Atrial Fibrillation News Update

Here are a few internet news stories related to atrial fibrillation. In the future I’ll try to update more frequently so I don’t end up with four topics in one blog entry.

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Overall, the increase in risk of heart attack was about 70% in AF patients, even after accounting for other cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, body mass index, and history of stroke and vascular disease. However, when the researchers looked at subgroups, they found that increased risk of heart attack was more than doubled in women and African Americans with AF—but less than 50% for men and whites with AF.

I’m not sure what to say about this – hopefully runners with atrial fibrillation (who hopefully also have other heart healthy lifestyle choices – like a healthy diet, not smoking, reasonable body weight) will do better than the general population. One bit of good news – the blood thinners a fib patients take to prevent stroke also seem to help prevent heart attacks.

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“Novel” anticoagulants refers to the newer prescription anticoagulants that are used as an alternative to Coumadin (warfarin). Specifically: Pradaxa (which is the one I currently take), Xarelto, and Eliquis.

I can tell you that as a clinician there are not many things more frustrating than prescribing medications for people who are on Coumadin – it seems like it interacts with everything! One of the great things about the newer anticoagulants is that they have less drug interactions – but they still do have potential drug interactions.

Please click on the link to see tables for drug interactions involving Pradaxa (Dabigatran), Xarelto (Rivaroxaban), and Eliquis (Apixaban).

Obviously all of the novel anticoagulants can interact with any other drug that is *ALSO* an anticoagulant – like Plavix or aspirin. Keep in mind that this includes NSAIDs like Alleve (naproxen), Motrin (ibuprofen), etc.

Personally, I completely avoid taking ibuprofen and naproxen – but every once in a while (like after a brutal long run) I will take a Celebrex. Tylenol (Acetaminophen) is fine – no interactions with the anticoagulants (although it has its own issues).

By the way – if you read the article and see a possible drug interaction please don’t stop taking any of your meds – but contact your own doctor immediately for advice.

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A recent study has shown that Coumadin (warfarin) actually increases the risk of stroke for people in atrial fibrillation during the FIRST THIRTY DAYS of warfarin therapy. That’s just the first thirty days – the idea is to prevent having a stroke, and that’s what taking Coumadin does.

This finding does not suggest that anything will change – doctors are still going to put people on warfarin to prevent stroke. They just have to get through the first thirty days!

If you are on warfarin and you read this article – please do not stop taking your medication.

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Finally – the FDA has not yet approved the Watchman left atrial appendage closure device by Boston Scientific – but it has given a “vote of confidence.” It appears that this gadget, which is implanted in the left atrium to prevent the formation of the clots that cause strokes, may be approved by the FDA for the US market late this year. The majority of the panel agreed that the Watchman was equivalent to standard treatment with warfarin, but it hasn’t been compared to the new novel anticoagulants (see above).

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Atrial Fibrillation Stroke Calculator

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Atrial Fibrillation Stroke Calculator

I saw this link today on Facebook and thought I would share it – it is an AF Stroke Risk Calculator, and was posted by the Atrial Fibrillation Association – a great resource for people with atrial fibrillation. As you probably know one of the greatest risks of being afflicted with atrial fibrillation is that it can lead to you having a stroke. Blood clots can form in the malfunctioning atrium, break loose, travel to the brain and – BOOM!!!! – you’ve had a stroke. Prevention is the best approach.

This calculator is basically a clever automated version of the CHADS2 score. I was delighted to find my risk is 0%.

But if course my risk is definitely higher than zero percent – even if my CHADS2 score is zero.

My heart is abnormal in more ways than the atrial fibrillation. I have hypertrophy of my left ventricle (from running – not a risk factor) but I also have “severe hypertrophy” of my left atrium (the top chamber of the heart) which my cardiologist assures me is a risk factor for stroke and although my CHADS2 remains zero I am on an anticoagulant (Pradaxa).

My question has been: Why not include left atrial hypertrophy in the CHADS2 calculation?

Answer: I dunno.

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Lillian and Lolawanda ready for another trail run

My other question has been: What else can I do to reduce my risk of a stroke?

