SOB Trail Run 15K Race Report: Atrial Fibrillation, Running, Beta Blockers – My First Impression

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SOB Trail Run

I have been in permanent atrial fibrillation for a couple of years now, but only been taking an anticoagulant (Pradaxa). But things have changed and for the past month I have been on a beta blocker, carvedilol.

Prior to starting the carvedilol, while in permanent atrial fibrillation, I had been able to run two marathons and one ultramarathon (50K) without any more trouble than the normal marathon type suffering, but over the past six months I have noticed things have been changing. I’ve slowed down, even for me, and distances are getting harder. My last half marathon was a joke and I was at the end of the pack within the first two miles. After a run or mountain bike ride of an hour or more I would have problems afterwards – my blood pressure would drop and my pulse would stay high. After a long run, especially if it was a hot day (which they all are, recently) I would get so light-headed after standing up I sometimes had to grip onto something to remain standing.

A visit to the cardiologist, and a subsequent echocardiogram, revealed that my heart rate was increasing and my ejection fraction was decreasing, and for that reason the cardiologist wanted me to start on a beta blocker.

A beta blocker, in this case carvedilol, is a drug that reduces stress on the heart by slowing the heart rate, decreasing the force with which the heart beats, and reduces the tone of the arteries throughout the body. The end result is that blood pressure is reduced, as is heart rate. The heart needn’t work so hard.

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SOB 50 Mile Course – tough!

Some non-endurance athletes actually use beta blockers as performance enhancing drugs – it is said that it calms a person, reduces performance anxiety, and is commonly used in less endurance specific sports such as golf, target shooting, archery, and even in music performance.

Clearly these drugs are performance diminishing for endurance sports like distance running and mountain biking. We like to stress the heart, raise the heart rate, and we don’t have very much stress – we’re long distance runners after all – the mellowest people around.

I generally am in at least half marathon shape year round. Even if I’m not training for anything my weekend long run is going to be between nine and twelve trail miles. Prior to starting the beta blocker I had signed up for the 15K at the SOB Trail Run at Mount Ashland (Oregon) – one of my favorite races. This relatively high altitude run is basically all up and down trails and fire roads (zero flat sections) and I have done it at least six times in the past, including completing it twice in atrial fibrillation. I was curious to see how being on the beta blocker would affect my race.

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DNF

The answer was I DNFed (did not finish) and dropped out fairly early in the race. That was terrible – most of my friends were running the 50K or the 50 mile and I DNFed the little 15K???

The course at the SOB is brilliant, really. A lot of trail races start out right away on singletrack, but the SOB has about a mile(?) of fire road at the start so everybody has plenty of time to figure out whether they are going to be running with the fast people or the slow people before they hit narrow Pacific Crest Trail. I ended up at the very back of the group that was running, but I was still in front of the few people who were walking the 15K.

I found that as soon as the course headed up hill I was unable to run. My chest felt funny – not chest pain, just felt weak, not right, and my legs felt dead. I wasn’t short of breath, I was just unable to do it. I decided, in my typical OCD mode, to continue running for five more songs on my iPod shuffle, and then turn around and drop out, thinking that I should at least get a little bit of a work out in, and that I could justify keeping the T-shirt I had paid extra for. I knew I could have walked the course, but that is not what I went there to do.

I was delighted that the fifth song on my iPod turned out to be an oldie from my high school days: Yours is No Disgrace by Yes. Not actually I song I still like very much, but in this context it seemed like a cosmic pat on the back.

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A Cosmic Pat on the Back

On the way back I met a woman who was also DNFing (sprained ankle) and we walked the last section of the race together, commiserated, and removed our numbers so they wouldn’t mistake us for the top finishers. At the finish line we informed the race officials that we had dropped out so they didn’t need to send a search and rescue team to find us.

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DNFing and commiserating together as we remove our race numbers

So this article is, basically, my first impression of being on a beta blocker, in addition to the atrial fibrillation, and trying to remain an endurance athlete.

So far I feel that the beta blocker is more of a hindrance to my running and cycling than the atrial fibrillation alone had been – but then again, because of the atrial fibrillation my heart function is gradually diminishing.

I should say, on a positive note, that the beta blocker is working, and is doing what it is supposed to do. I check my heart rate and blood pressure at least once per day and since I started the carvedilol I am right where the cardiologist wants me to be. And I can understand why people who aren’t trying to be athletes might like the med – it seems to have a mild calming effect. Furthermore I no longer feel like my heart is a fish flopping around in my chest, and my post work out blood pressure and heart rate has stabilized.

