Two and a half years ago Justin Williams’ heart flatlined. Today, like he does most weekday mornings, he ran seven miles.
In 2012 Williams, a local pastor, went to the doctor for a routine checkup, which uncovered that he had an abnormal heart rhythm. He was sent to a cardiologist and ordered to wear a heart monitor for 24 hours. The monitor revealed he was having over 41,000 premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) a day and his effective heartrate was around 29 to 31 beats per minute.
Per the Mayo Clinic, PVCs are extra, abnormal heartbeats that disrupt your regular heart rhythm.
Williams’ doctor then sent him to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, where they performed a cardiac electrophysiology (EP) study and an ablation, going inside his heart to find the node that was misfiring and burn it. After nine hours of surgery at UK, the surgery was deemed unsuccessful.
In October 2012 he was sent to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, where they did a full panel of tests and another EP study and ablation, which was successful and the PVCs stopped. From October 2012 until December 2014, everything was fine.
“On Christmas Eve 2014 I was sitting at my kitchen table, typing an email, and the next thing I remember I’m waking up in the middle of the kitchen floor, my wife’s on the phone with 911 and she’s crying, the EMTs arrive and I ended up spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the hospital,” Williams said.
Doctors assumed the problem was with his heart, but couldn’t nail down a cause, so he was referred to an electrophysiologist in Lexington, Dr. Lamiy, who had actually trained the physician at Johns Hopkins who performed the procedure on Williams in 2012.
Lamiy ordered Williams to wear a 30-day heart monitor.
“On January the 15th the monitor went off, I got a little lightheaded, nothing major, and then my phone rang,” Williams remembered. “It was Dr. Lamiy and asked me if I had passed out, if I was conscious. I told him I was. He said I probably should have passed out, that my heart was in asystole for three and half seconds.”
When he asked what asystole was, Dr. Lamiy told him, “You were flatlined for three and a half seconds.”
He then asked the doctor why his heart would start back, who then in turn answered, “Just the grace of God.”
Dr. Lamiy swiftly took action, ordering Williams to go to the hospital immediately and have a pacemaker inserted.
He was diagnosed with a third-degree heart block, which is a serious and often fatal heart condition where the electrical signals that come from the sinus nodes don’t make it to the rest of the heart, so the heart, in essence, doesn’t get the signal to beat.
“The pacemaker, thankfully, guarantees me one heartbeat a second.”
Williams was released from the hospital in 2015 and by that summer he started running sporadically, but nothing serious, until July 2016, when he woke up one morning and decided to run to go for a run.
“I woke up one Saturday morning – I was supposed to run in a 5K in Paintsville for Awaken and I forgot about it, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll just go ahead and make a donation and I’ll get my 5K in in Salyersville,’” Williams said.
That day he ran 3.1 miles – which is a 5K – and really enjoyed it, so he tried it, again, and started making running a part of his daily routine.
“I started increasing my mileage, started increasing my time, and really fell in love with it.” Williams said.
Last fall he ran in the Bourbon Chase, a big relay race that runs through the backroads of central Kentucky between bourbon distilleries to Rupp Arena. He was on a team of 12 and had to run three legs of the race, which totaled about 23 miles and 18 hours.
“Just seeing the rolling hills of Kentucky, the beautiful backroads of central Kentucky was phenomenal, and then being able to run with good friends was a great, great experience that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life,” Williams said.
By December he was running 8-minute miles and seven or eight miles a day
“You come one heartbeat away from death, that causes you to really stop to think,” he explained. “I’ve got a lovely wife – beautiful wife, three beautiful daughters that I want to be with for a long, long time, and I really wanted to get my health in check.”
Since he started running a year ago, Williams has lost around 62 pounds.
“I’m probably in better health now than I was when I played basketball in high school, pacemaker and all.”
Williams explained that running has went from something he would like to do, to something he was doing, to now a real passion.
“For me, the hour, hour and 15 minutes out of the day that I’m running, it helps me physically. It helps me mentally – I can focus, just block some things out of my mind. It’s a stress relief. It’s helped me spiritually. I pray a lot while I’m running, and so my prayer list gets prayed through every morning. Sometimes on long runs, multiple times.”
