Two weeks before Christmas in December 2008, he started experiencing intermittent chest pains throughout the day, and it got progressively worse. He went to a hospital to see a doctor twice over the next several days, but those visits didn’t provide any answers.
Only a week or two later, the chest pain hit him so hard it was excruciating. Somehow he was able to drive himself to a different hospital, where Dr. Steven Starr, a cardiologist, studied Jason’s family history. He thought there was definitely something wrong with Jason and had him undergo an angiogram.
It showed that Jason had a 99 percent blockage in one of the biggest arteries to the heart – the LAD artery, sometimes called the Widow Maker Artery, because men with that particular blockage only have a 10 percent survival rate.
Photo: Regan finishing the Overland Park Double Road Race June 30 setting a new world best performance.
Doctors put a stent in that artery – and Jason hasn’t had any heart problems since that time. But the rest of his life was just beginning and life after a heart attack is filled with psychological, physical and lifestyle challenges. It was a difficult time for a young man of 35 with a wife, two young boys and so much to live for who had suffered a heart attack.
The difficult days ahead required significant lifestyle changes. He got into cardiac rehab, which involved exercise, nutrition and medication. When you’ve had a heart attack, especially at such a young age, you understandably go through some depression issues. It was a very humbling, humiliating part of his life when he was in cardiac rehab trying to get things back into a positive perspective.
“We’re always facing times in our life when we have the choice of ‘Am I going to give up or am I going to fight back?’ “ Jason says. “There was a point I reached where you could just give up and not fight back, or you could continue to fight, do the best that you could every day – and I decided I wanted to live for my wife and children, continue being a husband and father for them.
“Things started to change when my family started running with me. I just felt the switch had flipped at that point where I started exercising and at the same time my wife and oldest son, Gavin, who was nine at the time, began tagging along with me on some of my runs.”
Pausing for a moment, as if to collect his emotions, Jason continues, “I was so inspired, man, by my son, who would come out and run a mile with me. I didn’t even know he could run! That put everything in the right place. My youngest son, Regan, started coming out with us three months later – he was only five and he would walk and run.
“It not only inspired me. It inspired everyone in my cardiac rehab group.
“It was an incredible bonding period for our family. It completely changed my outlook on life.”
Since those days, the entire Dunn family has fallen in love with running and what the activity contributes to their lives. They’ve traveled to races all through the Midwest – as well as to Dallas, Houston, Albuquerque, Boulder, Omaha and Orlanda, Fla., for the Walt Disney World half-marathons.
“The traveling to races is the one and only time when we can get together for an extended period as a family,” Jason says.
And what fun times they’ve had at the various races they’ve run – never more so than in the Disney Goofy Challenge, a three-day competition in Orlanda, Fla., almost two years ago, January 2012. On the first day Jason ran the 5K with his then eight-year-old son Regan (Regan beat him, running 21:50). The second day Jason ran the half-marathon with Gavin; they ran just for fun, finishing in two hours, 20 minutes, the first time Gavin, then 12, had completed the half-marathon. The third day Jason ran the full marathon with Cynthia. They didn’t run fast or hard, finishing in 4 hours, 50 minutes, but they did finish. “We had a lot of fun,” Jason says, “and we met all the Disney characters.” It was the first time Cynthia had seen Walt Disney World. So in the span of three days, Jason Dunn, heart attack survivor, had completed a 5K, a half-marathon and a marathon – with, respectively, his youngest son, oldest son and his wife. Now there’s something to make a husband and father’s heart feel good!
Of course, every runner spends more time training rather than racing, and Jason describes his family’s training experience together: “That’s one of my favorite things about running – the one-on-one time I have with my children and my wife. After a long, hard day at work, it’s great to get away together on the road doing a run together, talking about how the day went. It’s our one-on-one time as a family. It lures the kids away from the video games, the TV, and gives us the opportunity to get away, where there are no distractions, just that one-on-one, heart-to-heart time that you get. That’s one of the unique things that you get about running. Don’t get me wrong: There are times to train hard and run by yourself, to push yourself. And sometimes we run at a different pace even when we go out for a run at the same time. But a lot of the time we run together and have that one-on-one time.”
Photo: Cynthia after finishing the first leg of the Overland Park Double. Billy Mills was there at the finish.
Gavin seconds his dad’s sentiments. “On our runs we get to discuss what’s been happening during the day, we address our issues and work through them to become better people and understand our lives.
“I like running because it’s something you can do with others. In order to do the sport, you don’t have to worry about being cut from the team or any of that, because you’re automatically on the team. Running to me is a way to get your body stronger and a way to experience a lot of things and places you would never experience without running. I guess to me it’s also that I’m getting to spend time with my family and get to do it in a way that most people don’t get to do it.”
In other words, the family that runs together….
Jason Dunn has lost about 40 pounds since he had his heart attack. He was up around 220 pounds then, now he weights 180-185, at a height of 5’10”. He sticks to a very healthy nutritional regimen consisting of fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, etc. And his exercise regimen includes running, weight training and cycling. He adds, “Now I try to run hard but also run smart.” And most of the time he tries to run with one or more of the family members.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to go out there and win the race,” Jason says, “I’m a guy who’s out there for my health and the opportunity to run the race with my boys or my wife and share in their success and enjoyment. It’s such a phenomenal thing to participate with them and see them accomplish these things.”
And how is Jason’s heart these days? “Everything checks out well,” he says, “I’ve had no complications. But every day I lace up my running shoes, grab a family member and hit the pavement – and to me the run is first and foremost something I do for my health, but it’s also something I do to be an example for my children who face the same hereditary challenge as they grow up. Each daily run for me is my daily stress test. And my cardiologist backs me 100 percent.”
Long live Jason Dunn and his amazing family! What a support system they provide for each other, and what an inspiration they provide all runners – of all ages and ability levels. None other than Olympic legend Billy Mills, 10,000-meter gold medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and a special guest of honor at the Overland Park Double, told Jason Dunn after the race, “Seeing your family out here actually inspires me, gives me goosebumps!”