Final Word on My Heart – For Now

In the last three months I have seen my doctor, a cardiologist and a physiologist; been wired up to a heart event monitor for two weeks, had my thyroid checked, had an echocardiogram and a treadmill stress test; told not to run; told I could run; started taking metoprolol to lower my pulse rate; and spent a lot of time online researching heart arrhythmias.  It has been interesting, as well as a bit unsettling, but all of the visits and tests are done for now.

I have an irregular heartbeat.  This is nothing new, fairly common and nothing to worry about.  When it gets bad, I can feel it.  But it is safe to ignore, or so I am told.

I also have both atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation.  These are not all that uncommon and can be a source of concern.  But I am assured that in my case the risk of blood clots and stroke are pretty low: lower than the risk of taking blood thinners to prevent potential clots.

The cause is pretty much anybody’s guess at this point.  Most of the common causes are not applicable to me: don’t smoke, don’t drink, not obese, no other family history of heart issues.  Cholesterol is up a bit and caffeine consumption is way down with no impact.  It does seem to be triggered by exercise, but no indication that running brought it on in the first place.

There is a fairly easy and reliable procedure to deal with atrial flutter.  There is also a similar procedure that can deal with atrial fibrillation, but it is more involved with only about a 70% chance of correcting the problem the first time.  Both procedures could be done at the same time, but my condition is not really serious enough to justify the risks during the procedure or the risk of having it not work.  At some point in the future that may change; but for now those procedures are not planned.

Metoprolol is a beta blocker that is used to treat a variety of ailments, including mine.  I am taking it because it reduces the heart rate and keeps it from getting to high.  It has dropped my resting heart rate from the upper 50’s down into the upper 40’s, as well as reducing my blood pressure a bit.  More significantly, it drops the 150 bpm when running down to about 115.  So now, when my heart decides to go into fibrillation it only gets up to 150 instead of 210.

The downside to this is that my legs complain when running that they are not getting enough oxygen, reducing  what was a moderate pace for an old guy to what seems like a crawl.  But of course the upside to it is that I can run and hike and whatever other strenuous activity I want to do, so long as I take a pill twice a day, and am not in a hurry.  Small price to pay, I guess.

The bottom line is that I am free to resume my normal routine with no limitations, so long as I continue to take the metoprolol.  Keep an eye on the heart rate while running, and if it begins to climb again, report back to my electrophysiologist.  And check back with him in a year.

In everything give thanks” 
1 Thessalonians 5:18a KJV

The Cure for Cramps

I started having cramps in my calves when running a few months ago.  Initially they would be more common when I was running hard, but eventually all I had to do was run easy for a mile or two.  I learned real quick that when one started to come on that it was time to stop and walk back home.  But it was really getting frustrating. I had signed up for a couple of half marathons in the coming months and it was starting to look like I would not be able to participate in them.

I spent some time reading about muscle cramps on a number of web sites and found that they were not terrible uncommon for runners.  But most of what I read said that no one really knew what caused them, although there are several things that seemed to be contributing factors.  As a result there is no cure all solution for cramps, although there are a number of things that one could try.

Dehydration is one of the more common causes believed to cause cramps.  But I drink plenty of liquids, even if not all water.  I tried to up the fluid levels some but that seemed to have no impact, other than having to get up more often during the night.

Muscle fatigue is another possibility.  But I have run much less the past few months than in the past few years.  Granted that was largely because of a bad cold and the cramps.  But still, muscle fatigue seemed unlikely.

Staying well stretched is a solution that some offered.  Stretching, using a roller stick, or a foam roller all are touted as the way to go.  I stretch a lot and have tried the stick and foam roller to no effect.

Finally I found an article on potassium that seemed to offer some possibilities.  A pair of quotes from this article really stuck out.

Potassium plays an important role in muscle contraction and nerve transmission. Many of our muscle and nerve cells have specialized channels for moving potassium in and out of the cell. Sometimes potassium moves freely in and out, and sometimes a special energy-driven pump is required. When the movement of potassium is blocked, or when potassium is deficient in the diet, activity of both muscles and nerves can become compromised.

