written by Amy
I was standing at the finish line of UTMB, in the center of Chamonix, France, waiting for Brian to finish. I was so nervous and so excited - Brian was right around 20th place, and could be finishing under 24 hours! My heart started to beat fast...then it started to skip a beat. Suddenly, I couldn't concentrate on Brian, I could only think about the long pauses between my heart beats. I leaned over to get some water, thinking maybe I was dehydrated, and I saw spots as I nearly passed out. This was supposed to be a glorious moment for my husband and I was the only person in France that he knew to share it with him, yet I was struggling to stay upright as my heart skipped beats and gave abnormally large strokes. I was freaking out!
That moment passed.
A few weeks later, I had a similar episode at the starting line for a cross country race with my team. I nearly passed out as my heart beat an irregular rhythm. While others were doing striders, I was trying to determine if I there was anyway to do CPR on myself if my heartbeats strung out any longer. I was seeing spots, and wasn't sure if I should race or sit aside and watch my friends run. I wasn't confident that I could safely finish the 5k cross country race.
While these were the only two times I felt like I would pass out, I was having weekly episodes of heart palpitations. I would feel my heart skip a beat, then give a large 'thump' as if to catch up on the next stroke. It was worrisome, and I had no idea what was causing it. I was beginning to freak out. I was afraid to push my body hard, because I didn't know if my heart could take it. Brian would catch me taking my pulse as I would count the seconds between my heart beats. At some point in this time, I also learned that our friend Chad died of unexpected heart-related issues, and it spurred me to finally see a doctor to figure out what was going on and make sure I was ok.
I saw my regular doctor, who gave me an EKG and immediately said 'hmmm...I think you need to see a cardiologist'. I continued to be anxious, since all the doctor relayed was something about a 'short Q-T stroke'. If you google that term, a host of scary information comes up. The 6 week wait to see the cardiologist seemed endless - in that time, I continued to run but was literally scared to push the tempo or work too hard. Dr. Google was doing nothing to calm me down - as a host of scary scenarios pop up anytime I would input my symptoms. My episodes continued to occur every week or so. I couldn't find any rational connector for when they were happening - they happened throughout the day, they happened both when running and when resting/relaxing. As an engineer, it was infuriating to not be able to find the cause or determine anything that would connect when this was occurring.
Finally seeing the cardiologist offered some relief. He first sat me down and said 'I see you're very concerned, so let me tell you how this is going to happen. We'll run a bunch of tests, and in the end we'll find that nothing is wrong. You're healthy, and you'll be ok.' While I wanted to fully believe him, and think that I was completely healthy and would be ok, one thought kept creeping back in...Chad was seemingly healthy too.
The cardiologist had me wear a portable EKG machine to log my heart beats throughout a normal day. He told me that I could do whatever was normal, so I went for a run (and sweat the electrodes off) but otherwise the day was uneventful - no episodes while wearing the monitor. Funny how i was disappointed that i couldn’t have an episode at ny point when the doctor would witness - as if I was worried that the doctor might think I was making it up or was freaking out about nothing.
The following two months, I got a host of other tests - blood tests (which came back normal) and an echocardiogram (or "echo" for short). The technician giving the "echo" said she couldn't tell me anything from the test - which I suppose is standard, but it's frustrating for someone who's worried.
As all this was going on, I opened up to a several of my trail running friends about what was going on. The first time was as I was wearing the portable EKG and had to explain to my friends why I had to stop to adjust the electrode pads. One of the girls with me answered with her own personal story of a heart condition. On another run, I was with a close friend who I had been training with for years - as I told him about my experience, he relayed that he had similar experiences years ago and went through the same round of tests and doctor visits. Ultimately, he was fine. But, it made me wonder how many runners out there have had heart-related issues and don't talk about it? It wasn't until I opened up to my friends about my experience that I started hearing everyone's stories.
After all the testing, I finally got to see the cardiologist again to review the results. It had been about 6 months since my experience at the UTMB finish line. My appointment was less than 10 minutes - he said that everything looked within the realm of normal. I have a minor leaky valve in my heart that will likely never be an issue. Sometimes my heart does an extra beat, which, when that extra beat is early, can account for the feeling of a prolonged time between heart beats. Apparently, while my heart will sometimes beat irregularly or skip a beat, it wasn't anything to be concerned about. While the cardiologist's results are reassuring, and nothing is really wrong with me, there's also a feeling of this being an unresolved issue - if I don't know what caused it, how do I know it won't happen again?
Either way, I overwhelmingly felt alone and isolated as I was going through this process, especially when I first started experiencing these weird heart palpitations. I had never heard any of my running friends talk about heart issues like that! Now, I have heard from a few folks who have had similar situations. It would have been nice to know that, from time to time, other endurance athletes have experienced heart-related issues. More importantly, it would have been helpful to hear that other endurance athletes' hearts sometimes do an irregular beat and they are ok.
Of course, if you have any heart concerns, you should see your doctor!