A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

SmartHealth Today: Medical condition didn’t stop St. Elizabeth employee from running 50 marathons

By Anya Rao
SmartHealth Today

After her two sons were born, Mary Mitchell took up running in her early 30s and quickly discovered an exercise routine she loved.

By the time she reached her 40th birthday, Mitchell and her husband, Todd, decided to run 50 marathons – one in each state – by the time her 50th birthday rolled around. In March 2017, Mitchell ran her 50th marathon in Hawaii.

Although she loved running, the activity seemed unusually difficult for Mitchell and she had trouble running continuously for long distances. Even after years of frequent running, Mitchell – a nurse and diabetes educator for St. Elizabeth Physicians in Covington – had to take frequent breaks because her heart was pounding and she was out of breath.

“It took years for me to run two miles without stopping and as I started entering races I realized that wasn’t normal,” Mitchell said. “I started realizing others can run and talk, and I knew I was struggling more than I should have been. Eventually I felt like something must be seriously wrong.”

Mitchell kept running but she began seeing various doctors who ran a battery of tests. Her condition remained a mystery.

Eventually, Mitchell was sent to a specialist in Boston who ultimately diagnosed her with exercise intolerance of unknown etiology. She doesn’t have a heart condition, but her heart works overtime when she exercises.

“It’s not a heart condition,” Mitchell said. “No one knows why but they suspect I maintain a low blood volume. With a low blood volume, my heart has to work harder – I breath fast and my heart beats fast just to circulate enough oxygen.”

While Mitchell finally had an answer to her medical mystery, she was somewhat disheartened to know there wasn’t a quick fix or an obvious solution.

“I never imagined I would finish (all 50 races) and still have this problem,” Mitchell said. “I always thought we’d figure it out, fix it or God would heal me. To finish and feel like I’m in the same place I was – it’s hard.”

No doctor has ever told Mitchell to stop running, in fact, she said, it’s the best treatment for her condition.

“The only defense is exercise,” Mitchell said. “There’s a tendency to increase blood volume with endurance exercise, so this is my best defense against the problem.

“Every time I go for a run, it’s like I’m a brand-new runner. Other parts of me have adapted, like my muscles and joints, but I’m equally short of breath as someone who is new to running.”

Mitchell takes a run/walk approach to marathons to prevent her heart rate from getting too high. When she needs to, she slows down or stops and then takes off running again after her heartrate slows. Some days Mitchell can run four or five miles before resting, but on other days she can only get a mile in before needing a break.

“Being in healthcare as a diabetes educator, I live and breathe wellness and fitness,” Mitchell said. “It’s my ministry at church, it’s what I do at home. I have this insane need to run. I think it’s what I was meant to do, but I have this barrier that makes it really hard.”

Running 50 races in 50 states resulted in some amazing family vacations. With her husband as the planner, Mitchell said she couldn’t have reached her goal without him – plus her faith in God.

“My husband logistically planned every minute,” Mitchell said. “Todd got me to every start line and God got me to every finish line.”

SmartHealthToday is a service of St. Elizabeth Healthcare.

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