How Running Saved the Life of an Olympian: Lynn Jennings’ Story
Posted on February 20 2014
I met Lynn Jennings for the first time last summer. She had emailed me out-of-the-blue earlier in the year to ask if I might be interested in coming to Craftsbury, VT in July to be a coach/speaker at one of the annual adult running camps. It’s not every day that you get an email from an Olympic medalist, and I was a bit star-struck by the experience. Spend a week in northern VT hanging out with other runners and learning from an Olympian? My decision didn’t require much deliberation.
I wound up spending almost two weeks in Crafstbury last summer, and Lynn quickly became a good friend. She’s an amazing runner to be sure – 9 time US cross-country champion, 3 time World cross-country champion, and bronze medalist in the 10,000m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. However, it quickly became clear that Lynn is also an amazing and inspirational person. She’s a dog-lover and a naturalist. She’s kind, smart, and she has a will as strong as that of anyone I have ever met. She still runs almost every day (and competes quite well as a sculler – won her age group at the 2012 Head of the Charles Regatta), and her running camps are all about learning, working hard, having fun, and being healthy. And I have to give special props to someone who is willing to stop by my house on her trips to NH to deliver me growlers of Hill Farmstead beer!
A few weeks ago Lynn and I were discussing scheduling for this summer’s Craftsbury camps. We had pretty much nailed things down when I received an email from her saying that something had come up that she had to attend to. Several weeks went by. I worried maybe something had happened to her beloved dog Towhee.
Last week I received an email from Lynn that stopped me cold. She had almost died. But she didn’t. She is alive today due to a toughness developed in competition and a physiology built by a lifetime of running.
After exchanging a few emails, Lynn offered to write up her experience and wanted me to publish it here. To say I was honored that she wanted me to help tell her story is a monumental understatement.
Lynn’s story should remind everyone of why we run. PR’s are great, Olympic medals even better. But running saved Lynn’s life, and life is more important than any achievement in competition.
Read on – Lynn’s story in her own words:
Like every other long-time runner I had spent the waning days of December planning for and dreaming about the fresh year ahead. I may not race any more, yet running is a solid daily cornerstone and an ordering principle in my life. Long past my salad days as an elite runner, I am now an avid daily trail runner and a competitive sculler. Being bicoastal between the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont and my home in Portland, Oregon means I get to sample the best of two alluring places.
When in Portland, I run on the extensive trails in Forest Park which is about a mile from my front door. I’d been logging daily trail runs, but on January 10, 2104 I started a run and within 100 meters had to stop. I was so breathless that I had to put my hands on my knees and walk. I persevered through the run by walking when I needed to (definitely a first for me), and by the time I got back to the Leif Ericson gate, I was sure I was anemic and made plans to go for some blood work.
Four days later, walking around the block in the pre-dawn hours with my dog Towhee, I was suddenly unable to breathe. I was blacking out. My hands and feet were icy. I was dizzy. I sat down on the sidewalk, in the dark, unable to stand or continue on. Towhee pressed against my side and stood stock still. I sat there until a man passed by and asked me if I needed help. He was persistent and kept asking me over and over until I was able to whisper, “yes” and he helped me up. Alone, I forced myself to cover the remaining 300 meters home on foot, willing myself to get there. I struggled up the front steps and realized I was in big trouble.
I texted my neighbor for help and she drove me less than a mile to the hospital. I staggered into the Emergency Room. I wasn’t even able to tell the people behind the desk my name. They shoved me into a wheelchair and took me into the back. It was terrifying.
It turns out I survived an acute bilateral pulmonary embolism. The doctors couldn’t decide whether to stage me as sub-massive or massive, my lung involvement was so large. Since I survived intact, I guess they went with sub-massive. I don’t really know. Both of my lungs were loaded with clots, many of them large. My right lung was not working and my left lung was severely compromised. I was told in no uncertain terms by cardiologists, pulmonary specialists, internists, radiologists and ER nurses and doctors that the size, strength and power of my lungs and heart are what saved me since my heart was under severe strain and pressure. The lung involvement that I had with a less able set of lungs and a less able heart would have lead to a different outcome.
My attending physician told me she believed that my push to get up off the sidewalk and my extreme will to drive for home exerted enough pressure on my lungs such that some clots might have moved around a bit, buying me more breathing capacity so I could get home and then to the ER. Short of that happening, she had no explanation why I was still around.
After 5 days in the hospital and a staggering amount of tests, lab work and exams, it appears the cause is idiopathic. I had none of the usual risk factors and no symptoms other than the breathless run four days before. I didn’t feel great the weekend between the breathless run and having to go to the ER, but I chalked it up to the possible anemia.
Being a runner saved my life. The redundancy in my left lung, my strong and powerful heart and my honed tenacity and iron will are what got me home that morning.
I have been a runner since I was 14 and the only girl on the boys’ cross country team in Harvard, MA. Whether I was toeing the line at the Olympics, at the World Cross Country Championships or running 100 miles a week in training, I did it because running reminded me exactly who I am and what I am made of. These years later it remains purely so.
I’ve got a long trail ahead of me in order to recover and get better. Tucked into my thoughts is the memory of being a consistent stop on the morning rounds of the doctors, cardiologists and internists when I was in the hospital. Every one of them wanted to come and talk to the Olympian whose resting and sleeping heart rate hovered between 29 – 38. Some mornings my bed was surrounded by residents, 3rd year medical students and the presiding doctor – all of whom were eager to learn from an aerobic specimen.
I, in turn, wanted them to see what running did for me aside from records, medals and national titles – it saved my life.