Ultrarunner fighting Atrial Fibrilation (AF)

This blog has pretty much always been about running ultras, mostly Hardrock. It still is but now it is also about running after AFib. I was forced to miss Hardrock in 2011 due to the onset of AF but my long term goal was to get back to running milers. And hopefully help any other runners with AF who stumble upon this site. I never made it into Hardrock in 2012, or 2013, or 2014. I didn't have a qualifier for 2015. I ran Fatdog in Canada instead. That was tough. I finished my 4th Hardrock in 2016 and now I'm back to try for the magical number 5.

If you want the history of my AF the heart problems all started back on May 25 2011: http://howmanysleeps.blogspot.com/2011/05/out-of-hardrock.html

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

GNW100s 2011 The race within

I wasn't going to write a race report on this years GNW. Good race reports are full of drama, tragedy and misfortune. I had none of that. All my drama took place months before. By the bucket load. But this years GNW was by far the single most important I have run. It was by far the sweetest finish of all my seven GNWs. Despite being November, it was my first race for the year and more importantly my first ultra post catheter ablation surgery on my heart. So even though my race unfolded relatively uneventfully I was in fact running the race of my life. And surging just below the surface was a tide of raw emotions battling to take control and derail my efforts. This is a story within a story. A race within a race. It may be merely just another race but to me it was a stepping-stone to reclaiming my life. My life as an ultrarunner.

A thousand clich├ęs come to mind when I think of how best to describe this race. But none do justice. A thousand words could describe this race. But even they wouldn't suffice. At 174km it is not only longer than the standard 100-mile race, it is regarded as the toughest 100 miler in Oz. No arguments here. The dropout rate testifies to that. 50% failed to finish. That is huge. Nevertheless, I finished. And that means I have finished every year, the only person to do so (despite the first year only entering the 100km). I am not interested in bragging rights. For me, this was a race against myself. A race against my own limitations. A race against my illness. The course simply provided the playing field upon which I would test these limits. There was no guarantee that I would finish. There never is with a race this brutal or this long. And like I said, it all started months before and was still going on even on the start line. Beyond all else, I needed to know if I could still run ultras. This was going to be my big test.

Teralba footy oval at 5am was almost balmy. 100 runners milling around, exuding nervous energy as they registered, fidgeted with gear and went through last minute rituals. I was participating in a voluntary research study that required me to give a blood and urine sample and answer a short questionnaire. Once that was sorted I mingled with the crowd of regulars. I was strangely calm, fully aware of what I faced. And fully aware of what it was going to take to finish. Hanging over me was the cloud of uncertainty of how my heart would react to the burden of stress from continual physical exertion for up to 36 hours. For 7 months Atrial Fibrillation (AF) had restricted my running to 3 or 4 easy 8-10 km runs per week. Perhaps 'easy' is the wrong word. None of those runs were easy. But this is the abridged version. Every one of those runs was a challenge on it's own. Just getting out the door was a challenge much of the time. The medications and the disorder combined to restrict my ability to run. In fact restrict my life, my ability to work and simply function. But I refused to give in. I refused to believe that I couldn't beat this thing.

Ten weeks before GNW I had surgery. It took 5&1/2 hours and I was in Coronary Care for 3 nights.  Hopefully it would correct or at least reduce the attacks of unregulated heartbeats. I couldn't run at all for two weeks after that. In fact I was worse than before the surgery. By week 3, with the blessing of my cardiologist, I started ramping up my training. I had 7 weeks left until GNW. 4 weeks out I reached 100 km per week for the first time in 8 months. I had niggles all over in protest to the rapid acceleration in mileage. I strung together 3 weeks of 100 km, which left me one week to taper. Still my longest run since March was little more than 30 km. I would be running on muscle memory. And my muscles have some very ugly memories from this course. I had no other choice. As the only person to have finished every GNW I felt a responsibility to keep this unique streak alive.

Standing on the oval at Teralba, I flicked on my Garmin. I was wearing a 310XT with a foot pod. This would allow me to turn off the GPS but still have a rough guide to distance and pace. But most importantly it would spare the battery so that I could monitor my heartrate for the entire race. The screen lit up and my heart sank, figuratively. My heartrate registered at 120bpm. Standing still and at rest. Oh crap. That is almost AF territory. In fact my first thought was that I was in AF. I felt the pulse in my neck: regular but fast. I was sure I wasn't in AF. I tried to relax and breathe slowly. It lowered a bit but was still over 100bpm when I lined up for the start.

Dave Byrnes sent us on our way right on 6am. I walked from the start. Close to Bill Thompson who usually walks the whole way. Second last place with the sweep car flashing right behind me. Once off the bitumen and onto the bush track I tried some slow jogging but my heartrate would jump straight up. So I walked for the first couple of hours with only the occasional trot on the downhills. Even on the long drop into Heaton's Gap I restrained and shuffled easily down putting my ego away. This would help spare my underprepared quads.

I passed a few runners on the monster climb up to Heaton’s Lookout. Then a few more including Susannah and Tanky as I scurried through the rainforest. The path was little more than a crushed leaf litter footpad through the trees. First time ever no leaches. Bill was right behind me, his powerful walking stride matching my run/walk routine. We walked into Checkpoint 1 together. Allison, Leslie and Mick all jumped in to help refill my bottles and sort through my drop-bag and reload my pack. I walked out eating a can of rice. I did this at each CP. It allowed an easy transition back onto the course, gave me time to digest and reduced eating times at CPs.

My heart rate had settled a little more now so I ran until it hit 130 bpm then walked until it dropped to the low 100s. Repeat. All the way along the road until finally dropping into the Congewai Valley. Again I eased into the long downhill to spare my quads and keep my HR down. I climbed onto the road and ran steadily all the way to the school and CP2. I felt great. I was really starting to enjoy this. I passed several runners then crossed some others on their way back out from the school. The six previous times I have fought with this road and it went on forever. Today I skipped along leisurely and it was over in no time. I was really enjoying this.

Tim was at the school to crew me. Di helped out as well. It was quick and easy. I gave another blood sample. Answered the questionnaire again: any nausea, stomach cramps, bloating, confusion, vomiting? Nope, I feel great. Reloaded, refueled, I walked out with customary rice in hand.

The climb out of the Congewai Valley is the biggest of the entire course. It destroys many runners. Two-thirds the way up I found a guy lying on his back, pale with zinc cream plastered on and bathed in sweat. "You OK?" "Yep, just overheating." Lucky this is a cool year, I thought to myself. The several false summits didn't phase me. I climbed like I was out for a Sunday stroll, easy and casual, constantly checking my garmin and keeping things under control.

Past the tower I started running again along Cabans Road. I came up behind a walker clearly not well. He was swaying across the road with the occasional stumble. I stopped to check on him. It was Roland from Switzerland and he was not well but had resolved to walk down to Watagan Creek Road and get a ride out. "Have you spoken to your crew?" "No, no reception." I knew it was a long drive in for the crew and once we drop to the road there is no phone reception. So I tried to ring Dave B to get a message through. Voicemail only. So I rang the radio operator at Somersby School who would be able to pass the message on. That done I checked he was OK to walk out and got back to business.

Reaching Watagan Creek there was a new footbridge so dry feet for a change. Very welcome. The climb out of the valley is brutal. No other word for it. But once again it just ticked away and soon I was refilling at the unmanned water drop at the top. Last year I had met Dog here in the back of Dave’s 4WD. No-one here this year. Somewhere along the road I did encounter Dave B driving into the water drop. He stopped and we chatted. He commented that I looked fresh. And surprisingly I actually felt it. The late afternoon sun was filtering down through the trees and I was out for a day in the bush. And really enjoying it.

The race was on to get into CP3 before dark. I started pushing a little harder and watched as my HR crept up and my threshold for what I would allow went up with it. I started dropping into the basin. I slipped on a leaf-covered step and slid down several steps, bump, bump, bump, hitting the back of my head hard on the steps as I went. I lay there doing the mental check: legs? Fine. Arms? Fine. Head? Sore but OK. Only one crushed finger that I had landed on. It was sore but nowhere near as bad as the little toe I broke 2 weeks before the race. I could feel that all day swelling up in my shoe.

Approaching the basin darkness finally overtook me and I started crossing paths with runners coming back the other way. I pressed on without my headlight feeling my way and relying on night vision. I was rewarded by the most spectacular show of fireflies dotted throughout the trees. They flickered like little christmas lights, trying to guide me on my way. It was one of those magical moments that make it all worthwhile.

CP3 is always a welcome sight after the long haul from the school. Tim was there to help, as was Seris with her heavily bandaged and grazed face courtesy of a bad fall that forced her to pull out. Dog was stretched out on a cot under a blanket. I tried to convince him to come with me. I offered to walk with him. We had plenty of time. I knew how much he dreaded a DNF at CP3 after last year. This one would be hard to take. I figured if I could get him to CP4 he might improve or at the least have a 100km. No chance. We shook hands and I was off. It always hurts to see those around us fail and reminds us of our own vulnerability.

I partnered up with a guy leaving CP3. I never caught his name but discovered later it was Richard. It was his mate I had encountered halfway up to the comm tower laying on his back. I always find the turnoffs deceptive after leaving the basin. The tracks go for much longer than I remember and I start to doubt my navigation. This time was no different with the tracks going on and on. Finally we peeled off and were dropping to Cedar Brush trailhead. I continued to preserve my quads which by now were starting to complain on the downhills. So it was a very leisurely cruise to the road. I passed some runners after climbing the fence. And then some more along the road, checking their maps. The full moon lit up the valley so I turned my light skyward to run in just the moonlight. The trees were hulking silhouettes and a misty fog lay across the fields. It was almost surreal in the moonlight. Another one of those purely magical moments. I realised I was running solidly so I watched my garmin closely. All good. I kept the heartrate under control but peeled off a solid 11 km and reached the school at Yarramalong right on midnight. Wow I was about 2 hours ahead of expectations. I would need every bit of that buffer.

CP4 was buzzing at midnight. I was weighed and gave blood again. Ticked all the boxes and surprised everyone with how good I was feeling. Where is the drama? Where are the bad patches? My crew, Tim, had planned to pace me from here to Somersby but had been struggling to get the car shuffled ahead. Turns out he wasn't even there and had been called away on a minor emergency. Jane asked me if I would be ok and even offered to pace me despite having her face all bandaged and looking rather battered. Despite her generous offer, I said I was right and once fueled up and loaded headed off into the night eating and walking per my routine.

The section from CP4 to CP5 goes through the dead of the night. I always struggle here. This time would be no different. A veil of fatigue descended on me and I couldn't shake it. Fatigue has been an ongoing symptom of my illness. I haven’t worked a full day in over 6 months. I have been tired in races before but this time there was no shaking it. Nick Barlow flew past me. He had been sleeping in the checkpoint and said he felt like a new man. I was jealous. I couldn't take caffeine and was craving some spark to keep me moving. I thought of napping and looked longingly at patches of grass but everything was wet with the dew. And I figured it would pass. It didn't. I shuffled the new road section. Back onto the trail and past the old water drop site. The dreaded sleepmonsters were heavy on my shoulders. I started hallucinating. Keep going. If I could make it to sun-up I knew I would feel better.

