After suffering cardiac arrest five years ago, Jeff Ness has embraced his "second chance" at life.
Heart disease can render anyone powerless. Even someone like my stepfather.
Growing up, he was always a strong and physically capable role model. He once raced three-wheelers professionally, taught me how to race motocross, and in middle school, my friends joked that he looked like professional wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The similarities were obvious since he had a bald head, goatee and imposing stature.
But heart disease is a brutal adversary. One morning in June 2013, he collapsed into my car from cardiac arrest after we left the gym.
Jeff Ness completed RAGBRAI 2018 after suffering from cardiac arrest five years earlier.
The emergency responders tried unsuccessfully to use defibrillators as he laid there in the parking lot, and they quickly rushed him to Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. He remained unconscious through the rest of the day, underwent a quadruple bypass surgery that evening, and awoke the next day into a very different reality.
The reasons behind the cardiac arrest were varied. Genetic cholesterol issues were mostly to blame, but the truth is that he had long struggled with his diet and weight. He had lost 50 pounds just before this happened as part of an effort to improve his health. The doctors would later say that it played a significant role in both his survival and recovery.
In the years since this happened, I’ve been proud to watch as he’s embraced a “second chance” at life. He maintained his weight loss, remains physically active, and we even cycled across Iowa during this year’s RAGBRAI.
His road to recovery has been an inspiration for our entire family and, I suspect, many others as well.
Jeff Ness was born with racing in his blood. After high school, he devoted his time and energy into motocross.
Like many of us, however, he began to gain a few extra pounds in his late-teens and early-twenties. It eventually became enough of a problem that it affected his ability to race. By 1981, he reached 260 pounds and realized that he was no longer competitive.
This was also around the same time that three-wheelers had become popular. They were easier to ride at his size, and he signed up for a few races — immediately falling in love with the sport. That gave him the resolve to shed the extra weight. By the summer of 1982, he managed to drop more than 80 pounds. He ran four miles a day, five days a week and ate a more healthy diet. He soon noticed results on the track.
Jeff’s first professional race was in March 1983 in Oklahoma City. Most professionals eventually moved to California since that’s where the three-wheeler scene was located, but Jeff was always hesitant. It seemed irresponsible at a time when he wanted to pursue a local career.
But he did make it out there to race. At one such event, he entered the first turn in 4th place and held his position for three laps around riders like Jimmy White — considered by many at the time to be the best. He was on an off-road car track where speeds reached as high as 85 miles per hour. However, a broken bracket caused his pipe to drop and bump the choke switch— shutting down the engine and causing him to fall behind.
Oklahoma City, 1983. Jeff Ness' first professional three-wheeler race.
Jeff eventually decided to stay in Iowa, and he began to pursue a career at MidAmerican Energy in Des Moines where he continues to work today. He became a gas serviceman and continued riding both three-wheelers and motorcycles recreationally. Eventually, the two of us would race motocross locally.
But it can be difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle when career changes come with a new schedule, and Jeff began working evenings in 1997. Unhealthy habits slowly overtook his old ones. Pizza and onion rings were consumed two to three times each week, a company stipend was used for large meals at steakhouses, and Jeff began drinking large quantities of sugary soda. When he arrived home at midnight, he often ate a frozen pizza before going to bed.
Before he knew it, he was back where he started.
Enough is enough
“One day, I took the garbage out to the curb and noticed that I was winded,” said Jeff. “And it happened whenever I tied my shoes.”
He also recalls a moment when he climbed a set of stairs for a service call in an apartment building, only to find himself out of breath.
“It was embarrassing,” he said. “I waited to knock on the customer’s door, because I didn’t want them to see me like that. I had to catch my breath.”
By January 2013, he decided enough was enough. His weight had reached 245 pounds, and he began to worry how long he would be around for his wife and family.
“We bought a gym membership, and I started on the elliptical machine,” he says. “Three to four nights each week. When I was done, I walked around on the indoor track.”
Jeff also re-evaluated his diet. The goal was not so much to eliminate food, but rather adjust the volume. Despite being a picky eater — a fact he denies, but I’m happy to confirm — Jeff found options that worked for him. Many days began with oatmeal and an egg for breakfast. On the road at work, he either packed a healthful lunch or paid closer attention to the options at gas stations and restaurants.
