It’s been 10 days since my last run. I can feel the decay setting in. The body is slowly relaxing into a state of lard and people have to bring you tea. The only reason I actually quit running for such an extended period of time is because all this running made me sick. Or so they tell me.
See, for 21 days my heart was out of rhythm. Which meant it was hanging around 120 beats per minute even while I was sleeping. Oddly enough it would settle during a run so naturally I would take this as a sign to get my shoes on. The cardiologist disagreed and booked me in for a small procedure. This would be my third ablation in 5 years and despite them describing it as ‘non-invasive’ and ‘quick’, the 4 hour op floors you, leaves you with some sizable plasters to rip off and, worst of all, takes you months to get back on the road.
So how can running be bad for you? On an atrial fibrillation expert’s recommendation I read Chris Case’s “The Haywire Heart. How too much exercise can kill you …”. It follows the lives of endurance athletes and how many of them develop heart rhythm problems as a result of too much exercise. Many of them had been pushing themselves hard since they were in their teens and developed the conditions in their 40s. Now I would hardly describe myself as a top endurance athlete (I usually finish in the first 50% which is enough of a goal for me) and my running was intermittent until I started taking it more seriously in my late 30s. By then my condition had already manifested itself when I passed out during a Knysna marathon in my 30s – and the jury is out whether it’s hereditary, if I caused it by too much running, or dubious lifestyle choices in my 20s. While I didn’t exactly live off lentil burgers and carrot juice during those years, my 20s weren’t that debauched so I prefer to think that it’s a mixture between being hereditary and my running, so I can fix it.
But then how much is enough and how much is too much? Will I ever be able to do that Comrades? Or mini-Sky? Probably not. Case says that while a certain amount of exercise is good for most people, more than 30 minutes of intense exercise 4 times a week can be damaging to even the fittest of hearts. Most runners, even me, exceed that and I’m afraid 2 hours of running and a Parkrun a week won’t get me to Comrades.
But it may get me to Gun Run, and then to Soweto … and SOX next year, Golden Gate, New York? Who knows. Whatever it is it’s going to have to be done through some sort of a plan or a seven step process that includes sobering realities such as one’s responsibility as a father and accepting the stuff, like a dicky heart, that you cannot change. “I will not go to Comrades again”.
In the meantime I’m looking forward to my first hit which is only 8 days away. It will be just a little 5k. I promise.
Oxpecker was a favorite last year. A brilliantly-organized event it bridges the gap between serious runner and first-timers for a two-day stage race through the Drakensberg mountains. I was in some pain from London marathon still but seriously confident and was great to be back on trails after so much running on tar. But my heart didn’t play ball.
Day one is the most challenging. A 21 km stretch with a serious climb a third of the way in my heart was over 200 bpm 5 minutes in. It sometimes settles down so I pushed through but when I started feeling lightheaded on the real steep sections, I slowed down. At one stage I could only take about four steps before I had to grab hold of trees or rocks to steady myself until I could take the next four. I eventually lost consciousness for a second or two at the summit, just enough to cause a bit of a stir and panic with some other runners. The view revived me, my heart settled to its predictable 121 bpm and I soldiered on, but by now I was exhausted. So between walking and running I was a good 20 mins slower than my time of the previous year.
Heart rate day 1
Heart rate day 2
Day 2 was the easy 16 km run, but worse. Yes, I know I shouldn’t have even gotten out of bed but I wanted to see if I was just unlucky. One quickly forgets and think that it’ll pass but I ended up walking 90% of the route and coming in as they were packing up the fanfare.
It turns out the Ibuprofen from the Transact patch to dull my runners’ knee could have been the culprit. But there’s too many ifs and maybes. I’ve now been reduced to 5ks 3 times a week and a walk home if it spikes. They may as well have told me to shut-up and sit down. I’ve been naughty and I should be punished. Right.
