Unexpectedly, Challenge Roth was my last triathlon of the 2016 season. I had another three lined up but it turned out I had to watch them come and go from a distance.
It happened quickly: at the end of August and over a period of 4 days, I developed symptoms that looked a lot like angina: pain in the chest (always in the same place) when sneezing, walking uphill, when straining myself a bit on the bike and… when startled by a hornet. For a couple of weeks before that I’d noticed that for the same effort (heart rate) my runs were a whole minute per km slower, I’d put it down to tiredness but maybe it wasn’t…
The first thing my GP did was to tell me no to strain myself, at all. Meaning: no more walking up hills, no more cycling, no climbing stairs and no swimming until further investigations. She also prescribed some medicine to lower blood pressure, I don’t have high blood pressure so my body didn’t like this at all. We reduced the dosage to make it bearable. Apparently this helps my arteries relax but I’m hoping that I won’t need to take it for too long…
Blood tests revealed that I had very high cholesterol levels but apparently with a very good LDL/HDL ratio that made the cardiologist jealous.
After the initial GP consultation, I decided not to wallow in self pity, however tempting that may be. I took action to control the controllables and I implemented some pretty huge lifestyle changes. Besides stopping exercise and driving everywhere, I totally overhauled my diet, strictly following the food choices recommended by Dr Esselstyn for dealing with heart and vascular disease. Basically this implies eating vegan and fat-free, whole-foods just because I like a challenge I also decided to go sugar free.
Finally, just to prove myself I still was a triathlete, I also invested in some new gear in the form of a brand new Fitbit Charge 2 – in team kit matching colours bien sûr – that I could wear day and night to have some idea of whether I also experienced heartbeat irregularities.
The person that was hardest hit by all this was possibly The Cub. Kids don’t like change and she took a while to adjust to the sudden new habit of not being very active. Fortunately Mr Tiger was around and he efficiently summarised and diffused the scariness of the situation by telling her that it was the same as if mum was injured and that she was doing everything to get better. Well, that helped me too and I’m grateful!
The first 2 weeks, I really did absolutely nothing physical and then because I’d had no pain and felt fine, I went out for a sneaky but easy 12 km bike ride with Mr Tiger acting as a safety net. All went fine. I then felt confident to gently cycle and a month after having started again, I commute more or less at the same speed as before. I’ve also gently been on the home trainer twice a week in the past two weeks and didn’t have any problems. The Charge’s been great too in assisting me get the right amount of sleep and generally keeping an eye on heart rate.
The biggest physical test so far came almost a month ago when I pushed it up The Big Hill that we walk up when going to lifeguard training. That hill is where I’d first noticed the chest pain and it had beaten me once as I’d had to turn back. I’ve now climbed it twice going to the beach and back. I was relieved not to have any issues and I’m pretty confident that I can do it again without problems.
More generally, over two months weeks, I’ve lost 4 kilos, I’m pretty sure it’s mostly fat so I’m hoping that the cholesterol will look better next time. I also haven’t had any chest pain at all since taking the two weeks of total rest. My GP has also agreed that I could go back to swimming in the pool but won’t let me back in the sea, she seems to think it’s too cold and risky if I feel unwell.
Those past 2 months have been a great opportunity to exercise my mental toughness and resolve. Besides the obvious I had to deal with three main issues:
1. Being robbed of the freedom to do anything physically challenging. A big thing for Mr Tiger and I was that we could no longer run or ride together. Instead, we decided to make “dance and cooking dates” where we could dance or cook together at home. And of course, I’ve regained some quality of life by commuting by bike as before, gently training on the home trainer and walking as before.
2. Dealing with the frustration of not being able to finish this season as I had planned. Although not the most important, this is actually the thing I found the hardest. It took me until recently to fully come to terms with it (hence the delayed post). I actually managed to turn the page over by revisiting my achievements for the year and realising that I did pretty well after all.
3. The fear of losing control. Throughout the past few weeks, the most important thing for me was remaining the captain of my soul, even if I wasn’t fully the master of my fate. What helped? Taking charge of my diet, being watchful of my thoughts and not making the mistake of thinking that my emotions define who I am. Emotions are transient, they are not me, I stayed sane. Phew.
4. Keeping a sense of perspective and sticking to facts rather than speculations. I saw a cardiologist last week and he reckons that I can start running gently and over short distance provided I stop if anything feels wrong. The whole scare is based on 4 days of something not going right but family history compels the cardiologist to send me to do a MRI, waiting time: about 5 months.
My GP tells me that this type of chest pain can have other origins than heart issues but I’m grateful that she did the right thing, was extra prudent and took the time to check on me once a week to make sure all was going well. She sees no reason why I couldn’t go back to life as normal so I’m also pretty happy to have the off season ahead of me and some time to start planning the next season and see how well I am and how much how can do.