Royal Navy Trainer Aiming to Complete Half Marathon After Heart Transplant
Seven months on from a heart transplant, 26-year-old Jack Church will take on the 21.1km distance at the New Zealand Sotheby’s International Realty Hawke’s Bay Marathon on Saturday 14 May.
Jack is no stranger to exercise and fitness in his job as a physical trainer in the Royal New Zealand Navy, but since his open-heart surgery on 4 October 2021 Jack has been forced to take things easy as he recovers, and his body familiarises with its new organ.
The Aucklander will put his recovery to the test as he aims to run-walk his way around the La Roche Posay Half Marathon in just over a weeks’ time. Jack will be joined by a group of friends from the Navy as they make the trip south for a weekend away in Hawke’s Bay, highlighted by the running event – now in its sixth year.
Jack has always led an active lifestyle, both through his work as a physical trainer and as a keen rugby and softball player, so when in February last year his fitness and health began to decline for no apparent reason, he knew something was wrong.
Three months later Jack was admitted to hospital and underwent a chest X-ray which found that he had an enlarged heart. Though they were unable to pinpoint what was causing his heart issues, Jack was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and over the following months was put on a range of medication to try and solve the problem.
“I was fortunate enough to not have the heart attack or something like that to put me into hospital,” said Jack. “We don’t actually know the cause yet, they’re still trying to figure that out but pretty much I just slowly declined in fitness and health.
“They did a genetic test on me and my family which came back negative, so they ruled out genetics. Then they were looking at the Covid vaccine to see if that had an effect and they ruled that out too,” he said. “I had heaps of scarring on my heart and that’s what threw them off, because the scarring is caused by miniature heart attacks, so they reckon I’ve had lots of those over the years but because of my job and lifestyle, being so fit, I haven’t really been affected by them or noticed them.”
With all medicinal avenues exhausted, Jack’s doctors eventually made the tough decision to put him forward for a heart transplant. After testing ensured he would be a suitable candidate, Jack was put on the waitlist in August and underwent surgery two months later.
Jack’s heart transplant took place in October and was followed by a two-week stay in hospital then a further four weeks in physio and rehab, learning to move his body again. Though the surgery was a success, Jack says his body tried to reject its new heart a few times in the beginning.
“I had a few rejections in the early stages. That’s because I’m so young and my immune system was strong, it fights harder than a 60-year-old with a transplant. I didn’t actually feel the rejections, it wasn’t painful or anything it was just slowing my recovery, so they changed my meds,” he said.
The months following his transplant were a slow and steady road to recovery. Pre-surgery Jack was exercising with no limitations but adapting to a new heart has meant he can no longer play rugby or exercise to the intensity he used to.
“Before I was training twice a day in an active job, could do everything, no limits, could just live a normal person's life,” said Jack. “After the transplant it's like getting to know your body, relearning your limits again. I started at square one when I came out the hospital, struggling to lift 1kg dumbbells and learning to walk.
“Now, knowing where I was and trying to get back to there, it’s about knowing when to push it and when to ease off. I don't play sport anymore but other than that there haven’t been any major changes it's just a slower lifestyle I guess,” he said.
To ease his way back into fitness Jack took up running during Auckland’s lockdown at the end of 2021 and has now set his sights on completing the La Roche Posay Half Marathon in Hawke’s Bay on Saturday 14 May.
“I’m one hundred percent going to have to walk some of it. To be honest, I don’t even know if I’ll get to the whole 21 kilometres, it’s more just going down there with the boys because they’re all keen to go and so I said I’d come along and give it a go,” said Jack. “They’ve said do it, and if you need to pull out that’s fine. I have a tactic to run a couple of kilometres then walk a couple, so I don’t blow out or anything.”
Jack is being philosophical about his half marathon attempt but knows completing the distance will be a major achievement seven months on from his heart transplant.
“I will feel relieved, and if I can do that then the possibilities are now endless,” he said.