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Mending broken hearts with marathons

Mike Key, a Production Manager from London, talks perspective, looking out for your mates, and why he’s running 52 half marathons in 52 weeks.


"Could you be a dear and get my frozen eye mask out of the freezer?” Mike recalls asking his girlfriend one slow Sunday in August 2019. “We’d had a big night out and were watching Great British Bake Off. You know, just a bit of hangover tv.”


Not the usual backdrop for a life-changing moment, but for Mike Key a familiar morning spent nursing the aftermath of a long night quickly unraveled into something more serious. “My eyes started to move and I felt dizzy and disorientated. I stood up, and it felt like the whole room was at a 45 degree tilt.”


Mike was just 26 when he had a stroke that morning. Quick-thinking from his girlfriend Alix, meant Mike made it to a hospital just in time before falling into a coma for several hours. He spent the following days being closely monitored on a stroke ward. “I was the youngest [there] by 50 years. It was so surreal. I was pretty scared by the whole thing.”


Several weeks of tests, brain scans and MRIs revealed the cause – Congenital Heart Disease. “A doctor showed me my heart on the scanner. He pointed and said ‘You see that there? You're missing a bit’. It was just a big hole. I had lived for 26 years with a 2 cm Atrial Septal Defect.”



“I know it’s a bit morbid, but if I had died there, what would I have really been remembered for? Sure, work is one thing but I want to do more for other people,” he reflects. “I spent the rest of the year just thinking about the whole ordeal and how it changed my perspective on life. Not to sound super woke” he laughs, “but it makes you think.”


Congenital Heart Disease is not uncommon in young people and can go undetected for many years – just as it did for Mike. He tells us that a small hole in the heart can exist without ever causing a problem, but when it does, it’s life-threatening unless treated. With access to both free and private healthcare, Mike was able to receive the critical care necessary to keep him alive. 


“I was so lucky, but I started thinking there must be loads of kids who can’t afford it. I really wanted to do something.” 


Mike began searching for a charity to support and discovered Healing Little Hearts. “They offer the exact operation I had but for underprivileged children around the world. I sent the email and I think within 6 minutes or something crazy the founder called me and we chatted on the phone for over an hour.” 


By this time, Mike had already regained his pre-operation fitness and dialed it up more than ever in an effort to maintain his health. 


“I'd been running three-four times a week, short distances, getting into it. One of my oldest friends was running half marathons like there was no tomorrow, and I think part of me was just a bit like, well, if he can do it I can do it. I started with a 10 km goal, then a half.” Run fitness improving daily, a marathon was on the horizon.



One afternoon, coffee in hand, Mike was scrolling on Strava. “One of Alix's friends did a marathon that morning. And I just got up, put my trainers on and said to Al, ‘F*** it, I'm going to run a marathon.’ And she was like, ‘It's 16:30 on a Wednesday.’ and I said, ‘Yeah, see you in 4 hours.’ And I just went and did it.” 


Mike completed his first marathon that afternoon, running 42.29 km in 3:50:34. 


“Once I'd finished the marathon, I had a little cry. I remember I took a really bad route so had to hobble two miles home. But it gave me the bug. It’s the best feeling.”


In January 2021, with full support from Healing Little Hearts, he set a target to raise £10,000 for the charity (that’s just under $14,000 for our US friends). Motivated by the reward of long distance, Mike committed to run a half marathon every week for a full year. 52 half marathons. 52 weeks. “I don't really know where this idea of 52 half marathons came from,” he contemplates, “I guess the operation just gave me the beans to do more. Maybe it’s the trick mentality I needed. If I say I'm going to do it for a year, then I'm going to do it for a year.”


Since January, Mike has already smashed more than 833 km and is going from strength to strength. “It’s tough but there's no week where I'm not going to do it because I think of all the people who've already donated and I'm like, ‘Well, I bloody owe it to them.’ Get the shoes on, out we go.”


It won’t come as a surprise to those that know him that Mike found more ways than one to give back. Patched-up as it is, he has a big heart. 


“I was thinking, God, that's a lot of running. I definitely want some pals to help me with this.” he recalls. “I was chatting to friends – a lot of men mainly – who lived alone and hadn't really seen people ‘cause of lockdown. Their exercise routine had gone down, their mental health was going down, work was going down. A lot of the guys who I'm close with live alone and I think that can be quite isolating. And I just said to them, ‘What if we had a club where we just get together and do an activity each week before we go for a few beers?’ and I think running's the perfect sport for that. It's just one foot in front of the other and you don't need much kit really. Pair of shoes and a pair of shorts and you’re on your way.” 


But for totally new runners, getting started can seem intimidating. “Apps like Strava are great, but they can condition you to think every run is a race and it's all about stats and smashing a record,” he says, “but it doesn’t have to be.” 


“Some people see a 5 km run as a short run but to a lot of my friends who are starting, the thought of 30 minutes running is unimaginable, but I say to them ‘Well it’s not like I’m going to run off without you!’” 


“And there's no hiding things that happen on a run" he continues. "You can have ultimate joy, you can be diving in a bush to go to the toilet, you can be crying because you've achieved something that you didn’t think you could. […] Men are especially renowned for just not opening up unless there's a bloomin’ gun to their head. I think running is a good way of opening that channel.”



With 18 runs down, and plenty more to go, we asked what else is on the Horizon. “Right now, I want to get this year done but I know I don’t want to stop in 2022. It's become part of my lifestyle. Maybe I’ll just increase it. Maybe I'll do a marathon a month. The charity has become so close to my heart, pun intended,” he laughs, “and we aren't going to solve heart disease in a year so why should I stop talking about it?”


At the time of publication, Mike has completed 19 half marathons and is more than £7,000 (~$9,7000) closer to reaching his target. And many friends have already joined him along the way.


Every donation makes a huge difference. “This immense generosity will lead to at least 30 children receiving life-saving heart surgery. 30 children getting a new lease of life, and 30 families being spared the devastation of losing a loved one.” – Dr Sanjiv Nichani, Founder of Healing Little Hearts.


Donate to Mike’s TotalGiving™ page via this link and follow Mike’s story on Instagram at @mikekey_ where you can support both him, and his pals, as they progress on this epic mission.


Cheers to rewarding runs and better days spent on the sofa watching Bake Off. 



Run like Mike


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