The Flying Pig: an unexpected result

A couple of months ago, I found and posted a funny picture of a running t-shirt a friend had pointed out to me. The irony will become apparent as you read.

Funny running t-shirt

Sunday morning, May 1st, started early.  While my alarm was set for 4:00AM, it wasn’t really needed as I had a fitful night’s sleep and was awake before it ever went off.  Par for the course on race day eve for me.  I never sleep well before races, so I got up, got dressed and went downstairs to start getting ready to head down to the Flying Pig Marathon.  I ate my typical breakfast, took in a bottle of water with some electrolytes then got in the car to go to the race.

I have never been so confident going into a race before.  All of my training, including a tune-up half marathon about a month ago, went very, very well.  I had a goal I felt like I could reach and a plan to make it happen.  The weather is always a factor in an event like this, and frankly, it wasn’t cooperating.  Here’s what the forecast showed that morning.

Weather forecast for the Flying Pig

There are some things in life I can’t control, and the weather is surely one of them.

Once down at the race, I had a bit more water with electrolytes, made one more quick trip to the portapotties, then went to my corral and found the pace group I planned to follow:  3:45:00.  My spirits were high and I was still feeling great about the marathon.  As it had last year at the Flying Pig, the rain started about 15 minutes before the gun went off, so we all stood there trying to keep as dry as we could waiting to hear the countdown to the start.  And soon, the gun did go off and the Flying Pig Marathon was under way.

One thing you learn to accept as a runner is that some days you’ll just feel it and the whole run will seem effortless. Other days will feel like you’re working hard for every stride.  I got a taste of the effortless, cruising feeling at the Heart Half Marathon in March.  Although I held a quicker pace than I had ever run, I never felt like I was really pushing hard.  Sunday was not at all that way.  Right from the beginning, the 8:35 pace I planned to keep in order to reach my goal felt like work.  I wasn’t struggling, just working.  So be it.  That’s why you train, in order to know how you’ll react when it’s easy, and what it will feel like when you have to push hard to get there.  While training for this race, I had three 20+ mile runs.  The first 20 miler and the next 21 mile run fell into the “cruising” category.  The last 20 miler was work.  All three of them were run at about the same average pace and on the same course, it’s just that the effort level to accomplish them felt different.  Again, that’s why we train.

So the race went on and the miles went by.  Even the big hills between miles 5 and 8 weren’t so bad.  As I was approaching the Hyde Park area (at about miles 9 and 10), I got to see some friends cheering, and I knew I’d see my wife and two boys as well.  And sure enough I got some high fives and “Go Dad!” cheers.  That’s always a pick-me-up.  At this point, my average pace was about 8:27, right about where I wanted it to be.  Everything was going according to plan.

Just after after mile 14, nature called.  I’ve never had to stop to use “the facilities” during a race before, but sometimes when ya gotta go, ya gotta go.  Since I was a bit ahead of schedule pace-wise, I wasn’t concerned about it, and just got back to running when I was done.

Soon after the 15 mile mark, I got to see my wife and kids again, which was a surprise.  Because my younger son had a baseball game scheduled for Sunday, I only expected to see them that one time back in Hyde Park, so it was great to get another jolt of energy.  As I approached the 16 mile marker, I had another surprise, but this one not so good: I got a little bit light-headed and dizzy.  A few seconds of internal debate lead me to decide to stop and walk for a small bit, and that seemed to clear the cobwebs, so I went back to running after maybe 15-20 seconds of walking.  When I started running again, I felt strong with no more dizziness at all.  I passed the 16 mile marker and checked my watch:  2:16:04, still right on the money at an average pace of 8:30/mile, so the small bathroom break and the short walking stint hadn’t really affected my goal pace badly at all.

I was about to enter part of the course that doubles back upon itself.  I wondered if I’d get to see my family one more time since they wouldn’t have had to move at all to see me again, but I couldn’t do the mental math to know if waiting would make my son late for his game, so I tried not to get my hopes up.

Then everything went black.

The next thing I remember was waking up, face down on the side of the road.  People were shaking me saying, “Are you OK?”  and “Wake up!”  and “Is it OK to turn him over?” and “Call 911.”

I had collapsed on the course.

