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Harrison has a healthy outlook on life after battling illness
Distance runner overcame pulmonary embolisms and now dominates in duathlons
North Hall High graduate Bert Harrison is the nation’s top ranked duathlete in his age group of 20-24 year olds, He has achieved this despite enduring a bilateral pumonary embolism during his final season of college cross country at Berry College last fall. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

Bert Harrison learned a lot about what is important in life while confined to a hospital bed.

The Gainesville native and North Hall High graduate learned he has a tremendous network of support with friends and family in his corner. It also reinforced the fact that he was born to run and compete athletically.

“It made me realize not to take anything for granted,” Harrison said about his eight-day stay in a hospital last fall after being diagnosed with bilateral pulmonary embolisms. “I learned a lot about myself and how lucky I am to have the people around me in my life.”

These days, with a clean bill of health, Harrison, a member of North Hall’s state championship cross country team in 2006, has expanded his athletic background to include competing in duathlons: Combining the running and bicycling elements into one race.

Currently, Harrison is ranked No. 1 nationally in the duathlon in the 20-24 age group, according to USA Triathlon, most recently placing second in his age group and eighth overall in the USAT Duathlon National Championship on April 28 in Tucson, Ariz.

With his finish of 1 hour, 28 minutes and 51 seconds in the five-kilometer run, 22-mile bicycle ride and a second five-kilometer run, he qualified to represent the United States in the International Duathlon Championships this September in France, but isn’t going to make the trip due to the logistics of time and money.

That’s a pretty remarkable recovery for an athlete confined to a hospital bed for more than a week just eight months ago, not knowing at first whether he’d ever be able to return to his lifetime passion of running. However, it became apparent quickly that he was not just going to sit idle and give up on being an athlete.

One month after leaving the hospital, he was able to compete in his final college race for Berry College and ran a personal best 33 minutes, 22 seconds over 10 kilometers in the US Track & Field Club Nationals in Seattle.

“I had a remarkable recovery,” Harrison said. “One month out, I was able to run my first race. Even going into the race, I didn’t think there was any way I could run a PR.”

Harrison has now completed his undergraduate degree in exercise science and plans to pursue a master’s degree in the same field starting in the fall at Appalachian State University.

And no matter where he goes, running and cycling are going to be a major part of his life in the future. He isn’t going to let a health scare — one for which doctors were never able to trace the reason blood clots manifested in his lungs — ruin his joy in life.

“I’m a runner at heart and always will be,” Harrison said. “I just love the culture.

“Competing in multi-sport is just as fun with the run and bicycle.”

Harrison’s perilous diagnosis was unexpected since he had no prior symptoms before he fell ill.

Symptoms of his pulmonary embolisms intensified over a series of days.

It started when he coughed up blood and felt some chest tightness when going for a bicycle ride on Sept. 26, but passed it off as something insignificant and finished his ride. However, when it happened again the next day, he went to the hospital in Rome to have it checked out. That’s when his mind really started racing, not knowing how serious it really could possibly be.

Doctors originally diagnosed it as bronchitis and sent him home with antibiotics.

“I didn’t think I had bronchitis,” Harrison said. “I didn’t have a fever or any congestion.”

The final straw for Harrison came the next night when he was unable to sleep due to the discomfort in his chest and he was still coughing up blood. He went back the hospital, again, where they performed a CT scan to try and get to the root of the problem.

It was particularly taxing for Harrison, who was previously healthy aside from running injuries, and not knowing what his long-term prognosis would hold.

“Having to stay in the hospital is hell,” Harrison said. “I just wanted to know what was going on.”

Luckily, doctors were able to diagnosis the problem for Harrison and he’s been able to make a 100 percent recovery. He’s done regular blood testing since to make sure he was clear of the blood clots, along with having to take blood thinners for the six months since his diagnosis.

Once he knew he was going to pull through, then it became a question of how quickly he could start training again.

Harrison says he started slow with a run-walk mix to see how he felt. Then he started to ramp back up to full speed, even training twice daily while still on blood thinner medication.

All his experiences have given Harrison a new perspective on athletic competition.

“I’ll never take for granted being able to get on the (starting) line and compete,” Harrison said.

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