Human Race: ‘My fitness got me through brain haemorrhage recovery’

Photo by Jo Hanley

Grant MacDonald describes the Glenmore 24 as the hardest thing he’s ever done. That’s unsurprising when you consider that the Scottish trail race involves running a four-mile loop as many times as possible in 24 hours. Grant’s assertion is even less surprising when you learn that he covered 124 miles, finishing in second place. But when you hear that just seven months earlier the biomedical scientist had suffered a brain haemorrhage while he was out running, the fact that he turned up to the event at all becomes, in itself, an astonishing achievement.

‘Taking part had become a big deal for me,’ says Grant, 35, from Glasgow. ‘I felt that it would signify I had made a full recovery. My body felt so weak, but I ran the whole thing with a smile on my face.’

Grant took up running six years ago. He joined Glasgow’s Bellahouston Road Runners on a whim: ‘It was near my flat. I was sucked into it all pretty quickly, doing everything from 5Ks to hill races, cross-country events and marathons.’ After blowing up at 20 miles in two marathons, he decided to work on his endurance by signing up for an ultra. It quickly became obvious he’d found his niche. In July 2012 he came second at the Lakeland 50 and two months later he won the Glenmore 24.

By late 2013 (after a spell of injury) Grant was training for the challenge of his life – the gruelling Spine Challenger, a 108-mile trail race on the Pennine Way that involves almost 5,000m of ascent, takes place in January and has a 60-hour time limit. ‘It’s such a tough race – really technical terrain, difficult navigation and horrible weather,’ he says. ‘I was chuffed to finish second to Marcus Scotney, who holds the course record.’

Despite losing six toenails, Grant says he felt in surprisingly good shape in the days following the race. There was no inkling of what was to come. ‘One Monday evening, about a month after the Spine race, I jogged down to Bellahouston Park for an intervals session with my club mates,’ he recalls. ‘Right from the first rep, I didn’t feel right. Nothing major, just not quite right. I knew I wouldn’t get much out of the session feeling like that, so decided to jog home instead.’

Out of nowhere, a fierce headache stopped Grant in his tracks. ‘It was as if someone was reaching inside my head and squeezing my brain,’ he says. A passer-by came to Grant’s aid as he held on to the post of a speed camera to stay upright. He was helped to a community hall, from where an ambulance was called. ‘An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was taking place, and since I was confused, slurring, staggering and vomiting, they probably thought I was in the right place,’ he jokes.

At Glasgow’s Victoria Infirmary a CT scan indicated that Grant had experienced a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage, when the walls of an artery in the brain rupture. The survival statistics are bleak. Ten per cent of sufferers die before they reach hospital, while up to 60 per cent die in the first month. Many survivors are left disabled.

Two urgent surgeries were performed. First, an extra ventricular drain was inserted into his brain to relieve the intracranial pressure caused by a build-up of fluid. Then Grant underwent a procedure called endovascular coiling, in which a catheter is passed via the groin all the way up to the haemorrhage site, where platinum coils are placed to create clotting, thus preventing any more blood entering the affected artery.

He spent three weeks recovering in hospital, but his convalescence continued at home: ‘My routine would be get up and wash – then nap; have breakfast, then nap. I had severe headaches and felt extremely fatigued all the time. I started forcing myself to go for walks to try to break out of this and although it was exhausting, I felt a hundred times better for it.’

Given that Grant did not fit the usual profile for a subarachnoid haemorrhage (the condition typically affects older people – smokers, drinkers and those with high blood pressure), the doctors were reluctant to offer advice on when he could get back to running. ‘All they would say was that gentle exercise should be fine, which wasn’t really what I wanted to hear!’

39 days after the haemorrhage, Grant tried his first run. ‘I headed out for a steady trot around the block, nervously clutching my mobile phone, should anything go wrong. My heart rate was sky high, my legs heavy and I was rattling with painkillers – but it felt amazing,’ he recalls. Once that milestone was out of the way, Grant was able to slowly begin to build up his running again.

‘I was very feeble to begin with but it’s amazing how quickly fitness comes back. I actually enjoyed that period – it was like being a beginner again, when you get PBs every week.’

Grant is convinced he has ultra running to thank for his remarkable recovery. ‘If I’d gone through this a few years ago, before I was so fit, I may not have fared so well, or I may have ended up as one of those statistics,’ he says.

But he doesn’t just attribute his recovery to fitness. ‘The support I have had from family, friends and clubmates has made a huge difference,’ he adds. ‘Bellahouston Road Runners have been incredible – like a second family. As well as visiting me in hospital, they helped in practical ways, too. One member loaned my partner, Elsie [a fellow runner], a car for a month so she could visit me in hospital. Then a load of guys rallied to help Elsie clean out our old flat and move all our stuff into our new place, which we only got the keys for the day before I was discharged. Once I was back running, they were always there with advice and company. So as well as becoming evangelical about the benefits of physical fitness, I’ve also become evangelical about encouraging people to join a running club.’

There have been no scares since that fateful February evening last year, but Grant says he still thinks about it on every run. ‘The whole experience has made me realise how important running is in my life,’ he says. ‘Not just the health benefits and the enjoyment of competing, but also the friendships and support networks it creates.’