A Heart Scare In An Amateur Endurance Athlete.



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.

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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.”

9 thoughts on “A Heart Scare In An Amateur Endurance Athlete.

  1. Mark L

    You and I have a lot in common, Brian. I am 45 with three kids and everything you write is me. Thank you for sharing so I can continue to contemplate why I push and push to satisfy myself. 6 Ironmans have improved who I am and flawed who I am…

    Also, our coaches know each other. Tristacey.com knows Coach Harrison.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    – ML

  2. Marvin Dittfurth

    I have heard that myself. And it seems based on a preconception that the only reason one would want to do all this is for health. Sure we do it for health, but we have many reasons for being involved in this lifestyle. Like Steven Covey wrote, “we see the world not as it is but as we are.”

    I am 71 and often use a HRM. For about 10 years not, at the end of long, hot training sessions, I get sustained heart rates that would be high for younger men. I don’t feel any ill effects from it, nor have any shortness of breath from it……But, the HR drops like a rock upon cessation and I have a resting pulse of about 36-38. But, if I were to go on the go like that, that would be a great exit strategy and my family knows I feel like that…while it is about me oftentimes, simultaneously it is also about them.

    1. administrator Post author

      Thanks for the comments, Marvin.
      Forgive me, but when I see guys like you at races I think: “I want to be that guy in 25 years!”

  3. mary

    my daughter has recently starting racing half marathons, having played full time club soccer as well as school score she felt it would b e easy to train… she has done well and completed her first half. Only problem is as she is now training for a the Disney full in Jan. she is having a much more serve issue that she has always had with running. Excessive thick mucous, she complains that its so thick she is ever spitting “literally every 50 ft” or its so thick she can’t really get rid of it and sometimes she feels like it’s choking her? Obviously this makes running very complicated. She is 20. We heard from a fellow runner who go to a alternative doctor that it is her heart! So I was amazed to come across this site. Just wondering if you suffer with the same issue? Looking for someone in our area who is a allergist and marathoner… Metro Detroit

    1. administrator Post author

      I really appreciate your comment. I admire your daughter’s ambition and dedication to do a marathon this winter. It sounds, however, like she is going through a lot of discomfort that is, very likely, unnecessary. You and she can easily find an allergist in the Detroit area who can help. Here are a couple websites to help you find a board-certified allergist:

  4. Chris

    Thanks for this article. I am new to running and I am definitely hardheaded and stubborn. I have asthma and am currently training in 90+ degree weather (in Florida) for my first marathon in October (in Chicago). The heat is killing me and my heart rate gets up to 175-180. I usually slow down when it hits that rate until it goes down again which is pretty fast. I am compliant with all my meds but was still have been sent to the hospital for testing. Of course stress test was negative and all blood work normal but sometimes I feel like my heart is in my throat choking me. Sometimes they just don’t know if it is a cardiac or pulmonary issue. I am fine in 20-40 degree weather and never had this problem. I am a 42 yr old mom of 5 so after reading this I am nervous about continuing my training. I don’t want to be “selfish” and I do not want to die running.

    1. administrator Post author

      Thank you for the comment. I did not intend my article to lead anybody to feel frightened or guilty and I am sorry if it connected with you in that way. Everybody’s motivations to exercise and compete, along with their obligations, strengths, and weakness are unique. Please discuss your training and racing with your physician and family and come to the best decision you can.
      Chicago was my first marathon and it is a great experience. I hope you can train safely and effectively and visit our great city.

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