By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Dustin Hadley

Dustin Hadley plans to start hiking the nearly 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail right after he tackles the race at which he collapsed at the finish line six years ago.

If Hadley makes it the entire length of the trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, he’ll be the first confirmed cardiac arrest survivor to do so. He starts the hike Sunday, the day after he crosses the half-marathon finish line in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

He crossed the line on April 16, 2010, as well. He was handed his finisher’s medal and as he reached for a water bottle he went down. Doctors knew only that he had an idiopathic heart arrhythmia and never figured out exactly why Hadley, who was 33, went into sudden cardiac arrest.

Diane Stoller, M.D., a Minneapolis breast disease surgeon who was a minute behind him in the race, performed CPR before emergency personnel could arrive. But the “herd mentality” of a couple of thousand witnesses who did nothing still haunts Hadley.

“I’ve been on many cardiac arrest calls where the bystanders were afraid to do something,” said Hadley, a paramedic for Allina Health EMS. “Many times, people wait for police, fire or ambulance. Cardiac arrest is a situation where help cannot wait. CPR needs to be started right away, involving an AED if possible.”

Although Hadley has an ICD, which shocks his heart if needed, he said the device hasn’t slowed him down — he just adapts according to what his body can handle.

His learning curve will be steeper than ever as he treks the scenic trail that stretches across four states. Only about 20 percent of the hikers who tackle that “thru-hike” succeed, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club, the nation’s oldest outdoor recreation and conservation organization.

Hadley said he has wanted to try for years. With no significant other, no house and no pets, he thought, “‘When else am I going to have a chance to do this before I retire?’”

Hadley will begin walking the trail right after he finishes again running the race where he had his cardiac arrest. He’ll be joining the record 4,000 or so people who are hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail in 2016. He has been readying himself for a year while fielding comments from well-meaning friends and family. They say everything from “What are you thinking?” to “You’re going to die.”

“They’re trying to be supportive, but it’s a challenge,” Hadley said. “Right now I’m focused more on the immediate than on the longer part of it — figuring out the pace and not overdoing it in the beginning.”

He plans to hike about 20 miles a day over four months or so. A distance runner, he’s used to long stretches, but on flat Minnesota terrain. “As far as elevation gain and loss, hiking the Appalachian Trail is like going up and down Mount Everest 19 times,” he said.

He thinks the hike will give him a chance to focus on the emotional recovery from his sudden cardiac arrest, something he didn’t pay much attention to at first. He still wonders why he lived.

“As a paramedic, I’ve seen so many people who don’t make it,” he said.

According to the most recent statistics, about 88 percent of cardiac arrest cases that happen outside of a hospital result in death.