Guest Blogger Adam Durnham – 5 Athletes that have Atrial Fibrillation

Special thanks to writer Adam Durnham who has kindly sent me an article he wrote on atrial fibrillation and athletes – You are truly appreciated Adam!

 

5 Athletes that have Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib) is an irregular or quivering heartbeat that can lead to heart failure, blood clots, stroke, and other heart-related complications. According to the American Heart Association, approximately 2.7 million people in the United States live with AFib.

During AFib, instead of beating effectively to move blood into the hearts ventricles, the upper two chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly and wildly. Some people experience no symptoms of this medical condition and become aware only during a physical examination. For those who do experience symptoms, they often include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Lightheadedness
  • Chest Pain
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating

Different Types of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation symptoms are typically the same; however, the underlying reasons and the duration of this medical condition help to classify the different types of AF problems. The different types include:

  • Occasional – With occasion AFib, symptoms may come and go and may last only a few minutes or hours and end on their own.
  • Persistent – With persistent AFib, the heart rhythm does not return to normal on its own. In order to restore normal heart rhythm, the patient will need treatment such as medications or electric shock.
  • Long-standing persistent – With long-standing persistent AFib, the condition is continuous and persists for more than twelve months.
  • Permanent – With permanent AFib, there are no further attempts to restore normal heart rhythm and the heart rate is often controlled by medications.

Atrial Fibrillation in Athletes

AFib is the most common arrhythmia seen in athletes. This is especially so for middle-aged athletes, although it can be seen in young athletes as well. Here are five athletes who have atrial fibrillation and how they handle the condition:

Larry Bird  NBA legend, 12-time All-Star, three consecutive regular-season MVP awards, Boston Celtic Larry Bird suspected he had problems with his heart while still playing his beloved game but never told the team physician. It wasn’t until he retired in 1992 that he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. He claims his symptoms which included rapid heart rate, disorientation, and light-headedness, are now under control.

Jerry West – The 14-time NBA All-Star guard Jerry West who played for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1960 to 1971 was unaware he had symptoms of atrial fibrillation while he endured sleepless night, heavy breathing, and anxiety. West remembered breathing into paper bags during halftimes to help with his hyperventilation. He described these episodes as panic attacks. It wasn’t until his heart raced out of control after he became the coach and general manager of the Lakers that he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. To restore a normal heartbeat West was treated with cardioversion. Cardioversion is a procedure that utilizes a low-energy shock to the electrical system of the heart for the purpose of restoring normal heart rhythm. However, after this procedure, his AFib persisted and after 40 years with the NBA he retired.

Haimar Zubeldia – Spanish cyclist and Tour de France race Haimar Zubeldia, announced in 2012 that his AFib condition forced him onto the sidelines for a period of three months. Although his physicians explained to him that AFib could end his career, Zubeldia returned to the sport after treatment and weeks of rest. His was determined to remain competitive in the sport and finished sixth best overall that year in the Tour de France.

Karsten Madsen – Triathlete Karsten Madsen felt faint and short of breath in 2010 after a routine fitness test. He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation at that time. He was informed by his doctors that he would need to undergo cardioversion to restore normal heart rhythm. Madsen’s doctors reassured him that he can continue to train, and he has his condition monitored closely.

Billie Jean KingIn 2015, the legendary tennis champ Billie Jean King went into atrial fibrillation. After visiting a cardiologist, she was diagnosed with AFib and prescribed daily medication. In addition, she also underwent an ablation to destroy abnormal tissue that may cause arrhythmia. King has teamed up with Janssen Pharmaceuticals to raise awareness about atrial fibrillation and to educate those with AFib about their risk for afib-related stroke.

If you or someone you know has symptoms of atrial fibrillation, it is crucial to seek medical attention immediately to reduce the risk of complications.  If a person is a heavy drinker, it is important they get rehab services as this can affect their heart condition. Do not waste time if a loved one you know suffers from a-fib and drinks heavily.

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Running with Atrial Fibrillation – It’s Okay To Be Slow! Forget The Pearl Izumi Advertisements

I saw some recent Pearl Izumi ads posted on The Trail and UltraRunning group on Facebook and thought I’d comment.

There are a number of Pearl Izumi ads that make fun of slow runners, here are two examples:

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Pearl Izumi – Trying to sell shoes by denigrating slow marathoners

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Divide and Conquer – Pearl Izumi teasing “joggers”

The remaining ads can be found on this excellent blog:

Short, Round, and Fast

One of the nice things about endurance sports, from half marathon and up, is that most participants do not have this type of attitude. It is a live and let live culture. It seems like half marathons in particular are a plce where you generally see conspicuously non-athletic looking athletes – and good for them!