I understand my risk is NOT zero, regardless of what this calculator says.

Obviously one thing I know I can do is to remember to take my Pradaxa twice daily. Believe me, for somebody who is only taking one medication it isn’t as easy to remember as you might think. I have considered switching to Xarelto simply because of the once a day dosing.

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My Pradaxa

But other than that what else can I do? One more thing (I think) – stay well hydrated.

As a large, slow, long distance runner (who is often on the trail for several hours at a time) I sweat more than smaller runners, and I have to be very careful not to become dehydrated. I spoke with a friend of mine who is an Internists/hospitalist and he agreed – don’t become dehydrated. Being dehydrated can literally thicken the blood and increase the chance on a clot, and therefore increase the chance of a stroke.

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Be Careful Out There!

How much water should a person drink? I have no specific prescription but what I do is try to drink enough so that my urine is relatively clear once per day. Also there is such a thing as too much water and big, middle-aged distance runners are at relatively high risk of hyponatremia (too much water – not enough sodium) so be careful out there!

We talked about other risk factors are there? Risk factors for blood clots in the legs include being inactive, obesity, and smoking – probably less likely for the readers of this blog.

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Sedentary after a LONG RUN

What about alcohol? Does that increase the risk? He said probably not and in moderation might even decrease the risk – but remember – alcohol clearly increases your risk of atrial fibrillation – and if you drink enough alcohol you will become dehydrated – so there you go!

By the way – don’t expect this this risk calculator or this blog to advise you as to whether or not you should take your aspirin, your warfarin (Coumadin), your Xarelto, or your Pradaxa. It is important that you make this decision with your doctor.

Rejoice – Not All Runners in Atrial Fibrillation Are Slow

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Moore Mountain 1/2 Marathon

The thing I enjoy most about the afibrunner blog is comments from other athletes who are dealing with atrial fibrillation. A recent comment from a runner (we’ll call him “Lon”) really caught my attention – here is a runner who, while in atrial fibrillation, was able to race at six minute mile pace (or better).

Here are some excerpts from his comments:


Way to Go!!!
Since 1983 I’ve run/jogged 59 full marathons and have suffered with A-fib on and off for the last 12 years. I’ve finished the Boston (2001 in 3:23) and NY City (2005 in 4:15) marathons while in constant A-fib while carefully monitoring my heart rate. My cardiologists encouraged me to run marathons and also triathlons. One cardiologist told me that my heart is so strong that it laughs at A-fib and that I have the heart of an olympic cyclist. For the first 6 months of this year my heart was in constant A-fib that no drugs or multiple cardioversions could put it back into normal sinus rhythm. On July 9, 2013 I had the “Wolf Mini-Maze” (at the International A-fib Center of Excellence in Indianapolis) operation done on my heart. It was a great success and my heart has been in constant normal rhythm ever since (nearly 6 months now and I’m not taking any medications). In the Mini-Maze they removed my Left Atrial Appendage (LAA) so that if my heart ever goes back into constant A-fib I will NOT meed anticoagulant therapy. As you likely know life threatening blood clots tend to form in the LAA when your heart is in constant A-fib. The risk of stroke over the life time of an A-fib patient is huge. 3 out of 5 A-fib patients will suffer a stroke in their life even while taking anticoagulation meds like coumadin. That is a statistic that your doctor will not likely tell you about. Coumadin is over rated and is simply not very effective for some people which should be a terrifying realization to anyone dealing with A-fib. Anyway, as much as I love marathons, I’m laying off the long distance jogging for a while and am just jogging 10K’s (one per moth and 3 sprint triathlons this Summer) as well as several other physical activities.
Good health to you!
Lon

I have lamented that atrial fibrillation has made me slow, while openly admitting that I started out slow – I’ve only ran, as far as I know, one six minute mile in my entire life – and that was thirty years ago.

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Finish Line – Eugene Marathon

My understanding about atrial fibrillation is that the atria no longer preload the ventricles, and most people have a decrease of about 20% of their cardiac output. While sedentary people might not even notice this athletes certainly would. I do!