Now I know that lots of people have completed marathons but this was sort of a big deal to me. It was a brilliant day for running. Apart from being on my feet for two days sightseeing I couldn’t have been better prepared. The supporters were so loud that for one or two seconds during the five or so hours (yes it was a slow one) where there were none, the silence made your ears ring. They made you feel like this was your race and I will never forget it. And once it was done, it was done. For five years I have been dreaming of running a marathon again after being told I shouldn’t run at all and, carefully and albeit slowly (I think one of the rhino suits beat me), I made it. I must admit while it was one of those life highlights that is remembered better over time, there wasn’t a real sense of achievement. It felt as if it was something that had to be done on a long list of things to be done. And not necessarily running things. I cannot take health risks so will probably never go further than a full marathon. But what makes achievements worthwhile is achieving new ones and to create goals with purpose. So now what?
.. is paved with sore knees, relentless, boring miles on tar and a stopover in Germiston. Yet I’m enjoying every minute. Three years ago it took me 2 months to train for a half-marathon yet in the first 3 months of this year I’ve done a total of 7 halfs (or is that ‘halves’) with two runs over 25. I know right. I’ve also managed to get my best time yet at Irene half-marathon last week running through the cow dung and have had three great months of training with my fastest 5k, 10k and 21k yet. Tomorrow I’ll tackle my last long run, the 32k Alan Robb race in Germiston and then it’s a short break before heading to London. It’s a kick for sure. I feel a mixture of guilt over the privilege, excitement at the thought of running past Her Majesty’s window and nerves that I never quite can tell the reason for. Now I know a lot of people have finished marathons before so it’s hardly winning the Nobel Prize but it really is a dream come true and, apart from raising a daughter that still likes me, it feels like the greatest achievement of the last decade. It gives you a wonderful sense of purpose and apprehension because you wonder, what next?
It’s been a busy year for running. For most part my health behaved and allowed me to get seriously get stuck into trail. I did a few 12s and then gradually moved on to 21s. Oxpecker gave me the confidence and once you’ve done one, you just can’t stop. The most gruelling so far was Captain Carrot. These runs are designed by pint-sized trail legend Nina Furness Derieux with little trail to speak of. Which annoys my partner no end who believes it does serious damage to the environment. Regardless it was a lot of fun and with three 21 trail runs under the belt this year (Cape Town Peace Trail, Captain Carrot, Rocktrail), two stage races (Oxpecker 37ks and Runtheberg 32ks) and two 21 road runs (Two Oceans and Old Eds), I have set my sights on London Marathon 2017. Every run has had its own personality, its own ups (and what felt like fewer downs) and has inevitably ended with the now-mandatory chocolate Steri-Stumpie. There is no bigger carrot than running towards artificially flavoured milk to replenish the lost calories. It’s throwing out the planning of your pre-race meals and the being careful around what you eat to ensure your body behaves appropriately, to say, well done. You deserve this crap. I may just have to take some with me to London.
But wow, it was worth it. The trip across the lagoon to the start, the sunrise over Thesen’s, the views from just about everywhere. The start takes you up a steep hill and down again, through a restaurant and then onto possibly the prettiest path I’ve ever seen along the western head. And then the climbing starts. I may have bolted too quickly and soon my heart spiked to above 200. Which hasn’t happened in a while but it wouldn’t settle down. No matter how slowly I took it. Regardless, I loved it. After the water point at 10ks it finally settled and I loved the route back with views east, then west, then east that just went on forever and over the train bridge (that went on forever). I got back to a very teary daughter who hated being left alone and I felt selfish for relentlessly pursuing this passion regardless of how it may affect my health and the sanity of the people around me. And while I have no idea whether my running is hurting or healing my heart I know that the elation I feel can only benefit my overall health. Not sure my daughter would agree.
I’ve had some good runs. Runs that stand out from the rest, where you wish you could somehow save it, like chocolate, and sample from it when you feel like a little bit of euphoria.
A few stand out: Two Oceans half this year, where I felt strong enough to do it all over again; my favourite training run from Hout Bay over Chapmans Peak to meet an old friend in Noordhoek for breakfast; Meiringspoort through the spectacular Swartberg mountains and a night trail run in Johannesburg in the pouring rain. Last week I felt that again at the Oxpecker trail series in the Drakensberg, a two day event through beautiful scenery with friends.
Come to think of it there are more but the common denominator is not the sense of achievement, the great scenery or the elation when you cross the finish line. It is just plain happiness. Happiness to be alive and healthy and happy.