Finally I broke from the forest into the farmland around Ourimbah Valley and I simply could go on no longer. I was literally falling asleep on my feet. I was staggering. I would wake-up suddenly while walking off the road. Constant microsleeps while on the move. The sun was coming up and there was no magical revival. I picked a small patch of gravel off the side of the road, set my phone alarm for 15 minutes and collapsed in a heap just as I was. I was asleep before my head hit the dirt. The alarm went off in the blink of an eye. I could have lain there for hours but I had a job to do. I wasn't refreshed but I was now wide-awake and ready for the big climb into Somersby.

CP5 was subdued early in the morning. I had lost a lot of time, taking over 6 hours stumbling through the night from Yarramalong. I had soup and refilled for the next leg. I still did not think about the finish. I focused only on the next checkpoint at Mooney Mooney. Rachel Waugh was here after having a bad time of it and we walked out together. But she was keen to get it over and took off before we hit the trailhead. I was moving well again and despite the fatigue felt good. Running alone allows you to reflect on many things. I found myself lost deep in thought and smiling contentedly as I picked my way over the rocky terrain. I was loving every minute of it. I was back where I belonged: out on the trail.

CP6 was rewarding, knowing beyond this I was on the home stretch. Nothing would stop me now. I was an hour and a half ahead of my 12pm deadline. I knew I could finish easily inside the cut now. My gear sorted I was off in no time. I almost dawdled down to the swing bridge. Suddenly I was in no hurry. The finish time was irrelevant. In fact I realised even if I didn't finish now I had proven to myself that I could run ultras again. That made me smile again. That was all I really wanted from this race. A finish would be a bonus.

Richard, whom I had run with the night before, caught me up and I hung onto him and his fresh pacer for a while. The day was heating up and when out of the breeze it became stifling hot. The soles of my feet were feeling very macerated. I could feel the pain but it didn't seem to bother me. We climbed and dropped. And then climbed some more. In the distance the gunshots from the rifle range rang out. A helicopter droned constantly overhead extracting felled trees. You could hear the rotors straining as the huge trees swung pendulum like below the chopper.

I found myself alone again and sat in the rock pools cooling off and having some tinned spaghetti. I was really enjoying this and in no hurry for it to end. One last big climb to the unmanned water drop and I was there an hour inside the cut-off.

Susannah and another runner, both with pacers caught me while I refilled. We chatted and then I decided it was time to finish this thing. I ran most of the way from there to the finish, walking the uphills or when my heartrate nudged above 130bpm. I passed Richard again and kept going, ticking off each familiar landmark as I went.

The road to the Warrah Lookout went on forever. My feet burned now like someone was applying a small blowtorch to them. My achilles ached with every stride. It felt like there was barbed wire in my sock digging in with every flex of my ankle. But the pain was detached. Really weird. More surreal time. It did not belong to me. I could feel it but it made no impact on my stride. I was on autopilot, in cruise control. I felt myself smiling almost in defiance of the physical discomfort. It was like the pain was just there to remind me that I was very much alive and doing what I love to do: running an ultra on trail. There was nothing else I would rather be doing. There was no other place I would rather be. I thought of the finish that was now irrevocably mine. I pictured the beach not a mile in front of me. I had run it many times before but never had it meant so much. Never had I been faced with the prospect of giving up running before. Never had I faced my mortality the way the illness and treatment had forced me to do. I had embraced what I needed to do and proven I was capable. Seems melodramatic now but at the time I had bottled my emotions for 34:49 hours. I had reigned in every bit of energy and channeled it into one focus: getting to the finish. And now I was nearly there and the relief was overwhelming. These emotions that had been surging just beneath the surface now burst forth and washed over me in wave after wave of relief and pride. Tears streamed uncontrollably down my face. I didn't care. There was no-one to see me. It was cathartic and uplifting at the same time.

I ran hard, as hard as you can after 6,000 metres of climbing and 172 km of running. I passed Nick who had passed me so long ago in the early hours of the morning. I dropped from the Warrah Trig onto the gravel road. I ran UP the hill. I hit the singletrack. I dodged and weaved. Wave after wave of emotion continued to wash over me. Tears welled in my eyes and the path was a blur. I was on the trail but could not feel it. Yet another surreal moment. I dropped the last few steps and hit the sand. I could see the finish at the other end of the beach. I could see the crowd of supporters gathered. I could see the banners and the marquees. They couldn't see me. I wasn't quite ready for this all to end. I wanted to soak in this feeling. To bask in this glory. I stopped. I sat down on a rock and buried my head in my hands and purged the doubts, the fears and the darkness that had hung over me for months.

Not more than a couple of minutes passed but with it passed those months of anguish and despair. It was long enough for me to regroup, and I got up and ran again. Weightless. The soft sand carried me forward. I swear it felt like I was floating across it. I could see the finish line getting closer. I could hear the cheers and the clapping. A bell was ringing. But the real clamour was now inside me. My heart beat loudly. My heart beat proudly. I had done it. I had overcome the physical limitations and run on sheer will. I ran across the soft sand without breaking stride. I pumped a fist against my chest, discretely, acknowledging to myself that my heart had got me there. A private little celebration. The cheers and clapping carried me up the beach under the finish banner. I touched that little wooden post signifying my sixth straight 100 mile finish with a sense of relief that words will never do justice to. I hugged Dave and thanked him for giving running back to me. For giving me back what I love. I might not be fully cured and this might be as good as I get but I now have the measure of this disease and I am not done with yet.

Post script:

I got to thank my cardiologist 3 weeks after the race. Not just for the treatment but for giving me my life back. Somehow the thank-you just didn't seem enough.
The next day a close friend who had been fighting a losing battle with cancer died. She was always on my mind at GNW and provided me much inspiration in not only getting to the start line but making it to the finish. Her journey is over and she is now at peace.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

GNW100s the big test

People ask me regularly at work: how am I feeling. I have adopted a standard response: better but not cured. I am definitely improved markedly from how I was even a month ago. But I am still spending lots of time on the couch and only working half days. Getting through the build-up to and then directing GOW was reassuring but I think I focussed all my energy on making it happen. This weekend I return to GNW. I will need to do more than just focus all my energy to get through the 175km in 36hours.

finish 2009

This will be the real test. I am unsure how my heart will react. I have not gone anywhere near that effort since this all started. But I have started and finished all 6 x GNW, despite only running the 100km the first year. That makes me the only person to achieve that. I really want to maintain that streak. Once broken no-one can ever reclaim it. This is a race against no-body but myself. I will need to manage my heart-rate and my fluid and nutrition very carefully to ensure I have every chance of staying in the race. If I do it I will not only preserve the streak, I will have proven that I can still run ultras, with or without AF. That will be more significant than any honour board.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On the road to recovery I hope

It is now 7 weeks post ablation. Am I cured? No. But I am much better than I was. For that I am very grateful.

After returning to work and having another AF event and really sliding backwards I was worried that I had been through all that for nothing. But the ablation has made a difference, definitely: I have not had another AF attack for 4 weeks, the 'flip-flopping' has all but gone and when I run my heart has behaved for at least the last week. Until today, as if on cue it went ballistic for no apparent reason. I guess it is still 'two steps forward, one step back'. Or more like 'three steps forward, and a half step back'. I will take that. Any forward movement is good.

Last weekend I organised the third running of the Great Ocean Walk100s, 100km solo and 50+50km team relay race on the track of the same name. It was a huge effort to pull it all together. After months of preparation I started the set-up early in the week in case my physical limitations became an issue. I got through the week and a very stressful race day without drama. This was my biggest test yet and I passed that one. Had the race date been a month earlier I would never have gotten through it.

My next big test is the Great North Walk 100miler. I plan to run that in 3 weeks time. I will be off my medication by then so I am hoping that will help. But my lack of training and not having a run longer than 30km since March means I have very little endurance base to fall back on. GNW has been a focus for me. Something to get me off the couch. And trust me, that hasn't been easy. Every run, however ugly, I have thought of myself slogging through 175km of GNW. I have an unbroken streak going there and I want to maintain that. It won't be easy.

My friends, Larry and Beth from Hardrock run the Bear100 regularly. They have run it 5 times each. Must be a record for partners. It was just a few weeks back. Beth told me afterwards she had dedicated the last 25miles of the race to me (each of the first 3 x 25miles she ran for her 3 children), knowing I was sick and not able to do what she was doing. Not able to do what I love doing. It helped motivate her to keep going when things got tough. I was touched when she told me. I have a close friend who is really, really sick. I will be running GNW for her.

So often we use ultrarunning as a metaphor for our lives. We wax lyrical about the journey and the destination. It is easy to overthink these things and make them more complicated than they need be. A friend told me today that we don't really control our lives. I don't totally agree. I like to think we do have some control. Just as I like to think I do have some control over my race coming up. I have been dealt a blow with my heart health issues but I am still running. I have tried to take back some control. Same with GNW. I will be running for the simple joy of being able to compete once again. I will try to control as many of the variables as I can. And in the back of my mind I will be thinking of my friend and how her journey is coming to an end. Way too early. And my troubles will seem insignificant and hopefully I will finish my race with pride, dignity and humility. And simply be grateful.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

3 weeks post surgery

While they warned me I could have episodes and it would take a few weeks for my heart to settle, I was unprepared for just how crap I felt in the first 2 weeks after the ablation. I had several bouts of arrhythmia culminating in the one episode of full AF. I suffered major visual disturbances that created a shimmering blurriness around the periphery of my vision. Sometimes this spread across my line of sight and I could not read until it passed. This was transitory but very annoying. I had a growing headache through the first week which progressed to a full blown migraine one night, leaving me paralysed on the couch in the fetal position for hours. Apparently this is a known side effect of the surgery. It felt like that Mac truck kept backing up over me for good measure.

3 weeks out and I still have residual groin bruising and some tenderness in the area of the wound. My arm swelling and bruising have gone down but I still have altered sensation and get the occasional 'carpal tunnel' type pain/sensation through my wrist. And I still have dyspepsia and general heart burn type symptoms. I am blaming the medication (warfarin) for that rightly or wrongly. That is settling also, though. But importantly, week three brought a dramatic improvement in my wellbeing. I actually started to feel better despite the medication. Hy heart settled and there was no flip-flopping feeling. I could lie on my left side without inducing arrhythmia. I was back running easily a few times a week. I had more energy and a somewhat clearer head. I was getting excited that I had passed the worst and just perhaps I might have beaten this thing. Well the ablation might have beaten this thing. The Professor had told me that by week 3 I could ramp up my training back to what I was previously at. I even spent a very easy 5 hours walk/jogging on the Great Ocean Walk to remeasure some track changes. And boy did that feel good.

