Heart Trouble

Two weeks ago I went to the blood bank to donate. I followed the typical routine: waited in the empty lobby for an inexplicably long time before a nurse emerges, confirmed on the checklist that I was not in Eastern Europe between 1992 and 1997, avoided eye contact while answering sexual history questions that the nurse felt even more awkward asking, have my blood drawn and my pulse taken.

It was all smooth sailing until the last part.

Long story short, the nurse noticed an irregular heartbeat and, after consulting the thicker-than-a-Bible (and less organized) manual, disqualified me from donating. A couple days later an EKG revealed that I have PVCs (premature ventricular contractions) and RBBB (something like right bundle blockage). Yesterday I was in the waiting room of the cardiology department. And today I’m wearing a bundle of wires strapped to my chest like I’m going undercover to help nab a mafia boss.

It’s been a weird few days. I still don’t have any answers; hopefully those will come after the battery of tests I’m doing over the next couple weeks, including the Holter monitor, a stress test, and an echocardiogram. All signs point to a harmless “athlete’s heart”-like condition, where the muscle is just too damn strong and is sending electrical impulses to beat when it shouldn’t. I haven’t had pain or other symptoms. But then again, PVCs can be the result of more serious structural issues, and there’s a history of heart issues in my family (thanks a lot, grandma).

When you’re young, you don’t think about your heart. You don’t worry about your body failing you. I know I never thought about it. I exercise and eat healthy. Why would I need to worry?

But, at least for the time being, I am worried. It is scary to feel your pulse jump and wonder if that beating thing inside your chest is suddenly going to give way. It is scary to ponder a future without your favorite activities, the things that comprise part of your identity. It is scary to listen to your heart thundering in your ears against the pillow at night, wondering if your fears are making it worse. It is scary to sit in a waiting room surrounded by people decades older than you and notice something like curious pity in their eyes. You shouldn’t be here, they seem to say. I know why I’m here. But you?

I wasn’t really considering returning to racing and interval training, but now those are out of the question. Strava KOM hunting may be as well. After this scare, I’ll be happy to just be able to stay on the bike, to keep things moderate. My hammering days are likely over, whether or not my condition turns out to be serious or not. The risk/reward calculation just doesn’t work out. There’s no point–I don’t love hammering enough to threaten my life.

I’ll be taking it easy until the tests all come back, probably just going for long walks and spinning on the trainer. Not a fun way to close out 2017, but I think it’s the smart thing to do.

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Marathon Prep

Well, it’s almost that time. After three months of training, I’m set to run the Harrisburg Marathon tomorrow. I get the sense that, before marathons, people feel a mix of excitement, dread, and anxiety. For the most part, all I feel is excitement. Completing the race shouldn’t be an issue, and I’m not gunning for a specific time (though sub-3:30 would be ideal; that’s around eight minutes per mile). I’m pretty much just out there to enjoy a nice long run and be part of a community event. Should be a fun day.

For nutrition, I’m having Autumn meet me at miles 10, 15, and 20 with a figs, salted baked potatoes, and a couple bottles of electrolyte mix. All my training runs so far, up to 20 miles, have been with no food. So I figure having some fuel will make the run a bit easier, at least physically. But marathons, like all endurance challenges, are mostly mental. To that end, I’m going to run it without headphones. No music, no podcasts, no distractions. Since this is likely the only marathon I’ll run, I want to fully experience it. I want to be there, completely, every step of the way. I want to be inside my mind, dealing with the ups and downs, embracing them instead of pushing the thoughts and emotions away. I think it will be harder that way, and ultimately more rewarding. More memorable.

So, there’s nothing left to do but wait until the gun goes off (is there a gun for this kind of thing?). All the training is in my legs. The pacing is planned. The food is prepared. Thee clothes are chosen. Now I’m just laying around all day, trying to stay off my feet so I feel fresh tomorrow.

In the end, like all the adventures t which we commit ourselves, there is nothing riding on this. Not really, not in the grand scheme of things. All that’s at stake is the way we view ourselves and our limits. All that’s left is memories.

marathon prep

Hunting Season

I’ll be the first one to say that going after KOMs is kind of lame. I’ll be the first one to say that if you want to compete with other riders, you should pin on a number and race against them instead of chasing virtual trophies. I’ll be the first one to say that Strava KOM hunters, especially those who don’t race, are likely to be jerks who take themselves way too seriously.

That being said, I’ve been getting into it lately.

