Peyton Chitty’s path to becoming the marathon runner he is today meandered a bit more than most.

He discovered running as he recuperated from spinal reconstruction surgery, for one thing. Then he fainted during a race, terrifying his family. That collapse led to the discovery of a serious heart defect that could have killed him.

But with perseverance and the support of his health care teams, he kept running. The 54-year-old high school counselor and dad competed in the Novant Health Wilmington Half Marathon Feb. 25, 2023. And that was just a taste of a much bigger run to come. Chitty finished, and requalified for, the mighty Boston Marathon April 17, 2023.

Walking, to jogging, to running

Chitty has a congenital heart defect, meaning he was born with it, but he didn’t notice any signs or symptoms until he was 18 years old, as an active teenager living in Virginia Beach. Doctors diagnosed him with mitral valve prolapse, a common condition that causes blood to leak backward through a valve. This didn’t slow Chitty down. Surfing was his greatest passion, and as an adult, he followed the coastline south to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, then to Wilmington.

In 2011, Chitty, still an avid surfer, began to experience numbness in his fingers and arm. An unknown injury from a car accident nearly 20 years prior had damaged two vertebrae at the base of his neck. To fix them, Dr. Adam Brown replaced the vertebrae with synthetic discs. The recovery period kept Chitty off his surfboard for 90 days.

“I spent three months no driving – all I could do was walk,” Chitty said. “I would walk every day for five miles. Then I started thinking, this is taking too long. So I started jogging. Then, I worked in a middle school with some children that needed to go to a 5K, and they needed a chaperone. I said, ‘Well, I might as well run it.’”

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Beginning a heart journey

With newfound determination, Chitty worked his way up to half and full marathons. He was running full speed ahead when one of these races unexpectedly led to a complete stop. In April 2015, during a 10K race on Oak Island, North Carolina, he was in third place with the finish line in view, when he passed out. When he woke up, he was crumpled on the ground, and an ambulance was on its way.

“From then on, I began a heart journey,” Chitty said.

The ambulance took Chitty to Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center, where doctors investigated his prior heart diagnosis and inserted a monitor in his chest. Within months, Chitty’s monitor revealed dangerous, seconds-long pauses between his heartbeats while he was sleeping: three, then five, then eight seconds. Chitty will always remember what came next.

“They said: ‘You need to come in for a pacemaker.’ I thought, This is awful. I was only 47 at the time,” Chitty said.

Dr. Meena Rao white coat
Dr. Meena Rao

Dr. Meena Rao, an electrophysiologist at Novant Health’s Heart and Vascular Institute in Wilmington and Chitty’s current cardiologist, explained that a pacemaker is a small, battery-operated device permanently implanted in the chest. If it senses the heart has slowed or skipped a beat, it sends electric impulses to restore the heart to its normal rate.

Contrary to his diagnosis as a teenager, Chitty learned that he had bradycardia, a slow heartbeat. He also had a type two atrioventricular block, a miscommunication between the chambers of his heart. This made him a good candidate for a pacemaker.

“Pacemakers are a way to restore that connection between the top and bottom chambers of the heart,” Rao said. “For Peyton, the signal from the top chambers of the heart wasn't getting down to the bottom chambers of the heart.”

Finding kindred spirits

Turning to the internet, Chitty searched for people like him: young, active individuals diagnosed with heart conditions — and determined not to be defined by their circumstances. He found a group called the Cardiac Athletes, a global community for athletes with heart disease. Seeing these committed athletes helped Chitty move forward with the decision to receive the pacemaker.

“At first I was scared about it,” Chitty said. “Because you think pacemaker, you think this is for old people. Then I realized that’s not true. There's a lot of young people out there with pacemakers. I adopted this mindset of ‘Things don't happen to me; they happen for me.’ And I think that's huge, because things are going to happen, and what matters is how you handle it. It's how you grow from it.”

Chitty found further support in his heart physician, the late Dr. Henry M. Patel (1966-2020), a cardiac electrophysiologist and medical director of New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Electrophysiology Lab.

“I remember asking Dr. Patel, ‘Can I run marathons?’ He goes, ‘I don’t know, can you?’” Chitty laughed. “I said, ‘Yeah!’ He replied, ‘Absolutely, you can do those things.’”

Rao emphasized that contrary to popular misconception, receiving a pacemaker often allows individuals with heart conditions to maintain or even increase their level of activity. “A lot of times we put in a pacemaker so people can be more active,” she said. “In fact, I'm hoping this is going to make you feel better so that you can go live your life the way you want to.”

Healing, planning, and picking up the pace

After receiving his pacemaker, Chitty heeded Patel’s advice to wait seven weeks to allow its wires to anchor in the chambers of his heart. Then, he set some goals.

Through Without Limits, a Wilmington-based endurance athlete organization that Chitty now calls family, he began training with coach Tom Clifford. They worked to create specific plans with Patel’s encouragement.

At first, it was challenging. Chitty faced the mental weight of worry from friends and family who’d witnessed his horrifying collapse in his last race. Well-meaning loved ones were skeptical about whether he could complete long-distance runs. “When I started going to these races again, everybody was side-eyeing me,” Chitty said.

Chitty kept going. He got his pacemaker Dec. 10, 2015, and in March 2016 he ran the Wilmington Half Marathon, a race from Wrightsville Beach to the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington.

“I had the best time. It wasn’t a good run, but I felt good,” Chitty said.” “And then I said, ‘You know what, I'm gonna do a marathon before the year is out.’ So in November, I ran the Outer Banks Marathon, and I ran faster than I'd ever run, almost 10 minutes off my time. I said, ‘I'm going to do it. I'm gonna qualify for Boston.’”

In 2019, Chitty completed both the Wilmington Marathon and the Boston Marathon, just months apart. He qualified for Boston again in 2020, before COVID caused the race to switch to a virtual format for the year.

By any measure, finishing a marathon is an enormous feat. Rao said that for heart patients, whatever that athletic goal is, it can be attainable, whether it’s running, golfing, or scuba diving, as long as you have an open discussion with your cardiologist about your goals. “Being active and being an athlete is definitely OK,” she said.

Throughout his journey, as his feet and heart continue beating at a steady pace, Chitty said he has learned an all-important truth: Mindset is everything.

“I'm a much better man for this, I've learned a lot about myself,” he said. “I do cherish every single day now. I'm a stronger person mentally for it. There's hope. I couldn't imagine living without it. I want people to know that life is not over with a diagnosis.”