Calgary

Alberta ultramarathoner's 66-day cross-Canada trek to be studied by heart doctors

Researchers say a southern Alberta ultramarathoner's attempt to set a speed record by running across Canada this summer will provide a rare opportunity to better understand the health effects of ultra-endurance sports.

'I don't know how he's doing what he's doing,' says cardiologist who will study Dave Proctor's body

Dave Proctor sits with cardiologist Dr. James White as they discuss the state of his cardiovascular system. (CBC)

Researchers say a southern Alberta ultramarathoner's attempt to set a speed record by running across Canada this summer will provide a rare opportunity to better understand the health effects of ultra-endurance sports.

Dave Proctor, who is from Okotoks, Alta., plans to run 7,200 kilometres in 66 days, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The accomplished ultramarthoner plans to run 108 kilometres per day to achieve the feat.

"I'm not going to do this again. I don't know too many Canadians who would do something like this, and so why not give up your body to science and let them understand how a really well-functioning body, when it comes to your cardiovascular system, how it really does work," he said.

Proctor hopes the run will see him raise $1 million for the study of rare diseases, such as the one that afflicts his son. (Dave Proctor)

Cardiologist Dr. James White, one of the researchers who will be examining Proctor's heart, lungs and blood before, during and after the run, said it's a great opportunity for science.

"The opportunity that we have, to have him partner with us, with science, to understand how the heart is changing, how the cardiovascular system is changing, during one of these events — it's unprecedented," said White, who heads the University of Calgary's Stephenson Cardiovascular MR Centre at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta.

The way Proctor's heart reacts and adapts to the stress could teach the research team a lot about heart disease, White said.

"By doing what he's doing, he's putting a lot of work on that heart over many, many days. It's one of the best stress tests we can ever do on the heart," he said.

Cardiologist Dr. James White is one of the researchers who will be examining Proctor's heart, lungs and blood before, during and after his cross-country run. (CBC)

"We don't understand why some people's hearts can respond and repair themselves spontaneously from heart injury, and others continue to degrade over time."

Proctor's heart already appears on MRI scans to have some slightly larger areas. Evidence, White said, the organ has adapted to be able to pump more blood to help fuel his long runs.

"What we're most interested in is really understanding how, from here, he changes over the period of his exercise for 66 or more days, and how his heart is able to adapt even more to all of that," he said.

White said Proctor's ability to run such long distances — day after day after day — makes him something of a medical marvel.

"I have to say, when we study the hearts, and we know what they should be able to do in a normal person, I don't know how he's doing what he's doing," he said.

"It's not something I, as a physician, thought was possible."

Proctor said he believes the biggest challenge will be in his mind.

"What it takes to become an ultramarathoner is just continually moving forward. Not stopping, being relentless in all pursuits. You don't necessary need to be fast. You just have to not stop," he said.

'I'm going to be in pain'

"The challenge is definitely 100 per cent mental," Proctor said.

He said he's keenly aware of the risk that he could be hurting himself in the long term.

"Sadly, this is what I do best," he said. "But oddly enough, I'm not a very good-looking man, I'm not very smart. But I can run long, long distances," he said.

He said he expects inflammation of tendons, ligaments and joints to set in after five to eight days and not really get any better.

"Really, I'm going to be in pain all summer long," he said.

Proctor hopes to raise over $1 million for the Rare Disease Foundation for research.

His nine-year-old son Sam has relapsing encephalopathy with cerebellar ataxia, or RECA.

Proctor starts at dawn on June 27 in Victoria at the Mile 0 Terry Fox monument, which honours Fox's attempt to run across the country on a prosthetic leg in 1980 to raise money for cancer research.

With files from Dave Gilson

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