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June 19, 2008

The Heart of an Ultrarunner

A couple of administrative notes before today’s post …

*I’ve been tagged twice now to do that “describe your running” thing that’s going around. So that item has moved up about 5 slots on my list of future posts – but needless to say, you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for it.

*A friend of mine is involved in a filmmaking contest featuring short videos on various aspects of running. I have to admit that before he pointed it out to me, I had no idea that such a competition even existed - but apparently it does, and the stakes are enormous. Remember when I won that blog contest, and the reward was the gold ribbon picture you see on my sidebar? Well, the winner of this contest gets a trip to Beijing. All of a sudden, my victory seems remarkably insignificant.

Anyway, when you get a minute, go to
this website and check out the videos. My friend did the steeplechase video, so we’d appreciate your vote for that one – but honestly, they’re all pretty good.

OK, let’s move along …


Although I try not to place additional value on my friendships based on people’s occupations or skills, I’ll admit this much: sometimes, it’s nice to have friends who are physicians.

It’s especially nice if your friend is a prominent cardiologist with advanced training in diagnostic imaging, who just opened a clinic featuring a new multi-million dollar non-contrast time-spatial labeling inversion pulse (I know, I know … I don’t understand all those words, either) magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) machine, and is in need of volunteers for cardiac scans so that he and the clinical staff can get accustomed to instrumentation and calibration of the machine.

As you can imagine, it took me about 0.002 seconds to say “Where do I sign?” after the doctor asked if I was interested in volunteering – and that’s how I found myself getting prepped to undergo a free cardiac MRA earlier this week.

The nurses even shave your chest for you, so that the electrode contact surfaces are clean. I swear, sometimes I wonder how I luck into these things.

The procedure itself was uneventful, with the exception of when the imaging tech had to stop the test and extract me from the machine to shake me awake. (I’ve mentioned before that I have some sleep deprivation issues, haven't I?)

I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as results go - but leading up to the exam, two conflicting scenarios battled back and forth in my mind:

1) My doctor friend would sit down to review the images on the screen, and excitedly exclaim, “Whoa – that heart can definitely run for 100 miles!” Or …

2) He’d sit down and immediately say “Hmm – I think I see something here.”

Obviously, I was pulling for the first scenario over the second. But the official verdict was relatively anticlimactic: he sat down, spent a few minutes clicking the mouse and taking various measurements, and nonchalantly said, “Looks pretty normal.”

A normal heart. I’ve been running my butt off for the past several months so I can be normal. Needless to say, I wasn’t overwhelmingly flattered with the preliminary reading. However, with further discussion, the “normal” label took on greater significance than I initially thought.

It turns out that my friend has recently reviewed several journal articles discussing heart failure among athletes – in particular, the cardiac abnormalities that led to the sudden deaths of high profile athletes such as Hank Gathers, Reggie Lewis, and most recently, Ryan Shay.

Many of these athletes shared a specific variety of cardiac abnormality called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is a fancy term for an unusual thickening of the heart wall. While it’s normal for elite athletes to have enlarged heart muscles, with state of the art imaging techniques, this ominous type of cardiomyopathy is more easily distinguished from the relatively benign hypertrophy (muscle thickening) often referred to as “athlete’s heart.”

State of the art imaging techniques, such as my friend’s new MRA. In light of that, “normal” is actually a wonderful diagnosis to hear.

So now I’m reasonably certain that I won’t drop dead during Western States – at least, not from a heart attack. As far as lions, rattlesnakes, heat stroke, dehydration, or a myriad of other things are concerned … I suppose the jury’s still out on those issues.

Finally, in a related story … my friend’s not the only one interested in examining my heart lately. At Western States, I’ll be one of many subjects for a study of cardiac function during prolonged endurance exercise. I’ll have an electrocardiogram to assess the increase in cardiac stress levels, and the depression in cardiac function. The tests will be administered one day before the start, and again after the race.

At the post-race testing area in Auburn, I’m not exactly sure what a “normal” heart would look like – but as long as it’s the heart of a 100-mile finisher, I know that mine will be a happy one.


Bullet 6/20/08, 5:45 AM  

Oooh, the coveted first comment! Yes! Ok, yeah everytime I go in for a check up, I totally expect the doctor to go, "man! you're in shape!" But it doesn't happen. I think your second thought on this was the best one to take given the unfortunate deaths of these elite runners. Glad your heart is a happy one.

Makita 6/20/08, 6:17 AM  

What a great opportunity.

Thank you for the link to your spelling bee interview - that was great! It isn't often that one's passions come together like that. :D

David Ray 6/20/08, 6:31 AM  

Cool post. Very interesting about the heart.

Really looking forward to hearing about WS. Do that before the tag thing.

Backofpack 6/20/08, 5:10 PM  

I am so jealous! I'd love to have this done...maybe he could find the mysterious malady that causes all my strange little heart thing or confirm that the leaky valve is or is not a problem. Maybe you should suggest he open a clinic in Tacoma, then buy another one of those machines, then use me as a test subject. That's not too much to ask of a friend, is it?

I'm bummed - I thought WS was this weekend! One more week...I don't know if I can stand the suspense and excitement. And I'm far, far away...I don't know how you are managing the countdown!

craig 6/20/08, 5:20 PM  

How great to have connections like that. Hope the taper is going well.

Rainmaker 6/21/08, 7:47 AM  

Interesting images, I think I'll wait a few years though. ;)

Those video links were pretty cool, I lost much productivity while getting distracted watching them. Thanks for sharing those!

RunBubbaRun 6/21/08, 11:19 AM  

It's good to have friends like that.

At least you will have one less thing to worry about during WS100..

NOt if we can only get a "shrink" to understand why we want to run 100 miles, now I think those findings would be a little abnormal at best.

robtherunner 6/22/08, 11:26 AM  

Glad to hear that you have a normal heart that will get you through WS100 next week. It will be interesting to hear the results from the research. Oh, it will be cool to hear the race results as well.

triguyjt 6/23/08, 2:43 PM  

Normal heart. warped mind.

that covers alot of us, don't you think.

awesome looking ticker, there donald

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