Written by Elizabeth Hanks.
While the school year is just beginning
and most high school students are looking to spend their free time with
friends, East Greenwich high school senior Olivia Wiggins has something else on
her mind: the 26.2 miles that she will be running at the end of September.
She has spent the summer mentally and physically preparing herself, but her purpose for the marathon goes beyond just the physical.
The marathon will take place on Sept. 28, in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to her personal goal of simply completing the marathon, it is also the focus for her senior project. In particular, she wants to raise awareness for a heart disease that has directly affected her family for years. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) – an illness where the heart muscle thickens, causing the heart to beat abnormally – is the most common genetic heart disease and the leading cause of cardiac arrest in marathon runners. One in 500 people suffer from the disease, including Wiggins’ father, who died in 2009.
“It’s kind of a big deal but no one really knows about it, which is why I want to raise awareness for it. It affects my family. My aunt has it, but she is a moderate case, and my dad died of it in 2009.We had no idea about the disease and he was so healthy and fit, so it was such a surprise,” said Wiggins. “Since it’s such a big part of my life, I want to do as much as I can to get people to know about it.”
It happened when they were in Colorado at Breckenridge where she and her brothers where competing in a national snowboard competition. It was April 2009 and Wiggins and her father, a very fit man – he and his wife used to wake up at five o’clock in the morning, before the kids woke up, to go running – were spending the afternoon at a different mountain where she could train on the half pipe. Wiggins was 13 and she and her dad were in the middle of the seven-and-a-half-minute chairlift ride when she heard the noise.
“Earlier that day he felt kind of dizzy and a little weird but he was fine. And then we were getting on the chairlift and we got on with two other people,” she said, the moment replaying vividly in her mind. “We got on and I was talking to my dad … I was telling some story. I was 13 so I was saying something stupid probably and he made this weird noise, like a screeching noise and a really deep inhale and I looked over and his body was limp,” she said.
The Wiggins family had had no idea about the disease. Following her father’s death, Wiggins said, the family wanted to find out as much as possible. Since 2009 the entire family has been tested and their desire to raise awareness has gotten stronger in the years that followed. Wiggins has a 50 percent chance of contracting the heart condition, but so far, she has managed to keep a healthy heart.
Breckenridge still has a place in Wiggins’ heart, though she admits it wasn’t exactly easy. “Every year I revisit it. The first time that I went there after my dad died, my brother kept asking me if I was okay and it was fine. I mean, I still love that mountain and it’s still my favorite resort in Colorado, which is good, I’m glad the whole experience didn’t shy me away from that. If anything, it probably made me more comfortable to be there,” she said.
Though Wiggins loves snowboarding and has been doing it competitively for almost seven years, she has also found passion in other sports too. At the high school Wiggins has taken part in sports like lacrosse and volleyball, which she has really enjoyed, but this year she’s decided to take a step back and simply train for the marathon. She admits that she originally began running just to stay in shape.
“I didn’t do cross country and I didn’t do track, so I’ve never been coached or anything. It was more of just a way for me to stay in shape as something that I could do in my off season. And before I decided I wanted to do the marathon and before I started training, I had never done more than 9 miles of running,” she said.
She began running with a few friends every day during the summers and by sophomore year she was taking part in races, though nothing as far as a marathon. When the senior project preparations began at the end of her junior year, Wiggins knew exactly what she wanted to do.
“I’ve known that I wanted to do a marathon for my senior project since the end of my sophomore year, because my mom and my dad, my whole family was really into running and did a bunch of marathons so I always felt obligated to do one at some point in my life. Then when we started talking about the senior project in high school, it was like, ‘Oh, that could be it. I could kill two birds with one stone,’” she said.
Wiggins said the senior project “aims to make students challenge themselves in some way” and she acknowledged that this will be one of the hardest things that she has ever done, physically. She’s excited about the marathon, but even more thrilled to have her voice heard.
“There’s another aspect of my marathon too. I want to raise money for the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association so that they can do more research. It’s really hard to get funding to do research on something like this, because it’s not as well known, so I’m having people sponsor me for the marathon and then I can donate to that association,” she said.
As with her classmates, Wiggins also had to log 15 hours with a senior project mentor. She completed all of her hours this summer, which wasn’t hard since her mentor is her cardiologist, Dr. Aaron Baggish, a cardiologist at Mass General. Wiggins said she found it easy to relate to Baggish, particularly since he is an avid marathon and triathlon runner as well.
Wiggins admits that Baggish’s knowledge in both marathons and heart disease has helped her along the way. She has learned a lot about HCM from her mentor too. “Since my dad had it and my mom doesn’t, I have a 50 percent chance of developing it over time, because it usually affects people in their 30s. My dad was a kind of serious case because he died of it when he was 48, which usually doesn’t happen as much,” she said.
Wiggins knows too well how devastating this disease is, which is why she finds it so important to make people more aware. “HCM is tough because it’s in your heart and you can’t physically see anything on the outside obviously and there are some symptoms but people might put them off as something else. People don’t want to believe that they have a problem,” she said.
Though learning about the disease and raising awareness has taken up a portion of her summer, the biggest aspect has been her training for the marathon. She has been training since last spring, following a program she found online. The program has been very straightforward – she has been running five to eight miles during the week and up to 17 miles or so on the weekend. She has been preparing herself well, too, even setting up water bottles for herself along the route to stay hydrated.
The marathon will take place in Asheville, N.C., which Wiggins said “is a popular marathon.” Wiggins first gained interest in the race because her cousin lives there and they planned to run the race together. Her cousin has since gotten an internship, so she hasn’t been able to train as much, though she will still be running the half marathon the day before with, potentially, Wiggins’ mom and aunt.
“I like running races because there’s so many people that you’re more motivated to run and I know at the water stops and whatnot there’s going to be people cheering the runners on. It’ll be okay. I don’t mind not running with someone,” she said.
Wiggins has never competed in a half marathon, though some might use a half marathon as a stepping stone for the real thing. Wiggins instead has chosen to just “go for it” and she hopes to finish in the four-hour range, which she thinks is reasonable for her first marathon. While her reason for running the marathon is more important than the race itself, she is excited to get to the finish line.
“I haven’t really wrapped my brain around it yet, I’ve just been looking at the program and focusing on what I have to do each day so it doesn’t seem like as big of a deal as it is, but I know that my body is going to hurt a lot and I’m going to be really tired. I’ve never done anything comparable to this,” she said.
One other aspect of the senior project is that the students have to present something tangible, which is why Wiggins plans to make an HCM pamphlet where she compares her heart, which isn’t affected, to her aunt’s, which is. Plus, she will include other valuable information that she thinks people need to know to be informed.
Wiggins also created a GoFundMe website where people can directly donate and see other information that she has posted regarding her efforts. She added a video recently and has raised more than $7,000 thus far.
“I’m going to try as much as I can to get people to know about it but they have to meet me halfway and take the time to see the video and understand, and think, ‘Oh, maybe I should get tested,’” she said.
Wiggins understands that senior year will be busy, especially with college applications, but the marathon is at the top of her radar for the time being. She plans to apply to schools mostly in northern New England and hopes to study something along the lines of anthropology, psychology and language, because she wants to learn about people and cultures.
For the moment, though, the only thing on her mind is the marathon she will be running in less than a month. Still, she knows that’s only part of it – “once the marathon is done, the whole project isn’t done yet.”
Elizabeth Hanks is a freelance writer who lives in East Greenwich.