“You’d be surprised who has healthy options if you look hard enough,” he says. “I used to skip breakfast, buy donuts and chocolate milk at the gas station, and be hungry by 9 a.m. But QuikTrip has bananas and fruit cups. They also make an egg bowl with the option to add veggies instead of sausage or bacon. At Hy-Vee Gas, I like the small packs of carrots when I need a snack.”
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Jeff Ness in 2012 (left) and 2017 (right).
Our family was proud of his transformation, and that’s why the cardiac arrest came as such a surprise. When the ambulance took him to the hospital in his unconscious state, I didn’t even know if he’d be alive when I got there.
But Jeff did survive, and he continued living a healthy lifestyle. He also purchased a road bike a few years ago and began spending time on local trails and roads.
Inspired by a family friend and colleague at MidAmerican Energy, he soon set his sights on another goal: RAGBRAI.
Riding across Iowa
It's not a race, but riding RAGBRAI is still an accomplishment.
It’s also a sort of milestone for Iowans. I travel frequently for work, and people often bring it up when they learn where I’m from. It seems that everyone has a friend, a cousin, or a colleague who’s done it.
Jeff and I joined Team Not Exactly since our friend had ridden with them last year. Most members were RAGBRAI veterans — including one who was celebrating his 40th ride.
Three members of Team Not Exactly including (from left) Brad Allen, Frank Beard and Jeff Ness, leaving Iowa City on the final day of RAGBRAI.
I’m an active cyclist and was not worried about the ride being difficult, but I’ll admit that I was concerned about Jeff. It turns out that he was nervous as well. His doctor wanted to do a stress test, but the cost was steep even with his insurance plan. He decided to skip it.
“I trained on roads and hills around Runnells, and I never once had chest pain or any issues. I also use a heart rate monitor to make sure I’m not pushing too hard,” he said. “I figured I’d just take it easy and pay close attention to how I felt during the ride. But there’s always this thought in the back of your mind: What if he knew something that I don’t know?”
But his training paid off. I rode with Jeff on and off throughout the week, and his pace was quicker than most other riders. On a few of the days, he was one of the first in our group to arrive at the overnight towns.
“The second and third days were probably the hardest,” he recalls, “but the mental intimidation was the worst. I’d see hills and think ‘Oh no’, but it wasn’t so bad when you got to the top. I would coast on the way down, pedal when they started to flatten out, and downshift whenever I felt my legs burning. Sometimes I’d make it to the top flying by other people.”
But this isn’t to say it was easy. Even when you train, seven days on a bike can take a toll. One evening, I heard him walking down the stairs at the house we stayed at, saying “Oh man, oh man” with each step. When I teased him about this, he said his legs felt like wet noodles.
Wednesday’s ride also proved difficult once we turned south after a stretch of flat roads.
“Hills appeared one after another, and I felt like we had a headwind. I probably hadn’t eaten enough that day, but I stopped in Melbourne and took a 20-minute nap under a tree. I got up, rode to the next town, and took another break. By the end of the day, I figured out that drafting really does make a big difference.”
I rode with Jeff and a few other teammates on the final day, and we rolled into Davenport with him drafting behind us. There was a small park near the river without any crowds. We pulled off the road and dipped our tires in the water.
“It felt good,” he said. “But I also learned a lot. You can’t judge a book by its cover. There’s a lot of people who can do this, and they come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. At the same time, just being able to do it really is an accomplishment. I pushed myself even though I was nervous, and I felt great.”
“If you would've told me back in 2013 that I’d ride a bike for 60 to 80 miles a day and be done by 2 p.m. in the afternoon, I would’ve thought you were crazy.”
Frank Beard is a speaker, writer, and convenience retailing advocate from Des Moines, Iowa. He is also a regular contributor to NACS Daily, NACS Magazine, and an analyst/evangelist for convenience store trends at GasBuddy. You can find Frank on Twitter @FrankBeard, on Instagram @30DaysofGasStationFood, and on LinkedIn.