Last weekend, I completed the Borgess Kalamazoo Half-Marathon. I had an elaborate training and racing plan and really was expecting to have a strong performance. However, I felt terrible throughout the race. I did finish and, amazingly, placed okay in my age group, but it was far from expectations. Furthermore, I felt much more sore during and after the race than I normally do in half-marathons. What happened?
I uploaded my race results to my coach, Jennifer Harrison, after getting home from Kalamazoo, but I was just too tired to sit down and analyze them myself. Soon thereafter, I got an e-mail from Jen that essentially said “Brian, something is weird with your heart rate data, what happened?”
Uh oh. I’m 47 and have five kids, not to mention my medical practice. Like anyone in my situation, I fear a cardiac event.
I looked over the data carefully. My heart rate ran unusually high during the warmup to the race. Then, during the race, at about the 50 minute point, it suddenly jumped from the 130s to the 180s and stayed there until a minute before the end of the race. I enter zone 5 at a heart rate of about 151 and have never been in 180 territory.
The scary thing, also, is that I was unaware of this abnormality (tachyarrhythmia). I had planned to follow my pace and perceived effort and never checked my heart rate (even though I recorded it). All I knew is that I felt surprisingly weak and lightheaded for the pace I was running. It seemed much harder than seemed justified.
What happens in tachyarrhythmias like this is that the heart’s ventricles do not have time to fully fill with blood. So, even though the heart is beating faster, it is not delivering as much blood (with its oxygen, glucose, etc) throughout the body as is necessary.
As much as the prospect of a cardiac event terrified me, the idea of not being able to exercise at a high level and not being able to compete terrified me more.
I immediately scheduled an appointment with a special kind of cardiologist called an electrophysiologist. He was amazingly calm and reassured me that I am unlikely to have a cardiac event while training or racing. Essentially, I had a short circuit of the wiring of my heart. My EKG was normal (and featured a how-low-can-you-go resting heart rate of 33). The cardiologist ordered more tests which I will complete over the next few weeks, but it looks like I will be okay.
However, he said something to me that struck home. Essentially, he said:
“It’s great that you are so fit, and I support you getting regular exercise. But there is a point at which you are no longer doing exercise to be healthy for your family: you are doing it for yourself.”
I used to be 50 pounds heavier, with a resting heart rate twice its current rate. This is one of the big reasons I got into endurance sports. But I also have learned to love the experience of pushing my limits.
So, this leads to the important question: is competitive athletics selfish?
Well, yes, it is, in many regards. Nobody but me really cares about my race results, my running intervals, my fastest freestyle 100 meter, and my watts per kilogram. Nobody but me cares about me getting faster than last year. Nobody but me cares about qualifying for elite events.
But, in the most important regards, competing and pushing limits, is not selfish. I want my kids to see my example and learn that age and talent are not barriers. Instead, the barriers to success, in any endeavor, are willpower and desire. I want my kids to learn to enjoy exercise and to engage in competition to learn more about themselves.
My athletic accomplishments are modest compared to many others’, but they also have benefited me as a source of personal strength. I cannot remember the number of times I have been faced with stressful or physically difficult situations, like seeing a full schedule of patients while struggling with the flu, and have told myself over and over “I am an Ironman, I can do anything.”