The Comeback: How Running Saved Keith Connolly’s Life

He sits slumped in his seat, delirious, slurring words before passing out. The speeding car, driven by his frantic wife, rushes to a hospital in Laramie, Wyoming. It’s a heart attack, and doctors soon find 94% blockage in an artery nicknamed the “Widow Maker.” In goes an 18mm stent followed by a list of medications the doctors say he will be on for the rest of his life. He will prove them wrong.

Keith Connolly was just thirty-six when Kendra drove him to the emergency room that day. And, as his somewhat puzzled doctors described him, “a poster child for the American Heart Association.” He appeared fit, a muscular, six-foot-two, 195-pound man who didn’t smoke and who ate a mostly healthy diet, but with a few burgers and fries and sodas tossed in. Nor was there any history of heart disease in the family, his nearest relatives having lived into their nineties. Perplexed, five cardiologists ascribed Keith’s heart attack to a less-than-scientific explanation when a more formal etiology eludes them – “bad luck.”

Keith and Kendra
Keith and Kendra

But Keith decided to turn his luck around. He and Kendra moved to Minnesota, and it was there that he discovered trail running. “One day I decided to go for a hike, having heard about a trail that was fourteen miles. I was wearing a pair of old army fatigues. About a mile in, I just started to run, not stopping until I logged the whole trail. I remember feeling so alive and not wanting to stop. I was hooked.”

‘Hooked’ is a good word for it. Keith and Kendra began training for and competing in Spartan races, even seeking the perfect place to develop a lifestyle based on running, yoga, calisthenics, strict veganism, and a deep faith in God. They settled on Black Mountain, North Carolina and, as Keith puts it, “I fell in love with the trails, and knew I had to live here.”

Well over three years have passed since the heart attack and Keith, now forty, is living proof of the positive benefits of healthy living. Gone are the drugs that the doctors once said he would have to take forever. In their place is a daily regime of diet and exercise that both he and Kendra do together. “We both went fully plant-based,” Kendra comments. “Our bodies feel clear of fog and crud. Our exercising and running have gotten stronger and we recover faster. We love it!”

Keith agrees. “My cardiologist in Asheville told me my blood work came back absolutely perfect and is evidence of the impact of exercise and a plant-based diet.”

The Sandbag Carry

Keith’s race results are impressive, too. In the Asheville Spartan Sprint of July 2017, Keith finished 20th overall out of 2,028 runners, and – a month later in West Virginia – took 1st overall in another Spartan Race. Last October, before having to bow out with knee issues, Keith bagged fifty miles of the formidable Pitchell Challenge, the nearly 70-mile mountain trail running challenge from the summit of Pisgah to the summit of Mitchell. “I plan on taking the Pitchell Challenge again this spring,” Keith says, “to get my redemption.”

But man shall not live by trail running alone, and Keith is set to make his living as a vegan chef, graduating in February 2018 from culinary school. “My plan is to open a restaurant that teaches people how to cook and eat a delicious, plant-based diet!”

The heart attack nearly killed him, but Keith is thankful for the experience. “It caused us to completely rethink our lives,” he recalls. “It was a trying season in our relationship, but one that brought us closer together and made us best friends and lovers. I thank God every day. If the series of events had not happened, we wouldn’t have such an amazing life together.”

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