Philly Marathon: 'Philadelphia Saved My Life'

Elliot Gordon with the guy who saved his life, Dr. Joe Bavaria (right).

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By Robert Senior

To hear Elliot Gordon tell it, he just survived a little trip to the doctor.

“On April 5, 2009, I lost consciousness… blah, blah, blah,” he says. “I woke up after surgery, they were calling me Miracle Man, saying I had less than 1 percent odds, blah, blah, blah.”

The real story goes like this—Elliot Gordon was suffering from an aortic dissection, and required almost immediate open-heart surgery. Less than four years later Gordon, who lives in Princeton Junction, N.J., will attempt to complete the Philadelphia Half-Marathon Sunday.

But Gordon downplays what he hopes will be his accomplishment because he wants the credit to go to his doctors at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), specifically Joseph Bavaria, MD. “He’s a magician,” claims Gordon. “I’m also proud to call him a friend. That’s why I’m so excited for this race—I always enjoyed Philadelphia, but now it’s the place that saved my life.”

Gordon started running in 1972 and quickly got involved in the marathon scene. He always enjoyed the Philadelphia race because the course didn’t seem as crowded as the one in New York. But while training for the 2009 Boston Marathon, Gordon collapsed in his home and was found by his wife, Linda, when she returned that day.

A quick trip to a local hospital led to Gordon’s transfer to HUP, where surgery was performed to insert a synthetic graft in place of the torn aorta. But Gordon wasn’t out of the woods yet. “My liver and kidneys were damaged, I had gangrene in my toes,” he recalls. “I was on dialysis for about six months—that was hard. They couldn’t take me off until November. Dialysis is a great lifesaver, but a horrible lifestyle.”

Once he returned home, Gordon figured he’d dodged a bullet and could return to his routine. “But I couldn’t run, and my toes would bleed,” he recalls. “15-minute miles were the best I could do. So I went to my cardiologist and told him I couldn’t move.”

The cardiologist’s words stayed with Gordon: “Your body aged 20 years. Stop complaining.”

After that, Gordon was happy with jogging for a while. But his competitive nature wouldn’t allow him to stop running altogether. Sure enough by November of 2010, Gordon was registered for the Rothman Institute 8K. “My friend Matthew King came down from Boston and ran it with me,” says Gordon.

Last year, the duo did a 12K together, and this weekend’s half-marathon will mark the third straight year they’ve run together. “It’ll be good to have someone with me,” allows Gordon. “The longest distance I’ve run so far has been eight miles.”

Gordon refers to Sunday as a culmination of his recovery. “When I was in the hospital, they were giving me anti-depressants because people get depressed when they go through something like [this surgery],” says Gordon. “But I was never depressed. I never thought I would die. It took a while, but every step I took got me closer to recovery.”

It wasn’t until months later when Gordon sat down and read his medical report that he realized how fortunate he’d been. “Holy cow—I am one lucky son of a gun,” he recalls. “I don’t know if there’s another man who could’ve done what Dr. Bavaria did for me.”

For the record, Dr. Bavaria is equally impressed with his patient. “It’s unheard of—especially in a case as severe as Elliot’s—to accomplish something like running a race,” Bavaria comments. “About half of aortic dissections don’t even make it to the hospital. The term we use for something like this is exceedingly rare.”

Now that he’s got his second chance, Gordon’s not taking anything for granted. He’s recently cut out red meat, eggs and direct dairy from his diet, and seen a significant reduction in both his cholesterol and creatinine levels. “I see these TV commercials, talking about ‘if diet and exercise aren’t enough, try this’,” he explains. “Well my retort is that in my case, diet and exercise are enough—you’ve just got to do it right.”

Gordon recently celebrated his 70th birthday—“can’t believe it,” he adds—and hasn’t lost any of his colorful personality through his medical ordeal. He talks happily about his three children and his grandchildren. He shares that he’s a consultant for a toxicology company based in Raleigh, N.C. and that he likes to dabble in photography in his free time.

But as the conversation turns back to running, his voice becomes serious, determined. Some people in his shoes would be concerned whether they could tackle a race like the half-marathon at all. But Gordon is focused on keeping pace and not only finishing, but doing so in a respectable time.

“I want to run a 13 minute, 30 second average pace per mile,” he says. “And a 13-minute per mile pace would be great. I don’t know if I can go any faster than that.”

But don’t bet against it. Gordon has a history of beating the odds.

Five Questions with Elliot Gordon

What’s your goal for this year’s Marathon? “I’d like to finish the half-marathon in under three hours. It takes me a while to warm up in the morning.”

What’s your favorite thing about the Philadelphia Marathon? “Visiting my friend from Manayunk, and the lower crowd density. I stay with my friend from high school, and we remain very close—this is my chance to see her once a year. Also, specific to this year—as I’ve said, Philadelphia and [HUP] saved my life. To me, this is a celebration of the best Philadelphia has to offer.”

If you were to run the race with a Philadelphia celebrity: “I actually ran with the CEO of WHYY a few years back. Does that count?”

If you brought a friend from out-of-town to go running in Philadelphia, where would you take them? “I would take them down by Boathouse Row. I like the rock formations out there.”

If you could change one thing about the Marathon: “I guess I’d limit registration a little more—make the course a little more open.”