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By Brandon Stahl, Published June 22 2010

Heart attack was waiting to strike, runner's family says

Andrea and Ryan Ruth had planned to wait to share the big news with their family, but minutes before Andrea and her father-in-law, Norman, were to run Saturday’s half-marathon together, she changed her mind.

“I asked him if he could keep a secret,” she said. “He said, ‘I can keep a secret better than anybody you know.’ And I told him that we were having a baby, and he was going to be a grandpa again.

“And he put his arm around me and said: ‘We’re going to all cross this together,’ ” Andrea Ruth said. “I won’t ever forget that.”

The Ruths did cross the finish line, with Norman, 64, about a minute ahead of Andrea and her sister, Amy. But only an hour or two later Norman Ruth died of a heart attack in an SMDC emergency room, a shocking end for a man the family believed was in perfect health.

“He was very in tune to his body,” Andrea Ruth said. “He runs carrying a water bottle to make sure he’s hydrated. He told me: ‘You make sure you stop at every single water stand. He said, ‘You might need to get two glasses of water. Don’t skip it.’ ”

And, though his death came immediately after the race, the family doesn’t believe the race caused it, Ryan and Andrea Ruth said.

“This didn’t have really anything to do with the marathon itself,” Andrea Ruth said. “The doctor said it could have happened when he was playing with his grandson. … It was going to happen.”

“He was doing what he loved,” she added.

His family said they felt that nothing could have been done to save him.

“He had the best medical staff with him from the time he started feeling anything,” Andrea Ruth said. “Most people don’t have that opportunity.”

Norman Ruth lived in the same house on Miller Trunk Highway in Hermantown that he had grown up in. He was a compassionate man who couldn’t sit still and always had to be involved in projects, his son and daughter-in-law said.

“He almost never let you see when there was a challenge in his way,” Andrea Ruth said. “He always just worked so hard. It was Normy. It was him. He just … every single day, if somebody on the street needed help, he was right there. It didn’t matter who it was. It didn’t matter if he even knew them.”

Retired Duluth coach and teacher Dukes Knutson met Norman Ruth while they were both physical education students at the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1969. The two became lifelong friends, with Knutson best man at his wedding, and both enjoying sporting events together through the years.

“Norm was probably the most giving man I have ever known,” Knutson said. “He was a tremendous family man.”

He was also humble, he said, noting the avid bowler didn’t even tell Knutson when he bowled his first 300 game.

Took up running late

Norman Ruth started running when he was 50 as a way “to be as strong and healthy as he could be,” his daughter-in-law said. He ran each day to train for the half-marathon, which was his fourth, in addition to the three full marathons he’s run, they said.

When he retired early this year as a foreman from Northland Constructors, where his son described him as “the first to arrive and last to leave a job site,” he and his daughter-in-law began training to run the half-marathon.

“He said he felt great and he was so excited to run,” Andrea said. “Even just seeing him at the beginning of the race, all these people looking at him, all these 20- and 30-year-olds, and he was moving around. And they were like: ‘You’re making me feel old.’ ”

After he finished the race, received his medal and T-shirt, and grabbed his running bag, Ryan Ruth said his father felt dizzy and walked to the medical tent.

Norman Ruth called his wife, Jeanne, and said he felt fine.

“He said he’d be a couple of minutes, he just had to go in to the medical tent and lie down for a minute,” Ryan Ruth said. He met his mom at the tent, where a doctor came out and told them that EKG came back normal, they’d given him water and an aspirin, and he’d be out in 10 minutes.

“Ten minutes went by and the doctor came out and said, ‘He’s getting worse; we’re going to send him to the emergency room,’ ” Ryan said. Norman Ruth went by ambulance and the family followed.

“We went down to the emergency room and he had a massive heart attack, and there was nothing they could do,” Ryan Ruth said. “It was a blocked artery and a blood clot that ultimately caused his heart to die.”

It wasn’t Norman Ruth’s first heart problem. About five years ago, Ryan Ruth said, his father got tired walking to his mailbox, and ended up having two stents placed in his arteries.

St. Louis County Medical Examiner Thomas Uncini said due to Ruth’s previous heart problems he likely died of natural causes, meaning an autopsy won’t be performed because it does not fall under the medical examiner’s jurisdiction.

“We feel comfortable with the findings of the [SMDC] doctors,” Uncini said.

While the medical examiner’s office did conduct an investigation to determine how Ruth died, the results of that investigation will not be made public under Minnesota law, Uncini said.


News Tribune staff writer Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.