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Northland man died while running -- and running saved his life

Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at rlubbers@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5317.1 / 2
Poplar's Scott Pearson runs on Oak Road near his home Friday afternoon. Pearson recovered from a heart attack during last year's Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and plans to be back at the starting line of the half Saturday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

Scott Pearson died while running, and running saved his life.

The latter part of that paradox will bring the 62-year-old Poplar resident back to the race where his life nearly ended a year ago.

The Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon.

Pearson recalls feeling dizzy while running past Lake Avenue during the final stages of last year's Bjorklund Half Marathon ... and then being loaded into an ambulance.

He doesn't remember collapsing at the corner of Superior Street and Fourth Avenue West amid a throng of runners -- his heart stilled and his breath stopped.

He was dead.

But thanks to several quick-acting bystanders and emergency personnel, Pearson was resuscitated and transported to Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center, where he had surgery two days later.

"My cardiologist told me, 'You were dead before you hit the pavement, and they brought you back,' " Pearson said.

Today -- exactly a year after suffering his serious heart attack -- he is celebrating a very special Father's Day, a celebration he nearly missed. In six days he plans to run the Bjorklund Half Marathon as his family watches and cheers from the sidelines.

GETTING INTO SHAPE

Running wasn't part of Pearson's lifestyle until three years ago, when one of his daughters, Paige, introduced him to the activity as a way to get into better shape and counter a family history of cardiac issues.

"It became my new activity," said Paige, who maintained a busy extracurricular schedule at Northwestern High School with volleyball, dance and softball before graduating in 2009.

The racing bug bit, and soon the father-daughter duo started running half marathons. They completed two together prior to last year's Bjorklund Half Marathon, with Scott finishing ahead of Paige, 22, both times.

But in their third half marathon together, his heart stopped him a mile short of the finish line.

'SOMETHING WAS OFF'

When the Pearsons lined up for the start of the 2012 Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, Scott didn't notice anything different about his health.

But his body provided subtle hints of something amiss shortly after the race began.

"I remember it was kind of a slow race for me," said Pearson, who had felt sick and faint during a 12-mile run a few weeks earlier. "I didn't know what it was, but I know I just didn't feel right running.

"Something was off."

Pearson had walked portions of half marathons in the past, but he started running less and walking more than usual. Soon, he experienced a wave of faintness.

"I felt a little bit dizzy a couple of times. I remember passing Lake Avenue and getting dizzy, and that's the last thing I remember," he said. "The next thing I remember is waking up and they're throwing me in the ambulance."

RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME

If it hadn't been for the quick response of several medically trained bystanders, Pearson probably never would have woken up in that ambulance.

Two Essentia Health Heart and Vascular Center employees were nearby when Pearson collapsed -- one running in the race just ahead of him, the other sprinting out of Starbucks toward the scene -- and an off-duty firefighter also rushed to his aid. They found Pearson unresponsive with a gash over his left eyebrow from hitting his head on a manhole cover.

They performed CPR on Pearson and eventually a defibrillator fetched from a nearby ambulance was used to revive him.

As Pearson ponders the events surrounding his medical rescue on June 16, 2012, he draws peace, strength and perspective from his Christian faith.

"I usually run by myself on the (Tri-County Corridor). This could have happened out on the corridor some place and they wouldn't have found me for who knows how long," Pearson said. "It wasn't just by chance that it happened there.

"I'm sure it was a God thing. I do feel that. I know he is going to show me what he wants me to do (with the rest of my life)."

ALONE AT THE FINISH LINE

Paige Pearson estimates that she was about two minutes ahead of her father when he suffered the heart attack. But at the time she was unaware of what was going on behind her, as they typically ran separately at their own pace.

"When I finished, at first I was excited about finally beating him," she said.

But Paige and her family grew increasingly concerned as minutes ticked by and Scott had yet to join them at the finish line.

Nearly an hour and a half passed, and he still hadn't turned up.

They checked the medical tent in vain before Scott's wife, Kim, received a call from a doctor informing her of Scott's hospitalization.

QUICK RECOVERY

Pearson had quadruple bypass surgery on the Monday after the race and was discharged that Thursday afternoon.

Eager to get back to running, Pearson said he felt good enough to sneak in a quarter-mile run only a week after suffering his heart attack -- not necessarily under doctor's orders.

"Less than two weeks later, I was running a couple of miles a day," he said. "The rehab people didn't know that. I'd go run a couple of miles and then go to rehab and walk on a treadmill."

Scott and Kim are looking forward to celebrating their 26th wedding anniversary this year. And although he is retired, Scott says his six children and 11 grandchildren keep him as busy as any full-time job.

RUNNING FULL CIRCLE

In the past year, Pearson has completed two-mile and 5K races, but he hasn't attempted a half marathon since last year's Bjorklund.

And while his heart has recovered, back and leg issues slowed his training this spring and forced him to take two months off. He just returned to regular training three weeks ago.

"Cardiac-wise, I'm not worried at all about that," he said. "I know it's going to be a slow race; I'm not going to push it. I'm not concerned about my time or anything."

He'll be running without Paige this time around. She was registered to run Grandma's Marathon for the first time, but back problems have sidelined her.

Still, she can't wait to be her father's biggest cheerleader Saturday.

"It will be fun to cheer him on. It's definitely going to be emotional," she said. "It's an inspiration for people. That it's never too late to turn your lifestyle around.

"His heart attack was going to happen anyway. Even though his arteries were blocked, his heart was so strong that he was able to recover quickly. If he hadn't been running, he wouldn't be here.

"Running saved his life."

Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at rlubbers@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5317. Follow him @ricklubbersdnt on Twitter.

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