But a couple of days later my heart rate started misbehaving on my regular easy evening runs. It would rapidly accelerate for no reason and fall as quickly. Despite going very slow and walking to warm-up. Yesterday I had my first day back at work. I was almost supernumerary so not particularly stretched. I felt a bit fatigued but decided an easy 8km would clear my head. There was nothing easy about it. And when I got home I felt horribly nauseous. Something I hadn't experienced for a while now. I had a glass of cold soda water to help settle my stomach and I went straight into AF.

It only lasted a couple of hours but was enough to wring me right out and leave me more than a little disappointed. I guess I haven't beaten it yet.

Put HR monitor on and this is me sitting on the couch, not hard to guess when I came out of AF?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pulmonary Vein Isolation Ablation

The anaesthetist said to me while I lay flat on my back: 'there are a lot of things that could go wrong, but you could also get hit by a Mac truck. We don't have any Mac trucks around here so you should be OK'. I woke up after 5 hours of surgery and was looking for the Mac truck that had hit me. Remembering that one of my primary motivators in chronicling this illness and subsequent treatment options is to benefit others who might suffer the same affliction, I will not sugar coat my experience. I wrote this soon after getting home and have had time to since reflect on it all.

Simply put it was pretty horrible. Of course I know nothing of what went on while I was under. And all the staff who attended me, from the meals lady to my cleaner to the many nurses and all the way through to my surgeon and his assistant I could not fault my treatment or care. But the pain and discomfort was not fun. In retrospect I should have asked for pain relief on the first night. And some anaesthesia for the lady sharing my room who ensured that any chance I had of sleeping was totally gone. Her hourly trips to the toilet shuffling noisily past my bed, slamming the door into my curtain rail, endlessly dropping her bed remote-control and swearing at the top of her voice, the unbelievable flatulence (both in episodes and loudness), the spontaneous loud groaning and cursing that scared the life out of me in the dead of night, flicking lights and the TV on and off and the list goes on and didn't stop until 5am. I forgave her the constant raking, chest-rattling cough as she was denied access to cigarettes and that clearly irritated her airways. Mind you every time she startled me with an outburst or loud noise either organic or mechanical I would flinch. This flinching would set off pain receptors in multiple sites which to do justice I need to cite: my chest (incredibly sore from the actual ablation kind of like a horse had kicked me), my throat (incredibly sore from the probe/scope and airway that had been down there), my abdominal muscles (painful from the clexane injection directly into my tummy), my elbow (where the cannula remained in case needed and was digging into me mercilessly), my groin (very sore from the puncture site and subsequent pushing and pulling through the small hole and now with a full body clamp squeezing into it to stop the persistent leaking), my back, buttocks and my heels (I had been lying flat on my back in the same position for many, many hours to stop the bleeding and I had pressure pain like never before), the end of my penis (majorly inflamed from the catheter that had been pushed up there to drain my bladder during the procedure) and a headache. I maybe could have managed all of this if I was able to just relax and go to sleep. No chance with my neighbours antics going on. Of course I was also on hourly observations so if my room-mate didn't jerk me out of any hint of sleep the obs would. Mind you the obs were a welcome interval punctuating the long night and reminding me that another hour had passed and I was closer to daylight.

I couldn't help trying to imagine what the poor bugger who had gone in the same time as me for open heart surgery was feeling. I got off lightly by comparison. Like I always say: there is always someone worse off.

Needless to say I slept most the next day. But so did my room mate. I encouraged any medical or meal staff to wake her up. I wanted her tired so she would sleep the next night.

The saving grace was my surgeon came to see me mid morning after the surgery. He said they had some difficulty because the tissue was very thick and fibrous around the root of each vein. So they isolated each one by burning around them. Then they stimulated my heart into AF type behaviour and unfortunately the pulses jumped over the burnt tissue. So they repeated the burn and on the second testing there were no transmitted pulses. He said he expects me to see significant improvement. I was very happy with that prediction. Of course we really won't know until it has all healed up in a few months time but it is definitely promising.

The next step was to get me in some sort of condition to send home. Unfortunately the post-procedure pill-cam had demonstrated 2 haematomas in my oesophagus (explaining one of my pains and why eating hurt like hell) that could potentially bleed given the blood thinning medication I was now on. So I was kept in for a third night. They stopped the clexane injections into my tummy in case it caused my throat to haemorrhage. But the warfarin was continued as that takes a couple of days to take affect and I needed protection from having a stroke.

I went home early on the fourth day. I had to report for a blood test early every morning for the next week and ring for the results that afternoon to determine my daily dose of warfarin. My left arm is covered by a massive bruise from my elbow to my wrist (there was a catheter in my wrist during the surgery to test the blood gases continually to make sure that I was getting enough oxygen despite the breath suspension technique used to stop things moving). It is also swollen because of this and still keeps erupting into an itchy rash. So I have been getting all the blood tests on my right arm and it is starting to look a little worse for wear. My groin developed a massive purple bruise with a hard lump at the entry site. But no pain there after a few days.

Over a week later and I have had several bad episodes of AF. Still. They warned me that could happen but after a week I hoped I would be seeing less of it. It is hard not to be disappointed when it happens. I am still on the flecainide to suppress my heart and that is making me feel like crap. Mind you I felt really crap and was really tired for a week after the surgery. We won't know for a month or so until I ween off the medication how effective it has really been. I am prepared psychologically to go through it all again if need be. I was warned that was very likely. I would rather not, especially now that I know what I am in for. But if it means improvement I will go through it. No question. I just hope to avoid that Mac truck next time.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Countdown is over.

Last week I went through pre-admissions in preparation for my ablation. This is the stuff you don't think about but important for anyone facing this process.

I spent the whole day at the hospital having tests and answering questions. There is so much involved in getting ready. It is always a very humbling being a patient. After working as a health professional for over 30 years I still find being a patient very confronting. There is so much you don't think of. You are at your most vulnerable.

First up was the CT scan. This was of my chest with a view to providing a 3D model of my heart to help plan the approach and get an overview of my anatomy. After a long wait I found myself on the table with a cannula in my arm being hooked up to a pressure injector. This would inject a bolus of contrast that would fill my heart during the scan to outline the chambers and major vessels. I have performed and seen hundreds of CT scans involving the injecting of contrast media. But this was the first time I was on the receiving end. The standard warning goes something like: you will get a warm sensation, you might get a funny taste in your mouth and some people feel like they have wet themselves. Wet themselves? Holy crap, I thought someone had fired up a bunsen burner and applied it to my scrotum!

A couple of hours later I was in the Pre-Admissions clinic. After filling out one form I was whisked away through a series of back corridors and taken to the Professors private rooms in an adjacent building. After more waiting I had a brief consult with him. He was very reassuring and succinct.

Back to Pre-Admissions. A nurse took me into a very small room and did an ECG, check my blood pressure and temperature. Then a heap of questions.

Back to the waiting room.

Then the cardiology liaison coordinator (the lovely lady that got me the surgery date) took me to another room for a lengthy questionnaire. It was amazing how well she knew the answers to all the questions she was asking. Clearly I have classic presentation.

Next the young Cardiologist who will be assisting came and got me to swallow this ginormous pill with 2 cameras in it. This sent real time images to his laptop so we could see my oesophagus. This would be repeated after the ablation as part of a study into the damage caused by the scope down my throat during the surgery. The images were fascinating but I could feel the pill all the way down until it plopped into my stomach.

Finally another round of questions with the first nurse of the day and I was done. And very tired.

I went to a friends birthday afternoon tea on the weekend. She is a close friend with terminal cancer and in a very bad way. It is the saddest situation. A lot of my really old friends were there. I got talking to one lady I went through school with but have only seen a handful of times in the 30 years since then. Out of the blue she said to me "I have the same thing as you". AF? Yes. One of my daughters had been talking to her and told her what I had. I asked her for how long? 10 years! My god, I could never survive this for 10 years. I could see in her eyes the same frustration and pain that this illness brings. I am not sure whether it was the heightened emotions of the afternoon or just that sympathy you feel for a kindred spirit but my heart went out to her. As runners we talk endlessly about how hard some race was, how tough we were, how strong we have to be. Sometimes we lose perspective. Here was true strength. To carry on a normal life with the medication constantly dragging you down, the intermittent episodes throwing you into chaos, trips to the ED and cardioversions under anaesthetic and the continual fear of an attack. For 10 years? I have gone 5 months and are at my wits end. Apparently hers is not amenable to treatment with ablation. I was humbled yet again and given more perspective. And then there was my friend who doesn't have the luxury of any potential cure. That is the ultimate reality check.

Today was the last day before my ablation. I have been off the medication for 6 days. I was surprised how stable my heart was initially. But today was a shocker. I have been suffering arrhythmia all day. Tonight when I decided I was going for my last run for who knows how long, my heartrate was 135 bpm at rest. And I could feel it. But I ran. Very slow at first as I always do. But gradually when I realised my heartrate was already out of control I really wound it up. It was tough but felt good to cut loose. It may sound a little irresponsible but I needed to run. I am learning the hard way that you don't always get a second chance at things. I no longer have a bucket list. If there is something I want to do it is on my calendar. At the moment that calendar is all in pencil while I try to regain control of my heart but it is full nonetheless.

Lets start by seeing what tomorrow brings.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Pre-op tests

When is a DNS for a favourite race a good thing? I have had to pull out of my ambitious plan to run the 100km at Glasshouse. It will be just over a week after my surgery so no chance of running it. I hope to still fly up to hang-out and help out on light duties. But this is a good thing because it means I am starting on that long road to hopefully getting my health back.

I go to Melbourne tomorrow to have some tests in preparation for the ablation. The main one is a cardiac CT scan. I have seen plenty of these but to be on the other side of the fence is a little daunting. They will use a 3D reconstructed image of my heart to help plan the approach to the region they need to target. They will also use ultrasound via an oesophageal scope and an image intensifier. These are tools of my trade, although not my area of expertise, but I still don't feel all that comfortable about them.

I have volunteered to participate in 2 clinical studies during the procedure. Although after reading all the consent forms I am not so sure that was such a good idea. But I am a firm supporter of research so could not say no to the request. Besides I was so excited about getting a surgery date they could have asked for my left kidney and I probably would have said yes.

The first one involves swallowing a tiny camera inside a capsule: a pill-cam. It will take pictures of my oesophagus. This will be repeated after the ablation to see what damage the scope does to my oesophagus. Here's hoping not much.

The other involves measuring the levels of my blood gases during the actual procedure, which they would do anyhow. To improve accuracy of the catheter that burns my heart, the anaesthetist will regularly suspend (read stop) my breathing to reduce movement of my heart. If it means more accuracy, hell they can suffocate me. Well perhaps not quite.

