Oct 14

The bane of trail running: Atrial Fibrillation

When I read this story from Andy Hewat, it kinda stopped me in my track. It’s really serious when your heart is the limiting factor to run further. It can hurt, real bad.

You can read about his background in this interview. He’s definitely one hardcore ultra trail runner.

And here are some excerpts from his own words, and why Atrial Fibrillation can hurt really badly, both morale and body.

“…I have Atrial Fibrillation (AF). Paroxysmal, which means it comes in bursts and rectifies itself eventually. In my case, it comes on spontaneously and reverts in a matter of hours. No identifiable cause. No specific triggers. Bending over to tie my shoelaces. Walking the dog. Sitting on the couch. And running, it happens a lot when running.

…AF is distressing when it occurs. It causes my heart to beat abnormally fast but inefficiently, reducing circulation, causing fatigue and breathlessness. Almost worse than the disease is the medication to control it: add tiredness, nausea, headaches, loss of concentration, anxiety and weakness.

…AF is perplexing to someone so fit. Yet that very fitness has probably caused it. AF is more common than you might think. While running helps protect us from ischaemic heart disease that causes heart attack, it increases our chance of arrhythmias (abnormal heart rate and/or rhythm). The most common of these is AF. But AF is more a disease of old people. At 47 and very fit I was a curiosity to the casualty staff. Unfortunately, I am not alone. The association between AF and over 40 year old endurance athletes is becoming all too common. A 30-year study of elite cross-country skiers in Norway found a prevalence of 12.8 per cent compared to 0.5 per cent in the general population.

…While the AF would come and go the side effects are constant. Much of my days are spent asleep on the couch. I try to run but it feels like I am dragging a tyre behind me. Sometimes two tyres. Sometimes a tractor tyre. But I still try. As hard and uncomfortable as it is, I need to maintain that connection with who I really am: a runner.

…Every day is a struggle. Running 10km on flat pavement is like running up a mountain on day two of a hundred miler. And with a cruel twist it often comes with the same nausea. It is just plain awful. I get home after a run and collapse on the floor in the foetal position to recover. And still the flutters and palpitations. All my races are cancelled. My running life is on hold. But running is my life. Every now and then I try to forget the reality and try to reconnect with the runner still inside me. Just like another ultra, I keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope that eventually things will get better. The true value of ultras is that they actually train us for life.

…There are risks: stroke, bleeding or even death. And it might not work. But I am willing to take those risks. I want the ablation. It will hopefully give me a chance to run trails again, free and unfettered.”

And yes, I really like that quote in bold. It hold much truth in it.

For the full story, check out Trail Run Magazine Spring 2011 ed#2.