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Heart attack at 43, Boston Marathon at 56

Larry Haydu built up to the marathon with long-distance runs in the area near his Sudbury home. Larry Haydu built up to the marathon with long-distance runs in the area near his Sudbury home. (ERIK JACOBS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

Today Larry Haydu will attempt something that most people would have assumed would be impossible. Haydu, 56, who was almost completely sedentary until last summer, will run the Boston Marathon.

He and 11 teammates -- all exempted from having to qualify for today's race -- are running as part of an experiment dreamed up by exercise physiologists and nutritionists at Tufts University and the television program "Nova," which is making a documentary on the project that will air in the fall.

The idea, said Miriam Nelson , a Tufts nutritionist, three-time Boston Marathoner, and the project's chief scientific consultant, is to see whether totally out-of-shape people, some of whom also have chronic diseases and weight problems, can reverse the health effects of decades of inactivity.

Haydu, a licensed clinical social worker, is determined to run the 26 miles, 285 yards in about 5 1/2 hours. Here's betting he will do that, or even better, though no one, least of all Haydu himself, would have predicted he would run at all, given his history.

Thirteen years ago, Haydu had a serious heart attack while shoveling snow. He had been a high school sprinter and soccer player and, despite a sedentary lifestyle as an adult, still clung "to the notion that I was in pretty good shape, but just didn't happen to be exercising."

The heart attack at age 43, he said, "jolted me out of this fantasy that I was still young and fit." He remembers tucking his then 5-year old daughter into bed shortly after his attack and catching sight of his shadow on the wall. "I thought, I am not going to be just a shadow in her life. . . . I was scared about dying, but I thought, 'Goddamn it, I am not going to.' "

He improved his diet and religiously took his heart medications -- statins, niacin, beta-blockers, a daily aspirin. He even fantasized about running a marathon "but bemoaned the fact that I never would because I had had this heart attack and was older and hadn't exercised much."

But last spring, his daughter Jessica, now a college student, learned about the Tufts/ "Nova" experiment and suggested he sign up. He went through a battery of tests with his own cardiologist to see whether it would be safe to begin rigorous training. Then, like the other recruits, he began regular testing by the Tufts scientists. The researchers checked cholesterol, C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), weight, body scans to assess the ratio of fat to muscle, and "VO2 max," a test of how efficiently the body can deliver oxygen to the muscles.

Until the "Nova" show airs, the Tufts scientists won't talk about the medical changes they've seen in their novice athletes. But Haydu provided the Globe with before-and-after test results from his private doctor. His total cholesterol levels, already within normal range, presumably because of his medications, haven't changed much. But what delights him is that his HDL, or "good" cholesterol, has jumped from a respectable 64 to a dazzling 82 milligrams per deciliter. He's lost five pounds off his already skinny frame and is convinced he's gained muscle.

Not that the training has been easy. At first, he recalled, "I went out to run and found I could manage 100 yards" -- just the length of a football field. Gradually, he ran/walked his way up to two miles, then four, eventually running, alone or with the group, five to seven hours a week. Recently, he and the others ran 20 miles along the actual marathon route.

The experience, he said, has been as "transformative" mentally as it has been physically, in large part because of the close bonds the 12 teammates formed.

The most valuable benefit has been "the whole trajectory around trusting my body. That took a hit when I had the heart attack," he said, "and a mini hit" when he tore a muscle last winter training. Going out in the cold winter months also took a leap of faith because doctors had told him that it was the cold air combined with the sudden exertion of shoveling and his unfitness that triggered his heart attack. Nervously at first, then with more confidence, he ran through the winter, often an eight-mile loop through Sudbury.

Now, he's ready, he said last week, sitting in his Sudbury living room with his Wheaten terrier, Sophie, snoring softly beside him. His lean face glows with confidence and health. He's learned not just to run but to manage the "head games" and discouraged thinking that often plague distance athletes. When he hits the hills today, or begins to sag, he will tell himself: "I'm strong. I can do this."

He will have another secret weapon as well -- his daughter, who plans to run the Newton Hills part of the race with him.

Running the marathon, he said, feels "like renewing the commitment I made to her when she was 5."