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'They thought my heart had stopped for a little while' - Chris Merrylees on his collapse at the Brighton Marathon

PUBLISHED: 12:00 25 May 2018 | UPDATED: 15:56 25 May 2018

Chris Merrylees at the Cambridge Half Marathon earlier this year. Picture: Supplied

Chris Merrylees at the Cambridge Half Marathon earlier this year. Picture: Supplied

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North Norfolk Beach Runner Chris Merrylees tells Mark Armstrong about how his collapse at the Brighton Marathon last month has affected his running

Chris Merrylees at Brighton just seconds before he collapsed requiring medical attention. Picture: SuppliedChris Merrylees at Brighton just seconds before he collapsed requiring medical attention. Picture: Supplied

Focusing on a specific race can give your training the kind of edge it needs to net that new personal best.

Many runners need that goal to provide the motivation for the sacrifices you have to make in your personal life.

It’s what gets runners out the door at 5am to get the miles in.

However, it can also be dangerous.

Chris Merrylees' vest had to be cut open after his collapse at Brighton as paramedics feared he had suffered a heart attack. Picture: Chris MerryleesChris Merrylees' vest had to be cut open after his collapse at Brighton as paramedics feared he had suffered a heart attack. Picture: Chris Merrylees

That tunnel vision mindset can lead a runner to ignore the warning signs his or her body is providing to tell them to take it a bit easier.

Chris Merrylees fell victim to this last month at the Brighton Marathon.

Chris isn’t your ordinary runner. He regularly runs more than 50 miles per week and has represented Norfolk at cross country for several years. He also regularly finishes in the top 10 of races on the county grand prix circuit.

But he’s not invincible…and he found this out on the south coast.

Chris Merrylees at the Gower Trail Half Marathon. Picture: SuppliedChris Merrylees at the Gower Trail Half Marathon. Picture: Supplied

It all started the weekend before the race when Chris caught a cold.

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After speaking to his coach, Kevin Parfitt, it was agreed that he would take things easy in the week leading up the race anyway due to his taper.

Within a couple of days he felt better but by Wednesday a second wave of congestion came round and it was now getting a little close for comfort if he was going to be 100 percent on the start line.

The intervening days saw a slight improvement and come Saturday Chris felt relaxed enough to do the Brighton parkrun having travelled up with a number of other North Norfolk Beach Runners the night before.

Upon waking up on Sunday he felt race ready – the conditions were ideal and thoughts gradually turned to posting a time around the 2:40 mark.

Weeks of hard training had been leading up to this race and Chris was ready to toe the line. However, during the warm-up his body gave him a little sign that all was not well.

“I just felt like my heart rate was particularly raised,” he said. “We ran for about a mile at round 7.30-8 minute pace and I was feeling it a lot more than I normally would.”

Unfortunately, Chris did not heed the warning. He knew there were several supporters at the three-mile and six-mile points in the race and he would take stock of how he felt then and pull off the course if necessary.

Crucially, Chris decided to set off at the pace he had been training to and hit the halfway mark in 1:21 – around where he wanted to be at this stage.

He was managing to hit pace for the next few miles when, during mile 17, he cleared his nose and noticed some blood.

By this point Chris admitted he “didn’t feel quite right” but knew that at mile 18 there was a friend, who could provide some Lucozade that might get him through this rough patch.

However, this was no ordinary rough patch. This was Chris’ body starting to shut down to protect his vital organs.

By mile 18 he was really starting to wobble, literally, and as he came round the corner friend and fellow Beach Runner, Lynton Battrick, took a picture of Chris.

MORE: Check out our 2018 race calendar here

Moments later the 40-year-old fell to the floor and lost consciousness.

Lynton jumped the barrier and immediately called for first aid and, fortunately for Chris, the event had set up a field hospital nearby.

“They struggled to find a pulse and apparently my veins had closed up,” revealed Chris. “They couldn’t get a line into me and it was a bit of a worrying time by all accounts. They couldn’t see my chest going up and down.”

Chris was rushed to Brighton hospital where he started to come round and, after being sent for a CAT scan to see if any damage had been sustained following his fall, he was released.

Apart from “a bit of a headache” Chris felt okay and travelled back to Norfolk on the Monday with the rest of his Beach Runners party.

However, within 48 hours, Chris was back in A&E, this time at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital.

Whilst waiting to be seen Chris collapsed again.

“They thought my heart had stopped for a little while,” said Chris.

Fortunately, Chris stabilised but after his heart rate dipped to the low 30s in the night he was sent for a heart echo – an ultrasound scan of his heart.

“I ended up having a bit of an MOT and they managed to get a very good picture of my heart and they said everything looked fine.

“The consultant came to speak to me and said to me that they think it was a virus affecting my body.

“It’s quite common, especially in fit people, for everything to really slow down and that’s why they struggled to find my pulse sometimes.”

Despite being released Chris had to provide continuous readings for five days how his heart was reacting and he will go back to hospital in July for a follow-up appointment.

In the meantime he has been allowed to resume training although he admits the whole episode has left an indelible impression on him.

“I know that I’ve scared the hell out of a lot of people, and it was avoidable,” said Chris, who is back up to running 50 miles a week. “I’ve gone from feeling incredibly fit, healthy and invincible even – thinking that nothing will happen to me – to feeling really vulnerable.”

Chris admits he will do things very differently in the future.

“There is always another race. You hear about it all the time, people collapsing in races and you just don’t think that it could be you. I think when you go into races you’ve got to be 100 percent honest with yourself.

“I know that everyone wants to run but my experience should tell you that it could have been so different.”

Chris insists his lesson has been learned and won’t put himself in that position again and hopes others take notice.

There will be a lot more runners that aren’t as fit looking to tackle races when their immune system is down but Chris hopes other runners think about the potential consequences of pushing yourself too hard when your body is tackling an infection.

Chris is back in full training now and could target the Great Eastern Run half marathon in Peterborough in October.

He also insists the whole experience hasn’t put him off tackling another marathon in the near future.

“I must admit I do feel like I’ve got a bit of unfinished business with Brighton so we will see next year,” he added.

“But a few of us might do Valencia in December. I’ll see how the training goes…and only do them if I’m well enough!”

Cross country

It all started with a post on social media.

Chris Merrylees had grown ever more frustrated at the state of cross country running in Norfolk and let everyone know about it on Facebook.

It stirred a reaction in the running community with most agreeing that it was time Norfolk was represented well on the national cross country scene again.

Chris was then contacted to see if he would like to become manager of the Norfolk cross country team and Dominic Blake joined him.

It culminated with Norfolk being able to field full men’s and women’s teams at senior level for the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships at Loughborough in March.

The men’s team finished a very creditable 25th whilst the ladies’ team produced an outstanding 10th-placed finish.

“There had been a bit of apathy towards running for Norfolk at Inter County level,” said Chris. “I just thought it was a real shame that we couldn’t produce a team for that level when I know we have got some really good runners in Norfolk. I put something on Facebook and I was really surprised at the reaction - it was something people still felt really strong about, which was good to hear.

“So after that I was asked whether I could organise putting a team together and thankfully Dom came on board as well and it has really kicked on, which is really pleasing.

“We challenged the county’s best runners to come forward and to be fair that’s exactly what happened.

“All club rivalries were put to one side and there was real camaraderie between all the runners.

“It was a great occasion, which somehow I ended up running in because Dom couldn’t! But hopefully this is just the beginning and we will be able to continue putting strong teams out for many years to come.”

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