Mark Buciak was given two alternatives to fix his leaky heart:
A cow valve.
Or a mechanical device.
The long-distance runner from Chicago, who will attempt to become the first Illinois competitor to finish 40 straight Boston Marathons on Monday, had a question about a third option.
“Do you have any cheetah valves?’’ Buciak asked Patrick McCarthy, Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s chief of cardiac surgery. “Because I’d really like to come out of this running faster.’’
Buciak sat in McCarthy’s office 13 years ago, a healthy 45-year-old man who got the shock of his life after a routine physical. An electrocardiogram (EKG) months earlier during his regular visit to Dr. Nadim Khoury had detected atrial fibrillation — commonly called AFib, or irregular heartbeat — that Buciak attributed to a genetic defect. He was so sure the readings were wrong that he insisted technicians bring in two other machines to administer separate EKGs.
“I was 0-for-3, struck out,’’ said Buciak, now 58.
An echocardiogram that provided a more detailed visual image of Buciak’s heart revealed a leaking aortic valve that would need to be replaced.
That time came Jan. 13, 2006 — Friday the 13th — when Buciak and his wife, Barrie Brejcha, listened as McCarthy laid out the pros and cons of a bovine valve replacement and a mechanical valve.
A mechanical valve promised to last for the rest of his life but also required Buciak to take blood thinners the rest of his life — something an active athlete wanted to avoid, especially knowing how the medication counteracted with some food in his healthy diet. A bovine valve, with an expected life span of 10 to 20 years, allowed Buciak to resume his keep-up-with-me-if-you-can lifestyle.
Once the Buciaks decided on which valve to use, the only other question was when to insert it.
“The four-letter word,’’ Buciak recalled. “When?”
McCarthy assured Buciak there was no danger provided they did the surgery within the next four months. Four months?
“So I said, ‘Let’s do April 19,’ and he was like, ‘Why April 19?’ ’’ Buciak said. “I said, ‘Because on April 17, I’m going to run my 27th straight Boston Marathon.’ ’’
Flabbergasted, McCarthy recalled giving Buciak a reality check.
“I knew running was important to him but told Mark, ‘You can’t be training and running the Boston Marathon with the state your valve is in,’ ’’ McCarthy said in an interview.
Chicago Marathoners’ remarkable stories of why they run: ‘My brain was like, we’re running the marathon’ »
The wheels began to spin in Buciak’s head. He started flipping his mental calendar.
“I said, ‘OK, if that’s the case, let’s do it right now, tomorrow, because I want to have the maximum amount of days to prepare for the marathon,’ ’’ Buciak said. “The earliest they could schedule it was Feb. 1, and those were the 19 longest days of my life.’’
To pass the time, Buciak prepared for his operation and the marathon — though not necessarily in that order. He exercised as much as doctors permitted, donated two pints of blood available for his surgery and got a massage so his body would be loose when he could resume training. He even ran 10 miles the day before surgery.
The procedure — replacing his aortic valve with a bovine valve — went so well that, just before midnight that day, a nurse let Buciak walk from the bed to a chair in the corner of the room.
“To this day, even after 120,000 miles of running, those five steps from my bed to that big chair was the most difficult physical thing I ever did in my life,’’ Buciak said. “I thought to myself, those are the first steps on the road back to Boston and that marathon.’’
To marathoners such as Buciak, running is like breathing, an act essential to their daily existence with the risks feared in doing too little instead of too much. Running was Buciak’s biggest reason to get out of bed every morning, to go on the Lincoln Park running path every afternoon and to give thanks every night.
Running was living, and little in life matched his hunger to conquer Heartbreak Hill. In the 11 weeks between Buciak’s open-heart surgery and his 27th straight Boston Marathon in 2006, he never considered being anywhere else.