Rather, getting back into it. When I upgraded from a basic speedometer to my Garmin about six months into my cycling career, Strava was a revelation. I’m a competitive person, and I wasn’t racing at the time, so I threw myself into the KOM business big time. (It helped that I lived on a farm out in the country and there were a few segments literally pedal strokes from my front door.) I had a lot of fun building segments into my rides, looking for new KOM opportunities, hoping for a tailwind to give me a couple extra seconds. It was validating, as a new rider, to see that I was not terrible at my new sport. Comparing myself against my own times and the times of others gave me a way to measure my progress and fueled my motivation to keep improving. Without Strava, I would have only been measuring myself against some middle-aged dudes on the Chapel Hill group ride I frequented, waiting all week for the one or two town line sprints on our route. With Strava, I could challenge myself and feel the thrill of competition as much as I wanted.

king of the mountain
Nope, not this one.

Then I started racing, and training for racing, and I more or less lost interest in KOMs. “That’s for losers,” I thought as I buried myself in my intervals and periodized training plan. I was concerned with race results, not some meaningless online leaderboards. Then, eventually, I stopped racing.

For a while I was perfectly happy to just cruise. There were a few months this summer where I probably didn’t get out of Zone 3. I certainly wasn’t gunning for KOMs. I continued ignoring the post-ride Achievements listing because there was never anything there worth looking at. I watched Phil Gaimon killing himself up mountains during his first year of “retirement” and thought about how miserable it looked.

But lately I’ve kinda, sorta, maybe rekindled my interest in KOM hunting. At least a little bit, sometimes. I definitely don’t want to race anymore–too dangerous, too expensive, not worth all the soul-sucking training. But I’m competitive. Always have been. I enjoy sports more when there is an element of beating another person. And Strava KOMs, for better or worse, are a way to exercise that competitive muscle without all the downsides of racing. Yes, there aren’t the benefits either–you don’t get to cross a finish line with your arms raised and people cheering. But I’ll take the trade-off.

Plus, segments are sort of like intervals, so maybe I won’t lose my fitness completely and be embarrassed on the next group ride when the boys kick it up a notch.

Don’t Join the Peloton

Lately these ads for Peloton have been showing up on my computer. I guess the internet crumbs I leave make me look like a prime customer for this indoor bike thing, but I’m not. It appears that the algorithms can’t distinguish between someone who likes to ride a bike outdoors for the adventure and someone who rides indoors to burn calories (though I’m sure some day it will be able to).

I’ll confess: I don’t understand why anyone would buy one of these. Biking indoors is a necessary evil, one of the shitty parts about living in a cold, snowy place. I can’t fathom why people would spend $2,000 on a machine that lets them do it year-round. It really bottles my mind, as GOB Bluth would say. You don’t get to feel the wind in your face, chat with friends, look at scenery. Hell, you don’t get to coast and balance on an impossibly moving object, which is half the fun.

In the commercial, the Peloton folks try to play up the social element. You can watch the whole New York studio on a screen, apparently. Seems to me like the only thing worse than being in a spin class is to be in a virtual spin class. Yeah, it’s on a fancy screen and everything, but how different is this from watching people suffer at the hands of Sean T. in the Insanity videos?

The ad also emphasizes that you can do everything–exercise, have fun, interact with people, enter a whole other world–in the comfort of your living room. Makes sense for people with small kids who can’t leave the house to ride. But for everyone else–isn’t the whole point of recreation to get you outside the normal parameters of your life, out into the world (or even, dare I say, away from your family for a blessed hour?)

And, finally, this stupid phrase about racing up a hill. You’re on a stationary bike. In your living room. Going nowhere. That’s like saying holding your breath is the same as being on top of Mount Everest. Or eating baking powder mixed with flour is the same as eating a biscuit. These things are alike only in the abstract.

On a more serious note, though, I worry that promoting exercise machines like this one reinforce the false idea that a) you need fancy, expensive equipment to exercise and b) exercise is merely a tedious chore that you accomplish to burn calories so you can not be fat. These notions couldn’t be further from the truth, but unfortunately they are prevalent. You don’t need anything to exercise–just go outside and move your body. And exercise is fun, if you’re doing something you enjoy. Considering the amount of activities available, I think it’s safe to assume there is something that most people would find enjoyable (or at least not totally, soul-suckingly awful).

For the cost of a Peloton bike, a person could buy a good entry-level bike and a cheap indoor trainer and a Zwift subscription. That would cover all the bases Peloton covers, plus allow them to ride outside when the weather’s nice or their kids are stuck with the spouse. What’s to lose?

Just profits.