Potassium is involved in the storage of carbohydrates for use by muscles as fuel. It is also important in maintaining the body’s proper electrolyte and acid-base (pH) balance. Potassium may also counteract the increased urinary calcium loss caused by the high-salt diets typical of most Americans, thus helping to prevent bones from thinning out at a fast rate.

Low levels of potassium can hinder the proper functioning of muscles and nerves as well as the storage of carbohydrates used as muscle fuel.  The results are weakened muscles and muscle fatigue.  I don’t recall this article addressing cramps specifically, although other articles did draw a connection between the two.

We get most of our daily allocation of potassium from our diet, in particular from fresh fruits and vegetables.  As I read that it suddenly struck me that my intake of fresh fruits and veggies had declined dramatically when I quit going into the office, just a couple of months before the cramps started.  I had been taking a container of melon, or other fruit, along with another container of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots, all good sources of potassium.  Now, working from home, I was eating frozen prepared foods for lunch, and seldom got fresh fruits and veggies.Could it be that just starting to eat the healthier foods would cure the cramps?  It was worth a try, so I immediately started eating a quarter of a cantaloupe and a banana for breakfast as well as eating a cup of raw cauliflower at lunch.  While it has only been a week and a half, I have had no cramps since then, although I could still feel an occasional twinge initially.  But now even that is gone.  I am once again able to run full out without any sign of cramping up.

Who would have known that the cure for cramps, at least for me, was as simple as eating healthier.  And now my half marathons are back on track.

Seattle Half Marathon 2011

Race day dawned this morning (at least it would have dawned if not for the heavy cloud cover) warm, wet but no rain and with little wind, although the forecast was calling for heavy rain and wind during the race.  I was up early to eat some breakfast, slowly get dressed and gear up and then head to the start line.  By the 7:30 start time I was lined up with 6357 other crazy’s, getting ready to run 13.1 miles, for no reason other than desire, or maybe insanity.

I was lined up to run with Phil in the middle of the pack when the gun went off; and we just stood there.  Eventually you could see the crowd ahead start to move and finally it was our turn to start the slow shuffle toward the start line.  About the time we crossed the line the crowd was finally starting to jog a bit and we slowly build up to cruising speed over the next half mile.  The predicted rain also started about the same time and would be with us for pretty much the whole race, along with an occasional heavy gust of wind.

The Seattle Half Marathon starts at the Seattle Center, runs south on 5th Ave, up onto I90, through the tunnel and then off the freeway and north along Lake Washington.  It eventually runs through a series of parks before coming back to the commercial section of Seattle and looping back to the Center.  The course is moderately hilly, with one substantial hill between miles 7 & 8, and is mostly fairly scenic, apart from the couple of miles spent on I90.  The course is also fairly crowded with runners.  I was never really in the clear, always surrounded by other runners and sometimes struggled to break through slow lines of traffic.

I felt good for the first third of the run and made fairly good time.  But by the midway point it became obvious that this was going to be a ‘hang on to the end’ kind of run.  Once I had crawled to the top of the big hill and recooperated a bit on the backside of the hill I started to get a second wind, or something, and was able to move along through the parks OK.  But by the time I was back into Seattle the legs were turning to rubber and there was no spring left; the 2 hour goal was looking to be in serious jeopardy.  But finally the final stretch came into sight followed soon by the finish line.  I managed to cross in 1 hour 59 minutes and 35 seconds, a personal best by over 3 minutes for this course.  I ended up finishing in 1847th place overall and 37th out of the 140 men in my division and that felt pretty good.  And even better was that no one over 71 years old beat me this year.  I still remember getting beat by an 80+ year old woman the first year.

By the time I finished my feet were sore and bloody; 13.1 miles in wet Five Fingers without socks is not a good combination.  The legs were sore and the tank was drained.  Ate at the recovery area, went back to the hotel and took a hot shower and ate some more.  Then headed for home, stopping along the way to eat some more.

All in all I had a blast and am already looking forward to next year.  Why don’t ya plan on joining me next year?

By the way, Phil pulled away in the last 3 miles and finished 20 seconds ahead.  Way to go Phil.

