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-won message from super-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 — and vegetarian non-drinker who makes a living as a personal trainer at Ashland Hidden Springs Wellness Center and other Ashland fitness venues — says it was nothing 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 boasts 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 notes 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; and 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 points to a study published by the American Heart Association, where he once volunteered, noting the smoke of wildfire, with its non-visible particulate, increases the incidence of cardiac arrest and acute heart problems, with those issues worsening with age.

Smoke and its particles can travel many miles, the study said, complicated by an increasing number of fires, driven by global warming. Such 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, who survived a bad bike crash that cracked his skull and back in 1994, says, “I only survived this one because of my health and wellness. I live in balance, have a phenomenal life with amazing friends and wife. I had what they call a plaque burst. I had a degree of invulnerability before that. 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 bit.ly/2gWDPwW and bit.ly/2gY99ve.

—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.