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How Running Saved the Life of an Olympian: Lynn Jennings’ Story

Lynn-Jennings-Falmouth.jpg

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:


Lynn-Jennings.jpgThere’s nothing quite so gentle, deep and irrational as our running – and nothing so savage, and so wild.”

-Bernd Heinrich

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.

Lynn-and-Towhee.jpgFour 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.

LYnn Sculling

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing. I’ve been a huge fan of Lynn’s since I first began following running in the early 90s. In fact, that picture of her running through the snow in Boston was on my bulletin board throughout my high school and college years.

    I wish Lynn a complete recovery. Her strength and tenacity that inspired me so much will no doubt help her as she works through this.

    Definitely a reminder of why we run. As you stated, the competition is great but the health benefits can’t be valued highly enough.

  2. Great article. Praying for a full recovery. Keep on running.

  3. Steve Pero says:

    Pete, thanks for posting this. What an incredible story!
    I was lucky to have met Lynn back in the mid 80′s at a XC race at Franklin Park we were both running in. She invited me and one of my CSU teammates to come do a warmup loop with her and she gave us some tips along the way! One of my fondest memories of running…

  4. This is such an amazing story. I’m grateful for the shape that I am in because I am a runner. It’s amazing to see a clinical example of just how that can help us stay healthy and alive. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Jacob Hicks says:

    What an amazing and inspiring story.

    I live in Portland, OR also, and run those same trails in Forest Park, and couldn’t help wondering if I had ever happened by Lynn and her dog.

    Lynn, I hope to see you out there soon. Thank you so very much for sharing so freely, your story which will only serve to motivate and inspire countless others!

  6. Amazing and truly inspirational. I believe a runner only or a matter of fact any athlete will have such a will to beat the odds.
    Great write up and thanks for sharing.

  7. Really good to hear about Lynn Jennings after all her years of incredible success. I’m a bit of a fan of her, and I wonder now and then how she’s doing.
    And what a story, glad to read it and know how she’s recovering now. Thanks for sharing it, Lynn – take good care of yourself!
    Jane

    • Geri Smith says:

      We lost touch when Lynn moved out of Newmarket NH, but I’ve never forgotten her. So glad to hear that she is doing well now and recovering. Great article.

  8. Pete, thanks for sharing the story.

    Lynn, amazing…I can’t say more than that. Thanks for sharing your story and even more thankful that you’re in the recovery phase. Regardless, it’s a great testament to staying physically active.

  9. Peter & Lynn,
    Thank you for this sobering and inspiring post. As an RN, I applaud any opportunity to educate others about PEs.
    Lynn, I had the good fortune to see you race in DC against Anne Marie Lauk many years ago and the memory of your powerful and graceful stride has been a wonderful source of inspiration. Thank you both.

  10. Fantastic story, thanks for sharing Pete. Having been both a rower and runner myself, it’s amazing the mental and physical strength of those who do these sports. Lynn’s story is a real testament to the human will. Happy to hear it had a good ending.

  11. I used to live in Portland until 1997 and run from the Lief Ericson gate at Forest Park. I am sorry I never met Lynn because I am sure I would have recognized her. I got used to bumping into the occasional celebrity runner around Portland. Now I live in Vermont. I think those runners who continue after high school and college are grateful that our sport is so simple, and we all recognize that all that hard work is ultimately good for us. I am sorry Lynn has such a close call, but she reaffirms what we are all grateful for about running.

  12. Michael Edelstein says:

    Knowing Lynn way back when, one of the toughest runners or people I have ever met, I am both thrilled she lived and not a bit surprised she did. Kind, smart, and tougher than tough. Her zillion USA XC wins or her World XC wins or her last lap to the Olympic 10k bronze are only a part of that. And, of course, super-powered lungs and a heart that can feed a body with only 29-38 beats at her age. Wow!

  13. Amazing story!! Just another reminder why we keep running and being healthy!

  14. Stuart Warner says:

    Good to hear Lynn is doing better. But what must be said is that while there was nothing wrong in texting her friend, the first thing she should have done is to call 911. Sometimes athletes find that hard to do, because it is an admission we need help and all of the hard work we’ve done has failed us somehow, but when it’s clear something is wrong, that’s a call one has to make.

