FAIRBANKS — The last time Bob Baker appeared in a Fairbanks race he gave a heart-stopping performance. He crossed the finish line in a sprint, after covering 1 mile in 6 minutes, 13 seconds.
Then he collapsed on the ground. His heart stopped beating, and he was not breathing.
For a minute or two, it seemed Baker had run his last race.
Lucky for him, five Fairbanks doctors were either competing in the Running Club North race or watching, and the club had an automated external defibrillator on hand. It is a small machine that delivers a shock to the body when there's a glitch in electrical signals in the heart.
A lot has happened to Baker in the nearly three months since the defibrillator jolted him back to life.
Affectionately known as "Bad Bob," he has been among the most prominent endurance athletes in Alaska for decades. Anyone seeing him at the start of summer would have thought he was a 58-year-old in superb health.
But the blockages in his arteries discovered after his collapse required bypass surgery to repair the damage.
When I wrote about Baker's near-death experience, I considered including a paragraph saying I hoped his friends would talk him out of any notion he could participate in this year's Equinox Marathon, a 26.2-mile race considered particularly grueling.
Baker has covered the course from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to the top of Ester Dome more than three dozen times. I feared he would overdo it and rush his recovery, unable to keep his competitive instincts in check.
Matias Saari, who won the race Saturday in 2 hours, 54 minutes, 27 seconds, included a section on Baker in his new history of the race, "The Equinox: Alaska's Trailblazing Marathon." In fact, he pushed the deadline enough he included a mention of Baker's frightening heart episode in the book.
I thought about this a lot Saturday as I waited for Baker at the finish line of the grueling race. In the weeks since his release from the hospital, Baker has been diligent about regaining his strength through physical therapy and keeping his pulse from getting too fast.
He can't help but think of what happened to him in June, an incident he knows the details of only because of what others have told him. Baker said he didn't get much sleep Friday night, worried about whether he would be up to the challenge Saturday.
He wears a wrist monitor that tracks the beat of his heart. He said whenever his pulse neared 140 during the race, he knew it was time to stop running and start walking. He ran about 13 miles and walked about 13 miles.
This is something the old Bob Baker would have found impossible to accept. But now, he says, he has to be attuned to what his heart is telling him.
Baker crossed the finish line in a little more than six hours, an average pace of a bit more than 4 mph, which is a brisk walk. He looked strong at the end. "You look better than you ever have at the end of a marathon," friend Kent Karns said.
This may have been Baker's slowest marathon, but it was one of his best.
Writer and distance runner Ned Rozell summed it up better than I could when he talked to Baker in the midafternoon sun: "Seeing you run today Bob is good for all our hearts."
Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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