The first time that I remember it happening it was early 2002, I was 24 and running up the North Creek Trail in Stanley Park. This was at a time when I showed zero weakness when it came to running; before you get all OH MY GOD RUN SMART and shit, trust me, I’ve learned my lesson. North Creek is one of the narrower trails in the park, the grade isn’t hard but you know you are going up hill, and I remember I had really bad menstrual cramps that day and so I was already trying not to die because I was one of the only women who ran with the front group of my running group back then so there was no yelling out, oh HEY GUYS I HAVE MY PERIOD CAN WE SLOW DOWN? When what I thought was a panic attack hit out of nowhere around the middle of the narrowest and steepest part of the trail, I figured the cramps had triggered it and pushed through it.
I can see that day in my head like it just happened, yet it took almost 10 years to figure out that I wasn’t having a panic attack I was having a supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) attack or episode, I’m still honestly not really sure exactly how to label it in reference to myself. I’ve since learned that it is an extremely common disorder, but also an extremely inconvenient one for a runner.
That day, headed up the Creek trail, I was training for my first half marathon and I was already dealing with multiple injuries. A year prior I had badly aggravated my iliotibial band (ITB) on the right side in the knee area but hadn’t given it proper time to heal between the last 10k race I had done and the starting of the official training for the half. I was also extremely arrogant or do I say more arrogant back then? I made a rookie 10k to half marathon runner error – aside from beginning to train for it on an already injured ITB – 10k was nothing to me back then, it didn’t even dawn on me that adding another 11 kms to it when already running 10k really wasn’t nothing and was going to be hard.
My father and I were supposed to be running this race together and at that time our relationship had not begun the metamorphosis that was coming for it, also known as: there is no quit. I left for Kelowna not even having completed the final long run, I was left stranded, another rookie error, with no money for a cab and had to limp/walk home.
I arrived at the start line with both ankles unprofessionally (ROOKIE ERROR THREE) taped, both ITBs (knees and hips) with about 3k in them, if I was lucky, before pain would start to set in. And whether it was physiological or not it was around 3k that I remember that the pain did start to creep into the right knee ITB area.
When you train for races with the Running Room they generally try and make you do what are called 10 and 1s on long run days, you run for 10 minutes and then you walk for 1 minute and you repeat that for the duration of the run, sometimes you get lucky and the front group doesn’t do them but if you drop back in pace, as I had to on many training runs, you are almost guaranteed that you are going to be doing them and how beneficial they can be was obviously lost on me back then. Unless I was training with the running group and made to do 10 and 1s I did not do them.
I still managed to run the first 10 in 53xx minutes and even though I was in some serious pain, there was no stopping me, I was on pace to finish around my goal time. By this time my father had passed the turnaround point and I wasn’t far from it so he assumed that I was going to be coming in pretty close behind him or that I was going to blow by. Neither happened. Not. Even. Close. Somewhere between 10 and 12k the main woman who had been leading my particular half marathon group and who was of similar pace to mine started to run with me and encouraged me to do some 10 and 1s.
Of course I will never know how things would have turned out if I had said no and just kept on running but I was in immense pain and any sort of race plan that I may have had past what I had wanted to run my first 10 in was gone so I did a 10 and 1. In my opinion this was a mistake because the walking and lowering of my heart rate let pains that I didn’t even know I was having start to present themselves. I stopped at 15k and took off both of my shoes and ripped the tape off both ankles and with the tape came skin, this didn’t surprise me given the tape was already bloody but it did make me feel woozy. I put my socks and shoes back on and tried to run and that is where the panic attack hit. I tried to run with it for the rest of the race. When my heart would feel like it was going to explode out of my chest I would walk until the rapid rate would decrease but I wasn’t able to ever get it to fully stop so every single time I would start to run again my heart rate would spike back up and I would be forced to walk again and holy shit to this day I have NO IDEA how I made it across that finish line. It took me 2 hours and 3 minutes – well off my goal – but I did it.
