by Kemoy Campbell

I don’t remember the race. I don’t remember collapsing. I don’t even remember arriving at the track that day.

The only thing I can remember about February 9th, 2019 is being on the bus to the Armory, talking to Edward Cheserek. I don’t remember warming up, don’t remember running – nothing.

The Millrose Games took place on a Saturday and next thing I knew, I woke up in hospital. I looked around, saw some familiar faces: my brothers, my fiancée. A mixture of joy and sadness.

“Wasn’t I just running today?” I asked them.

Everyone looked shocked.

“No, today is Monday.”

That was the scariest part. I was out of it on drugs to keep from feeling pain and I didn’t know what was going on. When everyone left, I sat there and couldn’t formulate what happened.

That’s when I started getting emotional. I was one of the healthiest guys on the planet. How had this happened to me?

Even now, almost a year on, I still don’t know the answer, but the doctors have given me their best guess.

About six weeks before that, I got sick ahead of the Manchester road race – caught the flu or something like it. I didn’t take medication for it, not willing to risk anything with anti-doping as lots of cold medications can contain banned substances.

When I got to mile one in the race, I couldn’t breathe. I thought it was exercise-induced asthma so I went to a doctor, but he couldn’t tell if it was my heart or lungs.

I didn’t have health insurance, so I couldn’t afford all the tests and appointments that would help me get to the bottom of things. I just kept running, which might have spread the virus even more. The doctors believe it probably got into my heart and damaged some cells.

I had no idea of that, of course, until the Millrose Games.

The night my heart stopped. The night my career as a competitive runner came to an end.

Kemoy Campbell ()

It’s an awful thing, at a time like that, to worry about finances, but as I sat in that hospital bed I couldn’t help it. The way the US healthcare system is, you can run up crippling debt in no time.

My fiancée, Rachel, helped me see sense. “Are you really looking at that at this moment when your life could have been in jeopardy?”

That opened my eyes.

You know what? She's right. I can’t put a price tag on my life.

Rachel set up a GoFundMe to ask for help with medical bills and the response was overwhelming. To all who contributed: thank you.

When I was running, I never understood how much what I did meant to people – I'm just another person in the sport that no one really knows – but after that incident, the number of messages I got was hard to believe. 

So many people cared, reaching out to say they had me in their prayers, hoping I’d get well soon and get back on the track.

That was my plan, but life often has something different in store.

When I came back from the hospital, I was keen to get back training so I went for a four-mile run but I remember my chest hurting during it. I decided to go back to the doctor and he gave it to me straight: I couldn’t run again competitively – ever.

I don’t cry over much, but when I came home that day I sat in my car outside my house and shed some tears. I thought how I always jumped in my car at 9am each morning excited to train, but there I was, heading into my house knowing that was probably the last time I would ever do it.

That was the biggest challenge – finding a new purpose. 

I wasn’t planning on retiring, so I didn’t have a backup plan. Anytime someone asked me during my career about my future I said I have my degree to fall back on, but I never thought of a profession I could go into.

I was lost, in limbo. I'd never thought of doing anything else but running.

In the past, when I got injured, I always slipped into a state of depression or something close to it. During those times, photography was always an outlet to distract myself. When I got that news from the doctor, I went back to photography again and to this day, it’s what helps get my mind off the fact that I can’t run.

I still follow the sport, of course. Still miss it. When I watch Diamond Leagues or World Champs it’s the hardest.

I should be out there.

But these days I’m only allowed to run easy for 20 minutes a day. If I push myself, I know I could end up dead – again.

Kemoy Campbell ()

But there’s two ways to look at this. Yes, I’m sad I can’t run professionally, but I’m so happy that I have my life. The doctors told me only two percent of people who go through what I did come out alive with brain function. That changed my perspective.

Being a runner might have brought my issues to the surface, but it also might have saved my life. Because I was doing so much mileage, my brain could work on less oxygen, so when my heart stopped that night my fitness helped me survive until I got CPR.

The medical personnel said I wasn’t breathing for three to five minutes and it was 25-30 minutes before they could move me off the track.

It was horrific for those who knew me. When I woke up and saw how scared everyone was, I realised things like this don’t just affect you but the people who care about you.

The last year has been the hardest of my life, but there are some positives. One of the things I never do today is complain about small things. If you can’t fix it, don’t worry about it. If you can fix it, then fix it.

That’s how I look at things now because there’s no point worrying about the future. I spent so much time planning the years ahead – I’ll be running this time by that date – and all that was wiped away in an instant.

Over time, I’ve started to find a new purpose. Reebok were great to me throughout the whole thing, agreeing to honour my contract so I didn’t have to stress about my income. They sat down with me and asked what I wanted to do.

I decided I want to become a coach.

Right now I’m applying for volunteer coaching jobs and it’s my mission to pass on my knowledge and love for the sport to others.

I’m looking to spread awareness for heart disease, working with the Heart Foundation of Jamaica, and I’m also an ambassador for Team Jamaica Bickle, which provides defibrillators for high schools in Jamaica. It was a defibrillator that saved my life that night in New York, so I’m passionate about that cause. The more we get them into schools and sports clubs, the better chance we have of saving someone’s life.

As a coach, my goal is to eventually help someone else reach the level I got to and then go further. Whether that’s in Jamaica or the United States, I’d love to take some athletes all the way to the professional level. I have a lot to learn, but I’m okay with starting from the bottom. 

As an athlete, I always dreamed of winning a medal at the World Championships or Olympics. While that’s no longer possible, if I can get the knowledge to help someone else accomplish that, it will feel like I did so myself.

I may not be able to run again, but I’m still able to live my life and enjoy time with family and friends. That, ultimately, is what matters most.

I can’t change the past, but I’m excited to see where the future takes me.

 Photography: Dan Vernon