As a life-long endurance athlete a heart
attack was not something that was ever on my radar. No blood pressure issues. No elevated cholesterol. A resting heart rate around 50 bpm. I immersed myself in the endurance lifestyle because I loved it. A super strong, healthy, bulletproof heart was just a positive benefit.
When the news spread, I was inundated with support and love from friends and family. Once they realized I was going to be ok, the questions spilled out:
How could this happen to you?
Should I quit running?
What were the warning signs?
I didn't take these inquires as people being nosy or intrusive. I understand completely. If I heard of another fit, healthy endurance athlete having a heart attack I would want to know EVERYTHING so I could recognize/ prevent the issues!
I am choosing to share the story to help everyone understand what happened.
March 2016: I was in the midst of basic winter training. Running 30 - 40 miles per week and cycling 100 - 125 miles per week. Seemingly overnight I started experiencing shortness of breath and some minor chest pain during exercise. I couldn't keep up on the bike with my normal training partners nor could I hold anything close to my usual running pace. By "anything close," I am talking about 2 minutes per mile slower. Every run was a struggle at a very slow pace.
A complete physical, including an EKG, echocardiogram, treadmill stress test and labs all came back normal I was assured "It is not your heart".
Over the next few months I was prescribed antibiotics, steroids and an inhaler in an effort to pinpoint the cause. Nothing helped.
April - June 2016: No improvement over the summer. I kept trying to train despite my inability to perform at my usual levels. Every run and ride was a struggle with shortness of breath. There was no joy being derived from my workouts. Gaining weight, losing fitness and no solution on the horizon.
July 16, 2016: I wasn't feeling good on my Saturday morning team ride. I had even more difficulty keeping up. I felt a bit queasy. Headache. Figured I was getting a head cold. After 20 minutes I told my training partners I was heading back. I was asked if I was ok and needed someone to ride back with me. I said "no, my stomach is feeling funny and I will ride back easy". As I pedaled towards home my chest started aching. It quickly spread to my left shoulder, arm, neck and jaw! Ugh... this isn't normal. But they told me it wasn't my heart! My heart rate monitor was fine No elevated heart rate. I stopped and stretched. Yep. I thought maybe it was a muscle cramp in my chest/ shoulder. In hindsight... it was clearly a heart attack. In the moment? Nah, couldn't be. So I rode the 8 miles home.
I felt weak and sick for several days. (nope, I did not go to the ER on Saturday.)
My wife finally convinced me to go to the emergency room 4 days later. We were frustrated and wanted some definitive answers. We certainly got them!
July 20th, 2016: I drove myself to the ER. I had my laptop so I could do work if I was waiting all day in the ER. (yes, it is darkly humorous now!) When you walk into the ER and mention "chest pains" you go to the front of the line.
Within ten minutes I was hooked up to an EKG and having blood drawn.
Fifteen minutes later the ER Physician came in with a serious look and informed me that "you are not going home tonight. Your Troponin level is 5.7. You are having a heart attack right now. You are next in line for the cardiac catheter lab."
Ninety minutes after driving myself to the ER, my awesome, new cardiologist found a completely blocked posterior descending artery and inserted a 32mm stent. (stunned silence)
No signs of heart disease or damage.
What happened? Sometime back in early 2016 I got a tear in my posterior descending artery.
SCAD: Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection. Very rare. Cause is unknown. Recurrence even more rare.
All of those symptoms and shortness of breath were caused by a supply/ demand issue in my heart. The artery tear got worse over the summer until it caused a complete blockage and ...a heart attack!
48 hours later I walked out of the hospital feeling like nothing happened. Crazy.
Now what? Very restricted, monitored exercise for 6 weeks to allow everything to heal. Then, if everything checks out I should be able to return to my usual workout schedule and get back in shape for the 2017 racing season!
- There is nothing i could have done to prevent/ predict the SCAD.
- Shortness of breath during easy exercise (beyond the usual signs of racing/ training hard) is serious and should be checked immediately. As in, go directly to the ER. If I had gone during one of those early episodes the blood work might have shown something serious.
- When you know your body well, and you KNOW something is wrong, don't settle until you find out exactly what is going on.
- Life is short. Make the most of it!
Addicted To The Test of Self.
Running Coach, 35+ years of running & triathlon,
Los Locos Racing,
Ironman, Marathoner, Ultrarunner