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Bernheisel completes marathon just 6 months after liver transplant

Jay Bernheisel, associate professor of engineering, runs in the Chicago Marathon Oct. 7.
Jay Bernheisel, associate professor of engineering, runs in the Chicago Marathon Oct. 7.

JACKSON, Tenn.Oct. 23, 2012 – Jay Bernheisel stood shivering at the starting line in 42-degree weather as he waited with thousands of other runners to begin the Chicago Marathon.

Other runners would have just assumed they were cold. But Bernheisel, a Union University engineering professor, was mindful of other potential problems.

“I was shivering so much that my legs were shaking,” he said. “That’s when I was worried that something might be bad or I might get a poor start. But I warmed up eventually.”

Bernheisel completed the race – his second marathon – in four hours, 49 minutes. His time was slower than his first marathon finish in 2004 of four hours, 11 minutes. Bernheisel, however, had a pretty good excuse: he was only six months removed from a liver transplant.

“It went pretty well, considering,” Bernheisel said of the Oct. 7 marathon. “I started running again in June, so I’ve only had four or five months of training.”

Bernheisel was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a liver disease, in 2001. The disease’s cause is unknown, though doctors believe it to be auto-immune related.

Bernheisel kept exercising after the diagnosis, even running in his first Chicago Marathon. He tried to maintain flexibility and strength. But eventually, the disease enlarged his liver, which then resulted in an enlarged spleen.

“I say I can empathize well with pregnant women, because everything piled up under there,” he joked.

Despite his efforts, the disease led to lost muscle as Bernheisel waited for a transplant. His opportunity came in March.

Recovery from the operation hinged mostly around the incision. He was restricted to lifting no more than five pounds. He couldn’t run at all for several weeks.

His physical strength soon returned, however, and all lab results have indicated agreement between his new liver and his immune system.

When Bernheisel did resume running in June, he couldn’t train at the same level that he did previously.

“I was very careful,” he said. “I didn’t want to have any injuries while I trained, so I didn’t do much speed work, and I didn’t really push during my long runs.”

Still, Bernheisel managed to finish the marathon, even if he was a bit disappointed with his time.

“I know I can run faster than that,” he said. “I just wanted to be sure to finish this one.”

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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