Jill Didham has never in her life done a cartwheel, but on Friday, she felt like she could do them all the way down the 5th floor hall at St. Clare’s Hospital.
Her husband, Mark, had opened his eyes for the first time in almost a week, squeezed her hand and nodded when she asked if he knew who she was.
“It was amazing,” Jill says. “It was something I never thought I could ever feel.”
Other than his wife and their dogs, Mark, 30 and a native of Whitbourne, has no bigger passion than running. Since picking up the sport about four years ago, running has become a big part of Mark’s life, and he regularly competes in road races, earning impressive times.
When it comes to a race, you might say Mark goes overboard when it comes to preparation. Leading up to last week’s Tely 10, for example, Mark not only did the required physical conditioning, but prepared himself mentally.
In the days before the race, he watched what he ate and drank, making sure to have the recommended amount of protein and carbs and hydration to allow him to keep up his strength to the finish line. He urged fellow runners, through his Facebook page, to stay hydrated in the heat. He tracked everything about his runs, and kept note of it in a file on his computer: his pace, stride, heart rate. He knew more or less exactly how long it was going to take him to run the 10 miles, even giving his mother, Betty, a five-minute window for the time she should look out for him to run past the spot where she’d be on the course, cheering him on.
Jill’s friend, as she’s done in years past, sent Jill a snap of Mark from her phone as he ran past her during the race, letting her know he should be arriving at the finish line on Bannerman Road in about 15 minutes, according to Mark’s own calculations.
Twenty minutes later, when he hadn’t arrived, Jill started to wonder if he was ok. It wasn’t long after that, that the RNC and staff at St. Clare’s called her cell phone to tell her she should probably get to the hospital.
“Fear, of course,” Jill says of her first reaction. “But I still didn’t expect this. I thought they’d probably be giving him oxygen and fluids and we’d be on the way home.”
Instead, Jill found herself in what she calls a nightmare: her first glimpse of Mark was with his eyes rolled back, gasping for breath. Doctors told her he would have to be ventilated and put into an induced coma, and they were taking things hour by hour.
Mark is suffering from heat stroke — a potentially life-threatening condition that happens when the body’s internal temperature reaches more than 40 C. Untreated, heatstroke can damage the heart, kidneys, liver, brain and muscles.
Mark wasn’t the only Tely 10 runner who required medical attention due to the heat and humidity during the race; of the 3,700 or so that ran, a few dozen were sent to hospital for treatment.
In the days after the Tely 10, organizers noted they have been very active in promoting safe race practices in the media and on social media, and had taken the step of increasing water supplies to 1,000 litres at each of the four water stations along the route. They added Gatorade to the fourth station, where only water was available in previous years.
“We have the water. They need to drink it,” George Stanoev, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Athletics Association told The Telegram last week. “Some people are going through the water station thinking they have their own supplies and they’ll survive. It’s a combination of factors that contribute to the problems.”
Once runners start pushing themselves to achieve their very best, they often forget about the consequences, Stanoev said,
Jill and her family say they were a little disappointed in the organizers’ remarks. Mark was as prepared as possible for the race — having done everything Stanoev suggested, they say — but the heat affected him anyway, and could have done the same to any of the runners.
Jill and Betty have gone over the information recorded by Mark’s GPS watch during the Tely 10, and can’t find anything abnormal in terms of his heart rate or pace to suggest he was in any kind of distress. A video of Mark taken less than a mile before he was picked up by paramedics shows him running steadily and checking his watch.
“There was no indication he was in any kind of distress,” Betty says. “Mark is an accountant — he’s logical and he’s methodical. He wasn’t running to try and outdo anyone. There was no one more physically or mentally prepared for the race than Mark.
Mark’s family are hoping the NLAA will make some changes to the Tely 10 after this.
“Why have the race in July? With climate change, this is only going to get worse. And 1,000 litres of water (at each station) is not a lot, when you think there are almost 4,000 runners.”
Stanoev said there’s a possibility organizers will add a fifth and maybe a sixth water station to the course next year, and he’s expecting some discussion about changing either the race date or start time.
A week ago, Jill, Betty and other family members and friends finished the Tely 10 for Mark, with Jill wearing his bib number. Jill says organizers have offered to give him his participant medal, but his family has declined.
In the meantime, Mark is making progress. As of press time, he was still in intensive care but awake and off the ventilator, with what Jill says is a long road ahead of him.
“He’s a fighter. He’s going to get through this,” she says. “He will want to run again after this. Will I want him to? No way.”