But I have heard that in some patients, certain athletes, there is little change in cardiac output and atrial fibrillation will not affect performance much. Lon seems like one of these fortunate people. Lon’s point about the increased risk of stroke (even if you take your Coumadin, Pradaxa, or Xarelto) is well taken – and I’m guessing that that is why he continued to pursue an effective treatment for his atrial fibrillation.

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Finish Line – Haulin’ Aspen Marathon

But after all those marathons Lon states he is no longer running endurance events – he goes on to elaborate:

Here’s a little more. I tried not to make a long story short above. I left out mentioning that I had a radio-frequency catheter ablation in June 2010 in Seattle that worked great in keeping my heart in normal rhythm until December 2012 when suddenly for no apparent reason went into persistent A-fib. (During that 2 1/2 year period I finished 9 full marathons and 8 sprint triathlons) My heart stayed in persistent A-fib even after 4 cardioversions and large doses of amiodarone. My cardiologists in Seattle told me that I should accept my persistent A-fib and they offered to ablate my hearts pace makers (AV and SA nodes) and give me an electronic pacemaker so that my heart rate can be controlled. That told me that I needed a second opinion so I started communications with Dr. Randall Wolf in Indianapolis about his Mini-Maze procedure. After consultations with an E.D. doctor (and a championship Iron Man triathlete) who had the Mini-maze operation and was very happy with the results, I decided to get the Wolf Mini-Maze and of course I informed my Seattle cardiologists of my intentions and they said to go for it. Absolutely the main reason that I went for the Wolf Mini-Maze is that it removes the left atrial appendage which brings my risk of stroke down to that of a healthy person with a normal healthy heart while not taking any anticoagulation drugs. The fact that I now enjoy a normal heart beat is just a huge plus factor.

From 1983 until December 2012 I completed 61 full marathons a most of which ran with all out efforts (I’ve averaged sub-6 minute pace all the way). I’m now finding out that long distance running is simply not good for the heart and most likely caused my A-fib problem.

Google Dr. John Mandrola’s 18 minute video called “Cycling Wed: I told you so…”. It is very illuminating and a must see for all endurance athletes. Please check that out.
Cordially,
Lon

I don’t know much about the Wolf Mini-Maze procedure and don’t necessarily advocate it for everybody, but clearly it worked in Lon’s specific situation. Here is some information regarding the Wolf Mini-Maze.

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Finish Line – Lake of the Woods 15K

No need to Google the video by Dr O’Keefe (posted on Dr Mandrola’s blog) I have the link right HERE.

Here’s the video:

If you don’t feel like watching the eighteen minute video I will summarize it for you – Exercise is good for you but in moderation. Too much or too intense exercise causes chronic inflammation of the heart and can ultimately harm the heart (atrial fibrillation, among other risks).

But if you are an endurance athlete dealing with atrial fibrillation you already know this – surely you have had a dozen or so friends and relatives, possibly sedentary and/or obese, kindly forward you information about the study he refers to – as if to justify their seemingly wise choice to avoid marathons and triathlons and replace it by watching other people play sports on television. Yes, this study was in all the newspapers and magazines last year.

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Finish Line – Avenue of the Giants Marathon

Please understand, and I paraphrase here, that Dr O’Keefe states that exercise is good for your heart, and being obese and sedentary is bad for your heart – but that overdoing it is a problem. He didn’t say people should avoid exercising.

My choice – I understand the concept of the “law of diminishing returns” as well as the next guy; but for me, well, I enjoy long, slow trail runs and mountain bike rides more than just about anything else I can think of – so I chose to continue.

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Finish Line – Bizz Johnson 50K (I completed the 50K in atrial fibrillation)

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.

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

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.

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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 and Weight Loss or How To Lose Forty Pounds

As I stated previously, when I first discovered that I was in persistent atrial fibrillation I decided that I needed to lose about 40 pounds, and I did.

It just makes sense that if my cardiac output is reduced by atrial fibrillation then I needed to jettison some excess weight.

My days of being a 235 pound marathon runner were over. My way range over the last twelve years has actually been between 220 and 250 pounds. People were so used to see me that my “normal” weight that when I started to get under 200 pounds they would ask me if I was ill, or even if I had cancer.