“I haven’t known anything else for the last 40 years except that my toe is supposed to be on the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass., on the third Monday in April, and that year was no different,’’ said Buciak, who ran his first marathon in 1980 at 19. “My doctor said I couldn’t run it. He didn’t say I couldn’t walk it.’’
A wry smile covered Buciak’s face recalling the memory. Barrie, who has completed 13 Boston Marathons, joined her husband for the final 10 miles. He vowed not to let his heart rate exceed 130 beats per minute. He finished the famed 26.2 mile course he so reveres in 5 hours, 42 minutes, 31 seconds — a far cry from his fastest time of 2:30.25 in 1983.
“It was my slowest time but not my personal worst, and while it wasn’t my fastest time, it was my personal best,’’ Buciak said. “But I had to do it for the same reason when I ran my first one in April 1980. It was the Super Bowl of marathons, and it still is.’’
That might not be debatable to Buciak, but this question is: What’s more remarkable, a man running in 40 straight Boston Marathons, finishing the last 12 with a cow valve attached to his heart or crossing the finish line 13 years ago 11 weeks after open-heart surgery?
“Or that his wife let him do it?’’ Barrie added, chuckling. “He loves that race so much that it’s such a defining part of his life.’’
The journey of Buciak’s life revolves around a 26.2-mile course 900 miles from Chicago. An REI Chicago footwear specialist, Buciak also works as a running coach with an emphasis on marathon training. He runs regularly with Fenway, his black Labrador from PAWS Chicago, who must be man’s best friend to follow Buciak as far as 12 miles.
He trains almost oblivious to the conditions, as finishing last year’s marathon in blustery weather five months after hip-replacement surgery will attest.
Finishing that first marathon with his titanium hip tested Buciak’s mettle almost as much as running his first one with the cow valve. But Buciak persevered, speed-walking through the elements and fulfilling the vow he made to Northwestern orthopedic surgeon Michael D. Stover when he awoke after replacement surgery Nov. 29, 2017.
“I have learned not to take anything for granted,’’ Buciak said.
As the pinnacle of his year again approaches, Buciak remains fixated on what he refers to as “Marathon Day in the Commonwealth,’’ which starts annually with a 5 a.m. wakeup call and breakfast that includes a banana, oatmeal, bagel and Nuun to drink.
By 8 a.m. Monday, Buciak will arrive at the home of Martha Bosworth, a longtime friend whose house just happens to be next to the starting line.
“I have her bathroom reserved from 8 to 10 a.m.,’’ Buciak said.
Once the starter’s pistol fires, Buciak relies on the cacophony of the crowd more than any musical playlist to break up the monotony.
“I listen to the people of Boston — that’s the real reason to return,’’ Buciak said. “There are families for generations who are at the exact same corner, so no music. No headphones. Would you go to France, to the Louvre, and look at the Mona Lisa with sunglasses?’’
Barrie plans to run the final 10 miles again alongside her husband, whose goals remain unchanged this year except for one small but significant exception. He hopes to hug his 9-year-old twin daughters, Ella and Emelia, waving the St. Mark flag from Venice, when they greet him at the finish line for the first time.
“Him running the Boston Marathon is their normal, but one day they will appreciate how special this one is,’’ Barrie said.
The post-race tradition calls for a stop at Bova’s Bakery, a unique restaurant on Boston’s North End that stays open “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Buciak bragged. Then the family will return to Chicago where Buciak will begin preparing for his 41st Boston Marathon.
If Buciak ever forgets how fortunate he is to be healthy enough to pursue his passion, decorating the family Christmas tree every year reminds him. The first thing he hangs from a branch — and the last thing he removes — is a glass ornament of a cow in honor of the animal that kept his heart beating.
“That,’’ Buciak said with a smile, “is my favorite decoration.’’
David Haugh is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the “Mully and Haugh Show” weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
Benoit Samuelson to run Boston Marathon again at 61 »
Britain’s Mo Farah and Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei win 2018 Chicago Marathon »
The Chicago Marathon’s best signs »