Also, much thanks to my lovely bride and support crew for her help and encouragement.

Profound Thoughts of a Long Distance Runner

I went out for a long run this morning and somewhere along the way it dawned on me that both of my loyal readers would dearly love to know the amazing thoughts that run through my head while plodding down the road.  Running gives a person lots of time to think since it is pretty challenging to watch TV or read a book while dodging cars in the early morning fog.  There is not really much else to do besides think and devise solutions to the problems that plague our world today.  So here, in no particular order, are the things I can remember thinking about during this mornings 2 hour run.

“Are we there yet?”  This is actually a conversation that goes on between much of my body and my brain after the first few minutes of most runs.  My feet and legs in particular would much prefer to cease this nonsense and head on back to the house and back to bed.  They are as bad as the kids in the back of the car on a long car trip.

“How much longer are we going to be doing this?”  This is a variation on the previous question, and one that starts to replace it the longer the run goes on.  The legs eventually start to grow really tied of the whole idea of running and start giving the brain ultimatums.  Either you wrap this up soon or we are going to take a break, and maybe forget to tell you until you are face down on the road.

“I wonder if that car waiting to pull out in front of me sees me?”  When running facing oncoming traffic and a car is waiting to make a right turn into the traffic, too many times the driver never looks to their right to see if a runner is getting ready to become a hood ornament.  One of these days I am going to learn how to do a 3 foot vertical jump so I can land running on the hood of a car.  Bet that would get them to start looking for oncoming ninja runners.

“I bet that driver was trying to see how close they could get without actually hitting me.”  I, for one, am not interested in playing chicken with a car or truck, especially when I am not also encased in a ton of steel.  I am pretty soft and squishy and just know it would hurt a lot to lose at that game.

“I wonder if I can make it through that light before it turns red?”  Today’s route included Waaga Way between Bremerton and Central Valley Road, a stretch that includes a number of traffic signals.  While a part of me likes to hit red lights (who doesn’t like taking breaks?) another part of me is wanting to get this run over with and waiting at a light just prolongs the experience.

“I wonder if I can catch that runner up ahead?”  I am not particularly fast so it is always a big ego boost when I encounter someone who is even slower than me.  And even better is when I can pass a bicycle (it has actually happened once on a big hill).

“You should not have come out in shorts this morning!”  This was my legs complaining after about 90 minutes this morning when they got cold and stiff.  What to wear on a long run is frequently a problem since one never knows that the weather will be like in an hour or two around here in the fall.

“Ow!  Watch where we’re running!”  This is generally a foot complaint.  I have them encased in Five Finger ‘shoes’ and the soles are pretty thin.  Stepping on a rock, especially under the arch, hurts.  The feet are frequently reminding the eyes to keep a better lookout.

“Is this all the faster you can go?”  My ego talking to my legs and egging them on.  This works for a while but eventually the legs start to ignore the ego, and the brain, and just do their own thing.  At that point, if I am not well on the way back toward home, I could end up taking a closeup look at the pavement.

Are we there yet?  Ouch, watch where we’re going!  Get your car off the shoulder!  Are we there yet?  How fast are we going?  Are we almost there?  It’s cold!  I’m hungry!  I gotta go potty!  Are we there yet? …

Rock & Roll Seattle

Yesterday was the 2011 version of the Seattle Rock & Roll Marathon / Half-Marathon.  This was my third running of this event and Sue’s first ever half marathon.  This race is quite a production and started for us the day prior to the actual run.

We went to the Qwest Field Event Center Friday afternoon to pick up our race numbers and go through the expo.  There were at least 100 vendors there selling running related items from shoes, clothes, food and gadgets.  It is quite interesting to browse through the booths, although it would be better if there were not several thousand other people trying to do the same thing at the same time.  After the expo we made a quick trip to the REI flagship store and then on to dinner at Cheesecake Factory (the Fettuccine Alfredo is delicious) and then to a hotel for the night with a 7 pm lights out and a 3:15 am wake-up call.

