Heart disease, athletes, and recovery…

I am exactly three months post cardiomyopathy slash chronic heart failure diagnosis.  Upsetting to say the least, disheartening (pun intended), and confusing.  What did this mean?  The first day had an assembly line of doom and gloom doctors telling me I was pretty much going to be relegated to mall-walking the rest of my competitive life.  Does the American Medical Association teach classes on doom and gloom?  Because these doc’s had the spiel down pat!  Day two had a new set of healers prying and probing my brain trying to figure out what I did to myself to cause this situation.  (Which started to get my own mind churning as well).  Why did this happen?  What did I do or didn’t do to cause this conundrum? 

Well let’s step back a bit and review.  Sooo…about 6 years ago I woke up obese and miserable.  Neither of which was that sudden but I chose to ignore how unhealthy I had become and was continually to become.  I was big and no amount of “slimming black” was hiding it now.  Long story longer, I decided to get healthy, that was the goal.  Lose weight, get healthy, be happy, and not die too young.  It started with walking, then a 5K, a Spartan obstacle race, and on from there.  Eventually I was talked into buying a bike, joining the local triathlon club and off we go.  275+ lbs. to, at one point 199, then comfortably around 210ish.  Never once did I think to see a doctor prior to embarking on this journey.  Mistake number one.

Fast forward.  Several races, a few short triathlons (none seem short during the race) later and I pulled the trigger on the 2015 Louisville Ironman.  And with the help of my coach, my teammates and my family’s considerable patience, I made it to the start line ready to race.  I finished strong, tired and hungry but strong…and seeking the registration info for my next race.  2016 I decided to dial the racing back.  I wanted to be a stronger athlete all around so I embraced the hybrid-athlete philosophy, building muscle, strength, and endurance. 

In the Fall, I knew I wasn’t feeling right.  I was slower, fatiguing quicker, generally not recovering like I used to.  I chalked all this up to age.  I was a year older and pushing myself harder than before, it had to be that.  Once I hit the pool at the beginning of 2017 I really felt it.  Having been able to cruise through a 2.4-mile swim before…200 meters was fatiguing me like never before.  But again, I thought it was age.  Fast forward again.  May 16th, 2017…I had a 9-mile run scheduled.  I had recently completed a grueling triathlon camp in Arizona, I felt like I was on track despite my runs becoming more difficult the last month or so.  I had woken up that morning with a racing heart rate.  I calculated it to be about 120-125…resting.  I thought I might be anxious about something so I decided to monitor it on my own throughout the day.  It never slowed.  So, I made the decision to go to urgent care.  The next 5 days I enjoyed the sights and sounds of the cardiac unit in the hospital contemplating the end of any competitive racing I thought I had left…most assuredly, the Chattanooga Ironman that I was in the middle of training for.  Thus, ending the goal of three full Ironman before I turned 50.   This was crushing to me. 

Most people don’t get that.  In fact, most people don’t even get training for anything, setting a goal and going for it.  I had worked very hard for several years to reach a goal only about 1% of the human population even try.  I can tell you, when someone says, “Well at least you got one Ironman in.” I feel like not being nice.  To me one and done was never the plan.  The plan was to take my body to the furthest levels and show that no matter what age you are, no matter where you start, the human body can and will achieve awesome things. 

For five days, I heard it was all over, everything I had worked hard for…done, finito.  Then I did research, and found a cardiologist that understands (sort of) what I want to do when it comes to recovery, training, and racing again.  Frustrating part, nobody knows why this happened. So, there is no way to really know how I will recover.  The doctors job is to keep me alive first and foremost, my job is to listen to him but push him to help me not only recover, but recover my lifestyle. 

Now here is the funny part.  My doctor was very excited to see me. He said, “I never get healthy, fit patients!  They are usually full of other maladies that make it very difficult to help them get and feel better.  Most of my patients haven’t felt good in so long they don’t know what it feels like.  You will be able to tell us exactly how you feel because you know what healthy feels like.”  Awesome!  I love making others happy.  But here’s the problem, there are few if any cases of athletes recovering from this kind of diagnosis.  Not that they don’t exist, but the normal heart failure patient isn’t an active triathlete.  Again, there are active triathletes with heart issues, but not the norm.  The problem is how do I compare to other successful cases or even benchmark myself against them if I can’t find any examples. 

There are plenty of cases of people surviving, not thriving.  People overcoming heart incidents like a virus or an attack of some kind.  Treatments that result in a repair, thus restoring the heart to a previous healthy condition.  My case is not like that.  I had an enlarged heart with for no apparent reason, high, high blood pressure and it was operating at about 50% efficiency.  My doctor is confident, but there are no assurances.  The other thing I discovered is that because there are relatively few athletes (that I can discover) having dealt with my situation, rehab protocols are not designed for patients like me.  They recommend a very, in my opinion, not healthy “heart healthy” diet.  My normal athlete/training diet was out the window.  Exercise is really relegated to keeping older patients active and mobile.  There is NO protocol for a recovering triathlete or for any kind of more than casual athlete.

 

So where do you go from there?  Right here.  My goal is to ferret out every conceivable documented plan here pertaining to recovering athletes with heart failure.  There is a life of competitive racing and athletics after heart failure, I know there is.  I must believe there is.

So here we go.  Google heart failure and athletes and you pretty much get two things: articles on dead athletes, or athletes that have had a procedure to correct an incident or abnormality.  My friend Todd is one of those.  Doctors discovered an aneurism on his heart during a routine checkup.  At any time, it could have burst and he would be dead instantly.   Problem corrected, he’s back to 6-minute miles during his runs.   Thus, begins a journey of discovery.  I will seek every athlete or doctor who has dealt with this issue.  My goal is help bring awareness and hopefully concrete and safe ways for athletes to engage in meaningful and progressive training to maintain their fitness and keep achieving goals.

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