After that half marathon I ran the Sun Run one last time and ended up having to sit down on the Burrard Bridge with what I again thought was a panic attack and given that I was still having major problems with, most consistently, my right ITB, I packed away the running shoes until March of 2011. This isn’t to say that I did zero running during that period but what it is to say is that whenever I would try and start running again even using the classic tried and true run/walk/run program that even elite athletes adopt to help come back from injury and plus water running I still could not get myself over eight minutes of continuous running before pain would set in.
Finally, in early 2011 I decided to invest in myself and I went out and I joined an expensive hoity toity gym and worked with some fantastic personal trainers plus an amazing physiotherapist and as we know, I can run again. I could only afford the gym for so long and now do all of my exercises in apartment which costs me quite a bit of speed but that is also my own fault because I have enough equipment to keep my muscles in check I’m just lazy and basically only do my exercises if I feel pain in areas that I know are tight or if I’m exhibiting pain prevalent in previously injured areas. I’ll get in the habit of doing a plank a day or weighted two and one legged squats or something for a while and then stop. But I don’t over train anymore. If anything I under train. I do run too fast when I train, but I still take it a bit easier than I would had I not taken 8 years off for a wicked injury.
When I was running with my dad in Bali back in January 2012 I didn’t yet have a GPS watch and my dad has a Garmin and wears a heart rate monitor on every run. I don’t remember how it happened but we ended up putting his heart rate monitor on me at the end of one of our runs and his jaw almost hit the ground when he saw that my heart rate was in the 190s. This happened to be the only run I had in Bali where I had a panic attack. I hadn’t been back at running long yet and had actually shown up in Bali with a cold and had to water run for a few days before I could hit the pavement and in regards to distance I wasn’t running anything longer than 8k and was still a long ways away from running for even an hour.
I bought my own Garmin when I got home and noticed my heart rate skyrocket to 255 BPM on a bike ride around the seawall and then again on an 8k run, this time I ran through the spike and wasn’t wearing my monitor. They ended up happening regularly enough that I started to wear my heart rate monitor on every run.
Before my psychiatrist was a shrink he had a general practice and because of this I get extremely lucky and often don’t need to go and see my actual family doctor. I had been telling him about these spikes and had by then taken him in a printout from the watch to show him the data. He felt pretty strongly that I had an SVT and that I wasn’t having panic attacks after all, and then so much made sense my head almost fucking exploded. And I felt fucking badass. Extremely fucking badass.
At this juncture we were pretty sure that I did not have any life threatening forms but that it needed to be checked out and I needed to see a cardiologist. I went through some monotonous testing. Most of the results were normal or abnormal if we are talking ECG because even with the SVT episodes I still have a resting heart rate of 40 BPM which when you are a runner is known as a runner’s heart rate but will return to your doctor as abnormal nonetheless. I got into a cardiologist on a cancellation and we had a great chat. My biggest concern was going into cardiac arrest and dropping dead or just dropping dead at the onset. Apparently I needn’t worry.
He didn’t feel that any of the medication that can be used to treat it would be beneficial for me and he said he would send me to the next set of doctors to start the process of getting an ablation but that he was going to leave that up to me. The biggest relief was finding out that it is completely random and there really isn’t anything specific that I can do to prevent it except get the surgery or stop running. I also had questions as to what sort of damage if any it was causing my heart to continue to run through the episodes and if I should stop running and wait it out. I have all of those answers and feel so much better. No I don’t have to stop depending on the run or race it is up to me. Stopping completely does make it stop sooner from my experiments with it thus far and I had decided against the surgery completely but then found myself considering it at the end of December because I had four episodes come on with a proximity I found to be unacceptable but then I went until today without having one.
I don’t run through them anymore, I stop running and wait it out, I’ve discovered that I need to start running again when my watch tells me my heart rate is around 150 if I don’t it is nearly impossible to get going again, and if I go with it much higher than 150 it tends to spike right back up again, we’ve guesstimated my longest episode at 45 minutes. From what I have read the longest recorded episode was two days. Given the law of averages I know it will hit me in another race and that will plain and simply suck but there is nothing I can do about it and his advice was to keep running.
One thing I wanted to add, we discussed that although the technology in the GPS watches is good for what they offer that my heart rate isn’t hitting 255 BPM he said if he had to guess that it’s around 230 BPM tops, once the watch passes 200 they can apparently go pretty haywire.