  15. Willie Tibbetts says:

    I have been a fan of Lynn Jennings for years. Not just for her accomplishments, but for her will to keep on going. All my sentiments to Lynn and her relentless desire to survive.

  16. Hi Lynn,

    Wow, so glad it turned out alright. Good to hear you got expert help right away. Will pass on your story to thousands of others.
    Mike St. Laurent
    (Husband to Linda (Welzel) and brother in law to Jane Welzel.. from the way back..

  17. Having met Lynn and having the pleasure of welcoming her on our podcast I was very shocked to hear of this news and so grateful she survived. No doubt this will only serve to strengthen her message of what running can bring to your life.

    Best wishes for continued recovery Lynn.

  18. Thom suddeth says:

    I hope Lynn has a total recovery. In the early 90′s Lynn was the Nike guest athlete at Roy Benson’s Nike running camp in Asheville N.C. The night before we both ran a evening 5k in Charlotte. The next Coach Benson dropped us 10 miles from U.N.C and we ran it…it wasn’t really a run but a race….Roy swore it was 10 miles….we covered it in sub 54:00 with Lynn picking up the pace every time I came up on her shoulder….the most competitive runner I have ever met….
    Recover quickly Lynn!

  19. Walt kolodzinski says:

    I received this article from M Bailargeron a fellow runner and good friend.
    Back in early April of this year I was on the trails and approximately 1/2 mile from the truck when the I can’t breathe came to me also. Having raced marathons,trails, snow shoe raced I knew this was different and used my forerunner 305 with HR monitor to get me out of the woods.
    On my way home somewhat feeling better and going by the VA Hospital I decide not to chance it and went there.
    Weds. night in and Hospital for few days.
    VA cardiologist & others remarked my heart was so strong from all my athletics it saved my life.
    All I can say did no butts, no weed, ate healthy and survived.
    Now my son talked me into trying to qualify for national snow shoe competition in my 70 yr. old div and did without having run a step since that saddle embolism in Apr.
    Did a prep 6.2 qualifier and now the Nationals 6.2 miler in March.

    Stay fit to beat father time to watch our kids, grand children do as we do/did.

    Pray that she, Lynn also continues to recover.

    Walt the Ole Buck

  20. John Reilly says:

    Thanks to Lynn for sharing and to heaven above for keeping her here with us. I reminder for us all, as athletes we are intimately familiar with our finely tuned bodies. Last year at 49 after 35 years of running and racing, out of nowhere, I suffered a minor stroke. I was actually dismissed from the ER! I presented very well, but I knew the signs and pushed. My Dr. found it on an MRI. Like Lynn, I was very lucky. Whether you are Lynn, Alberto or an old D3 XC Runner like me, know the signs of heart attack, stroke and embolisms and get help early if you notice anything weird. Long may you run and row Lynn and thank you for all your inspiration. I’m doing the Snow Row in Hull, MA next week….this one’s for you Lynn.

  21. trish hillery says:

    So glad Lynn survived. I too experienced unexplained multiple pulmonary embolii just 2 years ago, while averaging 55 miles per week. Doctors told me that half my left lung had damaged tissue/infarction, and if it weren’t for me being a runner, I’d most likely not have survived, at age 44! It’s been a long road back, but I am back competing and running sub 19 for a female in 5k. Good luck Lynn, keep your chin up. trish hillery

  22. While strength and perseverance are admirable qualities, they pale in comparison to humility and compassion.

  23. Donald McKellar says:

    Well, that’s it Peter, I will be back out on the roads tomorrow. I was looking for a good reason to start my training again for my running in the America’s Finest City Half Marathon in San Diego, this mid-August, for the 34th year in a row; now I have it! It is a marvelous story and I feel like I know this lovely young lady. Good luck to you Lynn, you’re an inspiration to us all.

  24. Peter Wattles says:

    same thing, marathon runner, shortness of breath a few days before, thought I had asthma, even my doc thought so. Passed stress test with flying colors, admitted for DVT then saddled PE. MGH Staff in awe I was not dead both lungs completely block via cat scan.
    no pain, blood pressure & O2 fine. There is something too this as it make no sense medically that I still alive. Peace all :-)

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