The race starts in Tukwila and ends at Quest Field making transportation an issue.  There is a shuttle that runs from the finish line to the start line but it only runs from 4-6 am and does not run in reverse afterwards.  So you get a hotel, drive to the start line and park the car and then take the shuttle.  We caught a 5am shuttle, that got lost and drove all over the country, arriving at the start line around 6am.  The race started at 7 for the fastest group and every 1-2 minutes after that for the progressively slower runners and walkers with the last group, which included us, leaving the start line at 8am.  I was scheduled to leave about 7:30 but since this was Sue’s first big race I stayed back and started with her, at 8am, after 2 hours of standing around.  Ahead of us stretched about 25,000 people with over 17,000 running the half and the remainder doing the full run.  It is quite a sight to see that many runners in one place.

Over the course of the 13.1 miles of the course I ended up passing about 13,000 people.  It is quite the ego boost being the fastest thing on the road for a change, which is the beauty of starting back with the walkers and slow runners.  But the downside to that was the difficulty in getting by some of the clumps of folks who seem to line up all the way across the road just in front of me, especially in the first 2-3 miles.

The course winds through some light industrial and residential areas for the first 5 miles, eventually coming out onto the shores of Lake Washington for the next 4 miles, with the last 4 miles running on I-90 from the lake to downtown Seattle then through the streets of Seattle to the finish line.  The I-90 portion of the course is pretty bleak but the rest of it is nice and I enjoyed the run as much as I have any other in the past 5 years I have been running.  Other than sore feet I felt very comfortable and was able to finish strong.

After completing the course you are given a medal and a bottle of water, have your picture taken, pass by tables of bagels, bananas, chips, granola bars and sports drinks, and finally get a space blanket to try and keep you warm.  I grabbed up all my goodies and went back over to the final stretch before the finish line and watched other people finish while waiting for Sue.

It is pretty amazing to watch folks complete this course.  I saw a motorized wheel-chair, a couple of blind runners, 3 Elvis impersonators, lots of tutu’s, a speedo, a banana costume and other wild get-ups.  I saw folks who looked like runners and others who looked like two or three runners.  Some walked across the finish line, some raced across and some staggered across.  But this past Saturday, 25,000 people got up early in the morning and ran, or walked, either 13.1 or 26.2 miles.  Pretty impressive showing!

The best part of the whole experience for me was watching Sue cross the finish line.  Three years after a seriously broken leg that required 5 plates and 19 screws to hold all the pieces together, this gritty woman, who had no prior interest in running, became the finisher of a half marathon.  It brought tears to my eyes!

On Cars and Runners

I am a runner, and am soft and squishy.  And I share the road with cars and trucks, and they are hard, fast and scary.  And sometimes it’s quite an adventure.  I do want to thank those drivers who show mercy to poor defenseless runners and give up part of your lane to me.  It is much appreciated.  On the other hand, to the occasional driver who seem to think that ‘sharing the road’ is a contact sport; it’s not.  Fortunately there are not many of you where I run.

Just in case some of you drivers out there are wondering about some of strange things we runners do, I thought I’m let you in on some of the secrets.  A runners perspective on the road is quite a bit different than that of a driver.  If the road has much of a cant, it is nothing to a car, but is really tough on my hips running with one foot lower than the other for an extended period.  As a result you will find me running on the wrong side of the road if I think I can do it safely, just to balance things out a bit.  The road shoulders can also be a significant hazard for a runner.  Gravel, sticks & tree cones and other tripping hazards on the road surface as well as blackberries, mailboxes, trash cans, signs and other obstacles reaching out from the side of the road all make running out on the road itself much more appealing, assuming none of you guys are bearing down on me.  But I can assure you that I will get as far on to the shoulder as I can before you get to me.  Of course that is assuming that the road actually has a shoulder.  I try to avoid those kinds of roads, especially when they have a lot of traffic.  But sometimes there is little option if I am going to be making a long run.

I do have one small request for you drivers.  Please look to the right before pulling out to the right from a side road or driveway.  I can’t count how many times I would have been hit without having taken evasive measures.

Again, thanks to all of you drivers who are willing to share a little bit of your road with me.