Fitness trainer and marathoner John Hacker, sitting with a giant get-well card, talks about surviving a heart attack after running a race in heavy wildfire smoke. [Photo by Denise Baratta]

Fitness buff no match for smoke

If you’re a runner, biker or any type of serious outdoor athlete, you do not want to mess around with this smoke, no matter how fit you think you are. Just chill and stay inside. The workout will be there when you get back.

That’s the hard-earned message from athlete and longtime fitness coach John Hacker of Ashland, who on Sept. 3, after completing a demanding triathlon (swim, run, bike) in Mt. Shasta, was just standing there, joking and talking with friends when a massive heart attack ripped through his chest “just like a sword impaling me, the most painful thing I ever experienced.”

He lived and is home now. But Hacker — a young, 55-year-old, vegetarian non-drinker who makes a living as a personal trainer — said he believes the heart attack wasn't about his health, fitness, stress or regular workout style. It was the smoke.

“As we drove down to Shasta, my wife Becky and I saw the smoke getting worse and worse. My instinct was: This is not good, but I didn’t trust the instinct. It was my own arrogance. I had a great race and, afterward, I felt fantastic, then it happened,” he said.

Hacker had a resting heart rate in the 40s and a body mass index in the 20s, so “I was shocked I had a heart attack.

“I am very tired, very lucky and very grateful. I’m not a doctor, but I’m convinced it was the smoke and a lack of oxygen. I shouldn’t have been running. My advice? Wear a good smoke mask and don’t work out.”

Hacker noted his brother, parents and grandparents had a history of heart attacks and strokes (and death) in their 40s, but their diets and exercise left much to be desired, so he sought to put himself ahead of the curve by devising and teaching his “Four Pillars of Health”:

  1. Functional training that doesn’t push it and offers a wide variety of movement, in a consistent manner;

  2. Plant-based diet, no processed food, organic as possible and, of course, no smoking;

  3. A life balanced in everything, including food, drink, workouts;

  4. A quality network of family, friends and spiritual connection.

“The human body is incredibly strong. We are built for phenomenal health and wellness and to live past 100, but this kind of smoke takes it into a different dimension.”

Hacker pointed to a study published by the American Heart Association, where he once volunteered, noting the smoke of wildfire, with its non-visible particulates, increases the incidence of cardiac arrest and acute heart problems, issues that worsen with age.

Smoke and its particles can travel many miles, the study said, complicated by an increasing number of fires and changes in the climate. The wildfire particles are less than 2.5-thousandths of a millimeter, which is smaller than a dust speck and not visible to the naked eye.

Hacker survived a bike crash that fractured his skull and back in 1994. This time, he was struck down by a plaque burst — a rupture of a collection of white blood cells and lipids, including cholesterol, that form in the wall of an artery.

“I only survived this one because of my health and wellness," he said. "I live in balance, have a phenomenal life with amazing friends and wife. ... If you have your health, it’s much better than a million dollars. In the end, I’m going to be all right. I know that.”

Hacker’s YouTube talks on the incident are at and

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at

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