Marathon Man

With 90,000 miles on his clock, he’s ready for more

By R.E. Graswich
May 2021

Denis Zilaff knows what it takes to run 92,000 miles because he’s done it. Among the requirements are two good hips and a functional mitral valve. The hips keep the legs moving. The valve prevents blood from flowing backward into the heart.

When his hips began to fail and his mitral valve became floppy, Zilaff was in trouble, mostly because he wanted to keep running. The repairs were piecemeal and took about two years. Delays were caused by the pandemic and the fact that doctors won’t fix two hips and one heart in a single marathon surgery.

Zilaff would have appreciated the marathon surgical approach. He loves marathons. He’s run almost 200, each encompassing 26.2 miles. He finished two Western States endurance runs, where participants conquer 100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn. He’s done many 50-kilometer events, each a fraction more than 31 miles. At some point, numbers blur. Zilaff keeps running.

“I started running in 1982 because I was in my 30s and out of shape, and my wife said, ‘You’re getting kind of flabby and you have to do something,’” he says. “I started running with a buddy and after 3 or 4 miles, I was just dying.”
Events run by Zilaff include two Boston Marathons, among them the 2013 edition when two terrorist bombs exploded near the finish. Combined, his events don’t add up to anywhere near 92,000 miles. The majority of his steps come from training.

“With a marathon, you should do 40 miles a week in training,” he says. “For Western States, you’re doing 80 to 100 miles a week, plus you have to train for the hills, the heat and staying up all night. On Saturdays, we’d leave at 5 a.m. and get back at 8 p.m. Anything under 20 miles is worthless. You need to drink 8 gallons of water a day, which is really hard. Don’t try it.”

For three decades, Zilaff consumed his miles while holding down work as supervising attorney with the Sacramento County Counsel. The office serves as the legal branch of county bureaucracy. Zilaff became an expert in mental health matters while representing the Public Guardian’s office. He retired in 2017 and turns 68 this month.

His hip problems involved cartilage worn away by hard miles. Running can do that. But the mileage created a physiological wonder. His orthopedic surgeon said Zilaff’s bones were “like rock,” having observed sedentary patients with bones “like mush.” Recovery was a breeze for Zilaff.

“Two years ago, when I got my left hip replaced, I was pain free afterward,” he says. “I didn’t take one pain drug and was walking the next day. They said I needed a walker but I didn’t.”

The right hip failed in 2020. Surgical restrictions due to the coronavirus forced a three-month postponement of repairs. Zilaff knew the anesthesiologist and asked if he could be kept awake during the second hip replacement.
“I’m really into this stuff,” he says. “I wanted to know what they were doing. He put me into a kind of twilight. I could hear them talking, the surgeon sawing off the bone, the pounding on the prosthetic hip. I said, ‘Hey, I should have brought my sledgehammer.’ The surgeon said, ‘Put him out.’ Like the first time, I had zero pain.”

In preparation for the second hip operation, a heart murmur was discovered. It was the floppy mitral valve. Zilaff had his valve fixed last August. Doctors said recovery would take a year. By October, he was running again.

“I was really slow and felt out of breath, but they said I was the first patient to run 8 miles four months out of open-heart surgery,” he says.

The next test arrives in December. Zilaff plans to run the California International Marathon. He knows the challenges, having run every CIM since the first one in 1983. His streak would have ended last year thanks to surgery, but the marathon was canceled.

“That worked out OK for me,” he says.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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