As a 34-year-old runner, cyclist, and triathlete eating healthy and exercising frequently is in my DNA. I never considered the possibility of any issues with my heart. Why would I? At least that’s what I thought before I had to have nearly every cardiac test out there.
If most of your days were like mine were, you enjoy how good it feels to run fast, the wind in your face, the sweat slipping off your forehead, the rhythmic pumping of your heart powering your body forward, and finally the calm that ensues. Now pushing myself beyond what I thought possible to new PRs is a distant memory. I haven’t been able to run like that in months- in fact I am lucky to be running at all.
It all started in March …
I ran my first half marathon after having a baby. I started out running at a 7:45 pace and thought to myself “maybe I should slow down, I haven’t been in a race in a long time,” but I kept going because I felt good, really good. I was able to maintain between a 7:45-8:00 minute per mile pace until mile 10 then something happened.
My heart rate had been hanging around 150-155 BPM for most of the run then suddenly at mile 10 it shot up to 220 BPM and stopped registering on my Garmin. I suddenly didn’t feel good. Exhausted, anxious, and lightheaded, my heart was beating out of my chest so I switched to walk/jog until my heart slowed down. I was disappointed in myself for going out too fast thinking in my head- “I know better! I coach runners!” and questioning technology thinking, “my heart rate strap must be dirty- my Garmin is broken. Stupid Garmin.”
I struggled to finish, but I did it. By walk/jogging the last 3 miles I finished in 1:52:57. I had watched my Garmin the entire time never letting my heart rate go over 150 again. Overall I was scared. I felt terrible for 2 days, but again I thought I just went out too fast. I should have sought medical help that day and did not. Instead I continued my regular training until it happened again-only this time it was much scarier and on a mere 5-mile training run. Later I would learn sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of death in young athletes, and often has no warning signs. I had warning signs and didn’t listen.
Prior to the race one of my warning signs was severe exhaustion; however I was still breast feeding and had a one year old so I thought exhaustion was normal and had adjusted my lifestyle to even get to bed as early 7:30pm. Another sign, when I went fast enough I had palpitations, dizziness and lightheadedness- but I blamed it on the humidity- I do live in Atlanta. I even have a history of fainting in three marathons that goes back prior to having my son, which was typically attributed to dehydration.
After the 5-mile training run I sought medical help even though I continued to question whether I needed to or not. That day I had a clear echocardiogram, minor discrepancies on my EKG but it was my stress test that brought to light my ventricular tachycardia. I sat stunned in my cardiologist’s office as he explained to me what was happening. I thought it was all a bad dream.
Several tests, months and one ablation later, my story isn’t over yet, but I am hoping I will have more answers soon. I am doing my best to stay active, healthy and sane within reason. My current exercise restrictions are to keep my heart rate under 130 BPM. It is amazing how quickly 130 BPM shows up in a hot and humid climate!
My Garmin may just be a watch and a black strap around my chest, but it enabled me to be in tune with my body, which in the end kept from pushing myself beyond the brink. Now I have become dependent on my Garmin for sanity because it allows me to monitor my heart rate and stay active within a safe range.
I used to think "I’m glad this story isn’t about me"….
Every time I heard the news of a sudden cardiac death on a marathon course, or in triathlon or even the Olympic Trials I assumed it would never happen to me. Well, this time it is about me and I am lucky that I am here. Don’t wait to get a cardiac screen. It could save your life. Your primary care physician can do an EKG at your annual exam or you can seek out a Sports Cardiologist that specializes in treating and screening athletes.
As a physical therapist that treats endurance athletes I now have a keener sense for screening these issues. Since having gone through them I have referred a few people out to cardiologists that I may have missed before. I now listen even more closely to my athletes stories and encourage them all to have cardiac pre-participation screening when something is amiss.
I hope sharing a small glimpse of my story will raise awareness that cardiac issues can and do happen to all types of endurance athletes. If you're an endurance athlete I'd encourage you to get a screen yourself or if a PT consider sending your athletes to do so.