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Pre-race

Losing weight is easier than one would think. There are a lot of methods that work, but the most important thing is to make up your mind. It’s like quitting smoking cigarettes – it’s extremely difficult if your heart isn’t in it, but if you have truly make the decision there’s no stopping you.

I have loved drinking beer for my entire adult (and teenage) life, but three years ago I decided to completely quit drinking any form of alcohol. As a matter of fact I try not to take in any calories via liquid. Just quitting drinking beer was good for a ten or fifteen pound weight loss. But even as a teetotaler I could find myself drifting up into the 230s.

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Beer Drinking

Over the years I’ve used various methods to lose weight and I’d like to briefly discuss them, and then discuss what I’m doing now, which seems to work the best.

Before I actually tried it I had always thought that a low-carb/Atkins diet was a sort of parlor trick. People on it just deplete their glycogen stores (glycogen also holds a lot of water in the muscles) and have a weight loss that wasn’t really true fat loss. But I started seeing patients who were losing a hundred pounds and more on a low-carb diet – eating a lot of meat and high-fat foods like coffee drinks loaded with heavy cream.

As a person who has been reading Bicycling magazine and Runner’s World for the last several decades I was stuck on the fact that athletes need a lot of carbohydrates in order to train properly. But I decided to try the Atkins diet for two weeks, using my body as an experimental laboratory, fully expecting that it would affect my training and that I would quit after two weeks.

That particular Summer I wasn’t running very much but had been training for some centuries (100 mile bicycle rides) in the Fall. I doubted I would be able to get up any of our mountains without carbohydrates. I was wrong. I found I was able to train normally on a low-carb diet and the sheer amount of weight loss was astounding. Different people, obviously, have different metabolisms – but I found I was able to lose about 30 pounds in six weeks utilizing a low-carb diet.

But there were definitely problems with a low-carb diet for me personally. Intuitively I could tell it was not healthy. You can eat bacon for lunch and think “this is great,” but you can’t honestly believe “this is healthy.” It changes, in an unpleasant way, the smell of your breath, the smell of your sweat, and the smell of your bowel movements.

Another big problem was that I was never able to stay on an low-carb diet for more than six weeks at a time. I didn’t crave carbohydrates – I just got bored. I grew so weary of eating steak that I would sometimes just skip meals.

I also found that while I could train for long-distance bicycling on a low-carb diet, running on a low-carb diet was definitely different. I could still go out and complete long training runs, up to 20 miles, but I was totally wrecked afterwards. My recovery was terrible and sometimes I would come home from a long run, take a shower, and just go to bed.

These are the things I discovered by using my body as an experimental lab.

After abandoning low-carb diet once and for all, I tried the guidelines outlined in Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. This is great if you are already at a good weight, or just need to lose a couple of pounds – but it really isn’t calorie restrictive. It’s all about the quality of the food you eat. That book was interesting because it had a long section of a day in the (diet) life of quite a number of endurance athletes.

I made my own modifications to his points system and printed up little daily tally sheets to keep in my pocket and keep track of my points each day. I would try for thirty points per day. The main problem with this diet is that you can actually eat a lot of good, healthy food, but still can eat a lot of calories.

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Trail Lunch

A couple of years ago I discovered, for me, absolutely the best way to actually lose weight. I used an iPhone/Internet app called Lose it! There are several similar applications including My Fitness Pal, Weight Watchers Mobile, etc.

With these applications you simply enter your age, gender, and weight – and then you enter how much weight you want to lose per week. The app then tells you exactly how many calories you can eat per day, and efficiently helps you keep track. It doesn’t matter what you eat, you just need to log everything, and nearly every type of food seems to be pre-entered into the application (including foods from specific restaurants). If you eat or drink something that has a barcode on it, like a Clif Bar for example, just scan it. If you log your exercise the program adds more calories to your day.

I think just utilizing an application like Lose it! makes it worthwhile getting a smart phone.

Some pitfalls, obviously, include miscalculating how much food you actually ate. At first I wasn’t very good at figuring out what one tablespoon actually means. For example – a tablespoon of peanut butter doesn’t mean actually scooping out as much peanut butter as possible with a tablespoon. That’s more like four tablespoons.

