When I ran the longer distances on the track team in high school, I used to all but bribe myself to finish each race.
“If you just finish this lap, you can stop, but just finish this one.”
“Okay, if you can do just one more, then you can stop because it at least shows you tried!”
“BUT WHAT IF JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE SHOWS UP AND YOU’RE THE QUITTER WHO DIDN’T FINISH?”
“You’re so close to finishing now, you should probably just do it.”
Each lap came with its own set of conditions and internal debates. Every step was essentially a victory; a battle won by my body over my brain.
And in reality, I never actually quit a race, and oddly enough, usually won. Those meets feel like a lifetime ago, and I’m exhausted now just thinking about all the races I used to participate in, but I found myself in a familiar spot during my first 5K race after last year’s surgery.
The race was in late April, and I’ve been putting off writing about it ever since. But here it goes.
One of my goals since surgery was to be able to not only run again, but to run in a 5K race. That might not sound like a big deal to most of my healthy peers, and frankly, it wouldn’t have seemed like a big deal to high-school me either, but I was unable to run for the years before my surgery. My symptoms continued to worsen, and I rarely could do more than a few minutes.
It was beyond disheartening, no pun intended, and as soon as the surgery date was secured, I dreamed of one day being able to run again. Last summer during cardiac rehab, I began to run on the treadmill, small intervals and speeds at first, and then gradually increasing. However, as I’ve written about before, I almost immediately had issues with my pacemaker and it would frequently drop my heartrate in half if it felt like it was too high. If you’re wondering what that feels like, it’s what I imagine being hit by a truck feels like. It’s awful, and renders you pale, dizzy and you know if you take one more step, you’re going to fall over.
For the better part of a year now, I’ve seen a number of specialists to try and fix the problem. Every setting has been changed, and seemingly every possibility has been discussed. A month or so before the race, I found myself experiencing the “being hit by a truck” sensation every time I ran. A setting was changed in hopes of helping, but it made it worse.
Finally, a week before the race, a new doctor changed the settings again and made the short-term solution to turn off a sensor, and while I still experienced the issue, it wasn’t every time, I ran. Just most of the time. After much discussion with him and my family, I decided to go ahead and run the race despite everything. Unlike in high school, I had pretty much every excuse in the book to quit, but just like then, I ultimately refused. No bribery needed.
So, on a sunny morning in April by the beach in Niantic, Connecticut, alongside my (now husband) Jim, we joined about a thousand others in a road race. I can’t remember ever feeling so nervous as we approached the starting line. But then, the gun went off, and we started to run. I instantly felt relieved – just making it to that point felt like a victory.
My parents stood cheering on the sidewalk as we made the first turn on the street, and seeing them there immediately bolstered my confidence.
Jim was determined to keep our pace slow and steady. I often times get competitive, or just know how fast I once was, and forget my limitations. But he would not let me forget, much to my occasional annoyance.
About halfway through the race, I had what we call an episode. I felt all the symptoms, and we paused for a moment and walked for about 50 feet, before resuming. I was hopeful that would be the only hiccup during the race. In my head, I told myself the same familiar lines: “Just run to the next mile marker, and then you can call it if you still feel like this.”
But, ultimately, I just told myself the same thing over and over – “Just keep going.”
As we made it down the homestretch – a gorgeous boardwalk by the water – I could see the finish line in the distance. I knew how close we were. However, with about 100 feet to go, I felt it again. This time it was worse, and all I wanted to do was fall over. But I was so close.
After another momentary (and frustrating) stop, we started running again. I honestly didn’t know if I could, but I was *this* close to my goal. I staggered over the finish line, where I all but grabbed onto my mom waiting on the side. Jim was right behind. He wisely let me cross the line first.
While it was anything but pretty, and not exactly what I had hoped for, we ultimately finished with a time of 29 minutes. Clearly we didn’t win any medals or anything, and during my track days I would have been disappointed with such an outcome, but I definitely felt like a champion. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like more like a winner.
Since that time, I’ve kept running and kept experiencing symptoms. I wore a 30-day heart monitor (for approximately the 700th time) and that helped confirm the severity and frequency of what I had been describing. That resulted in a stress test in front of a room full of doctors and nurses (and my mom). It was almost comical how many people were there watching me run on a treadmill. I felt like I was in a Gatorade commercial.
While my heart was, of course, on its best behavior that day, and it didn’t reveal much, I was given a magnet to bring to the gym with me and place over my heart for the next time I experienced symptoms to essentially record what was happening at that moment. That happened the next day.
That feeling of being hit by a truck? Turns out it’s because my heart flatlines. You don’t have to be a cardiologist to know that’s not good. It’s brief, but explains why I feel as lousy as I do. It was unsettling to see that on the screen when I saw it a few days later at the doctor’s office, but I also found myself relieved just to have figured out a small part of the puzzle.
Currently, we’re in a trial-and-error process with various settings on the pacemaker to see if anything will work. At this point, it seems surgery is very likely in the near future to move one of the leads. It’s thankfully not an open-heart procedure, but it does have its risks, and I’m honestly not scared about it. When you’ve already had three heart procedures, what’s another one, right?
As there’s a (increasingly small) chance that won’t happen, I’m trying not to think about it. Much like I do with running, I just try to take it one step at a time. Bribery still occasionally included.
(I keep waiting for the day where I can just write a completely positive and upbeat blog entry, and I’m sorry that hasn’t happened yet. That’s why this post was so delayed, honestly. I still feel pretty positive about everything, and I don’t regret undergoing the septal myectomy for one second. If you’re a candidate for it, and are considering it, please don’t let this discourage you, but perhaps ask more questions than I did about the potential risks from the procedure.)