I am optimistic that the carvedilol will be worthwhile and will help me preserve and regain my ejection fraction. But really, what choice do I have?

So here is how things have changed so far (compared to just permanent a fib without the beta blocker):

1.) As far as mountain and road biking is concerned I have been able to ride all the hills that I used to be able to ride, although I am much slower. My wife now has to wait for me at the top of a climb, and that’s fine. I am delighted I can still ride and don’t have to get off and walk my bike.

2.) Running is more negatively influenced. My previous slow pace is even worse, and hills are quite difficult. Not surprisingly I do not like this one bit. A slow jog feels like a 5K effort. But I am still able to run – Yay!

3.) Long runs in heat are not possible. I am just not able to do a long run in heat, and lately every day has been warm. Understand that I am a big red-faced Irish-American who considers anything over sixty degrees to be hot running weather; plus I live in a very sunny place, a high desert climate without a lot of shade. It is not surprising that this is happening. A normal person running in heat will have a higher heart rate for a given pace, and will need to slow down. If you are on a beta blocker that reduces the maximum heart rate by a significant amount, well: “game over.”

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My goal is to continue running and mountain biking on trails like this: Brown Mountain Trail

4.) I suspect that the beta blocker might be making me lazy. I don’t know if that is the right word, but I had a full day off in the middle of the week a while ago and I had planned on, among other things, writing this article and going for a trail run, and next thing I knew it was late afternoon and I hadn’t done a thing. What? By that time there was a thunderstorm so I was not going out for a run – but the article still hadn’t been started. I hope this is not going to be the case from now on. Being lazy and depressed is far from my idea of fun.

I am going to wait until I have had more experience with the beta blocker and write a better informed article. I’m going to sign up for a relatively flat (downhill, actually) trail half marathon and try to redeem myself.

In the meantime I would love hear about other people’s experiences with the dreaded beta blockers. Please post a comment below.

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Emergency Pack for Trail Running or Mountain Biking While on Anticoagulants (Coumadin, Xarelto, Pradaxa, Plavix)

This article is a work in progress and is only a description of my strategy for the time being. I hope to learn from readers of this blog about how to better plan for a trail debacle.

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Heading out for a trail run on the Pacific Crest Trail

What kinds of things should a person like me, who is dealing with atrial fibrillation and is taking an anticoagulant (I take Pradaxa), carry on a long run in the wilderness? Or during a long mountain bike ride in remote areas?

When the high country in our local wildernesses is not covered with snow, I will generally do runs, nearly every weekend, of anywhere between six to twenty miles. I almost always run alone (except for my trail buddy – Ringo).

Dangerous and a bad idea? Possibly. But this is what I enjoy in life so I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

The most important piece of equipment is a phone. People complain that everybody is always on their smartphone, and they should NOT be talking on their phones on mountain summits when everybody else is trying to get all Zen-like and self-actualized, and whatever – that’s a different discussion. You certainly don’t even need to have your phone on; but you absolutely should take it with you, and it should be fully charged. The days of getting hopelessly lost and spelling out SOS with rocks hoping a search plane will find you are fading into the past. A smartphone is a GPS and a direct link to help.

I always carry my iPhone in a baggie with my ID and a sheet of paper towel (which I use for unrelated toilet purposes).

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Fully charged and protected from water

Even if there is poor cell phone coverage in your local high mountain or deep canyon wilderness, and a phone call isn’t always possible, I find that a text message can often still be sent. It might take a while but it eventually will be sent, especially if I am moving along a trail.

There is the standard emergency gear that most people take, often called the “ten essentials” which most people carry while in the wilderness. Of course there is truly no such thing as a standard ten essentials and the list of things you carry will vary depending on the season, your skill set, your location, and your past experience.

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My generic survival gear

I got out my little survival kit that I typically carry in the wilderness, and of course not everything is pictured here, and I might not even have all of this stuff with me on any given trip. Naturally I will also have other things like food, gels, electrolytes, a jacket, and plenty of water.

What I found in my default wilderness pack is:

Two knives – a mini-leatherman tool and a standard knife. I will only actually carry one of these.

Two lights – a headlamp and a tiny LED flashlight (one is plenty).

Fire starter – a cigarette lighter, birthday candles, a tampon, and hand sanitizer (which I discovered has completely evaporated).

A space blanket, a compass.

Repair gear (Shoe laces, tenacious tape, dental floss)

Pain pills: Vicoprofen samples – okay they expired in 2000 but I’m guessing they are still good (at least for a placebo effect). Missing: Benadryl for allergies or yellow jacket stings, and I probably should have some of my Pradaxa in case I end up unexpectedly staying out overnight. Also missing: small roll of duct tape, safety pins, and my whistle!