Sometimes it is better to be ignorant about what is going on. Someone at work asked me if I wasn't a little worried about all this. I said given the alternative that wasn't even a consideration. I have been hanging on for this treatment since I realized I had a problem. Let's just hope it works.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


A lifeline. Another phone call. This time from the cardiology department at the public hospital, Royal Melbourne. When Professor Kalman put me on his public waiting list he asked if I could be considered urgent. There was no questioning that from my viewpoint. So I have a new date: September 1. First day of spring. First day of my rehab. I can't describe the sense of relief tinged with a healthy dose of fear. I rushed in to town to get a blood test so I could get things moving. I go for a CT of my heart next friday and stop my medication for the week. That will make for a very interesting week. Countdown has begun. Can't come soon enough.

I ran the Bellarine Rail Trail run today. 34km social run from Queenscliff to Drysdale and return. My wife and one of our dogs ran with me to the half-way point. I had a lot of trouble getting my heart-rate down at the start and we ended up walking lots of the first 5km. This put us well behind everyone but after I stabilised we set a steady pace and even managed to catch a couple of runners before the turnaround.

I ran back on my own and again, after the restart struggled to get my heart rate down. After a couple of kms I settled into a rhythm and started cranking out sub 5minute kms. My heart-rate gradually crept up as my pace increased. over the last 3 kms I was doing 4:30 km/min and my heart -rate kept creeping up. I felt fine and wasn't in arrhythmia like the start of the run, so allowed myself to keep ticking along. The ocean opened up before me. There wasn't a cloud in the blue, blue sky. The paddocks were lush and vivid green. The sun was warm like the first hint of spring. It felt so good to be running again and for a minute there I actually forgot my heart problem and just let my legs do their own thing: run. Sometimes you've just got get out there and do it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The phone call

I got the call at work today. The young lady on the phone said she was ringing from Professor Kalman's rooms. They had had a cancellation and she knew it was short notice but a spot had opened up on Monday the 15th. (Holy crap that was this Monday!) And she was sorry it was such short notice but did I think I could make it. Yes, yes most definitely. (Are you kidding my whole life has been focussed on getting this surgery.) She went on to describe in detail the course of events necessary over the next few days: Chest CT at Royal Melbourne tomorrow at 12:30, come into the rooms and pick up some forms, take them to pre-admissions over at the Private Hospital, stop my Flecainide, fast from 6:00am, be there by 8am. I was scribbling madly and my head was spinning. At last a step forward after so many sideways and backwards.  I hung up reeling. A couple of the ladies I work with were standing beside me and worked out pretty fast what the call was about. One of them wanted to hug me, they knew how much this meant to me. They told me to go and organise and they would cover for me.

I was overwhelmed, emotions welled up from dark depths. Relief, excitement, fear. I went and found my wife so she could organise some time off. I texted Jane who had been offering to find me an alternate specialist with a shorter waitlist: I am on for Monday. The text came back: I have lost all my phone numbers....please let this b from Andy! I found my boss and told him I would be off for the next fortnight. I went outside to try to settle as I was on an emotional roller coaster. The nice lady rang me again from Kalman's rooms. Can I come to them first tomorrow for the forms and they will take me to the CT. Yep, no worries. I started thinking about life after AF, knowing that this wouldn't guarantee me a cure and that I would likely need it done again in 4-6 months time. But it could cure it. Or at least it improve it. I texted my mates and got a couple of congratulatory responses and the inevitable one asking for all my running shoes if I died during the procedure. No prizes for guessing who that was. I reassured him they were in my will.

I went back to work, and tried to be helpful. Within the hour my phone was buzzing silently in my pocket again. I pulled it out and now recognized the number from the rooms again. It was the same lovely lady. "I have some bad news. We sent your private health insurance details to the hospital admissions and they always run a check and turns out your cover doesn't include heart surgery. I am terribly sorry but we have had to cancel you. You have been placed on the Public waiting list, which as you can imagine is considerably longer than ours." I was speechless. My mind reeled as I started processing it. How can that be? I have had insurance for 30 years and recently had cause to increase it. I vaguely remember now being offered specific exclusions: do you want obstetric cover? No. Likely to need a hip replacement? No. You want heart surgery cover? There it was. At 45 and as fit and healthy as most 25 year olds why would I want cover for heart surgery? Gone.

The poor young lady was hanging on the phone. I said, oh, I'm sorry I should have checked. She said, no, no she was sorry, and sorry to be the one who had to tell me. She could hear my shattered response down the line. She explained that the check was routine as the out-of-pocket for the uninsured was hugely expensive. I asked how hugely? Don't expect any change from ten thousand dollars. Oh. That was it. I had held the chance of some salvation in my hand, only to feel it slip through my fingers, like so much fine sand. I was numb.

I found my wife again and told her. She asked but how? I explained. She said we will pay for it. I said you sure? Yes. I rang the poor lady at the rooms again. "Can I pay myself to have it done?" "Oh, I'm not sure how that works can you hold on?" A lengthy piece of terrible on-hold music while I could feel every heart beat in my chest. She came back on "sorry Professor Kalman is uncomfortable operating on full fee paying patients and besides it couldn't be organised in time now (presumably I would need to pay up front)." "But I can pay." "His PA is back on Tuesday I will talk to her. What he can do is work out a quote for you and we can take it from there." She could hear the desperation in my voice and I knew if she could, she would help me. It was over. To be so near and now so much further away with the thought of a public waitlist or a massive bill was such a cruel twist. I was in shock. I went home and curled up with the dogs in front of the heater totally numb. I couldn't even face going out for a run.   

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Waiting, planning and hoping

While I sit and wait for a date for my ablation I am trying to regain some normality in my life. I have returned to work but only 1/2 days. That is plenty. I am trying to maintain my running. Still very low intensity. Still very short. Still very slow. After a particularly difficult weekend I have entered 2 races coming up. I have explained my predicament to both race directors. I figured I would miss Glasshouse this year but could not miss GNW100. GH comes up first and I intended flying up and just crewing but then figured I would try to complete the 100km. If things go well I will be done in a day and be in bed at a reasonable hour. More importantly it will allow me to see where I am at and how I might go at GNW. I have run every GNW and finished them all. The first year I only ran the 100km but it still makes me the only runner with an unblemished record there. I cannot give that up. When the AF hit me back in May I knew Hardrock was off. But I never conceded GNW. That became my ultimate goal for the year. Nearly every run I have been on since I have thought about GNW. I have imagined running the long road into Yarramalong. I have pictured crossing the sandstone escarpment on the Sunday afternoon. I have closed my eyes and imagined running up to the Warrah Trig before descending to the beach. Every year at the pre-race briefing Dave Byrnes pays tribute to the handful of runners who have started every year. One runner has started every year but never finished once, 6 DNFs. Up to last year there has been 2 of us who had finished every year. But Dog was ahead of me since his were all milers. I lodged my priority entry on Sunday. I plan to be there on November 12 when Dave acknowledges those five runners. More importantly I plan to reach the beach at Patonga. Under my own steam. I am learning to run with my mind instead of my heart. My heart is broken but I won't be beaten.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


this was the run
note the flat terrain 
but high heartrate through 
the middle section

There has been heaps of complaining on the Hardrock yahoo email list. It happens periodically but the latest burst has been unusually venomous. It all revolves around the lottery process and entry criteria. All good races suffer from popularity pressure these days. But as a race director it wears a little thin. It smacks of selfishness. You can please some of the people some of the time. But in lotteries those that miss out will often find fault. Me, I have been lucky with the lottery. I would love to have been there this year but things happen. There are people dying of famine, drought, flood, disease and violent causes all over the world. Hardrock, all said and done, is just a race. If you miss the lottery move on.

I have been driving my mother-in-law to the rehab hospital the last few weeks while I have been off work. She had her leg amputated nearly 2 years ago and they are trying to fit her with a prosthetic leg. It is a huge effort trying to learn to walk again, especially given her age and that it is an above knee amputation. Other amputees come and go from the gym while I wait. They are not all old people, far from it. It is a salient reminder of how lucky we are to be able to run.

I ran today. On my favourite trail. It was slow but magical. I felt OK for a change, well relatively speaking. Perhaps it was just the place. I love it down there. I have plans organised for a race on this course but that is on hold until I have the energy to deal with it. I am ever optimistic that I will get over this problem. The tide was coming in but we still made it along the beach with some rock scrambling around the exposed headland. There has been a heap of track maintenance and the surface was great. Several times I felt like opening up on the downhills but know better. But despite taking it very easily my heartrate continued to spike. Even on the long flat beach section. Rapid unexplainable accelerations. And then dropping back just as fast.

On the drive home I was in full-on AF with my heartrate hitting 236bpm at rest. And rather uncomfortable as you might imagine. It continued for some time at home and I was tempted to take a flecainide but eventually it settled. The weirdest sensation after these events is that my heart actually feels relaxed and genuinely tired. Is that physically possible? Almost the same contented tiredness you feel after a solid run. Seems my heart is running it's own race. I just can't keep up with it. One day we will be back in synch. I hope.
this was my heartrate after the run

Saturday, July 16, 2011

First visit to Electrophysiologist

Finally the visit I have been waiting for pretty much since I established I needed an ablation. My new cardiologist comes highly recommended in his area of expertise. That is what I want. And he was a very calm and concise man in person, inspiring the sort of confidence you want when your future is depending on him. He discussed in detail the procedure: Radiofrequency Ablation. On a printed fact sheet he drew and described the path of the catheter that gets fed in through a vein in my groin up into my heart. And an oesophageal ultrasound probe was passed down my throat and provided images helping direct the catheters. A fluoroscopic x-ray machine is also used to help guide the catheters into the appropriate chambers of my heart. And because they run a truck load of fluid into me during the procedure, they will stick a catheter into my bladder while I am out of it. Keeps getting better all the time.

Once in the right side of my heart he will poke the catheter through the thin wall between the upper chambers to get to the left side. Here he will use the electrode on the end of the catheter to burn areas around the base of the pulmonary veins that pass blood from the lungs back into the heart. This is where the extra beats originate to cause the fibrillation. The whole job can take 4-6 hours.

I will wake with a sore throat, sore groin and likely a little chest pain, oh and the catheter in my bladder of course. 6 hours flat on my back. 2 nights in hospital. 2 weeks off work. No mention of running. The first catch he mentioned was that best results are achieved after repeating the ablation again in 4-6 months. The next catch: he has a waiting period of 6-8 months! He recognised my desperation and the impact the events and drugs were having on my quality of life and put me on the urgent wait list. If a cancellation occurs I will be in. Could still be 3-4 months.

