In 2011, a standard medical procedure changed Eric O’Connor’s life forever.
After tearing his meniscus while playing soccer with his son, O’Connor underwent 12-minute surgery to repair the tear. The surgery went well, and O’Connor still planned to run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon later that year, until one week later when his health suddenly changed.
“I was in the garage, totally and completely sweating,” O’Connor says. “My heart rate was like 130; my normal resting heart rate is like 50. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t breathe.”
O’Connor called his wife, an emergency room nurse, who came home and brought him to the hospital. There, he learned that three of the four deep veins in his calves were full of blood clots that had broken away and traveled through his heart to his lungs, creating pulmonary emboli: artery blockages in the lungs that kill one out of three people who have them.
Still determined to run the 2011 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, O’Connor returned home from the hospital three days later and found that his fitness had taken a major hit.
“We had a newborn son, and I couldn’t push him around the block without stopping to take a break,” O’Connor says. “I had just run a marathon in April.”
Before his blood clots, O’Connor had been training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It took him a full year to return to marathoning form, and even then he finished much slower than usual, his time over an hour longer than a Boston qualifier.
“I was in bad shape and really had to fight to get back,” O’Connor says. “I was running 15 minute miles when I first started and had to run/walk because I couldn’t make it through the whole mile. I was really frustrated.”
Discouraged by his slower times, O’Connor switched to ultra running, where speed comes second to endurance.
“I thought, ‘Let’s try long and slow,’” O’Connor says. “I did a 50 mile [race] and thought it was pretty great. I thought I was going to die, but I loved it, and that got me into the ultra world.”
At the same time, O’Connor began to research what he could do about blood clots and discovered the National Blood Clot Association, a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness about blood clotting to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment efforts. He began assisting with the organization’s social media presence and later joined the board.
Blood clotting has come into the national spotlight in recent years as a result of some high-profile cases involving athletes such as Serena Williams, NASCAR driver Brian Vickers and Miami Heat star Chris Bosh.
“[We’ve] seen it in the NBA,” Randy Fenninger, CEO of the National Blood Clot Alliances, says. “Even people in superb physical condition can have clots.”
While O’Connor learned that he had factor II prothrombin, a genetic mutation that causes disordered blood clotting, blood clots can strike anyone.
Several other risk factors, including obesity, smoking, the use of estrogen-based hormonal birth control, pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy, hospitalization, injury and immobility can make a person more likely to develop blood clots.
“It’s really prevalent and people just don’t know about it,” O’Connor says. “The biggest thing is awareness. Our cure is awareness.”
To that end, O’Connor has dedicated his running to advancing blood clot awareness, taking on incredible distances and challenges in hopes of starting a conversation and raising funds for the NBCA. Last summer, for example, O’Connor participated in Worth the Hurt: an event that has participants run the entire San Francisco Marathon course backwards, rest for 90 minutes, then run the full marathon with the rest of the race’s field.
“When you find something that people’s first reaction is, ‘What?’, they’ll give you more money, or at least click on the link,” O’Connor says. “It gets people asking questions, and that’s when they read my story and start to understand blood clot recovery.”
On the hunt for a new challenge that would get people talking, O’Connor decided to move his ultrarunning indoors. Having already completed a 100-mile run, he considered attempting to do the same on a treadmill but chose to run 24 hours and a minimum of 100 miles instead, inspired by Christopher Bergland’s book The Athlete’s Way and his 153-mile run on a treadmill.
“I like the idea of pushing myself to do something new,” O’Connor says.
In addition to being a personal challenge and growing awareness, O’Connor’s run will also serve as a fundraiser for the NBCA.
“Obviously to do our educational programming and awareness programming we need to raise funds, so that’s what Eric’s doing,” Fellinger says. “He’s been a terrific volunteer and board member in all regards but especially in that one.”
O’Connor will do his 24 hour treadmill run at Run Today in Glen Ellyn from 12 p.m. on April 10 to 12 p.m. on April 11.
“[O’Connor] has been a customer of ours for quite some time, so when he came to me and asked what I thought, there was no question that we would support him and do whatever we could,” Run Today owner Paul O’Neill says. “We’ve never had an event like this, but we’re really looking forward to it. It’s such a great opportunity to gain awareness for what he’s gone through and a lot of other people have as well.”
O’Connor has set up tread24.com to share his story and document his challenge and provide complete details on the event.
“We want to bring in a countdown clock, bring in music and food and make a party out of it,” O’Connor says. “I really want to make it a party. It should be a good time.”