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Half Marathon Participant – Right on!

As for me, I’m in permanent atrial fibrillation, which makes me slow, and now I have to take a beta blocker, which makes me even slower.

But I’m certainly not going to stay home, and I’m going to remain a trail runner, even if I’m slow, and I still plan on signing up for distance events. At my last half marathon I was very surprised to see almost the entire field, including people who would previously never had been in front of me, pass me, get smaller, and disappear from sight. In the first two miles. Not fun. I was thinking, “Whoa, where’d everybody go?”

Contrary to how it might appear to faster runners who are observing slower runners, it’s not always easy being slow. It might actually be more difficult. Yesterday on a four mile trail run, my first run on the beta blockers (more on that later), I rounded a corner and saw another runner behind me. He was an individual who I had seen at the trailhead, who appeared to be a bit older than me, and who was wearing jeans and a long sleeved shirt on a ninety degree day. I thought, “Oh man, I don’t want to get passed!” and I cranked up my speed. I don’t think I was running fast at all, maybe about a ten minute mile, but the burning in my lungs and legs felt like a fast 5K. “This is ridiculous!” I thought, saddened. This is “fast” for me now.

But that is my new reality.

As far as Pearl Izumi is concerned they evidently think that being assholes, and creating some controversy, will make their ads stand out. They may be correct. There are a lot of competitors out there, they have an extremely small market share, and it is said there is no such thing as “bad publicity.” I knew that they made shirts, and jackets; but until now I didn’t even know they sold shoes.

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Pearl Izumi Shoes – so fast you’ll kill your dog!

One of their ads last year, which featured a runner who ran so fast in his new Pearl Izumi shoes that he killed his dog, made quite an impression. Of course they apologized and had their (unfunny) ad featured in news stories and blogs for weeks.

By the way, my main nylon running jacket is made by Pearl Izumi. I like it, it’s a good jacket. I’m not going to boycott them or burn the jacket, or anything like that. I just want to say in this blog that slow runners are probably slow for a reason – and that reason isn’t necessarily poor character or laziness.

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Me – Lazy jogger with atrial fibrillation after a twenty mile training run. I ran so slow that my dog survived!

Or even if the slow runner does have poor character, or is lazy, well, what’s it to you?

And guess what – Pearl Izumi got three of their ads posted in my little blog (and elsewhere) – for free!

The Fear of Going Too Hard – Atrial Fibrillation Running

One big difference between running in persistent atrial fibrillation and normal sinus rhythm is that, for me anyway, there is a lot of apprehension about over-doing it. The days of charging up a hill may be behind me at this point, and I haven’t done anything resembling a speed work-out in well over a year.

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Prior to atrial fibrillation I used to do interval work-outs once in a while. For certain marathons where I had a specific personal time goal I would do a work-out known as “Yasso 800s.” Although some expert dispute that this is actually the most effective speed work-out for marathon training, nobody would dispute that this is a difficult work-out. I would do them on Wednesday nights at a local college track and I always felt they were my most difficult work-out of the week – probably more challenging than my languorous week-end long runs. Certainly this was the work-out where most feared injury.

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To be honest I don’t miss Yasso 800s. I never have been a fast runner and never enjoyed short fast races like 5Ks.

But even during LSD (long slow distance) work-outs there usually comes a point where I will feel that the run is becoming difficult and I have to push through that. People often say “push through the pain,” but it isn’t really “pain” per se; but whatever it is it now makes me nervous!

But now that I am in persistent atrial fibrillation I think twice about pushing beyond any thresholds, however they are described. I have a fear in the back of my mind that I am going to make the atrial fibrillation worse, or pass out, or die, or . . . well who knows? This is all new territory for me.

I think this is why I “bonked out” of the second and third (out of seven planned) twenty mile runs I did during my build-up to this Sunday’s Bizz Johnson 50K. I just wasn’t willing to risk it. But if I’m unwilling to risk it it is obvious that I will only get slower and slower each year.

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RINGO SAYS RELAX

I’d love to hear from other endurance athletes about this topic whether you are in a fib or not, and whether you are risk averse or not. Please feel free to leave a comment.

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.

Running My First Marathon While In Persistent Atrial Fibrillation

Not my first marathon, of course, I think it was my fourteenth marathon, and maybe not even my first marathon in a fib.

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Pre-Race

I should really re-title this as something about running my first marathon when I KNEW I was in atrial fibrillation. I recall one particular marathon, a couple of years ago, where I started out great and after twenty miles I totally fell to pieces. I would have quit if it hadn’t been a trail marathon with no easy way to DNF – I still had to get to the finish line. In retrospect I realize this was not “hitting the wall,” which I don’t generally tend to do, but I’m pretty sure I went into atrial fibrillation at that point. I don’t mind suffering but that was absurd. It was like eating your favorite food and inexplicably finding it tastes like $&!T.

