Of all the possible outcomes of finding out he had four holes in his heart – atrial septal defects the biggest of which was 1.8 centimetres in diameter – it seems unlikely that it would make Kevin Quinn a better runner. Yet eight months after an eight hour repair operation in February 2016, he won a race he’d been trying and failing to come top in for 20 years – the Surrey Cross Country League Division 1 event in Richmond Park – then came 12th out of more than 20,000 in the Great South Run a week later.
In October last year, the 41-year-old from Carshalton did something even more extraordinary, entering a virtual version of the New York City Marathon by running laps around Dulwich Park and coming first out of over 14,000 worldwide runners with a time of 2:23:48.
“I’d started training quite hard again about six months after my operation and it was bizarre. My hard sessions, my tempos, felt really good. It was almost like having a legal EPO, because before, I’d been losing about 25 per cent of my oxygen with these holes,” he says. “When I was younger I’d trained with some really top athletes but could never quite get there myself. When I found out about my heart issue it kind of made sense.”
Two different tragedies got him running in the first place. Aged 11, he won a place in the London Mini Marathon to raise money for a cerebral palsy charity. His sister Lucy had died from the condition when she was three and he was eight. “Running helped me to feel a connection with my sister and deal with that grief,” he says.
As a young athlete he was a keen track runner, concentrating on 1500m and 3k races. In 2006 he and his dad watched a friend, Peter Riley, making his London Marathon debut and finishing 12th. Quinn’s father said he’d love to see him try it the following year, but the next day, died from a heart attack. “It was really shit, but it was the last thing he’d asked me to do. So in 2007 I ran it in his memory, raised some money for the British Heart Foundation and cerebral palsy, and gave the race no respect whatsoever.”
Despite it being the most painful experience he says he’s ever had on a run, he finished in 2:46:19 and came 270th. “It chewed me up and spat me out,” he says. “But the crowds, the atmosphere, all these people in tears raising money for so many wonderful charities… that was it. I was in love with the marathon.”
He did the Hamburg Marathon in 2012 in 2:28:41, and London again in 2015 in 2:25:57, but after the latter, something didn’t feel right. “I was lying in bed after the race and my chest just felt a bit odd, though I wasn’t out of breath. This went on for a while. On a couple of occasions I looked in the mirror and it looked like my lip had dropped slightly.”
Thinking of his dad, who died at 52 from a heart condition, and now a husband and father of three children himself, he saw his doctor, who dismissed it as a probable after-effect of running an extraordinarily fast marathon. Then a friend told him about a charity that does heart screenings called Cardiac Risk in the Young. He saw them at St George’s Hospital in south London in September 2015 and they too almost missed his issue, until a student nurse stopped him as he was leaving and asked to do a second scan to compare an athlete’s heart to the general public. Soon the room was full of cardiologists.
“They told me the right side of my heart was massively dilated, and they really needed to operate pretty quickly to prevent a blood clot finding its way through that big hole and reaching my brain. I actually started laughing. I’d done that 2:25 marathon time and was pretty disappointed not to get 2:24. Then the worry and panic began.”
He had a device called an occluder fitted, which closes holes in a way similar to an umbrella opening. Five years on, he has Berlin Marathon in his sights and a goal of sub-2:20. Even without the heart issue, that’s a serious commitment for a man with three children under 10 and a full-time job. His company, Real Runners, provides athletics programmes for schools. He also offers remote coaching and has recently started a virtual run club on Instagram with support from New Balance and Intersport.
“I get up really early when I’m training full-time, get my main session done, allow time for hydrating, stretching and so on, and then maybe go out again at lunchtime,” he says. “I have worked really hard. I do say to a lot of my athletes who are struggling, we all have 24 hours in our day. If I can do it with three kids, a growing business and a dodgy heart, there’s no real excuse not to get out there and try with whatever time you have.”