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Peterson Ridge Rumble

The exercise aspect of it, I felt, was extremely good. But calories for running are based on your weight, time spent running, and your pace. It really does not take into account whether or not the run was hilly, however. As a big, slow endurance athlete I was able to burn up a lot of calories just by being out there for several hours on any given work out.

Although I attribute my 40 pound weight loss to this iPhone app, I no longer log anything I eat with Lose it! but I still use it to log calories burned during workouts, as a rough guide.

Ultimately I discovered the documentary Forks Over Knives. The scientist in me found the data very compelling. I then read Eat to Live Joel Furhman – and between the documentary and this book I completely changed the way I eat. Both of these are manifestos, of course, and are manipulative to a certain extent, but I think they are correct.

At this point in time I would call myself a lackadaisical vegan. I say lackadaisical because I really don’t read the ingredients for things such as bread, which I know will contain some dairy or eggs, but for the most part I am a vegan.

Oh, and I also have trouble avoiding pizza or ice cream which I will have about once per week. So I’m really no vegan, but I guess I’m a vegetarian. We make our own pizza and it’s good stuff – kale, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, and green peppers. At this point in time I can maintain my weight with the semi-vegan diet, and no longer need to log food or count calories. If I started gaining weight again I would definitely utilize the Lose it! app in order to get back down to target weight.

So that’s how I did it.

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Peterson Ridge Rumble

Any restrictive diet is effective, no matter which diet, because you end up eating less. For me personally I have found that the low-carb diet clearly allows incredibly fast, significant weight loss – but I didn’t feel that it was healthy. I know that my nearly vegan diet is healthy – I never had high cholesterol to begin with but the last time I checked my LDL cholesterol (a.k.a. bad cholesterol) it was sixty-one. I don’t take any medications except for Pradaxa. I didn’t know LDL cholesterol could even go that low!

I would be interested in hearing from other endurance athletes with atrial fibrillation, especially about changes in diet. Please feel free to leave comments.

Atrial Fibrillation – A Visit to the Electrophysiologist

While at my previous job, at Klamath Family Practice Center, I always had easy access to an EKG. Just for the record, remember that I am a podiatrist, not a family practice physician, but if I wanted to have an EKG done I would just have a tech do one on me. I have had a fairly long history of arrhythmias, including PACs, PVCs, and even runs of paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia. But one day when I returned from a 20 mile trail run I was in a particularly persistent arrhythmia and I wondered if it was atrial fibrillation. I had the tech do an EKG and my suspicions were confirmed.

At that point I walked down the hall and went to see my primary care doctor, who is also one of my coworkers, and she recommended Pradaxa, gave me some samples, and made an appointment for me to see my local cardiologist, Dr. Dale McDowell.

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At Dr Martin’s Office

Dr. McDowell, with whom I have been a patient for the past twenty years, then examined me, did a stress EKG, told me to continue with the Pradaxa, and advised that I should see an electrophysiologist for consultation.

We have several cardiologists in Klamath Falls, all of whom are excellent, but we don’t have any electrophysiologists. An electrophysiologist is a subspecialty cardiologist who focuses on arrhythmias, and are the ones who performed the ablations, install pacemakers and defibrillators, and so on. I think their most common patient is probably people like me who have atrial fibrillation.

I had an appointment with David Martin, MD of Southern Oregon Cardiology and I will admit that I was extremely nervous about this appointment, because I was afraid that he would tell me I had to quit running and quit mountain biking. Or at the very least he would tell me to quit running marathons and start running 5Ks. I was also afraid that he was going to put me on a performance killing medication such as a beta blocker, or worse, recommend and ablation procedure which could be quite an ordeal.

Like other endurance athletes I often have to deal with people that really don’t understand what it is that we do, and why we do it. That’s one thing if it’s a relative, friend, or an acquaintance – but when it is somebody who is going to formulate a treatment plan that is going to affect the rest of your life, it can be a scary proposition.

