He’s 24 with a failing heart. Why he’s running the MCM 50K

Sean Harris, 24, was born with Congenital Heart Disease. But that won’t stop him from running in the Marine Corps Marathon. (Courtesy Sean Harris)
Harris was told not to play contact sports growing up because of a heart condition — but he did manage to play hockey. (Courtesy Sean Harris)

You can’t say 24-year-old Sean Harris of Odenton, Maryland, doesn’t have heart. All his life he’s pushed himself as hard as he could, especially physically. The problem is with his actual heart in the center of his chest. The way his heart beats is different from how most people’s hearts beat.

Harris, who grew up in Philadelphia, was born with congenital heart disease. Since he was a kid, he’s had to go to the hospital at least once a year. He’s had open heart surgery and countless tests. Nonetheless, his heart keeps getting worse.

“I can’t lift over 50 pounds, and I’m severely limited in what I can do with sports and physical activity,” said Harris. “My cardiologist tells me every year that I should avoid strenuous activities.”

Watch video of WTOP’s interview with Harris ahead of the big race.

That meant his hopes of joining the military were dashed. The Marine Corps Marathon is sort of his way of getting in for at least a day. Believe it or not, his cardiologist is on board with it.

“I understand the risk involved, and one of the awesome things about the Marine Corps Marathon is anyone can run in it,” said Harris. “I’ve gone through life getting waivers and permissions and being told I couldn’t do a lot of things. But with regards to the Marine Corps Marathon, as long as you sign a waiver you can run in it.

“I accept the risk and I’m looking forward to it.”

But he’s not just running the marathon, he’s doing the full 50 kilometers with a heart that won’t be helping him the way it should.

“As I put more pressure on the heart through physical activity, more blood gets pumped backward in the heart,” said Harris. “As I run it gets harder. If I were to run a mile, it’s equivalent to a healthy person maybe running half a mile.”

Do the math. While everyone else will be running 50K, it’ll feel like Harris is doing 100K. Physically he started training for it a year ago. He keeps it slow and steady, trying not to get his heart beat too high, and always making sure there are people around him.

He’s had no setbacks.

So why risk it?

Sean Harris as a young boy playing putt putt golf.

The answer to that is about five years in the making. As a kid Harris would go back to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia every year for a battery of tests. It’s an all day sort of thing, and in between tests he would go to lunch. Once he turned 18, those tests moved next door to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, where it turns out, the food isn’t as good. At least not compared to what they served at the Children’s Hospital next door.

So the next year, when he was 19, he went back to Children’s for lunch instead.

“I ended up sitting with a bunch of kids who were 5, 6, 7 years-old and their associated families,” Harris said. “The families told me how they have to now prepare for their children to go through life being told what they can and cannot do.”

Conversations Harris himself was familiar with.

“When I was 5 years old I didn’t really know what was going on and I thought it was all part of life, what I was having to do,” he admitted.

Reality hit him as he got older and became a teenager and was prohibited from playing football and other contact sports, though he did manage to get on the ice to play hockey.

That’s one of the reasons he’s running — to be an example to them and “to prove to all those kids and families that you can’t really judge someone by the size of the heart on a piece of paper or by a tests or what’s on a waiver.

“When these kids do get to the teenage years and start reading the writing on the wall, they can point to this story and say that there’s hope in what they can do,” he added.

Harris said his family will be coming down from Philly to be here for the race weekend. After hockey games, lunch or dinner was always a Wawa sub, and don’t think he hasn’t been scouting out the closest Wawas to the racecourse either. He knows there’s one in Dupont Circle and he might even walk around the city a bit after all that running.

“If you want to go do something then you can go do it,” said Harris. “I’m going to do it. It’s going to be a long race but I’m going to do it.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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