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Pittsburgh Marathon runner returns to where he 'died,' crosses finish line

| Sunday, May 1, 2016, 2:54 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Jeffrey Whitmore, 26, of Washington D.C., hugs Dr. Ronald Roth after finishing the half marathon course of the 2016 Pittsburgh Marathon on Sunday, May 1, 2016. Dr. Roth was one of the first responders who came to the rescue of Whitmore, administering CPR, in last year's marathon after he suffered a major coronary.

Jeff Whitmore returned to the Pittsburgh Marathon to address some unfinished business. On Sunday, he ran in the half-marathon. Last year, he tried to run the full distance but failed to complete the task.

Specifically, his heart failed.

“I wanted to come back and cross the finish line this year,” he said. “Also, Pittsburgh is the city where I died but also the city where I came back to life.”

Running the marathon in 2015, Whitmore, who lives in Washington, D.C., collapsed about 150 yards from the line. He stopped breathing and had no pulse.

Rapid responders were exactly that. Marathon medical director Ronald Roth and a paramedic who arrived on a bicycle shocked Whitmore's heart back to life, and he quickly was transported to Mercy Hospital, where doctors implanted a defibrillator in his chest.

Whitmore said he was dead “more or less, for about 50 seconds.”

He came back then, and he came back Sunday. Whitmore, 26, had a pretty good idea he would try again at the shorter distance “pretty early on” after his cardiologist cleared him in June to run again.

In last year's marathon, a combination of factors, including the length of the race, the heat, dehydration and a pre-existing heart condition, conspired against Whitmore.

He took care of the first three, running half the distance on a wet but cool morning while ensuring he was properly hydrated. The defibrillator, which monitors heart rhythm, would safeguard him “if anything were to go wrong,” he said.

Nothing did. After Whitmore crossed the finish line, he and Roth embraced.

“I was a little nervous, of course, but I felt great,” Whitmore said. “Happy to be here, and I felt really great the whole run.”

In a macabre touch last year, Whitmore was credited with finishing the race. His bib apparently ended up in Roth's pocket and he inadvertently crossed the finish line.

This was Whitmore's first race since that experience, “but it's only a half-marathon,” he said. “I trained for a few months, but I didn't have to log 15- and 20-mile runs.”

He also had his girlfriend, Norah Heintz, running beside him.

“My role was to pace him,” she said. “I'm significantly slower.”

“I had a lot of energy,” Whitmore said. “I ran a nice, slow pace.”

Whitmore, who works in political and public-affairs advertising, described the feeling of completing the race as “overwhelming,” especially when he passed the scene of what he calls “the incident” along the Boulevard of the Allies.

He said it helped to walk past it with several people Saturday, including Roth, who holds a number of titles, including professor of emergency medicine and associate professor of rehabilitation science and technology at Pitt.

“That was emotionally heavy,” Whitmore said. “There was a little more joy coming back today.”

Heintz said: “We're just completely excited and humbled to be back in Pittsburgh. We feel like we've come full circle in a lot of ways.”

After a brief, routine visit to the medical tent, Whitmore said he was looking forward to the post-race activities: “I wanted to enjoy last year but got to hang out with the fine folks at Mercy Hospital instead.”

Among those cheering for Whitmore (and Heintz) were his mom and dad and several friends who showed up from as far away from Denver to surprise him at a barbecue Saturday. Last year, his parents were in Seattle celebrating their anniversary and the 60th birthday of Whitmore's father, Scott. Coincidentally, Norah was in Seattle, too, on business. They all rushed to Pittsburgh the night of the “incident.”

“This is a better birthday,” Scott Whitmore said. “We're very proud of him. We were concerned, scared, but I want to give him a hug right now.”

And so he did.

Bob Cohn is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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