MANATEE -- "How could this be a heart attack? I'm 31 and incredibly fit."
Those were the precise thoughts of Bradenton's Craig Prather back in 2008 when one morning, at the age of 31, he felt excruciating pain in his chest and from the inside of his armpit to the tip of his elbow.
"I had just run a 5K that morning in downtown Bradenton and even set a personal best for myself of 19 minutes, 50 seconds," said Prather, who five years later at age 36, is now one of a handful of elite endurance road bike racers, also known as ultra cyclers, living in Bradenton.
But back then he was a runner.
"The pain came in waves," Prather said. "It went away for 10 minutes, then it was back for a minute. It continued like that for four hours."
Finally, deciding the pain wasn't from running too hard in the race, Prather went to Blake Medical Center, where the nurses and doctors were baffled at first.
"Of course, they asked me if I took drugs," Prather said. "It's a natural question when you have a 31-year-old complaining of chest pain. But the answer was no. I told them that's not me."
They kept him overnight because the heart monitor showed nothing radical, Prather said.
The next morning, as he was taking a bite of food, his heart rate rocketed from his usual resting rate of 40 beats per minute to 140 beats a minute.
Prather's heart was letting the monitor know it was 70 percent blocked in two places on the left coronary artery due to plaque buildup caused -- not by Prather's diet -- but by his genetic make-up.
Nurses and cardiologists came running. Prather, a well-conditioned athlete, was having a full-blown heart attack.
Family history important
Over the next five years, Prather, now a bicycle mechanic at Ringling Bicycles, 3606 Manatee Ave. W., would survive five more heart attacks and numerous cardiac procedures, including stents, all designed to delay open-heart surgery to correct his genetic predisposition to plaque clogging his heart arteries.
"They explained it ran in my family," Prather said. "My fitness had kept me alive."
Last March, Bradenton heart surgeon Dr. Richard Peterson performed a double left-coronary artery bypass on Prather at Manatee Memorial Hospital.
The successful surgery galvanized Prather to try something he said has never been done.
"I am not sure, but from what I have been told, I could be the first open-heart surgery survivor ever to solo in the 3,000-mile Race Across America," Prather said.
That 30-year-old race, commonly known among endurance riders as RAAM, will be run June 10, 2014, from Oceanside, Calif., to Annapolis, Md. Prather needs to raise up to $25,000 to run in the race.
"I've qualified for the 2014 and 2015 RAAM races," he said. "My goal is to finish it and prove that just because you have had open-heart surgery doesn't mean you have to stop being active."
With his heart stuffed with stents from 2008 to 2013, Prather continued to ride his bicycle all over Manatee County, up and down Anna Maria Island, past Bishop Harbor and Terra Ceia and through the northeast part of Manatee County, all the way into Hillsborough County.
His friends, such as fellow endurance racer Chris Miller, marvel at his courage.
Miller recently told Ultra Race News: "I get the feeling that while he doesn't like talking about his own cardiac issues, he does enjoy being an inspiration to others dealing with their own health issues."
In 2010, at age 33, three years before his open-heart surgery, Prather competed in a 12-hour mountain bike race in Miami, finishing seventh overall out of a field of 40.
In 2011, two years before his surgery, the 34-year-old raced for 12 hours during the 12/24 Hours of Sebring, his first road endurance race. He won his age group and set a record of 240 miles in 12 hours, averaging 20 mph on his road bike.
In 2012, now 35 and a year before his open-heart surgery, he attempted to race 24 hours in the 12/24 Hours of Sebring and stopped after 14 hours, logging 265 miles, still winning his age group because all competitors had stopped, too.
Some might say, why keep pushing the envelope with a heart that isn't the best it could be?
Prather said he believes when you know what you are meant to do, you have to do it.
"When I was 16, the first time I got on a road bike, I rode 80 miles without stopping," Prather said. "It's the way riding makes me feel. If I need a release, that's it. Sure, it's in the back of my mind about my heart. But I know all the symptoms. I listen to everything my body tells me. I know that when I am on the bike, my body is happiest."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or reach him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.