The success rate is 85%. There is a 2% risk of heart attack or stroke during the ablation. There is a tiny risk of needing to have open heart surgery if something goes wrong. And there is a 1 in 1000 chance of death. I can live with those odds. Or die by them I guess. They are pretty good odds from where I am sitting. The decision was easy and never in doubt. I am waiting for that phone call.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hardrock horror stories

I followed Hardrock intently all weekend. Online checkpoint times for runners and tweets from runners and crew out on the course. But you never get the full story. And you never get a real feel for what it is like out there. I received part of Joe Prusaitis' report just now and although I haven't had a chance to check with him if he is happy for me to post it, I feel it compelling enough that it has to be shared. Joe is an extremely experienced ultrarunner with bags of Hardrock finishes including a HR/Badwater double. He doesn't need to embellish so read what follows and remember this was all at night. Deb Pero told me she experienced the same but she was coming last and alone out there. Helps explain the high drop out rate just for starters.

"Thunderheads lined up one behind the other, with clear patches of stars between each. Sleet and hail hurled sideways into us with enough force to lift anything loose and soak what was underneath. Had we been at 10000-ft it would have been a nasty storm, but near the summit of 14000-ft handies Peak… it was much more than that. This was stupid crazy. We had to summit quickly before the lightning started or retreat back to Burrows Park. My gloves were soaked through and my hands were numb and stinging. I knew that I had to climb the next few pitches very fast, but I couldn't breath and was reduced to a crawl, barely moving. Marty was right behind me, Jim just in front. Jim was moving well, so he was quickly over the top and gone. Inching upwards carefully through a field of frozen snow, we reach the ridge just below the summit, where we both stop to catch our wind. The next face is all rock and very steep. Just below the summit, I see then hear the first
flash of lightning. I stop and lay low for a few minutes, taking the time to put away my trekking poles. Marty is just below me, when I reach the summit. Another flash and boom, so I lay as low as possible. I yell back down to Marty but he can't hear me. A few moments of calm and I'm up and running as fast as I can go at 14000-ft. I reach the highest point, looking back to see Marty following, then turn and sprint down towards American Basin. There is nowhere to hide, no cover… and fear drives me faster. On the naked ridge hanging over Boulder Gulch, 1000 ft down, I stop and lay down facing back up the mountain… looking for Marty. He's nowhere in sight. I wonder where he is... what's happened to him. I don't know what to do. I lay there on the ground with the thunderheads roiling overhead and being pelted by the hail… searching the barren face for Marty. What the hell is he doing? I can't go back up! I have to go down… but I wait. 5 minutes feel like 3
0. I'm not sure how long, and then a light and another... Marty with somebody else. Its too loud to talk so its impossible to answer my questions. I get up and start running again… another 4 or 5 switchbacks, then I turn and look back again. Both of them are way back. I'm either moving very fast or they're moving very slow, but this is killing me. I wait again, and while I wait, I search my pack to see if there's anything else I can use to stay warm. I find the cheap rubber garden gloves Joyce put in for the snow. I remove my soaking wet gloves and put the garden gloves on. My hands are frozen and wet so its awkward, but I finally get them on. When Marty and the other guy get to me, I get up and start running again. Down to the snow field, I stop and wait again.  A few minutes or more, they get closer, but I go before they get close. I cross the snow field, which is turning to ice. The hail and sleet are constant, but my hands seem to be warming in the runner gloves. I
keep moving now, no longer content to wait. I need to escape the storm before I go hypothermic. The combination of altitude and cold is clouding my thinking. I feel fuzzy and numb. My frozen popsicle feet are soaking wet from the snow melt marsh we passed through just before summit. One thought persists in my muddy mind… 'keep moving', so I start running again. From flag to flag, down into the American Basin. I turn now and again to see if Marty follows and I can see that his light is higher as I drop further. The tracks through the snow sometimes lead to a flag but mostly I just head towards the high ridge which I think is the pass that leads over into Grouse Gulch. The snow is mostly ice, turning to slushy mud. When we marked this route last week, the entire basin was snow, so we chose a route across the snow by guessing where the trail was underneath. Now, it's a patchwork of snow and rock, such that sometimes the route we marked is on trail but mostly its 10 to 20 f
eet offset. The current snow track is not aligned directly with the rock trail. I go along for 50 yards of snow, then have to climb 20 feet of rock up to the trail for 50 yards, then drop back down to the next snow track, and repeat. Over a shallow hump of snow, I glissade down into a mess of slush and running water, then hop a larger flow, and crawl up a muddy bank. Over and again I check back to see if anyone follows. A series of lights dot from the top of Handies down into the basin and I'm surprised how many people there are. The storm seems to fade for a bit and I can hear my own ragged breathing, but I can't stop. The route seems to go on for such a long time. In the darkness, Its impossible to tell how far I've gone and how far remains. Hail starts coming down hard and fast again, and that's when I realize I'm standing just under the exit ridge. I push across the saddle and drop quickly. It a messy sopping wet marsh of snow melt, tundra, and rock and then into Grouse G
ulch. I slip on the edge of the track and start sliding down and realize I'm off trail. I look back to see a flag above and off to the right and another directly underneath. Instead of trying to climb back up, I simply keep sliding down through the switchback into another snow field towards the next flag. Reaching the flag, the snow track goes right and back onto a muddy dirt trail. I have escaped the worst of it. It's an easy track from here, heading directly down and out.

And that was just the first set of storms..."

I am not sure exactly how many Hardrocks Joe has done but it's a lot. He missed last year after developing pulmonary oedema in the lead-up to the race. The year before he finished after the final cut-off, but finished nevertheless. So this year he was looking for some redemption and told me before the race he was feeling good. He is possibly the most experienced ultrarunner I know and was the inspiration behind me starting Trailrunningcompany with his race directing and coaching business Tejas Trails. When he found out about my heart problem and that I was out of Hardrock he asked if there was anything he could do for me. I asked if he could put an extra rock on the Joel Zucker memorial cairn on Grant-Swamp pass for me as is the tradition (Hardrock100/Joel). I never met Joel but his death in 1998 soon after finishing his 3rd Hardrock always resonates with me. More so now I have this affliction. Following the results online over the weekend I was bitterly disappointed to see Joe drop out at Ouray. Having read his account above I now have a better understanding of why. So Joe never made it as far as Grant-Swamp this year in the counter-clockwise direction. I hope I get a chance to put an extra rock on that cairn next year with him.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Perhaps this is as good as it will get

todays heartrate

When time came for me to head out for a run today I simply couldn't face it and chose to curl up in front of the heater with the dogs for a sleep. I woke feeling drugged. How appropriate. The irony wasn't overlooked. I was already dressed for a run so dragged myself out the door. As is now the routine I walked for the first 10minutes to slowly warm my heart up. Then it is a slow jog of around 7 minutes per kilometre to ensure my heartrate stays below 130bpm. I have chosen that as my upper limit. Go above that and I walk until it drops significantly and start again. This is the pattern of my runs. Add to that the ever present feeling of dragging a tyre or 2 behind me. And the lack of blood getting to my legs makes them feel like I am wearing compression tights that are 2 sizes too small. The big muscles starved of adequate oxygenated blood start to complain even at a slow jog.

Some days once I start to run, regardless of how slow I go, my heartrate spikes and I can feel the pressure. It can jump from 110 to 170bpm in the space of a few paces for no reason. And then drop as rapidly. Today this began after nearly 20minutes when I thought my heartrate was nice and stable. The spikes can be seen clearly on the trace above. It didn't get too high as I kept stopping. Eventually it stopped with only minor accelerations. But the frustration, the interruption to momentum, the disappointment was still there. Walking home slowly up the hill I looked back at the sun setting behind the clouds across the Moorabool valley. The sky was grey, orange and black. The wind was cold and the rain was stinging even through my tights. It was coming in horizontal and hitting me in the face under the brim of my cap. Normally I would complain about such horrible weather. Tonight I embraced it, realising this was probably as good as it was going to get. And what is the alternative?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Bad days and bad days

I seem to be stringing together more bad days than good days. I have been free of AF for about 3 weeks now so that is definitely a positive. But I have also been off work pretty much the past 4 or 5 weeks continuously. And not doing much else besides lying on the couch. I have eliminated all obvious stimulants: no alcohol, no tea or coffee and even turned to decaf green tea. I was finding that if I ate too much my heart would go beserk for the rest of the night so I have cut down my portions. Seems to have helped. I try to avoid lying on my left side, sounds bizarre but it tends to give me arrhythmia. It was so bad one event that I actually started to pass out. And still the incredible lethargy. And frustration. That never ends.

Tomorrow is 4th July celebrations at Hardrock. Americans celebrate Independence Day like you wouldn't believe. Silverton holds a festive parade and the Hardrockers 'march' behind the start/finish banner. It is a fun day out culminating in the Rhubarb Pie Fair in the park and then the local fire brigades have a 'hose-off' where they try to kill each other with their high pressure hoses. How they don't take out an eye or rupture an ear drum beats me. But it is quite the scene, especially when they finally turn the hoses on the crowds. I will miss not being a part of all that.

Photos are filtering though from the Hardrock course marking. The snow is simply amazing. Way more than in 2008 when I was worried it would be cancelled because it exceeded the allowable depth in the lead-up. But it does melt out fast. Though there will be some scary sections. None worse than climbing the pitches up Virginius. A lot of runners will go through there in the night and early morning when the snow is turned to treacherous ice. I remember hauling myself up the fixed rope in 2009 and being shit scared of slipping. I also remember getting to the top and claiming that 'there ain't nothing like that at Badwater!'

Back home the You Yangs Trail Races are fast approaching and a few of us spent some time clearing trails today. The park has been closed for 6 months after flood damage and the trails are largely covered in leaves, bark and sticks. We raked, scraped and blew the trails clean. Well the guys did, I was worn out by the end of the morning and went home to sleep on the couch. But it was great to get out in the bush for a while. I appear to have suffered as a result, on my run tonight my heartrate went out of control towards the end of a very slow and easy 8km. It hasn't done that at the end before so I was disappointed. And totally trashed when I finally got home.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Good days and bad days

There are good days and bad days. Today was a bad day for running. After some stable runs over the last week I thought I was starting to adjust to the medication. Adjust is a misleading description. By adjust I mean not having my heartrate spike erratically. I have still been struggling to go much faster than 8min/km pace. But I had a '1/2 tyre' run the other night which was really refreshing. And led me to believe maybe I was acclimatising just like my friends are currently doing at Silverton.

After not running yesterday and feeling pretty crappy I was keen to get out for a run and clear the head. From the start my heartrate get accelerating disproportionally to the effort. We would slow to a walk and it would drop below 100. I would ease into a shuffle and it would climb to 140. At 8+min/km. And I could feel it. Every step was a struggle. My breath was short and shallow no matter how much I tried to slow and lengthen it. There was no rhythm. There was no respite. Eventually we walked back to the car for a very ordinary 4.5km. I was thoroughly dejected, realising I was still totally at the mercy of this disorder and the medication.