I have yet to come across any medicine, vitamin or booster that can invigorate and uplift me like running out in the open. It’s just the most spectacular cure for anything from depression to a dicky heart and have brought me closer to the people around me (runners and non-runners).
And since you can’t bank the feeling, you just have to keep on running.
After Knysna I got into a rhythm – a month rest and then start training for another half marathon. So it works out to about three a year which was manageable all through 2015. I ran the Two Oceans half which was a personal victory because of no afib throughout the run. Add to that the atmosphere, scenery and vibe and it was the most fun you could have while going through so much pain. My friends ran the 55k so my achievement was my own but it felt great to have ticked that off my list.
Midyear I was back in Knysna and bettered my time marginally. Again – no afib and I felt healthy. My third half in 2015 was my favourite though. I flew down to Oudtshoorn, woke up early the next morning for the ride on the ostrich truck out to the start and stood in the cold with my rusk and my blanket. It was a downhill run and spectacularly beautiful, ending in the little town of De Rust with a celebratory Coke and roosterkoek. Once again an awesome run with no afib – just sore legs.
It takes some time for my heart rate to settle in every run and it never really goes above 140 bpm thanks to the verapamil and the tambacor. Which means I’ll probably never do a sub 2 hour half marathon. But I am loving it and have my doctor’s approval. He’d still like to do another ablation but as long as I don’t try out a marathon, he’s happy. London 2017 may be calling.
I’m busy training for another Two Oceans, Vic Falls in June and Gun Run in Cape Town in September and feel great that I have found my rhythm. Not sure if my running is shortening my life span (or extending it) but I am doing what I love again.
On the day it turned out less than ideal but the weekend was perfect. It was a cold start high up in the forest with blankets and hot coffee for the 6000 or so runners. A more ideal setting you couldn’t get. The few weeks of successful training to keep my heart in check had secretly lulled me into the hope of getting to at least 2.10, even though the original objective was to merely finish. Straight out the starting black I smelled trouble. I felt strong but after 2ks my heart was going mad. Was it the excitement, the nerves, the beer last night? Did I maybe not take the right medication in the dark this morning? But I did everything right and as planned, to the T, yet I was in afib.
The heartbeat that nearly beat me,
My watch beeped furiously and swung between 150 and 200. I thought it would settle down as it usually does but very early on it became clear this was not meant to be. My partner, a strong runner stayed with me to the end and encouraged me to not push it and to listen to my heart. It was the most frustrating day. Feeling how fit and strong you are but your heart disagrees. No matter what kind of breathing I tried or how slowly I took it the only thing that would settle it down was walking. After 16 ks my heart finally settled and I settled into a 6 minute per k pace. It was a beautiful run which I couldn’t enjoy to the full, which I guess is what happens when your perspective shifts. The exhaustion of the afib finished me off in the 19th k and I started feeling dizzy even though my heart rate was now under control and my legs still felt strong. I finished the race in 2.30 which is slightly worse than my disastrous run three years ago. I have come full circle and managed to finish the dreaded race that started it all. Yet it was incredibly disappointing. It felt as though this condition had beaten me and said ‘don’t you think you can run away from me’. Emotions ran high and I swore I would never run again. But the will to run is too strong and I’m glad I had my partner beside me who could put things into perspective. I’ve loved it from the first time I’ve taken to the road and will keep trying. I’ll read up more, visit 20 doctors if I have to but I’m in good shape and am determined to get this thing under control. Which means I’ll be back next year.
I love the Sunday runs. I usually feel better in the morning. Calm and relaxed and easy to get into a pace. This Sunday was different. I’m not sure if it was the relatively rough night I had had on Saturday night but it played havoc with my heart rate. I woke up in afib for the first time in months and it never settled down. I did the uphill course to make matters worse and had to give my heart a breather four or five times during the run even though my legs and lungs felt up to the task. The rest of the 15ks seemed to be ok yet my rate never dropped below 150 and my average page was a measly 6,45. I hope this was an isolated case and that it did have something to do with the night before. It was a beautiful run through the suburbs on a cold crisp morning though and some compensation for the way I was feeling. I’ll try the same route today with a shorter downhill totalling 8ks. Still on track with the programme without missing one run.
In week 7 and so far so good. I run Wed/Fri instead of Tue/Thu but haven’t miss one yet.