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Viktor Röthlin’s Incredible Comeback

Doctors say the Swiss marathoner's fitness saved his life.

Doctors say the Swiss marathoner’s fitness saved his life.

From: NYRR Media

A double pulmonary embolism nearly killed Swiss marathoner Viktor Röthlin. Photo: NYRR

There have been some extraordinary comebacks in marathon history—Paula Radcliffe’s 2004 New York victory springs to mind—but Viktor Röthlin’s story may be the greatest of all.

In March 2009 Röthlin suffered a potentially lethal double pulmonary embolism (blood clots in his lungs). Doctors said that it was only his fitness that saved his life. Seventeen months later he won the European Championships Marathon in Barcelona.

Röthlin had run five successive strong marathons—second in the European Championships in 2006; a victory in the Zurich Marathon in 2007; third in the World Championships in 2007; first in Tokyo in 2008; and sixth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics—when thrombosis struck.

Only the month before, Kamila Skolimowska, Poland’s 2000 Olympic women’s hammer champion, had died of a pulmonary embolism.

Röthlin had just flown back to his training base in Kenya from a half marathon in the United Arab Emirates when, after a short training run, he began to feel stabbing pains. “It was like somebody had put a knife in my chest,” he recalls.

He contacted his doctors in Switzerland, who told him to come home immediately, even if he took a risk by flying. Röthlin flew home thinking he had only lung inflammation, but a hospital scan revealed a pulmonary embolism.

“They found I have a genetic problem which means that I should not sit for long,” he says. “It has nothing to do with my running. In fact, the doctors told me that if I had not been this fit, I would be dead.”

Not only was the life of one of the world’s best marathon runners in peril but one of the sport’s great characters, too. Röthlin is a yodelling, accordion-playing hobby mountaineer who once ate worms for a bet and who spent his stag night acting the part of a dog on a leash through the streets of Berlin.

Three months after his diagnosis, Röthlin got the green light from his doctors to start training again on a high level. “But it was a long way back to the starting line for the marathon,” he recalls. His doctors said that if the European Championships, held in August, had been scheduled two weeks earlier, he would not have been ready to compete.

“To come back as European champion was unbelievable,” he says.

As a boy, Röthlin was pushed by his parents into learning the accordion, but at age 12 he sold it to buy his first running shoes. He earned his first income when neighborhood girls bet him their pocket money that he wouldn’t eat worms.

Röthlin dreams of climbing the Eiger and the Matterhorn one day. And the yodelling? “I do not like to do it in public,” he says, “but if I make the podium in New York I will yodel on the finish line.