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High Lakes Trail

So when I did a Google search on Dr. Martin I honestly wasn’t very interested in where he graduated from, or what he did during his fellowship – I just wanted to try to figure out if he was a runner, bicyclists, or a triathlete. The little blurb about him and the Southern Oregon Cardiology website didn’t mention anything one way or the other, but in his photograph he appeared to be a thin man, and I found that to be encouraging.

I think I even searched local race results looking for his name to no avail.

When I called to make an appointment I asked the receptionist, “Is this guy a runner, or anything like that?” She said that she had no idea.

It took a while before I can get an appointment and in the meantime I had a question. I had spent four or five months training to run an ultramarathon, the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50K in Wyoming. Even after I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation I continue to train for this race, which was to be my first 50K. I was getting mixed messages from people as to whether or not I should run it. My primary care physician, who is an ultra runner and has completed a couple of hundred mile races, and who happened to be signed up to run the 50 mile event at the same race, told me to run it. She said it would just take me a little longer – no problem. A friend of mine, with whom I was going to run the race and was also running his first ever 50K, and is a family practice physician in Wyoming, told me to quit complaining and get on the plane to Wyoming for the race. My cardiologist in Klamath Falls, Dr. McDowell, advised me to quit running marathons and not to consider running an ultramarathon. I have a cousin in Chicago who is an electrophysiologist/caridologist and I spoke with him on the phone – he runs marathons and his wife runs ultramarathons. He said I should run it. Another acquaintance, who is a cardiac surgeon, but have never actually examined me, said he thought it might be safe for me to run the 50K, but advised me that it is important that I agreed with my cardiologist (good advice).

If you’re keeping track, so far that is four doctors that said go ahead and run it, and one doctor, who happens to be my cardiologist, and has the biggest vote, that said not to run it. I decided to call Dr. Martin (the electrophysiologist), who would be the tiebreaker, even though I hadn’t been seen by him yet, and ask him about running that 50K.

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High Lakes Trail

I was able to get a message to him through his nurse, and then she called me back and said I shouldn’t run it. So I didn’t run it.

This is unfortunate because I had already paid for it, but when I contacted the race director she told me I would be unable to get a refund, or even a credit for next year’s event. Also, I had already bought an airline ticket Wyoming which is more expensive than you might imagine. I was able to get a partial credit for this.

I didn’t want to waste all that training so I decided to run a marathon that weekend. I found a nearby marathon in Vancouver Washington and ran that while in persistent atrial fibrillation. It was slow, but I survived, and that’s another blog article altogether.

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Vancouver USA Marathon

When I finally got in to see Dr. Martin he examined me, looked over all the EKG’s, the stress test, the chart notes from Dr. McDowell, and the lab work and spent quite a bit of time talking with me.

I’m glad that my wife came along because she wouldn’t believe me if I came home and told her that he told me, “Keep exercising like you don’t have atrial fibrillation.” He then went on to tell me, “in the future you may want to consider some moderation as far as your exercises concerned.”

That seems reasonable enough. In fact I was delighted.

The next thing he said was kind of funny. He said, “People like you are a type – ultra marathoners, triathletes, Ironman competitors . . . and you can be pretty hard on your bodies.”

“People like you are a type . . .” Well . . . that certainly is true.

In addition to clearing me to continue with my running, he advised that I did not need to take an antiarrhythmic, which probably would not be very helpful in my specific case, and didn’t recommend a rate control drug at this point in time. Furthermore, he advised me that he thought I had a low likelihood of having a successful ablation procedure given the severe hypertrophy of my left atrium and the fact that the atrial fibrillation was persistent.

He did recommend that I try cardioversion with a “one strike and you’re out” policy – that is to say it probably would not be any type of permanent solution, but it is certainly worth trying at least once. That seems perfectly reasonable to me and I went back to Dr. McDowell for the cardioversion, and was in sinus rhythm for a total of thirty-three days.

I was so pleased with my visit to see the electrophysiologist, Dr. Martin, that I wrote him a letter afterward thanking him. I hadn’t really expected that kind of empathy.

I would be interested in hearing from other endurance athletes with respect to their medical care, and how they perceived the way they were treated by their cardiologists and electrophysiologists. Please feel free to leave a comment.

