'I dropped dead basically' - The cardiac arrest surviving cyclist leading a heart health campaign

Mark Felstead was clinically dead for 25 minutes after a heart event in 2018, now heads up We Love Our Heart

Mark Felstead on his bike in Berlin
(Image credit: Timm Kölln Photography)

For Mark Felstead, watching Sonny Colbrelli's collapse almost immediately after crossing the finish line in second of the first stage of the Volta a Catalunya on March 21 brought back painful memories.

Felstead collapsed metres from finishing a duathlon in August 2018, suffering a  sudden cardiac arrest, the survival rate of which is around 10%. As he puts it succinctly: "I had a heart attack and dropped dead basically."

"The next thing I woke up in hospital," the 59-year-old continues. "I didn't even know where I was or what the hell was. I mean, that was one of the most bizarre experiences in my life. When I actually woke up, my wife was on one side and my sister was on the other side of me with these enormous smiles. I just could not figure it out."

Almost four years on, Colbrelli, fresh from winning the Autumn Paris-Roubaix last year, and the European Championship road race, suffered an unstable cardiac arrhythmia in front of his peers and fans. Medics attended to the Italian within seconds of his collapse, performing CPR and using a defibrillator to treat him.

Colbrelli subsequently spent time in a Girona hospital, before being transferred to the Cardiology Clinic of the University of Padua in Italy on Saturday March 26, a centre extremely adept at diagnosing and treating arrhythmogenic heart muscle diseases. He was later fitted with a subcutaneous defibrillator (ICD), similar to the one footballer Christian Eriksen has.

Following the incident, he spent time off the bike, and last weekend officially retired from the sport, saying that he was trying to "do it with a smile for the good it gave me, even if it hurts to say goodbye after a season like last year".

For Felstead, the incident was an emotional one, just like it was when seeing  Danish footballer Christian Eriksen collapse at Euro 2020. "I get pretty emotional," he tells Cycling Weekly. "It doesn't just affect the people who did the CPR, but the people around, and everyone that knows me too. The impact is not just that person, and so that's what goes through my mind when I see someone else going through the same thing."

Now with his organisation We Love Our Heart he is seeking to educate people on heart health, help people communicate on the topic, and get people to have check ups.

"Heart disease, heart attacks, people think it's other people; they have an image in their head," he says. "It happens to many people. A lot of the metabolics, the health things you can adjust, if you don't adjust them, they're drivers of other health conditions too.

"There's not one fix all, but if you can get this thing under control you can avoid chronic illnesses. The problem is, you don't actually feel when your blood sugar or your insulin is going mad, you don't feel like there's anything wrong. On my fateful day in August, I was in one of the leading groups, I wasn't struggling or feeling unwell."

It does feel like people are gaining more knowledge on heart events and problems, which can happen to anyone - the BBC programme Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing centres around Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse, two household names who have both had heart conditions and operations. There are growing campaigns to have defibrillators in public spaces, but this might not go far enough.

"It is becoming more and more apparent that being fit and healthy is no guarantee," Felstead says. "In fact, I'm pretty sure that I was overdoing it.

"Our main advice is to get a CT calcium scan, because that is a good benchmark for where your heart health is. I would also advise people to get a decent panel of blood tests.

"Life is a marathon not a sprint at the end of the day. I used to be competing for the top Strava segments in Berlin, that was my goal; that's going to look great on my gravestone isn't it. If I had maybe just turned it down a bit, I'd get to live a few years longer."

We Love Our Heart is hosting a live event for all those who have concerns about heart issues, or who are just interested. Felstead is also supporting the LifePad, a product which helps people give CPR if they don't know fully what to do.

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