At the age of 26, Mike Key was recovering from life-saving surgery after suffering a stroke caused by an undetected hole in his heart. After weeks of being resigned to the sofa and worrying about whether he’d ever be able to push himself again, Mike decided enough was enough. The spirit of adventure kicked in, and Mike was saved again – this time by the outdoors.
This is an open and inspiring conversation with Mike, who is now taking on the biggest challenge of his life – running a half marathon every week for a year – to help save the lives of children around the world with the same condition as his.
“In late June  after an evening out on the town I was nursing a hangover at home, which I must say wasn’t an unusual scenario for me to be in at the time. Sat on the sofa, I became incredibly dizzy and one of my eyes started to move out of the side of my head. I was under the impression it was a bad hangover and tried to sleep it off. Thankfully my girlfriend had the foresight to see past this and made me call 111 and explain my symptoms.”
Cut to Mike being helped into a taxi to the hospital, where he slipped into a coma for four hours.
“I woke up, hazy eyed, and saw my girlfriend and mother stood above me. I remember distinctly at this point thinking “oh crap”, if my mum was there then something really bad must have happened”.
Mike’s stroke was triggered by three clots reaching his brain which were caused by an undetected hole in his heart. He was told he would need surgery to close the hole and sent home to recover.
On the night of Halloween 2019, after a previous operation had failed, Mike finally had successful surgery to close the ASD (atrial septal defect) in his heart. “As soon as I woke up, I felt like a new man and my family greeted me and took me home”.
"I remember distinctly at this point thinking “oh crap”, if my mum was there then something really bad must have happened."
As Mike explains, has wasn’t out of the woods yet. His body was recovering well physically, but his mental health was suffering.
“I was very nervous about this [exercising] in the beginning and I didn’t push myself at all. I actually postponed doing any exercise or doing anything I deemed too much. However, at the end of 2019, I realised I couldn’t live like this anymore. So I spoke to my father and he said I should try cycling to help build my cardiovascular system back. Just like that I was addicted, I started off doing 15-20 miles and remember getting so excited thinking that was a long way. Within 6 months I was smashing 60-80 mile rides a couple of times a week and absolutely loving it.
“As work picked back up I realised I couldn’t spend so many hours on a bike each day and maintain my work, so I looked for a new sport that was equally beneficial but didn’t take as much time to hit those highs and get the physical benefits.
“I’d never been a runner but I’d had a good friend who had set the challenge to run a half [marathon] every week for a month and I thought that was wicked. It ignited a fire in my belly. I thought if he could do it then why couldn’t I?”
Mike laced up his trainers and hit the trail. By the end of 2020, he had lost 2.5 stone and was feeling stronger than ever.
“It sounds cliche, but it’s totally changed my life. I’m happier, clearer, stronger, fitter… every positive attribute that could come your way has for me with running. I found it hard to come to terms with, but I wasn’t a very happy person over the past 5 years. I took mental health for granted. Running hasn’t only given me physical benefits, it’s made me a better business owner, it’s made me tackle problems and make tough decisions better. I just wish I’d found it sooner!”
Mike, like many of us, had grown up inspired by the outdoors. “I was already obsessed with the outdoors and have been since I was a kid when my dad used to take me climbing, hiking and exploring everywhere we could. If I ever have the option to be outside or work outside, I’ll always jump at the chance. Now I have a ritual of 30-60 minutes a day spent outside running and it’s my happy place. Nothing can bother me. It clears my mind and makes me sharper, and I get to do all of that while enjoying the beauty of the outdoors. That’s the motivation – that feeling of being free and running through nature is just unrivalled in my eyes, especially if it’s a trail run, that’s probably my true happy place!”
"Nothing can bother me. It clears my mind and makes me sharper, and I get to do all of that while enjoying the beauty of the outdoors."
With a new perspective on life, Mike was determined to give back and use his passion for exercise and the outdoors to help others.
“The thing that’s always been my driving passion is helping others. I called around some charities and discovered Healing Little Hearts who were just the perfect match. I’m a big believer that if you make yourself accountable and your actions openly do good for others then it’s much more difficult to give up on that and you can better yourself and others and hit the magic sweet spot where everyone can benefit.”
Mike set out on his year-long pursuit. He would run a half marathon every week for a year and aim to raise £12,000 for HLH, a sum that will fund two camps for their amazing surgeons to perform lifesaving heart surgery, just like Mike had, for children all over the world who simply don’t have access to or enough money for vital healthcare. “One camp can save up to 25 lives, so my aim is to save 50 children’s lives by the end of 2021”.
"I’m a big believer that if you make yourself accountable and your actions openly do good for others then it’s much more difficult to give up on that and you can better yourself and others and hit the magic sweet spot where everyone can benefit.”
Mike’s Tips for Levelling Up Your Running
“Slow down. Everyone rushes everything now and is focused on speed and getting to their milestone as fast as possible. I think a lot of people see levelling up as being faster, but I don’t. I see it as building strength mentally and physically to make sure you can do this for as long as possible. I’d be devastated if I couldn’t run, and I won’t ever break speed records, but I owe it to myself and my mind to run each day. I see it as a form of therapy and self-love. I believe if you show up everyday and are consistent you’ll get to those goals, but don’t be afraid to slow down and take longer to get there. Keep your body and mind safe, strong and it will all fall into place eventually.
Oh, and runners high… Well according to Mike it DOES exist.
“My high comes at mile four usually on a long run but sometimes I’ve had it even earlier. It’s the moment your breathing clicks into place you feel that twitch of a smile creeping across your face, your pace picks up and you feel weightless. It’s the most stunning feeling of sheer elation. You can see why I want to run every day to achieve that now right?!”