Entries open tomorrow morning for the Kepler in New Zealand this December. They sell out in minutes. I had planned to chance the rush and see if I could get in. Not this year. I look at the spring season of ultras rapidly approaching and realise that realistically I am likely going to miss the lot. Except GNW. I will not miss GNW. That is not an option. Let's just hope it falls on a good day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Another cardiology consult

I ran alone again last night. The weather was atrocious. The dogs didn't even move away from the heater when I headed for the door. I was wearing 3 layers on top plus a light running jacket, polypro beanie, buff around my neck, full length heavy tights, and polypro gloves. A cap kept the rain out of my eyes. The biggest problem was walking/shuffling so slow meant I couldn't warm up. My hands were freezing even in the gloves. Ordinarily I would probably just skip my run in these conditions. Not anymore. If I haven't run and I am scheduled for one I am out there. I will never take running for granted again.

I have a new rating system to describe my runs. On the heart medication it feels like I am dragging a tyre behind me when I try to run. Sometimes it feels like I am dragging 2 tyres at once. Sometimes I am dragging a tractor tyre. I don't like to talk about those ones. Last night was a 'one tyre' night. I ran again this morning, unusual to run 2 days in a row but opportunity knocked. This was a 'two tyre' run. I had just had my morning medication and clearly the effects were strong. We bumped into a runner I know and he turned and ran with us a short way but soon realised I wasn't going to talk. It was more that I couldn't talk. It was taking everything I had just to keep moving.

I revisited my cardiologist today. I updated him and he said that it looks like I need to see the ablation specialist (who I had preemptively booked in to). That is not for another 3 weeks. So I am to remain on this relatively low dose of beta-blockers until then. No solution to the side effects. Except more time off work. I pretty much expected all of that but left rather disappointed nonetheless. I haven't had an episode of AF for 2 weeks. But I am still suffering regular arrhythmia and I can feel my heart 'jumping' to try and flip into AF but the medication is suppressing it. A very unpleasant feeling like my heart is actually rotating inside my chest. I have had more anecdotal stories of successful ablations (thanks Darcy) so I am really pinning my hopes on that now.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Not going to Hardrock

Today is the day I would have flown out to Hardrock. As I have done the last 3 years. It feels a little weird and a lot disappointing. It will be really hard following the online progress of the race and not being there. It will be tough watching friends drop out, and feeling their pain. It will be rewarding watching other friends finish. It is going to be tough not being there. I will miss the people more than the race.

But I need to deal with my heart problem. I will be in that notoriously difficult lottery again next February. I plan to get back to HR and get that sub 40 hour finish I so badly want. I need to believe that will still be possible.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Trying to find motivation

this is my heartrate sitting on the
loungeroom floor at rest even
while on medication

For the first time in my life I almost hate running. I am not injured. But I struggle to get out the door. Once out the door I struggle to get going. Once going I struggle to keep going. Then I struggle to get home again. Running has become a real struggle. It is no longer the pleasure that I once knew. I could quite easily just give up. I am not seeing any fitness gain. I do not need any weight loss. I have no race I can train for. And it is definitely not providing any sense of wellbeing. I come home feeling more crap than when I went out. I gasp for air walking up a hill. My legs feel like lead running down a hill. The flats are a shuffle barely more than walking pace. The winter has settled in with cold and dark evenings. It has also settled on my heart like a cold dark cloud.

But I will not give in. I know I can beat this. The drugs are like poison but they keep my heart in check. Well at least most of the time. And that is the point, the drugs are not a cure. They are to manage the problem and even then it is a compromise between keeping me in sinus rhythm and allowing me to still function as a human being. Right now neither objective is totally successful. I see the cardiologist again next week. Time to look at the other options. I need to run again. I doubt I will ever be able to run like I want again. I don't mind going slow. But I need to have this weight lifted off my heart and this cloud to clear.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Trying to run

my heartrate

I went for a run last night. Hardly worthy of comment you would think. But for someone who eats, sleeps and breathes running it is something I no longer take for granted. It was bitterly cold. And raining. And dark. Conditions that would normally keep me warm indoors. I hate being cold. I really hate being cold. But I hadn't run in days and I needed desperately to reconnect and that was the only way I knew how.

My medication suppresses my heart function. Imagine towing a tyre behind you. Except that it is a tractor tyre. That is how I feel. And I still need to keep my heartrate down so I am little more than shuffling. I can do that. I have dragged my arse up and down mountains on sheer will power. This is nothing.

I wrap myself in thermals, tights, gloves, buff and running jacket. My cap kept the rain out of my eyes. I walked to get started, allowing my heart to slowly adjust. As soon as I started to shuffle at 8min/km pace it took off. 140bpm while shuffling? I regulated my breathing and slowed even more. I could walk faster than this. It dropped but sped up immediately without provocation. My heart sank. Figuratively. What more could I do? I was going as slow as I could. I was on the meds. Bugger it. I would just push on as slow and as regulated as I could.

I could feel my heart speed up and slow down, with no correlation to my effort. But I needed to run. I needed to know that despite all of this I could still run. I wasn't dying for god sake. I needed some perspective. I have a friend who is dying of cancer. That is truly sad. My problem pales by comparison. I have another friend paralysed from the neck down. This gives perspective and a reality check. I can do this.

15 mins in and I am still yo-yoing up and down but keeping a slow steady rhythm in my running and breathing. I enter a recreational park and footballers are leaving the ground after training. The lights on the towers are still blazing away, lighting up the oval. As I run past the last tower I look up and the rain is spiraling down. The shimmering cascade is hypnotic and I run mesmerised as the rain drops fall towards me backlit in the broad beam of light. Euphoria washes over me and I reach one of those rare moments in running where I can feel nothing and nothing really matters. The sheer beauty of the moment carries me away from all my cares and I move without effort.

As I pass from the light back into the darkness the moment recedes but the experience travels with me. My shuffle feels light and I don't care how slow it is. I am running and that is all that matters.

Eventually my heartrate stabilises at a regular 120-130 bpm for most the rest of the run. I run for an hour and finish with a walk. It is a far cry from any ultra but it means nearly as much to me. We take so much for granted and so often sweat on the detail that it causes us to miss what is really going on and what is really important. Sure there is so much more to life than running. And so much more than ultras. But for me running ultras is so much of my life. I still need to feel just a little of that. However brief. However hard.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Out of Hardrock

Today the unthinkable: I emailed the race director of Hardrock and withdrew my entry.

I have Atrial Fibrillation (AF or AFib). Paroxysmal AF, which means it comes in bursts and rectifies itself eventually. In my case it comes on spontaneously and generally reverts in a matter of hours. No identifiable cause. It can come on simply bending over to tie my shoelaces. Walking the dogs. Running. Sitting on the couch. For me it is not life threatening but it is definitely life altering. There is mild danger of developing a clot in your heart which flies off and causes a stroke. Given my otherwise good health this is a fairly low risk but I am on blood thinners just in case. But the symptoms are very distressing when it does occurs and the faulty and rapid beating causes reduced circulation and resultant fatigue and sometimes breathlessness. The more you are in AF the harder it is to revert and stay out of it.

As runners we work hard to build up our endurance, our strength, our speed. We strive to make ourselves fitter. At the core of all that physiology we want our heart to be strong and efficient. It is our primary muscle. It is our engine room. As athletes of whatever calibre it is the common denominator at the centre of all our fitness: a healthily functioning heart. When it fails you have big problems. You feel betrayed. You feel vulnerable. You feel weak. You feel frustrated because you can no longer do the things you take for granted, like running. You feel cheated. It is not like an achilles or a hamstring or an itb. You can rest, rub and stretch those. And you know they will come good, eventually. This breakdown perplexes and defies explanation. Even the experts don’t really know why it happens. And it gets worse with age so it is hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.

About a month ago I was lying in the emergency department looking at the world through the distorted plastic of an oxygen mask. I knew I had a big problem. I was probably as fit as I could have been. Ironically that was likely the cause of my problem. The blood pressure cuff inflated spontaneously squeezing my upper arm before releasing and beeping away on the large monitor above me. My heart-beat zigzagged all over the screen like a drunken spider dragging it’s legs through a pot of ink. My pulse was racing at 140 despite me lying flat on my back. I didn’t need the monitor to tell me something was wrong. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. It felt like it was trying to break out of my chest. At the same time I was short of breath. I was low on oxygen and my circulation was compromised.

I was in Atrial Fibrillation. Or AF as it is more commonly known. And apparently it is common. But usually in older people. At 47 and very fit I was a curiosity to the Emergency staff. But I am not alone in the sporting world. The association of AF with male over 40 endurance athletes is becoming all too common. It recently featured as an article in the American Trail Runner magazine. I initially ignored it when I picked up my copy. But later read it searching for answers that seemed lacking in the conventional texts.

When I finally got to see a Cardiologist about 3 weeks after the first big attack, he told me I was the third athlete in two days he had seen with AF. Little consolation. And very few answers. And missing the most important one: a quick cure. My expectations were always going to be unrealistic. But he knew his stuff and had a sensible and conciliatory approach that I could live with. For now.

I was already on beta-blockers to try to regulate my heart rate. And aspirin to help reduce the chance of a stroke. The beta-blockers are worse than the disease. Not only is my heart rate suppressed but so am I. Most of my days are spent in bed or asleep on the couch. I try to run but it feels like I am dragging bags of concrete behind me. But I still try. As hard and uncomfortable as it is, I need to maintain that connection with who I really am.

The cardiologist’s other prescription was less exercise. Both volume and intensity. I was supposed to be going to the US to run the Hardrock in 6 weeks. He wanted me to try new medication and come back and see him in 6 weeks. There goes Hardrock. After the 20minute consultation the only thing I could remember was his comment about being out in a bunch ride the other day with a mate who had had an ablation and he (the cardiologist) had trouble hanging onto this guys wheel. That’s what I want: an ablation, where they go in with catheters and burn the rogue electrodes.

As an ultrarunner I have developed a personal fitness rating that tells me where I’m at. Generally, with base fitness I can roll out of bed on a weekend and go run a marathon. If I am fit, I can roll out of bed and go run 100km. When I am in really good shape I can get up and go run 200km. On the beta-blockers I am lucky to get out of bed, period. Running 10km in an hour and a half on flat pavement is like running up a mountain on day two of a hundred miler. And it even comes with the same nausea. It is just plain awful. And I get home and collapse on the floor for another hour to recover. And still the flutters and racing heart occur. I barely run at all and have lowered the intensity by necessity and design. Yet I can see no improvement. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?