On Being Slow – Running with Atrial Fibrillation

Being in persistent atrial fibrillation is sort of like being a pickup truck with a four speed manual transmission, but you can only use second and third gear.

If you’re going to continue distance running in persistent atrial fibrillation you’d better expect to be slower.

I was already slow to begin with – my quickest marathon was four hours and forty minutes and it took me an hour to run a 10K. I’ve always avoided 5Ks because people in 5Ks simply run too fast. Once I was a back of the middle of the pack runner, well, now I’m truly a back of the pack runner.

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Training Run

I’ve always been a larger runner, and that’s definitely a factor in being slow. I’ve done a dozen marathons at over 6′ 3” and about 235 pounds, and have often felt that people would “mark” me, use me sort of as a target. I’ve felt particularly self-conscious about those people, often found in the back of the pack in a marathon, who will run up and pass me and then start walking – over and over again. This can be really annoying. One guy did that for 14 miles! I finally told him, “please either keep running or keep walking.” I know that these people are simply followers of Jeff Galloway (there are a lot of them in the back of a marathon pack), but it’s still annoying and it happens every race.

But if I was moderately slow before, I’m silly slow now. In an effort to preserve my pace I have actually lost about 40 pounds – but I don’t think I’ve even broken even. I had previously ran ten minute miles in shorter training runs, but now twelve minute miles are more common. As stated previously I had a cardioversion and was in sinus rhythm for thirty-three days – and at my new weight I was delighted to be able to train, for shorter runs, at a nine minute mile if I wanted to – but alas after a quick five-mile run in the thirty-third day I went back into persistent atrial fibrillation. I could feel it immediately and knew what had happened.

I imagine that a lot of athletes who are reading this blog are people who have had episodes of atrial fibrillation, or who go in and out of atrial fibrillation. I think people with intermittent atrial fibrillation become much more symptomatic and have a lot more trouble with training. They might not be able to train at all. But with persistent atrial fibrillation, at least in my experience, I have found that I stabilized and am able to train (a slower pace). You just have to get used to it.

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Back of the Pack – Haulin Aspen Trail Marathon and 1/2 Marathon

There are a few major differences, however. Prior to atrial fibrillation, like most runners, I would start out a long run at a fairly quick pace and more or less degrade as far as my pace was concerned as the miles accumulated. But with atrial fibrillation I actually start out quite slow, and after a mile or two find that I have picked up the pace quite a bit. I generally don’t do much interval training, but I imagine that is out of the question at this point. I live and train in the mountains and I can still run hills, but not really very quickly. When bicycling I find I don’t stand up and charge up hills any longer, but remain seated and spin more.

Being in persistent atrial fibrillation is sort of like being a pickup truck with a four speed manual transmission, but you can only use second and third gear. You start out pathetically slow, and your top speed is greatly diminished – but she can still drive as far as you want.

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Big Slow Runner – Before A Fib

The most important thing, of course, is that I am still able to continue trail running and mountain biking, and I am still able to participate in marathons and even ultra marathons. I still get to experience the sheer joy of slogging through a long trail run through the forest. I was never going to win any prizes to begin with, so what’s the difference?

Actually, I was delighted to get a medal for second place in my age group at the 2012 Bizz Johnson 50K, which I ran while in persistent atrial fibrillation. That was the first year they had a 50K at that event and there weren’t very many participants. I’m pretty sure that there were only two people in my age group, but still!

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Second Place (age group) Hell Yeah!!!!

One good thing about ultra running and marathon running, especially compared to 5Ks, for example, is that nobody really cares if you are slow. I was surprised that there were many people who finished behind me when I ran my first 50K in atrial fibrillation. Although it is kind of embarrassing to be so slow, you just have to change your mindset, and when you get involved with ultra sports, especially with atrial fibrillation, you need to simply enjoy yourself, enjoy the run, enjoy the trail, enjoy the people, and not worry about time.

If there are any other athletes reading this who are in persistent a fib, or intermittent a fib, I would love to hear about your experiences, and I encourage you to leave comments.