2003 was the first time that I remember feeling it. My arms were slightly numb and my legs would barely move. My friend Meg Letherby and I were running hard up the Mesa trail. At least I was trying to run hard. I was wearing a heart rate monitor at the time. Dave Scott was coaching me and I was trying to hold a certain heart rate range. I looked down at my watch and saw 207. I thought to myself that the damn thing was broken. My heart rate did go down after I asked Meg to walk for a few minutes. But I was so convinced that the monitor was a POS that I threw it away when I got home. I told Dave about it. He seemd a bit concerned, but I shrugged it off. He was curious and asked more about it, but I didn’t really want to talk about it because I “knew” that the monitor was broken. I did my best to not wear another one again for a long time.
I raced a few Ironmans in 2003 and 2004. I did well. I felt like I had a few bad patches here and there in each of the races. However, that was normal in an Ironman. In 2005 I raced IM Wisconsin. I was in second place gaining on 1st until I hit mile 10 of the run. All of a sudden, I was running in slow motion. I stopped and I started to have what I thought was an asthma attack or panic attack. The whole experience was surreal. Now that I look back, I know that it was neither.
I continued to race, never feeling like I was racing to my ability. I even quit the sport in 2006 for about 6 months. I was tired of training and not getting what I felt like I deserved out of races. People told me that I trained too hard and I believed them. I did IM Florida that year on Roch Frey’s philosophy of doing the least but getting the most out of my race. I had a very respectable race at Florida and I was excited about 2007. Sadly 2007 brought more disappointment even though I was following the less is best rule.
In 2008, I did a bit more specific training. I started off the year well. I was racing and training really well. But again I knew that something wasn’t quite right. In the middle of the run portion at St. Croix, I had to stop to walk as my heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest. Again, I thought this was a freak thing and ignored it. I even blamed my nutrition and GI which I thought was the sole answer for everything. I continued with the year searching for answers in all of the wrong places.
In 2009 I decided to wear a heart rate monitor at the 70.3 race in Oceanside. I was in 8th place coming off the bike and my legs felt amazing. At mile marker 1, I grabbed gatorade and I felt a sudden surge. I looked at my heart rate monitor and my heart rate was 208. My pace had slowed from 6:15 down to 8′ pace. I thought to myself that the gatorade had done this to me. I watched helplessly as girls went by me one by one. At mile 7 my heart “released” and I was back to running 6:30 pace. I asked my coach at the time if he had ever seen this before and he said “no”. He really didn’t have any advice for me. I was convinced that when my heart rate surged, it was because of nutrition. 2009 continued on like this. Sometimes I would have heart surges on the bike that were so debilitating that I could barely pedal. Eventually my heart would release and I would go back to racing fast. My coach even asked me if I felt like I could just race until I passed out. Looking back, I can’t believe he asked me that…
I raced IM CDA that June after an awesome spring season of racing despite having a HR surge in every single race. I was having an awesome race until mile 5 of the run. I grabbed a gel…I felt a surge. My heart rate was 215. I ran like this until mile 9 thinking that it (my heart) would eventually release. My paced had slowed to 8:30/9′ pace. After 30′ of this Michael talked some sense into me and convinced me to stop. As soon as I stopped I started to have what I thought was a panic attack, and I began to hyperventilate. My heart rate decreased to 178 when I sat down. I went to the med tent and discussed my GI issues with the doc. We both agreed that my heart rate spikes were from the hiatal hernia that I was diagnosed with. He had seen cases similar to this in the past, and I honestly believed his theory that a portion of my stomach was pressing through the hernia, hitting my heart. However, just to be safe, I did take his suggestion to go see a cardiologist in Boulder.
I went to go see Dr. Molly Ware. She had me do an echocardiogram as well as a stress echo on the treadmill. The tests revealed no abnormalities in my heart. She advised me to wear a EKG halter monitor in a race. I wore it at Steelhead 70.3. And unfortunately, or fortunately (it’s how you look at it), nothing happened. After all, I felt certain that it wasn’t a heart issue.
