My mother complained of heart arrhythmia over most of the last 30 years of her life. Sometimes her heart would beat extra fast. Sometimes it would beat fast and heavily too. Her physicians all told her that such behavior is disturbing but not correctable or even treatable, and probably not life-threatening. Needless to say, that was not very comforting to her. But she lived to 91.
Looks like I got most of my mother’s Dutch health genes, along with the obvious bicycling one. Overall, that’s a good thing. Strong bones, good teeth, generally excellent health (last time I was in the hospital as a patient was age 12, for an ingrown toenail operation). That may be changing; I suspect my next general checkup in two weeks is going to show higher blood sugar levels and blood pressure. But overall I can hardly complain. But along with the good stuff, I seem to have gotten her slightly irregular heartbeat.
For two decades, I’ve tended to have dizzy spells and elevated heart rates very sporadically, but mostly when the seasons change from winter to spring, and summer to fall. Ten or fifteen years ago, these episodes began to occur several (6-8) times a year, with varying degrees of intensity. I’d have a little trouble catching my breath for a minute or two, and I might sweat heavily or feel a tingling sensation. Those symptoms would quickly fade, but I’d be left with a heartbeat just about twice normal (120 instead of 60 bpm), perhaps a heavy, pounding beat, especially every other beat. This would last for an hour or two, and then things would subside fairly quickly to normal. During the episode, however, I couldn’t do much exercise because my heart was already working twice as hard as usual just to keep enough oxygen supplied to my whole body.
My doctors all said they’d love to catch me during an episode to observe it, but they couldn’t do much besides giving me a stress test, which I easily passed every time. They couldn’t diagnose my arrhythmia if they couldn’t observe it, and it never happened at a good time. Usually I would be doing something totally banal, like visiting a museum, or walking from the house into the garage, or even sleeping at night. A few times it happened on bike rides, at times that could be related to some stressful efforts, but not during any stressful moments. I once got one crossing Maple Avenue on the pedestrian light after a longish ride on a hot day.
On the bike, the symptoms included a sudden sharp drop in power and reserve strength, and a deep muscular soreness in my shoulder and neck area. After the street-crossing event I had to lie down on the grass at the Vienna Community Center for an hour, and then gingerly pedal home at half of normal speed. Any faster and I’d be out of breath, and even for that short two-mile hop my shoulders and neck really hurt. All symptoms rapidly disappeared when my heart rate and rhythm returned to normal two hours later.
Over the last year my emphasis has been on proper nutrition, electrolyte balance, and hydration. These concerns have been greatly aided by Vitamin D pills, electrolyte-boosting drinks after rides, and two great backpack hydration systems. And since a year ago August, I have had only three episodes, only one on the bike. Unfortunately the one on the bike was yesterday.
I had just ascended Hunter Station Road, a challenging effort for me, but one I do regularly when I ride west on the W&OD trail. The feeling came on as I was swinging around on the loop that takes me back to the trail. Halfway up a hill I confirmed what I thought I felt; my legs were strong but I was out of breath anyway, and I had to rest for five minutes or so before continuing on. For about 90 seconds it felt fine, but then my body ran out of oxygen again and my overworked heart could not provide more. So I gently went on for a couple of miles, called Jane in Herndon at her child care post, and decided to work my way out there. In Herndon I rested at my usual trail spot, the old railroad station, for 15 or 20 minutes. I debated just going back the 10.5 miles to home; after all, it’s mostly downhill. After my rest my heart rate was down slightly (100 bpm or so) and I was feeling good! Discretion is the better part of valor, I wisely decided, and rode on gingerly to Fantasia Drive, noting that once again I felt fine only until the oxygen that had built up during my rest ran out of my muscles again.
After a half-hour lie-down I drove home. You can’t fool Mother nature, and it’s best not to mess with her either.
Today was a new day, though. I began one of my usual rides, to Shirlington and back through North Arlington neighborhoods, taking it relatively easy. Feeling fine, my body and mind soon enough got instinctively in the groove. Won’t say I hammered it the whole way, but on a picture-perfect Saturday, sharing the route with all kinds of riders and other trail users, not one person passed me in 21.8 miles! I’m the baddest, fastest, coolest cyclist on the road!! Or the luckiest.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.