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Saint Christopher Medal

Oh, and there is a Saint Christopher medal. This one belonged to my grandfather. Well it probably won’t change anything, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. Feel free to substitute your own personal good luck charm.

But what about specific items for the runner on an anticoagulant? Is there anything else beyond the “ten essentials”?

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Other stuff: Map with reading glasses (if needed) and some rope

Obviously having a major bleed while running alone in the wilderness would be a disaster. Death is certainly a possibility. How can a trail runner prepare to increase the odds of a good outcome?

I always make sure to let somebody know (usually my wife) where I’m going and I also send her a text (I text “OOTW” short for “out of the woods”) when I get back to my vehicle.

I also wear a Road ID. This way if somebody finds me they will know I am on an anticoagulant. Maybe this won’t help, but it certainly is worth wearing. At least they will be able to figure out why I bled out so quickly (I know – not funny).

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My Road ID

Another item I always carry is a bandanna. This can be used for a number of purposes, such as making a field dressing; but I want to have it in case I need a tourniquet. Plus – I have an extra one because my trail dog always has one draped around his neck.

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Bandanna

My bandanna came in handy a week ago when my wife Margo (not on an anticoagulant) crashed her mountain bike and punctured her left thigh with her brake lever. I used it to make a compressive dressing before we road our bikes back to where we could get a ride to the hospital.

One item I do not currently have but definitely need to obtain is a Quickclot field dressing. Evidently these things really work and are routinely used in combat situations. It is a topical coagulant (an anti-anti-coagulant?) which helps clot blood and also serves as a physical barrier to bleeding. I’ve been meaning to obtain one of these for a long time. They are available online via amazon.com, and I just ordered one.

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Quickclot

Question: Will the Quickclot sponge even work on bleeding in an individual who is on a direct thrombin inhibitor like Pradaxa? Answer: I have no idea. I’ll let you know if I ever get a chance to find out.

In case of bleeding the most important first step is to apply direct pressure. As a surgeon I have a lot of experience with this. Usually sixty seconds of direct thumb pressure will stop or slow most bleeding, but of course if you take an anticoagulant it will take longer. Apply direct pressure as long as necessary. Elevate the wound if possible. Don’t try to clean out major wounds as this will restart bleeding – that can be done later at the hospital.

A tourniquet is a last resort, but the bandanna can be used as a compressive dressing if needed.

Please understand that an anticoagulant doesn’t completely stop clotting of blood, it just makes it take longer. Eventually bleeding will stop. Hopefully before all the blood leaves your body!

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Ringo always has a spare bandanna for me

Bonus – How to stop a nosebleed:

I have been plagued by frequent nosebleeds since I was a child but, oddly enough, I haven’t had a single nosebleed since I started Pradaxa a couple of years ago. The best method I have found is to pinch the nose, fairly tightly, just above the nostrils, and lean forward. Don’t lie with your head back – that doesn’t work. Hold for a full sixty seconds. Repeat as necessary.

If you are, like me, a trail runner or mountain biker on an anticoagulant, I would love to hear from you. Please leave comments and suggestions in the comments area below.

Thanks.

Pacific Crest Trail on Atrial Fibrillation?

I live near the Pacific Crest Trail. The famous, fabled, fabulous PCT. Just about twenty-five miles away. You can look out our back window and stare lovingly at the mountains where it courses through the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

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Heading out to run on the PCT

Although I come off in this blog as a marathoner, or an ultrarunner, what I really enjoy more than anything is trail running (and mountain biking – but mountain biking is forbidden on the PCT so forget about that). I simply love trail running and hiking, especially in the local Sky Lakes Wilderness and Mountain Lakes Wilderness; and the best part of being at my level of fitness and health is being able spend a weekend day doing a ten, fifteen, or even a twenty mile trail run. Although it is a slog now because of the atrial fibrillation I still love it – I love the movement through the wilderness and I love the trail itself.

Usually the only one who goes with me is my little trail dog – Ringo.

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Ringo on the PCT at Brown Mountain

At this time of year – late Summer – all the thru-hikers, or I should say the small percentage that have made it this far, are coming through Southern Oregon. Most thru-hikers are traveling from South to North; they start at the Mexican border and hike through California, Oregon, and Washington with the goal of reaching the Canadian border. There are a lot of hazards along the way that can cause hikers to drop out and fail to finish – including blisters, running out of money, running out of time, deep snow, diarrhea, boredom, and forest fires.

I try to spend time on the PCT this time of year and will often photograph thru-hikers and post the photos on my flickr page.