When I came to, I remember wondering why I was in the dirt and leaves, and how I got there.  These memories are only in tiny slices because I wasn’t quite with it yet, but I remember a runner stopping and saying, “I’m a physician.  I’ll stay with him until the EMTs get here.”  I have no idea how much time passed but I do remember EMTs asking me questions.  At some point, I noticed my wife and two boys were there, and it registered with me that they were visibly (and in retrospect, understandably) upset.  As they closed the door on the ambulance, they told me they were letting my younger son ride up front to distract him with the lights and sirens.

Two small side trips into history, one from a long time ago and one more recent.  When I was 13 years old, I started to have trouble with dizziness and getting light-headed during exercise.  I noticed it while at basketball practice that year.  I had a bunch of tests run at the time to try to find a cause.  One thought was that it was blood sugar-related, so they ran a glucose tolerance test on me.  Another thought was that it was heart-related, so I had to wear a portable EKG for a week (including during basketball practice).  The result of all of that:  nothing.  No heart issues, no blood sugar issues.

Last summer as I had started training for my first marathon, I noticed an occasional bout with light-headedness, especially on warm, humid days.  I decided to visit a nutritionist and one of the main pieces of advice she gave me was to drastically increase the amount of water I was taking in on a daily basis.  Based on the amount of running I was doing, I was not hydrating to meet my body’s needs especially with all of the exercise.  So, I started drinking at least 2L of water daily and haven’t stopped.  Since making that change, I hadn’t had any issues with getting dizzy running (until Sunday).

Back to Sunday.  Once at the hospital, they did 5 tests so see what was going on: a urinalysis, a blood analysis, a chest X-ray, an MRI and an EKG.  From all of those tests, only two things showed up as problematic.  I was extremely dehydrated and I had a bacterial infection.  Nothing regarding the heart, head or lungs at all.  As soon as I saw my urine when giving them a sample, I could have told them it would come back as dehydrated.  It was way too dark and most runners become pretty attuned to that color as an indication of their hydration after a run.  I saw three different doctors that day, including a cardiology fellow from the Cleveland Clinic.  She told us we had nothing to worry about, that this was a simple case of dehydration syncope and that I needed to do a better job of taking in fluids during the race.  She went so far as to say that I would have never been admitted to her hospital; this hospital was being far too cautious.  The other two doctors also independently came to the same conclusion:  the tests showed nothing to indicate any serious underlying issue.  However, they still wanted to get an echocardiogram (ECG) to make sure.

The plan was to get the ECG first thing Monday morning, then get it read by the cardiology specialist, and assuming everything was good, I’d be out of there before 10:00 AM.  I’ll write another hospital rant post at some point, but in the end, the ECG was completed and the cardiologist called back to give me the results.  Same as before, with one small wrinkle.  The valves looked good, the blood flow looked good, the rhythm was good, and communication between the two sides of the heart was working properly.  However, he did notice a thickening of the walls of the heart.  When I asked what that could mean, he said it would make me more susceptible to passing out if I got dehydrated, but other than that, I’d be fine.  So I asked him if I had any resctrictions and he said none.  “You mean I could go running tomorrow?”  “Sure, just make certain to stay hydrated.”

At that point I finally got to go home (11:00 PM, for those keeping score).  In my excitement to be leaving the hospital, I did not ask very many follow up questions.  Once I got home, I couldn’t sleep quite yet so I decided to do some research on thickening of the heart walls, and honestly, I scared the hell out of myself.  The first thing you come across is a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Otherwise known as the #1 cause of sudden death in athletes.  Scary stuff.  Since then, I’ve had to keep reminding myself that the cardiologist did NOT say I had HCM, he said he noticed that the walls of my hear are a bit thickened.  I’m still waiting on a call back from the doctor to get that, and a handful of other questions answered.

The Flying Pig did not turn out the way I thought it would, obviously.  What did happen put a pretty big scare in me and maybe even more so, my family.  The doctors have given me a very clear message, that I shouldn’t be hampered by this at all in the future, assuming I do a better job hydrating, so I’ve decided to not let this stop me from doing the thing I love: running.  My first post race/emergency room visit will be tonight.

During this whole ordeal, I got absolutely amazing support from so many people, far and wide.  My family checked in on me constantly, my wife’s family helped occupy my boys while they worked on me at the hospital, and my running friends from all over helped keep my spirits up via text and Twitter.  Thank you all so much.

To wrap this up, I thought I’d post my Garmin data from my run.  The amusing thing about it is that you can see where I come to a stop after mile 16, but nobody paused my Garmin, as the t-shirt above suggested.  So you can see my journey from the Flying Pig Course to the hospital, all covered in exquisite detail.

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