When Hans Wegesser climbed the seven steps up to his bedroom in his tri-level home, he would find himself tired and out of breath.
At the time, the 39-year-old Menomonee Falls man smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. He would sit in front of the television with a 32-ounce glass of Jack Daniel's and Coca-Cola, and wouldn't think twice about eating an entire pizza - along with a half a bag of tater tots.
"Those were the dark days in my life," Wegesser said. "I was actually huffing and puffing my way up those seven steps. My cholesterol was high. My blood pressure was high. I thought to myself if I didn't change my lifestyle now, something bad was going to happen."
Wegesser, who is now 50, said he started running when he was 15 and kept it up until he was 24. He even ran six marathons, including the Boston Marathon at age 21. He didn't start hitting the pavement again until he was 39.
"I was getting sick and tired of being sick and tired," Wegesser said. "I weighed 256 pounds. I worked a lot. I had a lot of stress in my life. I needed to change."
What encouraged him the most to lace up his running shoes again was the thought of dying from cancer.
"My reason for running was simply not to get cancer," he said. "I wanted to stay ahead of it. I lost both my parents to it."
Little did Wegesser know that his fitness kick would indeed save his life, helping him survive a heart attack he suffered after this year's Cow Chip Classic Run in Sauk Prairie.
Enduring a heart attack never had crossed Wegesser's mind. So he started slow. He would jog 5 minutes to the elementary school from his home and then walk to the back of the school to catch his breath and then slowly jog back home.
"I did that for three weeks, and, in the beginning, I thought I was going to die, but it didn't take much to get back into it," he said. "I changed my diet, quit smoking and gave up drinking. I just took everything slow."
In the first year, Wegesser dropped 65 pounds.
When he turned 40, he ran the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee.
"I took third place in my division and kept going ever since then," he said.
This past spring he ran the Boston Marathon. He then tried an ultra-marathon along the Ice Age Trail in Kettle Moraine and followed it up with the Devil's Lake 50K race.
Wegesser has run the Cow Chip Classic Run in Sauk Prairie eight times. He ran its 5K route seven times, and - just 12 days before his 50th birthday - he decided to run the 10K route Sept. 4.
"I was using the 10K as a training run for myself," he said. "I finished the race and had a decent time, but something didn't feel right. I felt like I needed to get my second wind."
Wegesser grabbed some water and downed some Gatorade.
"When I put my arms above my head I noticed they were really heavy," Wegesser said. "I started getting really light-headed and looked for my two friends. I told them, ‘I don't feel too good.' They both told me I never said that before and they said my face looked ashen. I started getting nauseous and felt like passing out and before I knew it there were three EMTs around me."
Stan Theis, the race's director, praised the EMTs for their hard work. "We've had injuries at the race before this happened, but nothing this severe. The EMTs and the ambulance crew really helped Hans," Theis said.
EMTs gave Wegesser three nitro pills and rushed him to the hospital.
"I really just thought I was dehydrated and didn't need the ambulance," Wegesser said. "I said to myself, ‘Is this really necessary?'"
Before he knew it, Wegesser was in the emergency room of Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital and the doctors were readying him for transport to the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital for treatment.
"I remember telling my friends, ‘I had my car in the parking lot at the race and I had a fantasy football draft in four hours,'" Wegesser said. "We ended up taking the ambulance because the helicopter was down. I remember telling myself when I was in ambulance to stay calm and I remember looking at this screw at the back of the ambulance. I kept telling myself to stay awake. I didn't want to lose consciousness."
In Madison, doctors told Wegesser he had 100 percent blockage in his left anterior descending artery.
"However, the doctor told me I was the healthiest cardiac patient he ever had," Wegesser said. "If this would've happened eight or nine years ago, forget it. I wouldn't be around to tell this story. There was definitely someone watching over me that day. Everything worked out as well as it could have. I didn't have coronary disease in my family. It just happened to be a piece of plaque that broke off and clogged my artery."
"Fortunately, this is a fairly rare thing to occur, but not rare enough," Dr. Mark Timmerman said. "And a surprising number of people, even very fit people, have silent heart disease and are surprised by something like this. We reduce our chance of this with exercise, of course, but there are no guarantees."
Timmerman is a physician at River Valley Clinic, which is a satelite clinic for the Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital in Spring Green, where he practices family medicine and sports medicine.
Wegesser, who now boasts an athletic 185-pound, 6-foot, 2-inch frame, is in the process of getting certified as a personal trainer.
"I want to be able to go into the elementary and middle schools and speak with young people about the importance of healthy living and making positive choices,"he said. "You can control your diet and what you do. You can live a long life."
That's exactly what Wegesser's wife Laura and the couple's two children - Shannon, 14, and Hannah, 7 - want to hear.
"You just never know what can happen from one day to the next," Laura said. "My oldest daughter became much more close to her father. Whenever he leaves to go somewhere she wants to go with him. We just become a lot closer as a family, we learned to appreciate what we have. My husband has a big heart and definitely a very strong one."