Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Further Reflections on 2006 UBC Swim Meet

I realized there was a possible explanation for my difficulties racing at UBC only when I described my races to mother and it dawned on me I was hearing something I’ve heard before. Familiar because during my truncated track career I discovered I suffer from arrhythmia, a medical condition where the heart develops irregular heart beats. My specific problem, something called atrial fibrillation, causes my heart rate to accelerate to several times faster than normal to a point where it no longer pumps blood effectively. It’s a relatively common defect affecting about 1 out of every 150 people. Symptoms include heart palpitations, dizziness, fainting or near fainting, and shortness of breath. For me it’s rather a minor concern – the only time it arises is when three distinct criteria occur at the same time: 1) I’m tired which always means a lot of caffeine in my system; 2) I’m out of shape or in the early part of training; and 3) I’m performing an activity which places considerable stress on the heart without being sufficiently warmed up. The first thing I notice is a slight pressure around my chest, like someone had just tightened a belt already around my chest another notch, and then I literally feel my heart ‘flutter’, as if a small bird is trying to escape my chest. Nothing painful, just a little uncomfortable. Actually the most profound symptom is my inability to breathe properly but, because it always occurs when I’m expecting to be out of breath, struggling to take in air is paradoxically the last symptom normally detected. All not a problem as long as I stop immediately. But if I continue … well it’s like trying to run with a collapsed lung. I need twenty-four hours of recovery before I can safely run again; any attempt before then increases the chance of a reoccurrence exponentially in an inverse relationship with the amount of recovery time allowed. I think my heart went into atrial fibrillation during the last lap of my 100 meter backstroke race. And then an hour later I tried to race another two hundred meters, virtually guaranteeing another attack. It makes sense: all the necessary conditions were present; the only difference from my previous episodes was it happened in water rather than on land. Water that splashed over and pressed in on me so those tell-tales of a tightening chest and fluttering heart I rely upon to flag the onset of tachycardia were masked. So I continued to push myself, unable to breathe, mistakenly cursing my conditioning for my struggles. If my hypothesis is correct then I had a great backstroke race, and the fact I swam over one hundred meters of my 200 IM with my heart in fibrillation was one of my toughest life accomplishments. It does, however, raise some serious questions which will have to be addressed. But that is for another day. Today I can take comfort in the belief I suffered not because of a lack of ability on my part but rather because of a preventable medical condition. I’m still following the script, my ambitions and goals intact.

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