Against all odds
Leavenworth man overcomes open heart surgery, races in 5K
Every six months, Al Pursell visits his heart doctor for a biannual checkup. For 11 years, the doctor has told the 78-year-old Leavenworth resident he could keep up his active lifestyle.
Pursell has competed in about 200 races with no problems since his open-heart surgery on St. Patrick's Day of 1996. It was just before then -- 11 years ago -- that Pursell noticed he had a heart murmur, which required the surgery to replace his aortic valve with a plastic aortic valve.
Recovery time for aortic valve replacement is one to three months, depending on the patient's health. Two-and-a-half months later, Pursell -- at age 67 -- ran in a 5K run.
Pursell has averaged 18 races per year since his open-heart surgery. Every time he crosses a finish line, Pursell proves his eternal persistence, athletic ability and drive to overcome the major procedure.
So on Saturday in Tonganoxie, when Pursell crossed the finish line at 46 minutes, 30 seconds, in the Friends of the Library 5K Run, he was pleased -- but overwhelmingly modest -- with his time. He finished in 107th place of 130 participants.
"I'm a lot slower than I used to be," Pursell said. "The fastest mile I ever ran was a six-and-a-half-minute mile when I was in the Army. Now, I'm about 15 minutes, so my object is to finish."
Pursell carries himself with a sense of wittiness as well.
"When it gets quiet, I can hear it ticking," Pursell said of the plastic aortic valve. "Some guys ask, 'Does that bother you?' I said, 'No, it would bother me if I didn't hear it ticking.'"
Pursell maintains an incredibly active lifestyle. He runs at least four miles a day and eats healthily. He's already competed in 11 races this year. Pursell also teaches composition and literature at the Kansas City Kansas Community College's Leavenworth Center.
"It's not a job. I love it," Pursell said of teaching. "I'll continue to teach until the kids tell me I'm not cutting the mustard anymore. I'd like to go until I'm 80."
Saturday represented Pursell's third Tonganoxie Days Fun Run. Two years ago, he was the only participant over the age of 60 to run in the 10K.
"By the time I got to the turnaround point, there wasn't anyone else running," Pursell said of his 2005 experience. "I had a police escort all the way back here. I finished, though. Today, I just went with the 5(K). I didn't want the police escort."
Levi Huseman, a 19-year-old Kansas University student, won the 5K run with a time of 17:07. Huseman, a former Tonganoxie High graduate, didn't keep his first-place trophy.
"I was happy to win, but it was more just running for fun," Huseman said.
Huseman, who finished his sophomore year at KU in May, didn't keep the trophy because he won the 5K race last year as well. He competes for the KU track and field and cross country teams.
Huseman competed with six other family members. His youngest brother, Asher, finished with a notable time of 23:21, good for 19th place. Asher finished with the second-best time in the family.
In 10K action, Steve Riley, 53, won the event with a time of 37:46. Riley, a Lawrence resident, has been road racing for about 20 years.
In fact, Riley is in such good shape that he never takes a day off from running. And it's not like he runs just five minutes every day, either.
"I try to average about 10 miles every day," Riley said. "The last time I took a day off was in December when I was sicker than a dog. Some days I don't run very hard, but I pretty much run every day."
Riley attended KU and pole vaulted for the Jayhawks' track and field team.
Saturday was Riley's 15th Fun Run in Tonganoxie. He said he's won the event four or five times in the past.
There were 175 people who participated in the events, which included a 5K run and walk, and a 10K run. This figure was an increase of 45 people from last year. It also represented the largest field to ever compete in the 20-year history of the event.
"The goal I set was 150, so we did really well," said Debbie Zerrer, who organized the event. "Two years ago, it poured rain with lightning and everything. Sometimes, it's been really humid. It was perfect weather today."