When Juan Sanchez runs, it’s almost always without his shirt on, as if the fabric might slow him down or interfere with his desire to commune spiritually with nature and with God.
Running is the 45-year-old St. Helena man’s escape, both from life’s daily concerns and from a family legacy he doesn’t want to inherit. Running also is what filled the floor-to-ceiling cabinet in the Pope Street home that he built with dozens of medals he earned at marathons and ultra-marathons across the North Bay and the country.
“There’s elite runners that are just the best there is, and just beneath them is another layer. That’s where Juan is,” said Art Webb, a legendary Santa Rosa runner and co-founder of the city’s marathon who has twice competed with Sanchez at Badwater, a 135-mile lung-scorcher on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada that bills itself as the world’s toughest footrace.
Perhaps the day will come when Sanchez, a construction worker, again will lace up his running shoes and slip on his tight compression shorts — what his wife, Katie, refers to as his Superman attire — and head out again to indulge the passion that had him running 140 miles in a single week, the equivalent of more than five marathons.
But that won’t happen today or any time soon.
Seemingly in the best shape of his life, Sanchez recently underwent surgery for a potentially life-threatening heart arrhythmia that may have been exacerbated or even caused by running, the very thing that brought him solace.
The surprise discovery came after a 62-mile race in Folsom this spring. Sanchez experienced unusual fatigue during the May 10 event and days later visited a Napa clinic out of concern. He wore his running attire, anticipating that he would lead a group run later that day to raise money for a St. Helena elementary school.
But tests, including an EKG, revealed his resting heart rate to be an alarming 170 beats per minute. A doctor told Sanchez that the only place he should run to was an emergency room.
“It’s shocking,” Sanchez said. “I always suspected to have, in the future, issues with my ankles, my knees, my feet, whatever. The last thing I expected to have issues with was my heart.”
Sanchez’s new journey with heart disease thrusts him into a national debate over whether endurance sports such as ultra-running, cycling and triathlons can increase a person’s risk for severe injury or premature death. The exploding popularity of these pursuits is reflected on the North Coast in such high-profile events as the Vineman triathlon and Levi’s GranFondo, the long-distance cycling ride, as well as in dozens of lesser-known events held practically every weekend year-round.
The debate has been fueled by the rising number of patients who some doctors say are showing up in their offices with cardiac ailments, including enlarged hearts, that are associated in some way with their pursuit of endurance sports.
A number of high-profile deaths have also elevated the issue. They include Brian Maxwell, an elite long-distance runner, coach and the founder of PowerBar, the energy product company, who collapsed and died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 51.
The endurance sports world was rocked again two years ago with the death of ultra-runner Micah True, the central figure in Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run,” which helped fuel the booming interest in high-mileage running. True, 58, died of a heart attack while out on a run in the wilds of southern New Mexico. An autopsy revealed he died from cardiomyopathy, the result of an enlarged heart.