After completing the Canberra Marathon in 2006, high school physical education teacher Scott Stevens just couldn’t seem to recover. The 10K loop he’d run a thousand times before felt like Everest and he was constantly lethargic.
When Scott saw his doctor, she told him the mitral valve in his heart was leaking. He’d known for years that he had a heart murmur, but this was a worrying development. Unfortunately, a visit to a cardiologist did nothing to allay his fears. “He said the mitral valve was leaking very badly and that it wasn’t a matter of whether I needed heart surgery but when,” says Scott, now 37.
The shock of the news was compounded by the fact that Scott’s wife had given birth to their first child just six weeks earlier. But Scott knew what had to be done, so he underwent robotic heart surgery in early 2007. “Two days after the surgery, I was trying to see how many laps I could walk around the hospital ward,” he laughs. “But I felt so crook. Within a week, I’d gone from being super fit to not being able to walk up a hill.”
Scott soon realised he’d have to make some major adjustments to his lifestyle – and his expectations. Although he would be able to run again, he’d have to maintain a slow pace and keep close tabs on his heart rate to make sure it didn’t get too high. “It wasn’t easy to accept,” he admits. “Running was my thing – I had developed a relationship with it. And to have it taken away was almost like a grieving process for a while.”
But there was no way Scott was going to give up his passion. Just nine weeks after his operation, he was lacing up his running shoes and hitting the road again. “I had the choice to spit the dummy and give up on running completely or find another way around it,” he says. “At school, I went from running with the kids at the front of the pack to the ones at the back of the pack, encouraging them and trying to get them to run better. I had to shift my focus or I was going to drive myself nuts.”
Despite his determination, Scott had a hard time adjusting and soon felt himself slipping into a dark hole. “The thing they don’t tell you about when you have a major operation is the emotional impact,” says Scott. “I went through a period of depression that lasted about six months. I wasn’t in a good spot – there was a lot of self-doubt and anger. A lot of people who have heart surgery haven’t looked after themselves, but I had.”
With the support of his wife and his running shoes, Scott slowly started to feel like himself again. Once he was back on track both physically and mentally, he decided he wanted to help people who suffered from depression like he had.
And so he concocted a plan to run 395-kilometres over the course of a week from Chinchilla in South West Queensland to Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. The goal was to raise funds and awareness for the White Cloud Foundation (whitecouldfoundation.org), a charitable organisation that provides support to sufferers of depression and their families.
There were some tough moments during the run, but Scott just had to think of ultra-marathon runner Pat Farmer for motivation when he was struggling. “Pat Farmer’s wife died of mitral valve prolapse, which is what I had, and one day he called me out of the blue,” says Scott. “We chatted for 45 minutes and he texted me tips while I was training. It was nice of him to show interest in what I was doing when it was nowhere near as cool as what he’d done. So during the run, I kept thinking, ‘I can’t give up because Pat Farmer will think I’m a wuss.’”
Although Scott has had to change the way he runs since his operation, he believes it’s been beneficial in many ways. “It’s been really healthy for me,” he says. “I’ve completely let go of that competitive side of my life. I just run for the enjoyment of it now.”
And he continues to reap the rewards of sharing his passion with his students. “I took about 20 boys from our cross-country team out for a run on the trails the other day, and it was so great to hear them say, ‘That was awesome!’ It’s great to be able to show them what running can do.”