However, Williams said his new passion comes with its own set of challenges.
“I’ve probably been chased by every dog in the county,” he said. “I laughingly joke when Rocky ran through Philadelphia all of his supporters gathered behind him and ran with him. I run through Salyersville and everybody’s dogs run with me. I’m not sure if they’re supporting me or not.”
Williams said the public support has been phenomenal during his year-long journey.
“The people I see as I run, throwing their hands up and honking at me, yelling out encouragement, it’s just been great for me and I love it and appreciate it very much.”
While the general public is for the most part supportive, Williams has had a run in or two with some not-so-supportive members of the community.
“The other day I was running through town and I don’t know what was going on,” Williams said. “I run past Speedway and I was beside of Napa, and there’s a vehicle who come up beside of me and slowed down enough to catch my attention in my peripheral vision. As I turned and looked they stuck a gun out the window. I didn’t know what type of gun it was, and they just started shooting. Thankfully, it was BB guns and thankfully they were a bad shot. They didn’t hit me, but they hit the building all around me, and they sped away.”
Even with the sometimes physical hurdles, Williams said the hardest part is running on a bad day.
“There’s some days I get up and within the first mile I can tell I just don’t have it,” Williams said. “Whether I overextended myself the day before, whether I ate something late that didn’t settle well with me, or whether it’s something I can’t put my finger on. On a day like that four and five miles is as difficult as 13 or 14 on a good day.”
“The key to it is fighting through those very bad days to finish your mileage, to finish your run, and that’s encouragement and rewarding in itself.”
Today, Williams has developed a rough schedule for running. He wakes up around 4 or 4:30 a.m., reads, does a devotional, and hits the pavement around 7 a.m. – often before his kids get out of bed – allowing him time to reflect on his reading, pray and work on some sermon preparation. Monday through Friday, he tries to get three or four runs in, averaging six to seven miles a run. Most of the time on Saturday morning he gets in his big run for the week – around 10 to 15 miles.
Sometimes he runs into town. One of his favorite places to run is Down-and-Around. He likes to start out at his home on Fox Run and go down Rt. 40 and up Mashfork, pickup U.S. 460 and run back into town.
Last month he ran almost 100 miles, and is shooting for 100 to 120 miles for July.
Williams’ doctor is able to keep an eye on his heart via readings his pacemaker sends every night.
“My heartrate shows how much better shape I’m in now than I was when I started,” Williams said. “When I first started, that three-mile run, my heartrate jumped up to 231. Now, the last time I saw Dr. Lamiy, the highest my heartrate had gotten up to was 189, and so that’s very, very good when you consider all that I run, the distance and the time.”
While it sounds counterintuitive, Williams said his favorite time of year to run is December and January when it’s bitter cold outside.
“About 10 to 20 degrees is my sweet spot,” he said. “You bundle up, you get out, you run, and there’s a few times last year it was so cold when I ran that the sweat from my toboggan froze and it ended up like I had an ice helmet on whenever I ran.”
Williams said Salyersville is very quiet at 7 a.m., but he likes to get out before the morning traffic, which allows him to run in places, like the Ivy Point Hill, safely.
“What I’ve noticed is, other than the BB gun person, everyone is very, very nice. They’re very encouraging. They’re always honking their horn, they’re waving at me. I’ll see someone in the store and they’ll say ‘I saw you running, today.’ Or they’ll shoot me a Facebook message or make a joke out of it. The community has been very, very encouraging to me and I appreciate that very much.”
Williams encourages people who have received a difficult diagnosis to not let it overcome them and to work with their doctors, family and friends, as well as the good Lord, to find an outlet, like running, to improve their physical and mental health.
While currently his pacemaker is pacing in the upper chamber approximately 24 percent of the time, which is about one out every four heartbeats, and in the bottom chamber it’s kicking in 1 percent of the time, Williams hopes to run marathon -26.2 miles – within the year.
Anyone wanting follow Williams’ running journey can add him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. A video story will also be available online at www.salyersvilleindependent.com, as well as by adding the Salyersville Independent on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.