It sounds utterly insane. But on Marathon Monday, two friends, 40-year-old Bill Nawn from Bedford, N.H., and 34-year-old Sean Luitjens from Crestwood, Ky., will start at 7 a.m. at the finish line on Boylston Street, run 26.2 miles to Hopkinton, where thousands of other marathoners will be milling around, grab a quick bite to eat, then take off with the pack at noon and run 26.2 miles back to Boston.
That's a double marathon. The goal, besides survival, is to raise $10,000 for the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation in Brookline and raise awareness of heart disease, the nation's No. 1 killer.
Nawn, vice president for operations at Access CardioSystems, a medical device company that sells the automated external defibrillators that will be at medical stations along the Boston Marathon route, has actually done this before -- three double marathons, plus "around 13" regular, one-way marathons, he said.
In 2000, Nawn and his wife, Mary, also a runner, figured that a double marathon (he'd do both ways, she'd do "just" Hopkinton to Boston) would be a good way to raise money for Parkinson's disease, which her father had contracted. It didn't seem all that absurd, said Nawn, because he had already competed in a number of "ultra" events (longer than 26.2-miles ) and even some 50-milers. "So I knew I could do it."
That first year, the weirdest part was people yelling "You're running the wrong way" for most of the outbound trip. But he met his goal -- getting to Hopkinton by 11 a.m. -- and met up with Mary without getting in the way of the nervous thousands at the starting line.Several months after his first "double," Nawn was 28 miles into a 50-mile race in Rhode Island when he felt his heart beating erratically. He already knew he had a cardiac arrhythmia -- an abnormal beating pattern -- but it usually kicked in only when he was sleeping on his right side or other times when he was resting. His resting heartbeat, like that of many athletes, was low -- sometimes as low as 32 beats per minute during sleep.
But the Rhode Island event was the first time he experienced an arrhythmia during a race. "My vision started to close in from the sides. I got light
headed. I had staggered steps. I didn't lose consciousness," he recalls, but the whole thing was frightening enough that he quit the race. Extremely worried, he saw a cardiologist, who told him to stop running, adding, as Nawn recalls, "It's amazing something else hasn't happened." Not exactly what Nawn wanted to hear. So he made his way to cardiologist Dr. Thomas Graboys, director of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation and associate clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Graboys tested him extensively, including giving him an exercise treadmill test that proved way too easy for Nawn.
During the test, Nawn was sure he was nowhere near his maximum heart rate, but the machine couldn't go any faster, nor could the treadmill be made any steeper. So Graboys gave him a Holter monitor (which consists of electrodes placed on the chest and a small box-like device worn on a belt to record the heart's electrical signals). As Nawn remembers it, Graboys told him to "run myself into the ground so I could get to my maximum heart rate." He did, with no problems.
Still under Graboys's care, Nawn ran the Boston Marathon in 2001, but he "took it easy," he says, only running from Hopkinton to Boston. In 2002, he ran a double again, raising money for Parkinson's disease. In 2003, with Graboys's blessing, he again ran a double, this time raising money for cardiac research at the Lown Foundation.
This year, Nawn will do his fourth double, but this time, he'll have company the whole way -- his running buddy Luitjens, an acquisitions specialist for Mercer HR Consulting, who now lives in Kentucky but used to run with Nawn in Massachusetts.
It started with some good-natured one-upmanship. Luitjens, who says he has done "over 150" triathlons, including nine Ironman Triathlons (which involve swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, then running a 26.2-mile marathon), took up Nawn's challenge to do a trail race (on cross-country trails, not city streets). In return, Nawn took up Luitjen's challenge to do a half-Ironman. Now it's Luitjens's turn again -- to do the double marathon. If he finishes it Monday, Nawn will go for a full Ironman at Lake Placid, N.Y. next year.
"I'm a little scared what I'll have to do next," jokes Luitjens. "Eventually, this could get out of control. We'll have to stop somewhere."
But not yet. Nawns says he has complete "peace of mind" that there are no "congenital or mechanical or electrical" problems lurking in his heart. He takes no heart medications, but has become more conscientious about his diet, making sure during training and on race days to get enough potassium, magnesium, and zinc, all important for cardiac function. On Monday, he figures, he'll eat five bananas over his 52.4-mile journey. In the hour between the two marathons, he probably will have a turkey sandwich, a bunch of potato chips (for the fat, carbohydrates, and salt ), and a handful of jelly beans or candy corn right before the start.
It will be fun, and challenging. But the real point of his double run, he says, is to "raise awareness" of heart disease and encourage people with potential heart problems to see their doctors. "I was ignoring my signs until they became more acute. Fortunately, for me, it was not serious. But for many people, it is. Really, this is a wake-up call."