I’ve made passing references to a heart issue diagnosed a few years back that forced me to ease up on my running, but I never really wrote much about it. But I have been meaning to, and after Malinda’s post about running with chronic illness, I thought I would add my voice to the mix. (I don’t really think of my issues as chronic illness – for me, it’s mostly a non-issue because it doesn’t cause that much difficulty. I have huge respect for runners with chronic illness. I don’t know how they do it.)
Back in the spring of 2010, I was having a great running year. I was training for my first half marathon and things were great! I was pushing my body and feeling strong. Sure, after a long run, I was pretty wrecked, but that was normal, right? Sundays became the day for long runs followed by an afternoon on the couch. I couldn’t figure out how marathoners did it. I was only running 8 or so miles, and at a fairly slow pace, comparatively speaking. I figured I was just slightly out of shape. My HR was pretty high while running, but the internet told me that was just the norm for some people. Because everyone knows the internet is always right.
I didn’t end up running that half marathon. I caught a stomach bug the day before the race. I was emotionally destroyed, not to mention physically. It took me a couple of weeks to bounce back from that illness. I blamed it on the emotional toll. I was so incredibly depressed to have missed this race that I looked forward to for months.
But I got back to running. I registered for another half marathon immediately. I ran the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler and set a new PR. 1:51:32. I was so close to finally running a sub 1:50 ten miler. I ran a 5K the next weekend and finished 30 seconds off my PR. The following weekend, I ran the GW Parkway Ten Miler. And I was miserable. I woke up feeling awful, but I wanted to do the race. So even though it rained and I was nauseous the whole time, I pushed through and finished in 1:58. Much slower than two weeks prior.
And then I couldn’t bounce back. I just couldn’t recover. I was also under a lot of stress at work, but my body was just giving up on me. I started having panic attacks. I was exhausted and dizzy all the time. It wasn’t good.
I ended up in the emergency room one day, where the doc took one look at me, said it was stress and told me to buy a good pair of running shoes, because running would fix my problems. But I was running!
So I saw my GP. She immediately put me through a round of testing. I had to wear a Holter monitor for 24 hours to check out my heart. It’s definitely awesome to walk around DC with a bunch of wires stuck to your chest and a giant black box connected to the end of the wires. Not suspicious at all. Of course, I didn’t have any “episodes” during that, so then they gave me a card monitor, where I pressed this little box to my chest during times of rapid heart rate, then called it in to the monitoring center. I also had to have an MRI of my brain, as my symptoms could be MS.
At this point, I had no idea what was going on. Neither did the doctors. Then I got a call that I needed to come in and be seen that day. Never a good sign. One of the doctors had looked at my EKG and saw something unusual. Apparently, I have a short PR interval with no Delta wave. I didn’t know what that meant, but she reassured me that a Delta wave was a bad sign, so this was probably nothing, but I needed to see a cardiologist, and until then, they wanted to put me on beta blockers for my rapid heart rate.
I was terrified that I was going to be told to quit running. So close to finally running a half-marathon and I was going to have to give it up.
I opted to not take the beta blockers, as I managed to get an appointment with a cardiologist the following week. And he hooked me up to an EKG, asked me a few questions and said “You’re fine. Just slow down when you’re running and monitor your heart rate. Try to keep it under 185.”
That’s right. Under 185. To those of you doing heart rate training, you know how high that is. And it’s no trouble for me to get my HR that high. In my PR ten miler, my average HR was 188, with a max of 197. In the ten miler two weeks later, 187 with a max of 196. No wonder I felt awful afterward. Essentially, when your heart rate gets that high, your heart isn’t pumping effectively because the ventricles weren’t filling and proper oxygenation wasn’t occurring. He said that I wasn’t going to end up killing myself running because when my HR would get too fast, I would just slow down because my body couldn’t keep up the pace. But in general, it was a bad plan. And this was all probably related to my panic disorder, so medication for that was definitely an option.
So what is this? Well, if you want to look it up, it’s called Lown-Ganong-Levine syndrome. It’s a pre-excitation syndrome. Yeah, I’m sure you’ve never heard of it. Because there really isn’t a whole lot of information out there about it. I’m sure that others have it and have no idea. Were I not running and putting my body through its paces, I would have no idea that I had this syndrome.
So since that diagnosis, I’ve had to slow down. I run/walk. I have my HR monitor set to beep at me when my HR hits 185. My post-diagnosis ten mile PR is a 2:12 (though I bet I can do more, because my half-marathon PR is at a faster minute per mile pace).
Because of this, I’ve found that I like distance running much better than short races. I can’t sprint. I have to run/walk. I have to pay attention to my heart rate. I’ve found that somewhere between miles 5-7 in a long race, my body sort of catches up to my heart and I don’t have to watch my heart rate anymore. I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve settled into a pace or if my body is just tired enough that I don’t naturally push too hard.
One big disappointment is that I gained a bunch of weight through this. A lot of it was comfort eating during the diagnosis process. I eat my feelings. Happy, sad, stressed, bored, excited… time for food. And I wasn’t working out because I was told to stop. So I gained a bunch of weight. And I’m on a low dose medication for panic disorder. That doesn’t help with the weight gain. It’s tough. I can’t do all the cool HIIT training that everyone raves about. My HR will get way too high. I still do interval training, but I have to be careful about it. And I don’t take classes because I get tired of getting yelled at for not pushing hard enough.
I might get a little faster. I would like to someday run a 2:45 half marathon. I don’t know that it will ever happen. Most of the time, I’m okay with that. And while it’s hard to have people yell at me during a race to “stop walking and run,” I don’t have that option, even though I have less than half a mile left. And it bugs me when friends who don’t really train pull out easy 2:30’s. And even good friends have made negative comments about my running. “You plan to run/walk at a 1:1 pace for an entire marathon? That’s crazy, I would never want to do that.” I don’t have a choice. I can run/walk or I can quit. It’s an easy answer.