Dr. Ware had diagnosed my condition as SVT (supraventricular tachychardia) – a condition that was not life threatening, but was obviously detrimental to my performance (and therefore my livelihood). Dr. Ware suggested that I go see an Electrophysician for an ablation. I asked what it was, and as soon as I it was explained to me, I ran as fast as I could out of that office. I was scared to tamper with my heart, and felt I could “beat” the condition with better training and better management of stress within the races.
In 2010, I won the 70.3 in Pucon, and I became very encouraged again. But the rest of the season brought more SVT’s. And I raced miserably. Again, people accused me of training too hard and I started to believe them. The beginning of 2011 brought more of the same: SVT, DNF, poor performances.
While in Puerto Rico for the 70.3 in 2011, I had dinner with my friend Ann, who is a cardiac nurse. This particular race ended with a DNF. She had talked to me about my SVT’s and she had also advised me to get it fixed, but I didn’t want to hear it. Again, I told her that I thought it had to do with nutrition and my compromised GI. Instead, I decided to see a doctor who specialized in hiatal hernia. I was absolutely convinced that this was my problem. However, after many visits and even an endoscopy at Memorial Hermann in Houston, TX, the specialist assured me that the hernia was not my problem. Halfway through the season, I parted ways with my coach and started racing really, really well without any indication of a SVT. I finished off the season on a high note, chalking up everything that I had been through to stress and nutrition issues. I felt like I was finally over it. I finished the season with a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in my final 70.3s of the year. And I was ready for the next chapter.
2012 started and I had more of the same stuff happening to me. However, I placed blame on my fitness. After all, I wouldn’t wear a heart rate monitor. I believed my last coach when he told me that the heart rate monitor was making me crazy and that I shouldn’t race with it. Believing that I was having a pacing or nutrition issue, I called Jesse after meeting him at IM New York while I was watching Michael race. Jesse has a reputation of being extremely detailed and methodical. I liked that and figured that if anyone could help me, he could. He seemed confident that he could get me back to racing Ironmans without incidents. I did doubt him, but I liked his confidence.
Jesse and I started working together around mid August. He asked me to wear a heart rate monitor everyday. While we had only a short time to train together, I felt good about the preparation I had done, and I raced the 70.3 in Cozumel. Everything was going well until mile 8, when my heart rate hit 200. Again, my pace went from 6:30 to 8:30 pace until my heart released at mile 12. Of course, I initially blamed Jesse’s nutrition protocol. After all, I had a whopping 125mg of caffeine. Yes, I said 125…not 1125. Jesse asked me if I had ever seen heart rates as high as this…Sheepishly I said yes. And I asked him if he had ever seen this with any of his athletes and he told me “NO, definitely not”. The data was as clear as day on my 910xt Garmin file that was staring at me in the face. I did Augusta the very new weekend on 35mg of caffeine and had a similiar result.
Jesse convinced me that this was not a GI issue or pacing issue. This was in fact a heart problem. I didn’t want to believe it. It is so hard to hear that there is something wrong with your heart. It is the HEART after all…a MAJOR organ. It was much easier for me to believe that I was having a nutrition or GI issue even though it wasn’t the fact. There were a lot of tears for the next few days. Even though I didn’t want to believe it, I knew that Jesse was right. I was in Hawaii with Michael as he was getting ready for the IM world Championships. I was sad and depressed. It was very hard for me to be around my friends and other triathletes. After a few days of tears feeling sorry for myself, feeling like I had wasted the last several years of my triathlon career searching for answers in all of the wrong places, I made a plan for action.
While in Kona, I e-mailed my cardiologist in Boulder, making arrangements to wear another EKG monitor. This latest one was called a ZIO patch. I also called the EP that was suggested to me back in 2009 to make an appointment to meet. Lastly, I e-mailed my dear friend Ann who was a cardiac nurse. I trusted her and needed her advice.