I am still running, but it is no longer a pleasure, far from it. As a rule I love to run. And there are so many great trails out there that I still want to run. So many great races I still want to run. I crave to feel that freedom that only comes from long hours out on the trail. It is what I love to do. It defines me. But for now, all my goals have been swept away. I treat this disease like another ultramarathon, I keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope that eventually things will get better again. Ironic how running ultras has trained me for coping with life with AF but having AF means I can no longer train for ultras.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

One more time for good measure

Lottery time at Hardrock central, Silverton, Colorado. With 4 tickets (3 finishes in the last 3 years and 1 for this years entry) I had roughly a 30+% chance of selection. This is my fifth time in the lottery. And my fifth straight time drawn out. Unbelievable. None of the other 6 aussies made the cut or even the top 100 on the waitlist. I am both blessed and embarrassed that I should make it when so many others miss out. So I get to have another crack at breaking 40hours. I have a little run planned in a couple of weeks that will keep me busy and take my mind off of HR for a while but it will be another big year with Hardrock as the central piece. I really must finish last years report!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

GNW272 November 13,14,15th 2010

While my Hardrock race report sits unfinished I have managed to write up my latest big run:

My phone rang at 9:30pm, Friday night, waking me up. I sat up startled, thinking it was my alarm going off. It was Blue Dog. I’m still not sure what was said or even why he even rang except that it was the night before the Great North Walk 100s and he and I shared the mantle of the only runners to have run every year and managed to finish. Except he surpassed me: my first year was only the 100km while he had 5 straight 100mile finishes. I mumbled something still half-asleep and he realised he had woken me up so apologised and hung-up, promising to see me on the beach on Sunday. The beach. Patonga Beach. The finish-line for the 100miler. He had no idea of what we were about to do. By waking us he had inadvertently robbed us of a couple of hours of precious sleep. Sleep, the all-important currency of the long-haul ultrarunner.
What were we about to do? My partner in crime, Phil (Spud) Murphy, and I were about to run the entire GNW from Newcastle to Sydney, sandwiching the GNW100s trail race in the middle. The Great North Walk, for those unfamiliar, is a 250km walking track through the Watagan Mountains paralleling the coast between Newcastle and Sydney. The GNW100s is a 100mile and 100km race along the track from Toronto to the beach at Patonga (with the 100km race finishing at Yarramalong). The 100mile race is actually 175km. With deviations off the established route to designated checkpoints as part of the race our journey would be 272km. The race alone has around 6,000m of elevation gain and loss. Add another 97km and plenty more elevation. Held in November it was nearly always hot. So why would we even try?
Phil had run 4 straight GNW100 milers, reaching as high as second place last year (2009). I had also run 4 straight GNW100 milers scraping across the line in second last place last year. The first year of the race in 2005, Phil had paced Blue Dog in the 100 miles, while I had run the 100km. We had both been here for every year of the race. We both had a strong affinity for this race. We had been planning to run the GNW track in its entirety for some time and once Darrel Robins, Andrew Vize and Terry Coleman set a speed record time of 66 hours in June 2009 that became our target. What better opportunity than incorporate our attempt around the official race? Maybe that was our big mistake.
12:30am Friday night and the clock on the billboard read 26C degrees. The humidity was high, incredibly oppressive. Even at midnight. The waterfront in Newcastle was pumping. The nightclub on the pier was spilling patrons out onto the carpark and as they wandered by they asked if we were selling that cold pizza we were eating out of a box in the car-boot. In shorts and tshirts with camelbaks and headlamps we must have looked a little out of place.
1:00am and we trotted off along the street full of enthusiasm and not just a hint of trepidation. Under street-lights and a half moon we wound our way towards the Oblesque on the hill following the familiar GNW bollards on street corners. An unmarked police car pulled up alongside us. The burly Maori officer asked what we were doing. “Running to Sydney.” Bemused if not a little incredulous was his expression and response. “And what are they?” he asked, pointing at my collapsed trekking poles. “Walking poles”, I motioned somewhat comically how they worked. “And that thing flashing on your arm?” “That’s a GPS transponder so people can track our progress.” OK, they seemed happy that we were harmless. Maybe a little crazy, but harmless.
The GNW100s starts at 6am Saturday morning. Race briefing 5:30am. Registration before that. We allowed 4 hours to run the 25km of trail and bike paths from Newcastle to Teralba. We couldn’t afford to miss the start. The humidity was unbelievable. Sweat clung to any exposed skin, unable to evaporate. Our clothes were drenched. We ran, walked, talked and soaked in the night-time peace and quiet. Phil had recently run this part of the course to be familiar with it. This proved invaluable but we still missed one turn coming off a beach and we found ourselves off track but only lost a few minutes. Spider webs punctuated the path and caused much consternation for the lead runner, usually Phil. There was some nice fast singletrack and leg sapping soft-sand beach running. It was hard to believe we were so close to Newcastle suburbia as we ran along fully enveloped in dense bush. On one of the headlands Phil pointed up at the sky and I just caught the tail end of a huge shooting star. Finally we hit the foreshore path at Warners Bay and we were free of cobwebs, for now.
We trotted to the race start-line at 4:50. After registering we reloaded our packs and filled our camelbaks. We were not using any crew throughout the race so placed drop-bags into the checkpoint boxes. We were itching to go. Our personal stopwatch was still running. News of our plan spread steadily through the runners. There was some disbelief and some admiration but a definite hint of incredulity.
6:00am Saturday morning, finally. Race start. Phil and I settled well back in the field. I was used to being here. Spud was in a different zone, used to being up the front. We chatted and trotted amongst old friends. We left the bitumen and climbed the rolling ridges before dropping to Heaton’s Gap. We refilled our packs again at the service station. And then began the long hot, breathless climb out of the valley.
Phil had our projected splits printed out. I ignored them, trying to concentrate on drinking, eating and just getting to the next Check Point. The first section to Checkpoint 1 is undoubtedly the toughest part of the race physically. With an extra 25km in the legs and no sleep it felt a tad tougher today.
By the time we dropped into the Congewai Valley the weather gods had dealt their hand for the day: hot and humid. I had run every GNW100. This one felt the hottest and the most humid. Spud had been running just in front of me all morning, tempering his pace to match my slower pace. When we hit the road I resolved to get it over as fast as possible. We ran nearly all of it.
Congewai School was a hive of activity. I took a bit longer than planned and by the time I was ready to go Spud was a little anxious. Updates on Bill Thompson had him only 10 minutes behind us. That meant we were closer to the cut-offs than we planned. While our plan had been to run conservatively to save our energy for the third night, we didn’t want the stress and pressure of battling with the cut-offs.
We pushed up the hill with the promise of a rest at the top. This climb to the communication tower is notoriously tough, made worse by the number of false summits. Eventually we topped out and met several runners recovering. We sat down and I ate some creamed-rice. Conscious of the time we hurried off again. This ridge road is pretty runable but the humidity sapped my strength and we walked sections we should have run. There were runners all around and the conversation helped distract me from the task at hand.
Watagan Creek Valley and the afternoon sun was finally sinking lower in the sky. We wouldn’t make the basin in daylight. Not even close. The long, long climb to the unmanned water-stop had sweat dripping from my chin and stinging my eyes. Dave Byrnes was there manning the water drop but the big surprise was Blue Dog in the back of Dave’s car. He had pulled out, injury finally winning the war. I felt a mix of disappointment for him and excitement at the realisation that all I had to do now was finish and I would surpass him on top of the honour board as the only person to finish every GNW100s. We exchanged some banter but I knew he was hurting.
Night came quickly and we found ourselves in a little convoy of runners. The Basin seemed to take forever to negotiate, made more difficult by fallen trees obstructing the track. The Basin Checkpoint was a welcome sight and we tried to keep it short but get well fed. I had a couple of cups of hot soup and choked down some more creamed rice. Bill came in to rousing applause and a look of horror on many runners face. At least 6 runners jumped up and checked out, aware that Bill represented the imaginary moving cut-off.
The climb out of the Basin was way longer than I remembered. I was lathered in sweat by the time we reached the top. A cocktail of tiredness and an ambiguous corner had us second guessing ourselves and we lost some time checking out the possibilities. The maps came out and reassured we made our way onto the long descent to Cedar Brush Track Road. Knowing what was before us we settled into a steady run-walk routine. We passed a few runners. Fatigue was getting the better of me. Spud agreed to a short nap at the school.
But the Yarramalong Checkpoint took forever to come. My eyelids were so heavy. We checked in and I found a cot and lay down, Diane promising to wake me in 10 minutes. My head spun and danced with a thousands images of the day and night. Voices vibrated through my ears. “10 minutes Andy”. “Give me another 5.” Tick, tick, tick, tick. “Time Andy.” I climbed up. My head was full of fog. There was no sleep to be found with so much activity. Paul Every clearly disagreed and snored contentedly on a cot beside me. Phil and I staggered off into the night once again.
Bill was in CP4 when we left. Our buffer was gone. No more sleep stops. Up Bumblebee Hill and under the Powerlines. Climbing the hill I could see a runner’s light cutting a path through the darkness below. It was moving swiftly and smoothly across the trail. “That you Bill?” I yelled. “Yep” was the reply. Oh crap, he is going to catch us. We knew only too well that Bill walks an even pace with almost no slow-down factor. To fall behind him so early would mean a constant battle with the cut-offs all the next day. We ran more, walked less and no more talking.
The course deviation along the road gave us some respite. Running down the road I looked back to see Bill’s light bobbing along behind us. He was like the Terminator, relentlessly pursuing us. We passed Grant and then picked up Jane and she stuck with us through the early hours. We stopped for a brief refill at the unmanned water drop. Still looking over our shoulders. Jane ran ahead and we were alone again, silently plodding on the soft sandy track.
I struggled with fatigue through the wee hours. I cursed myself for losing concentration. I tried to catch up to Phil but every time I got near he would correspondingly pick up the pace. Finally I caught up and I conceded that he should go on without me. I could not fathom finishing the race, yet alone the full GNW272. I was defeated. He told me to hang in there and I would come good. My mind could not cope with the enormity of what we were trying to do. I refocussed and concentrated on just getting to the next checkpoint.
On the last big climb into Sommersby, Bill passed me. Effortlessly. He was listening to Mendelssohn’s Concerto on his ipod and moving as rhythmically as the music in his ear-buds. I caught up to Phil and as we hit the bitumen leading to the school the sun was rising. Bill was walking way up ahead on the road. We ran all the way to the Checkpoint to get back in front of him.
In and out. In such a hurry I forgot to refill my bladder. Oh, what a catastrophe that could have been. I did a little check as I shuffled down the road and realised my mistake. Back to the school and filled up. And then we were running again. Solidly. The new day brought new energy. We caught Jane and Nikolay. The four of us ran as a group.
Approaching Checkpoint 6 we were doing the maths to work out how much time we had left. If we could leave CP6 by 11:30am that would give us 6.5 hours for the last section. We could do that comfortably. If nothing went wrong. Nikolay wanted to pull out but we convinced him to hang in there and we would get him home.
In and out once again, bare necessities only. Phil was calling out time checks to get us out quickly. 11:30 and we were on our way, a ragged bunch but totally focussed on finishing.
