emergency room four days later. I drove myself there and brought my laptop so I could get work done if I was waiting all day. (In retrospect, that seems absurd.) When I mentioned chest pains, they bumped me to the front of the line. Within 20 minutes the ER physician came in to tell me that I was having a heart attack at that very moment.

The cardiologist found a completely blocked posterior descending artery and inserted a 32mm stent. They informed me that sometime back in early 2016, I developed Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD). It begins with a small tear in the lining of the artery. Blood flow causes the tear to worsen and that loose flap of tissue begins to block the artery and restrict blood flow to the heart. SCAD is a rare condition and can affect those of any age, including people in good physical shape and no heart issues.

Those months where I struggled to breathe happened because my heart wasn’t getting enough oxygen until the artery became completely blocked and caused a heart attack. Forty-eight hours later, I walked out of the hospital feeling like nothing had happened. After six weeks of rest and restricted exercise, I should be ready to return to my normal workout schedule and get back in shape for the 2017 race season!

SCAD is a serious life-threatening condition and I was extremely lucky to walk away from this experience. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to prevent or even predict the occurrence of SCAD, but it’s important to take the symptoms seriously. If you feel shortness of breath during easy exercise, get yourself checked out immediately. Catching symptoms earlier on will mitigate future damage. And if you know your body well and you know something is wrong, don’t settle until you find out exactly what’s going on. Life is short and we have to make the most of it!

By Kevin Leathers. Photo by Tindall Farmer.

Originally published at

2 Comments on The Heart Attack I Never Saw Coming

  1. Thanks for posting this article. Kevin, you continue to be an inspiration for the community, I appreciate you taking the time to share your story for others to be aware of. It’s amazing to see you investing in others to reach their potential and goals (and train smart!!) I have nothing but the highest respect for you! Look forward to seeing you reach your own goals for 2017!


  2. Christine Donovan // October 1, 2016 at 11:28 AM // Reply

    Thanks for sharing your story. Hopefully this information will help others to be aware of their symptoms & get the immediate medical help they need.
    Hugs to you Coach Kevin and wishes for continued good health!


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