The next two weeks while in KONA brought a lot of fret. I tried to think positively and not to let my deepest fears get in the way. The day that I arrived in Boulder, October 18th, we met with the EP, Dr. Oza. I immediately liked him. He has done ablations on several athletes. He knows athletes. After all, this is Boulder. He described the different types of SVT’s to Michael and me. He wasn’t sure which one I had, but he seemed confident that he could find it and that he could fix it. My number one question was “what if you don’t find it?”. His answer was “I won’t do anything”. I asked him about how many times per year would he go in and not find anything to ablate. His answer was “one time per year”. He told me that I was lucky, because he had already worked on that one person and that he would find my SVT. I liked his answers.We made the decision to make an appointment for the ablation.
The date of the ablation: November 5th, 12pm.
On October 19th, 1 day after the appointment with Dr. Oza, I had my ZIO patch placed.
On Sunday, October 21st, I did the half marathon in Boulder.
During my warm up I remember seeing numbers like 155-165 running 8′-8:30 pace which is completely abnormal. I was certain that I would have a problem during the race. However, I did not. For the most part my pace was consistent with my heart rate, which averaged 163. I had a heart rate of 190 during the race, but it didn’t last long. Thankfully between the Zio and my Garmin data, we had accumulated enough data, and Dr. Oza felt good about being able to locate the origin of my SVT.
On November 5th at noon, I went into Boulder Community Hospital. I was hungry (no food for 24hrs), I was dehydrated and most of all, I was extremely fearful. There was a one percent chance that I could end up with a pace maker. I was willing to take that chance. There was a 5-10 percent chance that he would not be able to find the SVT. I’m not sure I could handle that chance. After all, what if this was all in my imagination? What if they couldn’t find it?
By 2 o’clock, I was receiving pain medicine that was extremely painful! I thought that one of my veins in my arm had blown from the intense medication inserted in my IV. After that memory, it was lights out. I don’t remember a thing. Dr. Oza inserted one catheters into each leg (in my femoral arteries). One catheter was to deliver the epinephrine (and other drugs). One was used to find the part of my heart that was misfiring. Lucky for all of us, Dr. Oza found it immediately after pumping a small dose of epinephrine into my heart. After he ablated it, they pumped up to 10 x the amount of drugs that it initially took to make it misfire. My heart pumped normally despite the abuse that it was taking. My heart was finally at peace.
Dr. Oza told me that the type of SVT that he found was AV NODE SVT. He also thought that I was having SVT’s a lot more often than I originally thought and that he was fairly happy with how the procedure went. I started crying. I was so happy. This was finally the proof that I needed, to see that everything that had been happening to me was very real – and that it was completely out of my control.
I am at home, resting now. Unbelievably, I feel really good. In fact I didn’t feel this good after having my appendix taken out seven years ago! I am taking it very easy, allowing Michael to take care of me. I am not allowed to exercise for one week and I can’t do anything intense for 4 weeks. I am absolutely OK with this.
I’m not sure what my race plans are for the future. Michael and I arranged for all of our Team Lovato members to race a half marathon in New Orleans in late February. I need a goal. I am thinking that this will be my first target. In the meantime, I am walking. And my heart feels oddly calm. And it’s wonderful.
Throughout this entire process, I have come to find out that SVT is an affliction that is far more common that we know. Nearly 75% of cases are with women, and in nearly every case the trigger can be completely random and untraceable. Some people experience SVT while sitting at the computer, others while lying in bed, and still others while exercising. SVT is not something that we cause ourselves to have; it is something that we are born with – and it manifests or does not manifest – in different ways for different people.
Many times throughout the past several years, I would find myself in “holes”. I thought I was overtrained. Maybe in a sense this was true. But now that I know, I have since learned that my body was overly tired from the effects of having overly rapid heart rates for extended periods of time.
I would like to thank my team of friends, family, and doctors that helped me come to make this very intimidating, yet important decision. I would especially like to thank Ann Lassotovich Flaherty, Jesse Kropelnicki, Dr. Molly Ware, and Dr. Oza for all of their patience and helping me see that this was the right thing for me to do. I would especially like to thank my amazing husband who held my hand the entire way, encouraging me.
I am excited for the next chapter…