'Inner monster' ran his life
Like many athletes, this runner and kayaker felt invincible. But his heart told him otherwise.
By DAN DEWITT, Times Staff Writer
Published November 22, 2007
BROOKSVILLE - Stephen Foster went out in his kayak a couple of times in the past week, which a few years ago would have been just part of his normal routine.
As a two-time state flatwater kayaking champion, Foster used to kayak all the time. He ran even more, once finishing the 15K Gasparilla Distance Classic in just over 55 minutes, a pace of under 6 minutes per mile.
But 16 years after that feat, an easy paddle on a still lake in eastern Pasco County is enough to make the 53-year-old Foster rave.
"It was great. The cool air and water - it was like being born again," said Foster, who lives in Brooksville with his wife, Antoaneta, and works as a chemist for Tampa Bay Water in Pasco County.
How he came to be so grateful just to be able to drift along a lake - and, more importantly, to be alive this Thanksgiving - Foster explains in a book he's written under the pen name of Stephen McQueen, a family name.
The opening chapters of the book, On the Precipice: A Story of Running, Kayaking and Heart Surgery, focus on a common feeling among endurance athletes: invincibility.
When he was in his late 30s, Foster was running his best times. His body was lean; his blood pressure and cholesterol levels were nearly ideal. He and the other runners felt so strong, he said, they didn't mind aging because they expected better results in their next age groups.
"I actually looked forward to reaching the 40-and-over age group," he wrote.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, work became secondary, and his years were devoted to running in the winter, kayaking in the summer and, in the spring, sometimes doing both on the same day.
He writes in the book of having one of his best races, a 10K in Brandon that he ran in 38 minutes, followed later that morning by one of his worst paddling competitions, on the Hillsborough River. He was so exhausted that he could barely climb out of his kayak.
Still, he didn't pick up on the signals.
"My inner monster's insatiable appetite for racing was now driving all my thoughts and actions," he writes. "Instead of taking a week off from racing, I entered a half-marathon the next weekend."
Not surprisingly, it was about that time, the spring of 1992, that his body began to rebel. He repeatedly fell sick with severe sore throats. He got inexplicable chills even in the summertime. No matter how hard he trained, he could never reach peak fitness.
Finally, in 1996, a doctor diagnosed a leaky heart valve so serious that he was amazed Foster had been able to perform his rigorous workouts and races.
The doctor didn't recommend surgery right away, but by the fall of 2005 two of Foster's heart chambers had grown to nearly double the normal size because of the stress brought on by the flawed valve.
Doctors told him he had narrowly averted a severe stroke, and they immediately scheduled him for an operation to repair his defective valve.
The aftermath was especially difficult for a seasoned athlete. He swallowed handfuls of pills to prevent infections and to ease his pain. In the hospital after the surgery, he was hooked to a machine that controlled his a heartbeat. "I was beginning to feel like a machine myself, dependent on nurses turning dials on fancy-looking instruments to keep me alive," he writes.
But as he recovered at Tampa General Hospital on Davis Islands, things began to turn around. He watched boaters on the water, and "I realized how much I missed it," he said.
"I wondered if I would ever be able to get back on my kayak again. I told myself never to take it for granted again."
He has kept to that pledge, in part because it took him so long to get his health back. Though he began walking within weeks of his surgery, he held off on kayaking because he worried that the ribs the surgeon had pried open would be too fragile for the strain of paddling.
Turns out, he held up just fine.
Being able to kayak off Pine Island last Saturday and on Lake Jovita on Monday afternoon is just one reason he looks forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with friends in Pasco County.
Another is the return of his other lost love: running.
He has learned his lesson about the dangers of relentless training, he said: "Not resting, not recuperating - that's what did me in."
He enjoys his time outdoors, on the streets of his hilly, rural subdivision just south of Brooksville, and likes feeling stronger than he has in years.
But, even with all he has learned, Foster has not been able to kill his "inner monster." He has accumulated 15 to 20 miles of training per week recently, leading him to begin thinking of running the Flatlanders Challenge road race through the hilly streets of Brooksville next spring.
He has not quite been able to resist setting an ambitious, while comparatively modest, target pace.
"I guess about 8 minutes 30 (seconds)," he said. "I'd feel good if I could do 8:30 per mile."
Dan DeWitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6116.
Buying the book?
On the Precipice: A Story of Running, Kayaking and Heart Surgery, is available at Amazon.com for $19.95