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PCT Thru-hikers

In addition to trail running on the PCT I am also an “armchair traveler,” meaning I’ve read a bunch of books about thru-hiking the PCT, including:

Cactus Eaters by Dan White – probably the best written PCT book and my most recent read.
Cascade Summer by Bob Welch – a middle aged Oregon newspaper writer hiked just the Oregon section. This might be more my speed.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed – the most well known and popular PCT book that will undoubtedly get more people on the trail. Also a well written and engaging read.
A Blistered Kind of Love by Angela Ballard – fascinating dual journal by a couple thru-hiking the PCT. It was interesting how the different genders report their trail experience. The male writes about where they went and what they did, and the woman writes about how she feels.
Skywalker – Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail by Bill Walker – the most endearing and charming PCT book ever.
Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook by Ray Jardine – groundbreaking and controversial – Ray clearly changed the way people approach long distance hiking.
A Long Walk by Hap Vectorline – a whimsical journal of a partial through hike that started at the Canadian border and made it as far as Oregon.
In addition to the books I read various PCT blogs, and many of the youtube videos as well.

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Hikers

My dream is to someday thru-hike the PCT – but I don’t think it will ever happen for a number of reasons. I’m certainly in good enough shape, and strong enough, but at 53 am I too old? I don’t think so – I’ve met plenty of thru-hikers that were middle-aged. They tell me they are slower and have to leave earlier and hike longer to keep up – but that would be no problem. I think hiking for that long on anticoagulants might be an issue. On Pradaxa falling just isn’t what it used to be! The main problem is, of course, finding the time. I work full time and just don’t have the resources to take six months off from work.

Maybe some day I could just thru-hike the Oregon section. Or maybe just the Sky Lakes Wilderness (fifty-one miles) – that could be done in a weekend. Why not?

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Ringo Dingo

But I still love running in the Sky Lakes Wilderness. As far as falling out on the trail and bleeding out, or having a stroke out there, or being eaten by a bear, or whatever, I like to say that I’d rather die in the Sky Lakes Wilderness than in the Sky Lakes Medical Center.*

*Our local hospital, where I am on the surgical staff, is the Sky Lakes Medical Center. I like our hospital – I’m just saying that I’d prefer to die with my sneakers on, so to speak.

Race Report – SOB Trail Run July 27, 2013 (Siskiyou Outback Trail Run)

The SOB Trail Run has been one of my favorite runs and I think I have five T-shirts from the past ten years.

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Pre Race

Today was my first time running it in persistent atrial fibrillation.

I’ve always been impressed with how well organized the race is, the quality of the course, and the low price. The 15K is still only $25 (that includes a finisher medal but no T-shirt – a T-shirt is extra). There are three events – a 15K, a 50K, and 50 mile race. I’ve only ever done the 15K but several of my local running friends did either the 50K or 50 mile today. The 50 mile has 7000 feet (2133 meters) of elevation change – that’s crazy!

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Along the course on the PCT

I think all the races start with the same nice 1/2 mile or so on a road that allows everybody to get sorted out as far as pace is concerned before getting on the narrow singletrack of the fabled Pacific Crest Trail. This is a good idea – races that start right off the bat on singletrack, like Haulin’ Aspen Marathon and 1/2 Marathon in Bend, Oregon – tend to develop bottlenecks because passing is so difficult. The truth is that passing is a problem on the SOB – I tend to be faster going uphill (as compared to the slow people I run with) and end up passing people who walk up the hills – but I’m relatively slower going downhill, especially on technical terrain like the PCT, and most of the people I passed going up want to pass me going down; and the 15K course is up / down / up / down.

After several miles of this the race transitions to a fire road and then re-enters the PCT for the last few miles.

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Amber and Nathan after the 50K

The race is fairly high elevation – starting at 6500 feet and climbing to about 7000 feet (??). I don’t notice it much because I live at 4200 feet and regularly run at similar elevations, but people coming from coastal cities will definitely notice the rarefied air.

As far as running it in atrial fibrillation was concerned I had the typical slow start – it takes me a mile or two to warm up now, and then I felt my normal self again. I didn’t even look at my time and I didn’t wear my Garmin 305 – why? I walked only a few particularly steep sections and other wise (slow) ran the entire race.

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Along the Course

As usual the start/finish line was great – nice people, good music, lots of post race food. I forgot to pick up my post-race swag bag so I don’t know what I missed there. I wish I would have checked the start time for today’s race because I ended up arriving about an hour and a half early – but I can’t think of a better place to hang out that Mount Ashland on race day.

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Race Hang Out Headquarters