Unfinished Work: From Half-Marathoner to Heart Patient
by Mitch Bugno

Part One: When to Slow Down

Part One: When to Slow Down

As a kid growing up on the southwest side of Chicago in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was no different than a lot of kids. We were outside playing whatever sport the season called for. There were no travel teams or club sports, just what the local park district provided. I loved being active in sports, and that continued with high school teams, football in college, and into the real world. Throughout my adult life, I have gone through periods of staying in shape and periods of being out of shape. Although “round” is a shape, isn’t it? 


I was never a “runner.” You know, the cross-country type of athlete. Just more of a natural athlete who enjoyed a challenge. The first official race that I remember signing up for was a 10-mile race in Naperville in 2001. I was 35 years old, married and with two young daughters ages 2 and 5. The only thing I really remember about the out-and-back race, other than the fact that it was a trail race, was while I was on mile 3, the leaders were already passing me on their way back. Talk about a humbling feeling.

No worries—I realized that I just enjoyed doing it. Throughout the following 10 years or so, I pretty much stuck to running on my own and enjoying the peace and stress relief that, for me, comes along with it. I would go out for short runs of 2 miles or long runs up to 8. Throughout these years, I just always felt that I could throw on my shoes and go for a run.

It was at the end of 2012, during the holiday season, that it was brought to my attention how out of shape I was in an unhealthy way. Not exercising, I was gorging myself on any holiday cookie or cheesecake that I could put in my mouth. One day, my wife said to me, “Are you done yet?”

It was at that point I knew I had to change my bad eating habits and lack of exercising. In January of 2013, I told myself that I must lose weight, and, by the end of summer, I wanted to run a half marathon. 

I started out slow and built a pretty good routine. We all know the winters here can be brutal but if the temperature was above 30 degrees, I ran outside. Treadmill runs can get so boring, so I tried to keep those to a minimum. Once spring came and then into the summer, I started to see the work pay off. I had dropped over 45 pounds and felt great. It was August 31, the last day of summer in my eyes, and it was time to see if I could reach my goal. It was a Saturday morning when I went out to attempt a half marathon.  


I felt good throughout the first 8 or 9 miles and did not think of walking any part of it. However, at the start of mile 10, I started to struggle. As I was finishing mile 12, I couldn’t run anymore. Even though I could see my house from where I was, I had nothing left in the tank. I told myself, Just stop before you collapse. I walked into the house and my daughters asked me how it was. I told them I only got 12 in and missed my goal of a half marathon. They were ecstatic for the great job I had done. But in my mind, I missed the mark. My competitive nature kicked in. 


I immediately signed up for the fall Naperville half marathon, beginning a series of halfs and 5k races over the course of 2014 and 2015. I learned to drink plenty of water, and I learned that it’s OK if I need to walk rather than run. After all, I’m not a world-class runner. Just some middle-aged guy who enjoys a run.

At a friend’s suggestion I joined an organization called MyTeamTriumph, in which runners push individuals with disabilities during races in jogging strollers. It is a fantastic organization and allows me to get out of myself and help others experience the joys of participating in a race.


 During the winters, my weight tended to come back, and I struggled a little. In spring 2015 I was on my first long run of the year, the Chicago half. One point I remember vividly was on mile 11, outside the Shedd Aquarium, right on the lakefront. I found myself talking in not-so-kind words to myself about how I was out of shape and could have had a better diet. It was at this point I noticed a young woman who was not a participant in the race but was just running in the opposite direction along the lakefront enjoying the view, which was cloudy for me due to my own thoughts. As she got closer and passed me, I noticed she had a full prosthetic left leg. Wow, what a humbling experience. Here I am complaining to myself about my physical condition—or lack of—in running a race, and this woman made me realize just how fortunate I was to be running at all. 

At the fall half marathon in Chicago with MyTeamTriumph, I remember asking the fellow team members to slow it down a little as I struggled a bit for part of the race. Not thinking anything of the struggle, I continued to do my training, but I found it laborious at times. I would go out for some training runs and found them a little difficult, but I just figured I was not eating and training as well as I should be. 

With the Naperville fall half marathon, I was sort of ready for the running year to be over. I’m sure it was due to my slower times. I felt good at the start of the race but quickly found myself really struggling. A couple of days after the race I learned that a friend—who had been on the sidelines cheering the participants—didn’t say anything to me because I didn’t look good. And that was on mile 5.

During mile 8, I got lightheaded and felt dizzy. I stopped and took some energy chews. A fellow participant asked if I was OK and I said I was fine—but not really believing it. I could have easily walked off the course and called it a day, but I said to myself, You’ve never quit one of these yet; don’t start now. 

What a bad decision that was. For the remaining 5 miles, I struggled but either walked or continued jogging. I remember there was an older gentleman running ahead of me. He looked to be about 70 years old. As much as I tried, I couldn’t catch him. I remember people in the crowd yelling his name and saying “Way to go, Steve! Great job, Steve!” And I was like, Forget Steve—I’m the one struggling! I still laugh about that crazy thought to this day. 

So, I ended up finishing the race and thought I was done for the year. However, a friend asked if I wanted to run in the Turkey Trot in Naperville. I told him I had been struggling and he said, “We’ll walk if we have to.” So I did that, and I struggled, and we walked a little, but we finished the race. 

It was about this time when I started to think something might be wrong. I would go for a normal jog, and I would get about a quarter of a mile and have to stop. I started to experience chest pains while walking the dog. They wouldn’t be long walks, only about two blocks, but I would get back to the house and sometimes be bent over with chest pain. I experienced about six or eight of these episodes over the following two weeks. I would go into the house, sit down on the couch, and in about 15 minutes the pain would subside, and I would be OK.

Mitch’s story continues in Part Two: When to Listen.

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