We were walking lots and my pace was slower than the others so I would have to run to catch up. We were silent as each of us dealt with the demons in our minds and the baking sun on our backs. It was hot again. Damn hot. Every pool of water I would dunk my hat and pour water over my head. I walked into one pool to cool off my burning feet. The cold water was refreshing but the arthritis in my toes ached for ages afterwards negating any benefit. I was getting worried about the time. I knew from last year we had to pass the ‘15km to go’ sign by 2 pm to be safe. (Note: that sign is at least 5km out.) But we reached it well before 2:00 so I knew we could make the unmanned water point before the 3pm cut-off. And we did, with 10minutes to spare. But I was sure now that Bill was going to miss it and possibly not finish (remember to never underestimate Bill!).
We refilled and hustled out of there. The road and tracks seemed to go around in circles. As we crossed the sandstone plateau the heat created a pressure cooker effect. There was no escape. Phil pulled ahead but I could still see him occasionally on the next rocky outcrop. I heard Jane behind me say “Hi Bill”. I got a fright seeing Bill there. Such amazing strength and pace consistency. With less than 2 hours to go I knew that meant we needed to do some solid running. I asked Bill how we were placed. He said OK but we needed to move a bit faster. He passed us and I urged Nikolay to stick with him. I could see Nikolay was torn by his loyalty to our little group but I assured him I would look after Jane and he needed to keep Bill in sight. I knew I could still run if I had to and if it got close I would give everything to make the finish on time.
Jane was struggling. She lagged further and further behind. I encouraged her to run when she could. Her face was expressionless, a steely grey mask. I asked her if she wanted me to push her or leave her alone. She said “both”. “Typical female response,” I complained and made her run again. I knew we could finish but we needed to keep a steady pace. And she was battling to do that. I was tired and missed reading all the warning signs. She was already in trouble but I didn’t see it.
Finally the big drop down towards the rubbish-tip where we would hit the dirt road. We were getting close. Oh so close. I told Jane we could let Bill go now but we would need to run on the road to catch him again. I got ahead on the steep descent and I caught Bill at a small creek just before the road. He was wetting his hat. I jogged behind him to the track junction with the road.
I waited here a few minutes. No Jane. A few more minutes. Still no Jane. Something was wrong. Crap, I started running back up the hill, calling her name all the way. Still no Jane. Finally I was back to where I had last seen her. This is not good. Something is wrong. Really wrong. There was nowhere for her to go but down this track. I kept calling. No response. Then suddenly I heard a low groan. Then silence again. I kept calling. Nothing. I had no idea where the noise had come from but she was clearly in trouble. Finally she answered: “I can’t get out, I just want to get out.” “Keep talking to me, Jane.” I had a fix. She was in the bushes. Somewhere. I could hear the rustling. I started bashing my way towards her. It was thick. I reached her and she was upright, but only because the thicket was so dense it held her up. “Tell me you just came in here to wee?” I implored hopefully. One look into her vacant eyes and I knew she was not well. She was delirious. I dragged her back to the path where she promptly collapsed. I made sure she was breathing OK and dug out my phone. No reception. I started searching for Jane’s phone. She came around again and half helped me get her phone out.
I got Dave Byrnes on the phone, not without further drama. I relayed the predicament and told him I would get Jane down to the road if he could get a 4WD to us for evacuation. After hanging up I tried to get her onto her feet but she crumpled back onto the ground. I tried supporting her but it was hopeless. Just then Kim Cook turned up. I didn’t realise anyone was still behind us. “Boy am I glad to see you!” He was pacing Jon from the Phillipines. We slung Jane between us and half carried, half walked her down the hill. At the bottom I sent them on their way, doubtful they would beat the cut. Kim said they still would but they had to run.
Jane was regaining some composure. But she was still ashen grey and not always making sense. I looked at my watch. My race was over. But I was so glad I had gone back when I did. Off track and unconscious it would have been impossible to find her.
What seemed like an eternity but was really only another 15minutes, Dave and the doctor came roaring along in the 4WD. I explained the situation and the doctor examined Jane. He decided she was badly dehydrated and probably had heat stress and would give her IV fluids. I updated Dave on Kim and Jon’s progress. It was now 5:10pm. Dave looked at me and said he would give me a time concession for lost time helping Jane but he also thought I could still beat the clock. Damn. 6km in 50 minutes. With hills. After 194km and 40 hours. Damn. I would really like to finish inside the official cut-off. OK I would do it.
I charged up the hill. I ran, and ran, and ran. Phil’s words echoed in my ears about not wanting to have a hard race finish and be trashed for the GNW272 into Sydney. Damn, I want this finish. My legs were screaming at me. My lungs started burning. I was red-lining but wasn’t backing off. I tasted vomit in my mouth. My chest was pounding. Damn. Damn Dave. If he had just said I had no chance I would have jogged home. I should have recognised that glint in his eye.
The gravel road went on forever. A huge black snake was stretched across in front of me. Jump that and keep running, adrenaline surging through my veins. And then another hill. Finally I had to walk and catch my breath. Only to the top of this hill and then run hard again. 30 minutes to go. Another turn, more road, another turn. Run hard. I was sucking in big air. Running for all I was worth. 20 minutes to go. I could do this. Finally the last turn and Patonga Rd was in sight. Empty one water bottle to save weight. Across the bitumen. Check my watch. Oh crap this will be close. I ran the singletrack paralleling the road as hard as I could. Then the gravel road to Warrah Trig. Empty my other bottle. Another snake, small this time and easily dodged. On and on and on it went. All up-hill. My legs felt like cement but I lifted them over and over again and threw them out in front of me.
Finally the carpark, then up the stairs, only minutes to go, I wasn’t going to make it. Yes I would. Harder, faster. I plummeted down the paved trail throwing everything I had into it. Hard right turn onto the gravel road and then that soul destroying climb up to the beach access track. I ran for all I was worth, uphill. 3 minutes to go. Turn onto the singletrack and run hard again.
Too late. My watch ticked over 6pm as I was bouncing down the steep rocky track. I backed off, defeated, and trotted down the hill, flashes of the beach and the finish line so tantalisingly close. I hit the sand and the bell started ringing. And ringing and ringing and ringing, echoing along the beach. I ran all the way, savouring every step. Alone and dead last. After the cut-off but finishing nevertheless, a tear of joy welled up in my eyes. A tear of relief. A tear of pride. I ran all the way across the soft sand to the finishing post spurred on by the sound of cheers and applause. 6:04pm. My 5th hundred mile finish and my 6th GNW finish. How sweet it is.
Dog made me kiss the post. Dave hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. People congratulated me. Phil was there, fresh from a swim. I stripped down to my shorts and waded into the water.
I lay back in the cool of the Pacific Ocean. Water lapped across my cheeks and forehead as I floated on my back. So calm and tranquil. All the pain ebbed out of my tired body. I was so relaxed I nearly fell asleep right there. The tide could have carried me off in carefree oblivion.
But the big clock was still ticking. Our crew for the next phase, Kathy, was waiting to drive us to Brooklyn. After collecting our drop-bags it was a short drive across the Hawkesbury River to Brooklyn to rejoin the GNW. We parked and had a 30 minute nap in the car. 30 minutes could have been 8 hours or 5 minutes. In my head there was no longer any relevance to time. I woke feeling drugged and sluggish. My mind craved real sleep. I just wanted to stop moving and lie still.
We had trouble locating the start of the track off a small bridge but the GPS told us it had to be in there somewhere. Pushing through some bushes Phil found it. We left the houses and were running in bush again. Full blooded running. Refreshed, renewed and full of pizza, again. The trail was like a highway, wide and flat. The only obstacles were webs. Some ambitious spiders had spun their webs right across the path. The first you would know was when your face was plastered with the sticky tight-knit web.
We were running a good pace. I was full of confidence that we would finish and break the record. The trail twisted and turned a few times but we gobbled up the miles. Then before I knew what had happened I was climbing hand-over-fist down into a river valley. Then up again. Each new outcrop to negotiate tested my cognitive functions. Suddenly I was overcome with the need for sleep. “Sleepmonsters” they call it, courtesy of our third night without proper sleep. I was tripping and staggering like a drunk. The leaves on the ground became a writhing mass of baby snakes. I was hallucinating badly.
Phil waited patiently at every turn. The trail was hard to follow, often just the easiest way down a rocky cliff. The occasional GNW sign reassured us. This went on forever, repeating the same pattern of clambering, staggering and catching up. Finally we were climbing again and we could hear a train, signalling the next crew stop at Cowan train station.
I was barely shuffling now. My feet dragged across the ground. We were well into our third night and it was killing me. I felt the burden of the team effort. I had offered to let Phil go on but he wouldn’t finish without me. We refuelled at the car and headed back into the night.
Not 10 minutes from the car and drizzle settled in. I so much wanted to just turn around and go back. Once again the trail degenerated quickly into a twisted torment of rock scrambling and climbing and descending. My mind was fighting battles with all my senses. It became impossible to tell what was real and what was imaginary. I could see Phil below me and I was certain he was on a steel viewing platform. What a perfect place for a nap. When I reached him he was on a narrow trail. Further and further we descended and with that my consciousness receded further and further from reality. The leaves on the ground wriggled like more baby snakes. Boulders morphed into a building or a car. I had no peripheral awareness. My world was confined to the small dome of light cast by my headlamp.
I reached Phil again and he told me to have a sleep. My legs crumpled spontaneously and in seconds I was fast asleep where I fell. An ant crawled up my nose and I woke with a violent snorting fit. Within minutes I was asleep again, but not before I heard Phil say he would nap too.
Maybe 30 minutes later I was aware of being roused. I staggered to my feet and as if on autopilot trudged off behind Phil once more. We had lost so much time with my dawdling pace and the sleep stop. I finally told Phil there was just no way I could go on. It was becoming dangerous. I couldn’t navigate simple obstacles. He resolved to stop with me at Berowra Waters, our next crew meeting.
As the third day dawned we were treated to the tranquil setting of Berowra unfolding below us. We had covered 220km in 53 hours. We picked our way down and along the shore. Kathy came out to meet us. We sat and had some more cold pizza and a breakfast beer while contemplating what might have been. It all seemed so anticlimactic but we were drained of all emotion, except maybe disappointment. But out of failure comes strengthened resolve.

People ask why we do this sort of thing. I usually answer that if you have to ask you will probably never understand. Once again I had been tested. And I had come up short. Running the entire GNW had been a goal for a long time. Failing to complete it will simply fuel that desire. I couldn’t ask for a better companion in Phil to lead me through it and my main misgiving was letting him down. Clearly my mind had failed my body. But it was purely fatigue through lack of sleep that defeated me. Sure the weather didn’t help. Sure the extra miles to complete the race didn’t help. Sure the dramas and sprint to the race finish didn’t help. And of course my lack of training didn’t help. But pure and simple: I needed more sleep to finish this.
The GNW is a classic trail. Without doubt the GNW100s is a classic trail race. Once again I thank Dave Byrnes for creating and building this great event and blessing our speed-record attempt. Our crew, Kathy, who stepped in to fill the critical role of support was amazing. And Phil, what more could I ask for in a companion to attempt and hopefully one day complete this epic adventure. And complete we will. Next time.