That was before I even knew I was going into a fib, and I was probably still going in and out of a fib – but ever since May 12, 2012 I have been in persistent atrial fibrillation (meaning that I am always in a fib and have no expectation of NOT being in a fib).

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Lining Up At The Back For This One

In May of 2012 I was actually training for my first 50K (31 mile) race (Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run, Buffalo, Wyoming) and I had been doing a lot of long runs – looking at my training log I see that I had already done six twenty-milers during my training for that race.

I asked my electrophysiologist, who I hadn’t yet seen for my appointment, if I could run the 50K and he said I shouldn’t; so I was effectively grounded as far as the 50K was concerned.

But being the incorrigible distance runner that I am I rationalized, “Well I didn’t specifically ask about running a regular marathon. I‘ve been running 50-60 miles per week for a couple of months – I sure wouldn’t want to waste all that training, would I?”

I looked at the online marathon calendars and discovered that there was a regular marathon (26.2 miles) that same weekend, and only a five hour drive – the Vancouver USA Marathon in Vancouver, Washington – just across the river from Portland, Oregon.

I admit that I was scared – this was unknown territory – running a marathon while in atrial fibrillation. Would I be able to complete it? Would I drop dead? Would I suffer like an animal, I mean, would I suffer even more than running a regular marathon?

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Along The Course

In a lot of ways the course for the Vancouver event was a lot safer than the Wyoming event. The Bighorn was up and down remote canyons in the Rocky Mountains whereas the Vancouver USA was a flat course through the suburbs of Portland. If I needed to drop out of the race, or if I needed medical assistance, that would be simple – go ring a doorbell.

But naturally I was still nervous when I started out. My plan was just to get through it. I decided not to try to beat anybody, to keep it slow and steady, and to walk up the few little hills that were part of the course.

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Marathons In All 50 States – EIGHT TIMES!!!!!

As stated previously the experience of being in persistent atrial fibrillation is different than that of going in and out of a fib. Persistent a fib isn’t as bad. I’m slower but stable. People who suddenly go into a fib in the middle of a race often find themselves unable to continue – it can be devastating. I know – I think it has happened to me (see above).

At any rate – I started running with the eleven minute mile pace group and hung out with them for most of the race. Eventually I realized that running this race in atrial fibrillation wasn’t that much different than any other marathon that I have done – except for being a bit slower. When I was into the final miles I was surprised that I felt fine – clearly much better than the race described above. I think my plan of keeping it slow and walking the one or two hills worked out – I had very little suffering.

Crossing the finish line was an emotional experience and even though I was there all alone I broke out in sobbing tears. Tears of joy, I guess, because I had finished the marathon and I hadn’t died! It really was just about like normal and I started wondering – just how many of these things had I done in fib?

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Large Man Crying At Finish Line

If you’re a runner in atrial fibrillation and you are reading this I want to make sure that you realize that I am NOT saying, “Go run a marathon in atrial fibrillation.” I am simply relating my personal experience. I am just one individual and, naturally, your experience is different. I stress that it is important that you agree with your cardiologist regarding running and atrial fibrillation. This blog is just my personal story – it isn’t peer reviewed and I am not a cardiologist.

By the way when I finally saw my electrophysiologist he cleared me to continue running and did go on to complete my first 50K four months after the Vancouver USA Marathon. At this point I am comfortable with distance running in atrial fibrillation and am not (too) afraid of dying out there – but that first marathon in (known) atrial fibrillation – well – that was huge.

My next event, incidentally, is the Bizz Johnson 50K in October.

Running and Mountain Biking with Atrial Fibrillation? Get a Road I.D.

I used the see the Road I.D. commercials while watching the Tour de France and think, “Why would anybody buy a thing like that?” That was before I went into persistent atrial fibrillation and started taking a potent anticoagulant (Pradaxa).

Now something as ordinary and routine as falling down on a trail run or crashing on a mountain bike can become a big deal – maybe even a life and death situation.

roadID

My Road I.D. has my name, year of birth, hometown, my wife’s number and my sister’s number. Also it indicates that I am in Atrial Fibrillation, have no drug allergies, and am taking Pradaxa – an anticoagulant.

This way if I am found dead they know who I am and who to call to come pick up the bike and the body. If I’m still alive they will know about the atrial fibrillation and the anticoagulant. Pradaxa doesn’t have a reversal agent but any medical personnel will know to watch for bleeding and start an IV to push fluids. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

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Wearing my Road I.D. at a pizza parlor

I wear mine whenever I ride or run, and also whenever I drive. I take it off at work.

