Pushing the Boundaries: A Marathon with Half a Heart

This week ultrarunner Alice Hector writes about her sister Ruth, and her capacity to endure against the odds.

Pushing the Boundaries: A Marathon with Half a Heart

"Most of the limitations we think we have exist only in our head" Ruth Hector, single ventricle heart patient and marathoner.

My sister Ruth was born with a single ventricle heart. This made her heart was very weak and her oxygen carrying ability was severely compromised, to the point where she often became exhausted and turned blue, and had to be carried upstairs to bed.

From birth she was given a 60/40% chance of survival and Ruth’s childhood was dominated by hospital visits, life-saving surgery and extended stays in intensive care.

She is still single ventricle and will be for life, but her heart has been adapted so it can do an adequate job. She should be sedentary and careful, given her condition...

but Ruth recently completed a marathon.

Here’s her story below:

Ruth, you have a single ventricle heart, how does this limit you?

I almost didn’t survive my first 5 years, however two rounds of open heart surgery when I was young, and with a daily dose of drugs to mitigate the effects of my heart defect, I now enjoy a normal, active life.

Heart defects can have debilitating effects and in theory with my ‘half a heart’ I should have been reliant on a wheelchair or mobility scooter, and tank of oxygen to get around.

My capacity for anaerobic exercise is reduced. I can sustain a slow run for about 10 minutes before chest pain forces me to stop. My legs will still be fresh as a daisy but my pumping power can’t keep up!

I used to attend weekly hour-long zumba classes, had a lot of fun and got a good workout, but after about four weeks I had to stop due to my heart protesting again. Which was a shame because I really enjoyed it!

However, these ‘protests’ only apply to intense aerobic exercise. When it comes to moderate exercise I can do as much as the next person. I take weekly salsa dancing classes, walk at least 2.5 hours a day, and swim occasionally, alongside my full-time job with the BBC. Likewise I can go for a night out and dance until closing time! So I can live a normal, active life.

Why did you decide on the marathon?

I love being out in the open and the fresh air – I can’t stand being cooped up indoors all day! I walk a lot anyway – to work, from work, out at lunchtime, into town, round parks, through woods, up hills…anywhere!

When I saw the Cancer Research UK night time walking marathon advertised on a train I knew straight away that I wanted to do it. I’d had the idea of wanting to walk a marathon for a few years so I jumped at the chance!

As well as raising money for charity, I loved the idea of a personal challenge, to find out how much I was capable of. I was determined to achieve it!

How did you prepare?

They sent us a training regime but I ignored it because I do so much walking anyway!

How did you find it?

It was easy…to start with! It felt like I’d hardly started before I passed the first mile sign. By around 10 miles my hamstrings were on fire but it’s one of those things that you just forget about after a while.

At around 17 – 18 miles I felt terrific: strong, alive and invincible! In fact I kept breaking into a run to catch up with people in front.

At 20 miles the tables turned… I became very sleepy and just wanted to fall into bed! But that was where the ‘challenge’ element really began, so I wasn’t giving in. Two hours later I crossed the finish line triumphant with a big smile on my face. I was tired, thirsty and aching but I didn’t care because I had done it! It took 8 hours.

What would you say to anyone out there a bit daunted to go the distance?

You are capable of a lot more than you think. Treat your body with respect and it will flourish into the fit, vigorous, well-oiled machine nature intended. Most of the limitations we think we have exist only in our head. Believe in your abilities. There is a lot of potential inside you. Go and find it! If I can do it, you definitely can!

If someone like Ruth can complete a challenge like that, then what’s stopping you?