Derek Wiley
The Bulletin

A year after suffering a heart attack 4 miles into a half marathon, Larry Watts, 69, is back in Sunriver this weekend to not only finish the race, but also to thank all of the people who saved his life.

Karen Christopherson, a retired nuclear medicine technologist from Yakima, Washington, who was also running the half marathon at the 2018 Pacific Crest Endurance Festival, was the first person to treat the fallen Watts through CPR.

“I checked his pulse and there was nothing,” recalls Christopherson, who says she had renewed her CPR training about six months before the race but had never preformed chest compressions outside of class. “I had noticed him before the incident. He looked tired and really sweaty. He didn’t look good for being this early in the race.”

Two Portland neurosurgeons, Paul Ash and David Antezana, who were spectators watching their wives compete in the race, then took over for Christopherson. After 10 minutes of CPR, a medic arrived and loaded Watts into an air ambulance headed to St. Charles Bend.

“To me it’s a miracle that God placed all these people to care for me,” Watts says. “It’s a miracle that I didn’t fall flat on my face and have a big bruise across my forehead or bruises on my arms or bruises on my hands. It’s amazing I’m still alive.”

A week before the half marathon, Watts, a dentist in Redding, California, ran 11 miles near his home. “We live out in the country and I don’t think I saw one person out there,” Watts says. “If I would have dropped and done the same thing, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

Watts does not remember the morning of the half marathon. His first recollection is waking up in the hospital and hearing he needed two stents to keep the coronary arteries in his heart open.

“You have an amazing hospital there in St. Charles,” Watts says. “I was treated like a king.”

A couple of days after the race, Watts talked to Christopherson on the phone to say thank you.

“It was just heartwarming to hear from him and know he was OK,” says Christopherson, who is also retuning to Sunriver this weekend but will not be able to take part in the race due to a foot injury. “I want to go anyway because my friends are there and I want to meet Larry.”

After four days at St. Charles, Watts was transferred to Mercy Medical Center in Redding. Watts says he was told that a family history of cardiovascular issues was likely a key contributor to his heart attack. Watts’ father died at 72 after three separate bypass surgeries, the first at age 60. Watts’ grandfather also died of a heart attack.

“I had no symptoms, no chest pains or anything like that,” recalls Watts, who, following the training program detailed in Jeff Galloway’s book “The Run Walk Run Method,” completed his first marathon at age 54 in Portland in 2004.

Watts says he then ran the Disneyland Half Marathon in Anaheim, California, for 12 or 13 years in a row. The half marathon at the Pacific Crest races, this year scheduled to start at 7 a.m. Saturday in Sunriver Village, has become a Watts family affair over the past 10 years, including relatives traveling from Southern California, Salem and Bend.

Watts is running this year’s race with his son James and James’ fiancée, Danielle, who are visiting from Huntington Beach, California.

To make his comeback, Watts says, he underwent 38 sessions of cardiac rehab, working out three times a week beginning at the end of July through October. In November, he was cleared by his cardiologist to resume running on his own.

Watts says he started his comeback by running 30 seconds and then walking 30 seconds. He is now back to running three minutes and walking one.

Watts, who is 20 pounds lighter than last year, down to 170 from 190, has changed his diet, eating mostly fish and salad, he says, instead of regular trips to In-N-Out and McDonald’s. Watts says he is also eating less bread and dairy.

The weight loss has made Watts faster. He has gone from run-walking 15-minute miles to 13-minute miles.

On June 15, two weeks before Saturday’s half marathon, which will be Watts’ first race of any distance since suffering the heart attack, he woke up at 5:30 a.m. for a trial run, doing 12 miles in his neighborhood.

“Prior to that I was a little nervous, but doing it and seeing how well I felt afterwards has given me a bunch of peace,” Watts says. “I just think I need to get back in the saddle.”

­­— Reporter: 541-383-0307, dwiley@bendbulletin.com

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