Among the hundreds of runners toeing the start line this weekend at the second annual Detroit Women’s Half Marathon & 5K will be eight passionate and strong women who share a common goal: educating others about heart health.

These Heart Heroes — mothers, sisters, daughters who live and run in Michigan — know intimately how heart issues can affect anyone, at any time, and have chosen to share their own journeys of reclaiming their health, embracing a healthy lifestyle, and teaching and helping others in their quests to get healthy. “A Heart Hero knows the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, she takes action to minimize the risk and she educates others,” say race organizers, who partnered with Go Red for Women and Fellow Flowers to select the 2014 Heart Heroes. “She isn’t perfect, she might not be fast, but she is determined.”

MRG caught up with two of this year’s Heart Heroes to learn more about their journey and their running in the Mitten. Courtney Alexander, a 35-year-old mom of three in Saline, MI, went into cardiac arrest two years ago — an experience she acknowledges she’d never expected given that athletics and fitness have always been a huge part of her life. “I was a healthy, active 33-year-old mom of three who didn’t have a family history of any heart issues — I am proof that it can happen to anyone,” says Courtney, who is a speech-language pathologist.

The second Heart Hero I connected with, Tracy Sekula, 49, overhauled her lifestyle — losing more than 100 pounds in 18 months, keeping it off for six years now — after witnessing her parents’ health issues. “I am running this half-marathon for my mother Diane Whisman who passed away in January of congestive heart failure with no warning,” says Tracy, who is a certified safety director living in Fraser, MI. “And for my father Tommy Whisman who had a massive stroke and is in a hospital bed at my house being cared for by a CNA as a direct result of the effects from the stroke.”

I hope to meet Courtney, Tracy and the other Heart Heroes when I’m in Detroit this weekend — these courageous women will be at the Expotique on Saturday — and I hope their stories will be as inspiring to you as they were to me.

Courtney Alexander

Courtney and her kids, 2013.
Courtney and her kids, 2013.

Returning to an active lifestyle: After my event, I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to run again. I became hyperaware of all the runners out on their runs and thought about how badly I wanted to be able to just go for a jog. I spent four months in cardiac rehab walking on a treadmill, staring out the window at the beautiful weather outside. I had many frustrating sessions where I would try to jog but my heart rate would get too high. It took about a year for me to be able to go out for a jog without stopping and walking because of my heart rate. I learned where my heart rate liked to be during a run and became comfortable with it getting to that rate. My ICD [implantable cardioverter defibrillator] is set for 204…and I will slow things down when my heart rate gets above 160.  

Courtney and her family.
Courtney and her family.

Love of Running: One of the best things about running is the fact that you can do it almost anywhere and any time of day. My favorite time to run is in the late spring/summer at dusk. I love running when it is getting dark…I love the lighting, the smells and the noises. I am a busy mom of three, so after a crazy day, it is nice to put on my running shoes and go out for a run by myself for an hour or so. I come back feeling refreshed and energized….not to mention I feel good about myself. I love that I can walk out my front door and go. I don’t have to get in my car or be to a class at any certain time. If I want to run at 8 o’clock but I don’t get out there until 8:25, it is not a big deal…I didn’t miss anything and I am not walking in late to any class. Running is on my own time schedule, which is a nice change after a day of playing taxi driver and getting my kids to their activities at certain times. My favorite place to run is outside — anywhere outside. The not-so-great thing about that is that I live in Michigan and I am a fair weather runner — as soon as it is cold enough for a hat, I am inside on a treadmill, which I guess makes the spring/summer/fall runs outside that much more special and enjoyable.  

Running in the D: This will be my first race since going into cardiac arrest and getting an ICD. I am a competitive person so it will be difficult for me to let people run by me. I can’t run as fast as I want because I know my heart rate will get too high. I know I have to run between a 9- and 10-minute mile to stay in a safe zone even though my pride is telling me I am capable of running a sub 8-minute-mile. So I guess my goal for this race is more of an educational one instead of a time one. I want people to know that it can happen to anyone — even a 33-year-old who has eaten heart healthy all her life, always been active, has no history of heart issues in her extended family and lives a pretty stress-free life. I am sure that the fact that I was in shape, I did lead an active lifestyle and I was a healthy eater helped my chance of survival. But I have to be honest, it really strikes emotion in me when people talk about the importance of leading a heart healthy life because I had been and it didn’t matter. It actually hurt me at first because when I went to the ER with severe back pain and numbness down my arms, they discharged me because I was young, in shape and healthy.

Tracy Sekula

Tracy running Labor Day weekend at River Walk. "Dodging the bees and crowd for the Jazz Festival."
Tracy running Labor Day weekend at River Walk. “Dodging the bees and crowd for the Jazz Festival.” She posted this to her Instagram and Facebook — she enjoys motivating others by sharing her story and ongoing efforts to stay healthy.

What do you love most about running? 

Running gives me the opportunity to pound out my stress on the pavement with each step I take! I also love it is way for me to just have my well deserved “Tracy Time” after all I have gone through!

Do you have a favorite place in Michigan to run?

My favorite place to run is along downtown Detroit River Walk. Or along the water at Metro Beach. Being by the water always inspires me to do more than and push harder and it is great for people watching.

Tracy running the River Walk (on a hot and humid day) before a big Lions game earlier this fall.
Tracy running the River Walk (on a hot and humid day) before a big Lions game earlier this fall.

What are your goals for this half marathon in Detroit? 

My goals for the half marathon in Detroit is to be able to share my story and reach out and inspire others and to cross the finish line no matter what my time may be (my goal is to have 15-minute miles).

What would you say you’ve learned in your journey of becoming a runner?

That it does not matter how big you are or how slow you run — it only matters that you took the time to do your ultimate best and fulfill your own personal goals. My self-worth is not wrapped around others opinions. I finally found myself and am truly happy with being me!

"My mom and dad and I -- our last family picture together before she passed away and my dad's massive stroke."
“My mom and dad and I — our last family picture together before she passed away and my dad’s massive stroke.”

What message or piece of advice would you want to give to other runners about the importance of staying healthy and making smart lifestyle choices?

That if I can do it being the queen of excuses, laziness, and a couch potato and lose over 145 pounds anyone can do it! Take it one step at a time, one day at a time and do not be a follower! Be a leader and strive to be the best you can be for today! It does not matter what you did yesterday — all that matters is that you are trying today! Remember without your health you do not have anything, so make those lifestyle changes slow and create new healthier habbits that will last a lifetime!

Read all of the 2014 (and 2013) Heart Hero stories here »

Many thanks to Tracy and Courtney sharing their stories. Best of luck to you both — and to all runners — this weekend in Detroit! See you all there — please stop by the Michigan Runner Girl booth to say hello!

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