I am a former endurance athlete – not by choice. If I could still run, bike, swim or get my heart rate elevated I would. I love endurance sports. I love everything about them. I love the community, the commitment and the drive it takes to run a marathon or compete in triathlon. I used to love how it felt to push so hard my legs nearly gave out, to play mind games with myself to finish a difficult workout and to feel the accomplishment when it was all over.
Like many athletes I was always too hard on myself, physically and mentally. I thought that was what I needed to do to be a better athlete and excel in my career. I was wrong and it took a long time and a lot of heartache to realize it. Ultimately it was my stubborn and relentless drive that nearly killed me.
On my son’s first birthday, April 13, 2015 I nearly collapsed because of a dangerous cardiac arrhythmia called ventricular tachycardia. I went out for my five-mile morning run and noticed I was more tired than usual. I had been really tired lately, but today was different. It was worse than usual. I almost didn’t go, but I thought I would feel better if I got a few miles under my belt. It was a warm spring morning, and it was just beginning to get humid again. The trees were in full bloom, and the pollen had settled on the sidewalk and cars like a yellow blanket.
I closed my front door, put in my earbuds, and took off running through my neighborhood. I had my favorite Boston Marathon running shorts on and a brand-new pair of shoes. I love the feeling of a new pair of running shoes, and I love the possibility of something great happening when you slide them on for the first time. Not today. Nothing great was about to happen.
During the run, I had to stop several times because I felt “funny.” At times it felt like I couldn’t breathe. It lasted for a moment, and then it was gone. I would walk a little or crouch down in the road until the feeling passed. I thought it was because I was out of shape so, in typical Kate fashion, I pushed harder. I was annoyed that my body wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. I had been training, had had enough sleep, and wasn’t dehydrated.
As the last half-mile of my run approached, I decided to sprint to make up for my less-than-stellar run. As soon as I stopped, it happened. I was standing in front of my house, and I started to get dizzy. I wasn’t able to put one foot in front of the other without losing my balance. I felt my heart beating so quickly that it felt like it was beating out of my chest.
I sat down on the front steps of my house, elbows on my knees and head between my elbows. I tried to calm myself down by focusing on my breath. Inhale slowly, exhale slowly, inhale one-two-three, and exhale one-two-three-four. In that moment I thought, “I feel like I am going to die. I better stay outside on my front steps so someone will find me.”
My heart was beating so hard and fast that I could see my chest wall moving in and out, in and out rapidly. Looking down, I wondered, “Is that my heart? It can’t be!” My heart continued to beat faster and faster. The breathing didn’t seem to be helping. My Garmin was having a difficult time registering my heart rate. It flashed numbers that were in the high 200s, 220 then 240, then 250.
I was extremely lucky that I didn’t die that day. But I came close. In the following months I was eventually diagnosed with a very rare genetic heart disease called ARVC. I am no longer allowed to physically stress my heart. No running. No Swimming, No cycling. The list goes on. However I am incredibly grateful to be here. Every February, national heart month, I use my story to illuminate that athletes are not immune to cardiac disease. My hope is that we can catch it or recognize an issue before it is too late. Below are some resources that may help!
If you are in the Atlanta Area then please consider coming to our yearly Cardiac Screening for Endurance Athletes on Sunday, February 24th 9-12. It doesn't hurt to get a clean bill of health!
Check out a few other blogs we have done about cardiac disease in athletes. They will go into signs and symptoms, when to get help and what to look out for:
And if you are interested to learn more about my personal story then you can read my book: Racing Heart: A Runner's Journey of Love, Loss and Perseverance.
or hear the RunATL podcast: Episode 30
If you or your training partner are having issues feel free to reach out and email me. I will be happy to help!