I was half joking when I said “if I’m found dead” but somebody (I can’t recall who) recently noticed my Road I.D. and said he wished his friend (brother-in-law?) had had one. Evidently he had gone out for a run and died out there (for whatever reason) and had no identification. Nobody knew who he was so they put the body in the morgue for the weekend. I seem to recall that the wife was out of town and they had a hard time figuring out who he was. Eventually when they started to figure out who he was and one of his children had to come from out of town to identify the body. I wish I could remember the details more clearly – but at any rate a Road I.D. wristband would simplify a situation like that.

There’s nothing special or unique about a Road I.D. – any medical alert bracelet would be fine; but a Road I.D. just seems cooler. It’s durable, comes in cool colors, and is highly customizable, it cleans up well when worn in the post work out shower, and goes on and off easily.

Atrial Fibrillation at Altitude – High Elevation Hiking on the Lares Trek

We’ve just returned from a trip to Peru which included quite a bit of time at higher elevations – most notably hiking on the Lares Trail at 4600 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level. The highest thing we have around here is the conspicuous, glacier topped Mount Shasta (4,322 meters = 14,179 feet) and I’ve never even been up to the top of it. I’ve been up Mount McLoughlin (2,894 meters = 9,495 ft) sixteen times and even back when I was in sinus rhythm I would take one breath per step near the top.

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Llamas Schlepping Our Gear

I have to admit I was worried prior to going on this trip.

I had no idea how the high elevation combined with my persistent atrial fibrillation would affect me. My wife Margo, who is a travel agent, arranged a terrific trip and we had a total of sixteen friends in our group. It was all bought and paid for and I was determined to go no matter what, so I didn’t even research how high elevation might effect my atrial fibrillation before leaving. That’s right – I didn’t even Google it!

I knew that our outfitter – G Adventures – had a mechanism by which people who had problems with altitude sickness could quickly return to Cusco – so I knew that I had an opportunity to bail out if need be.

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Saksaywaman

We had two or three days in Cusco, Peru, which is 3,400 meters (11,200 ft) above sea level, so I was able to acclimatize. I felt no different in Cusco than I did at home in Klamath Falls, Oregon (4200 ft) and I even went for a run up to Saksaywaman (3701 meters = 12,142 ft) and it went well – although frankly, because of endless steep hills, it did involve a lot of walking!

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The Lares Trek is a nice alternative to the extremely popular Inca Trail. It is shorter (only twenty-one miles) and higher elevation (4600 meters = 15,000 feet) but most importantly it was not nearly as crowded. There were sixteen in our group (plus porters and guides) and there was one other G Adventures group of ten who we would see once or twice per day – and that was it.

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Ipasayqocha Pass

In contrast, the Inca Trail hikers we spoke to at Machu Picchu told us there were 200 people camped at a single, large camp outside Machu Picchu who all entered Machu Picchu before dawn on the same morning causing quite a line for the checking of tickets and passports at the small Inca Trail entrance to the site.

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Machu Picchu at Sunrise

At any rate nobody in our group had serious trouble with the elevation, although everybody was gasping a bit. Margo was a little sick on the day we went up Ipasayqocha Pass but that was related to the usual traveler’s intestinal distress rather than altitude sickness. We were fortunate – the guides said that typically in a group our size they would expect three or four people to have trouble with some degree of altitude sickness.

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Hiking Over the Ipasayqocha Pass

Our group was older but fit – but I have been told that being fit or being a couch potato has no bearing on predicting who will develop altitude sickness. Some people get it and others do not. Like I said we were lucky.

As for me I had the same atrial fibrillation symptoms I have at home, perhaps a little worse. I was out of breath when I started out but after several minutes I was in no distress. It takes me a while to warm up. Even in Lima, at sea level, I would huff and puff if I picked up a couple of backpacks and marched up the stairs to our room – that’s just the way it is for me now.

The first 200 meters of the Lares Trail is, I think, the toughest, because it goes up a long section of steep stairs. I was breathing so hard at first that I thought for a bit that I would be turning back – but ten minutes later I felt no different than a normal hike here in Oregon.

The porters had an extra horse in case anybody became sick during the trek they could ride that horse. Nobody rode it but during Margo’s bad day they put her daypack on the “sick horse.”

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Margo’s Pack on the Extra Horse

So to sum it up my personal experience with hiking and running at significantly high elevation while in atrial fibrillation was unremarkable. Your experience may be different, of course. As far as I can tell nobody knows until they get there whether or not they will have issues with altitude sickness – so don’t get discouraged – give it a try.

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Machu Picchu at Sunrise