‘When you feel that you are going to die, it effects you’
IT'S a brisk morning at Parklands National Park where the only sound is birds chattering before footsteps start to crunch the gravel in a methodical rhythm as runners begin emerging from the winding, tree-lined path.
Standing out from the rest in a bright red Cardiac Athletes shirt is Tony Jennings.
Sweat pours down his face and you can hear his athletic runner's breath - fierce, strong and experienced and yet also touched with slight notes of asthma.
He smiles as he runs towards that finish line and his determined stride shows his athleticism and dedication to his health and fitness.
Tony isn't just any runner. He is a survivor and an advocate for healthy exercise.
His achievement today is hard-won and fought for. The fit ex-policeman's career ended in 2007 with a heart attack.
"Within six weeks, I was told I was having a double bypass," he recalls.
He crosses the line and members of the Nambour Parkrun cheer.
It's his 300th Parkrun. A milestone moment.
Tony has completed a 5km Parkrun 300 times somewhere around the world - from tracks in Scandinavian countries to this one in Nambour, the hardest Parkrun in the world. It is his home track and favourite.
Tony is red-faced as he drops to his knees to steady his breath and heart.
"I don't really count the milestones," he says.
"It's just nice to keep going."
His face and tone are sombre.
"When you feel that you are going to die, and you go through that for an extended period of time, it affects you mentally. There is always that fear that one day that will be it."
Tony is no stranger to loss.
"I have lost family members to heart conditions," he says.
"I had a grandson who died of a heart condition.
"One of the reasons I do all that I do is I want to stay fit and healthy and be an example to the next generation and other people that have heart problems.
"I've got a lot of drive and it's mainly about trying to stay alive."
"I'm keeping my heart health and mental health together. I find that by doing challenging activities, physically and mentally, that helps me."
Having a bad heart with certain issues requires him to stay in the best shape possible.
"I have to work hard and mentally the fitness challenges also keep away depression and anxiety which I have had my fair share of," he says.
Tony has found support and friendship through the Australian Group Cardiac Athletes, whose shirt he proudly wears.
Cardiac physiologist, Cardiac Athletes founder and CEO, and Tony's close friend Lars Andrews says he founded the group Cardiac Athletes in 1997 to bring hope back to people's lives.
"When I was working in the field of cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation, I heard two junior doctors laughing and describing a patient as a cardiac cripple," Lars says.
"It bothered me so much.
"It struck me that the exact polar opposite of a cardiac cripple would be a cardiac athlete.
"Just by changing one word, a person can go from the lows of depression to the highs of hopefulness."
Lars and Tony have become great friends through Cardiac Athletes.
They met when both were in the US and Lars was giving a presentation about the group. "Tony is a dear friend of mine," Lars says.
"I have helped with just about every member of his family."
He was even there on the phone supporting Tony when his granddaughter was born.
"So many heart surgeries that little girl has had but such a tough and beautiful little spirit," Lars says.
Tony says when his granddaughter was born she wasn't supposed to survive even a few days and had to go through multiple heart operations.
"I had Lars support me through the whole time," he says.
"It spurned me on and drove me to go back to university.
"I did a degree in clinical exercise physiology and became a cardiac physiologist myself.
"That support from Lars and the group and talking to people with similar conditions really helped."
Lars works in Box Hill and Maroondah Hospitals as a cardiac physiologist but predominantly works as an adult echo cardiographer and has a passion to help people, which is why he started the group.
This drive stems from his own story of breaking his neck as an athlete in his youth.
"I realised I wanted to help others to help themselves," he says.
Tony found the group by chance: "After I had my heart surgery, I happened to type into Google the words 'cardiac' and 'athlete' and the group popped up."
When Tony first joined, only half a dozen athletes were members in Australia but now the group is all over the world.
"We all travel and meet each other and there is a whole range of conditions in the group," he says.
"Overall, we are just looking after each other's wellbeing."
Dr Yuri Kriel, a lecturer in clinical exercise physiology at University of the Sunshine Coast and accredited exercise physiologist, says there is a potential knowledge gap for athletes looking to return to safe higher-level or intense physical activity and competition after a cardiac event.
"Therefore, seeking out specialist opinion from medical professionals who have experience and expertise in this niche area as well as accurate supportive forums can be of value for the individual to make a fully informed choice as to their future activity levels and exercise goals," he says.
"Post-heart attack, positive behavioural change and risk factor management can be difficult for people to identify and maintain after hospital discharge.
"That is why it is so important that individuals are referred to local cardiac rehabilitation programs, where they are exposed to behavioural modification strategies in a supportive, often multi-disciplinary environment."
Tony's fellow Cardiac Athlete and friend Maxime Szylvester also runs proudly in the group's shirt.
"We are coming out of the woodwork everywhere now, wearing our cardiac shirts," she says.
Maxime, who travelled to run with Tony in the Parkrun, says raising awareness for the group and especially heart health is so important.
"After all, how many people actually know what condition their hearts are in?" she says.
Heart Foundation support and care director Rachelle Foreman says it is estimated more than 430,000 Australians have had a heart attack at some time in their lives.
"Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is critical for those who have had a heart attack and being active plays an important role," she says.
Tony is inspired by the fact that exercise can be life-saving.
He knew deep down that exercise would help keep his body alive after his heart attack.
"The body is a whole system so when one part doesn't work so well, adapt the rest and give your body the best chance it has," he says.
"You have to fight for your life."