This is a story written to us by an inspiring racer Juri Lahtinen, Americanized Finn who became a flag-bearer of USA 2019.
We share this story with a heavy heart since Juri passed away unexpectedly this summer. Last year he made it his mission to share his happiness about healthy lifestyle and inspire others to take better care of themselves. He often said that if he can get one, just one person, to start exercising, he has succeeded. We try to continue his legacy and hope sharing his story gives someone a spark to make the small everyday choices for a better life.
Juri raced in Winter Warrior 2019 and he was super excited and proud – for a good reason. He was an amazing warrior and always sharing his positive spirit around. We miss him greatly.
I’m an engineer who has traveled for work all around the world for the last 20 years. When I was studying and starting my career as I used to do martial arts, bike and run a lot. Then I got some injuries that forced me out of martial arts. At that point my overall activity level dropped a lot, also due to constant business trips. It is not easy to exercise when one lives such an unstable life. I guess then what happened I also started to use traveling and being busy as an excuse not to exercise. Even more unhealthy thing when traveling for work is that one eats all their meals in restaurants where it is so difficult to get healthy food if you’re not extremely careful.
After eating in restaurants for 20 years and not exercising enough February 26th 2018 I got a heart attack. Luckily I was smart enough to go to ER early stages when blood flow to the heart was not completely blocked. So there wasn’t any permanent damage. Having a heart attack is easy and even emotionally that’s not the hard part. Hard part is to see how worried your kids, family and friends are because of you. For me the hardest thing was to see my kids when they came to see me to hospital. Seeing my kids so worried was the thing that helped me to improve my lifestyle. Still that vision brings a tear to my eye and keeps me going 6am for a run.
I heard lately a quote that bad things don’t happen to you, those happen for you. This is my favorite quote and this describes my recovery really well. So 3 stents and a couple of days later I got out of hospital. Then I was on my own and needed to figure out how I can survive.
First step – Learn how to eat and lose weight. I got advice from my doctor at the hospital how to eat so that it would lower my cholesterol, blood pressure and weight. I contacted registered dietitian, got help from Pauli Ohikainen who has his own Sceptical health blog and read a ton of scientific publications about this topic as well. I started to follow advice I got. Avoiding red meat, stay below 2000mg sodium per day, eat a lot good veggies and fruits and constraint my calorie intake. This is easy to say but when you start to think about how to do that in practice it’s pretty tough. Specially sodium part.
Step two – couple of days after I started to walk every day. First around the block, then 1 mile, 5k and 10k. Same time I had 2-3 times per week cardiac rehab. I was walking 10k every day for a long time and then I got to try a little running in cardiac rehab. That went really well then I started to run short distances during my walks. Distances increased little by little and 4 months after my heart attack I was able to run my first 5k. This point of time I really liked my walks and runs and had lost 44 lbs (20kg) weight. So I felt really good.
How I got into OCR and Winter Warrior
What happened next that amount of runs increased little by little. On October 2018 I realized that I could easily run quite long distances. It was exactly 8 months from heart attack and I did 8 days in a row over 8km running. That’s 888…maybe this was omen for my Winter Warrior bib number 666? This time I visited Finland and had possibility to go run with race organizer and my brother Simo and thought that I did pretty well with him. I guess it was one week after this I saw in Facebook Winter Warrior map with flag bearers from all the countries where people had registered. I was looking that map and said to myself “wait a minute… there’s no USA? I definitely need to fix it”. Since I live in USA I registered immediately and Winter Warrior map got a new flag bearer.
Still this was only 8 months from my heart attack and 4 months when I was able to run my first 5k. So in back of my head I was still thinking that race is on April that I need to make final decision later on if I will compete or not.
Decision to compete
It was 10 months after my heart attack (December 23rd 2018) when I run my first half marathon distance and felt pretty good about it. Run was easy and after that I was gearing towards Winter Warrior mentally and basically made decision to participate (don’t tell that to my wife). After that I just run and noticed my PR’s improving steadily. When I increased my mileage I started also to do leg stability exercises to keep my knees pain free and I thought that I would need that leg stability to compete in Winter Warrior. Before the race throughout 2019 I did average stable 32 mile per week average so felt really ready for it.
Winter Warrior – before the race
I was in Hannover Germany on 5th of April and flew from there Kittilä for race that was on the 6th of April. From Kittilä It was about 45min drive to Ylläs where competition was held. After typical pre race short sleep I had my breakfast and head out to starting place of the race. Nice thing was that everything was well organized and it was easy to get my bib. Safety presentation was really good, although I’m not sure if it was really needed because one can’t get lost on the track if you just follow the track markings. One unknown element for me was snow. I live in Atlanta GA USA and I haven’t seen snow in ages and I had no possibility to train for this type of event. Last time I run in snow must have been over 20 years ago. So I was pretty nervous on that morning and my strategy was to start slow, see what others do and pick up the pace later on.
Winter Warrior race
I had one mantra that I was telling myself on that morning “you’ve trained well, you’re in great shape, go and have fun”. After few hundred meters I noticed that this is super fun and I had such a great time during the race. I think during those 3 hours I ran I smiled more than any 3 hours of my life.
During the climb to the first hill Kellostapuli I was following others, just enjoying and taking pictures from the awesome scenery along the way. Also I was following others because I was conserving my energy since I didn’t knew what was waiting for me. During descend from Kellostapuli I suddenly noticed that I was alone with no one was around me and I just started to keep my natural pace. It was an awesome feeling… just me, nature and seeing time to time volunteers to cheer me on.
Then after few obstacles was time of the second climb. For me that was by far the best part of the race. On top of that hill I heard from volunteers that I was in 3rd or 4th in my category (race squad). I was really surprised since I was just enjoying the ride and having fun. Ascend from the second hill was the toughest part of the race because there was a long stretch of hip deep soft snow. When I got back to the lake then it was again easy to run fast and I picked up the pace but it was a bit too early since rope obstacles at the end and 120 penalty burpees were bit tough. I have never done OCR or practiced those obstacles so they were pretty tough but fun to figure out on the fly. End of the race certainly had its surprises and I crossed the finish line USA flag in my hand and at time of 3h 4mins. Then it was time to celebrate there with other competitors and sit a while in tent sauna to warm up. I think it was a couple of hours later I heard that I was third in my category and I was blown away. I never would have thought it would be possible.
This race made such a huge impact on me. I’m sure I want to return 2020 and during the race I learned new things about myself where most important would be that I really enjoy to compete in races where I don’t know how fast I should be so I can pace myself based on feeling and enjoy the race instead of looking at my watch and stressing about can I do my personal best or not. Only thing I regret is that I should have spent more time in Ylläs and enjoy the nature.
Now I’m telling my story that one can do this type of event 1 year after a heart attack because I’m hoping to get people to improve their lifestyle early enough so they end up like me having a heart attack. I know that everyone with cardiovascular disease is not as lucky as me that they will get another chance to become a better version of themselves. So if you’re wondering if you are fit enough to participate I hope this helps? Like I said I could run 5k first time 8 months before the race.