Hey everyone - I’m writing this down and sharing it so that someone can potentially benefit from it one day, much like I’ve benefited from reading what others have posted. A bit of a long post, but hopefully useful if you are at the beginning of your journey. Hopefully one day someone will read this, recognize a pattern where I went wrong and they can get on a better course. Either way, I appreciate the support of this community.
Here it goes.
I was pretty competitive, but by no means special, for about 15 years. I won my share of Category 3 road races, criteriums, an occasional TT, and quite a few Expert/Cat 1 mountain bike races. By no means was I ever going to become a Cat 1 on the road - I could have been a 2, but all those points were earned in criteriums, so I didn’t think a fair measure. This is all to say that I was a racing cyclist, in the mix, but not talented or special. Just a regular dude that likes to suffer and really enjoys riding a bike. I was sorta kinda known for my sprint in an extremely small circle inside of an extremely shallow pond.
After getting away from racing for a couple of years and trying to be a good husband and full-time worker (still haven’t cracked that nut, btw), I spun out some, got into heavy, fancy beers and heavier foods and went from 185lb to 255lbs. I found my way out of that, got away from alcohol and unhealthy foods with hopes to returning to just being a good cyclist, a healthy middle-ager and a really good exerciser. I’m long past racing, but every Saturday I pine for the opportunity to go hard for 3 hours with my pals, I VERY much enjoy the pain cave I find on 100 miler gravel events, and I love a burly 50-60mile MTB race. There’s something about hour 4, where everything comes apart, that I love so much.
Now we are in the year 2016. I lined up for Singletrack6, hosted by the TransRockies group, in the Canadian Rockies, still very heavy, but one month sober and getting leaner. The course (my hubris) annihilated me, and I went into severe dehydration on the third day. A course sweeper found me and guided me down the mountain to the medical tent. If you’re unfamiliar with the TransRockies organization, their medical care is first rate (better than any hospital or clinic service I’ve received anywhere in the US in my entire life). Ken, their amazing doctor, pronounced me A-Fib and drove me to the ER. I had no idea what he was talking about. I sat in the ER waiting room for hours, but tragically, some teens had been in a life-threatening car accident and the small-town medical center was fully focused on them. After some 6 hours waiting, I felt fine, so I left.
I dabbled in a few remaining stages of the event – in each one, Dr. Ken would jump out of nowhere, check my pulse and give a go/no-go to proceed. I’ll never forget how good they were.
Ever since that day, I would intermittently, but not regularly, see my Heart Rate go to 220bpm on rides, however I was breathing through my nose and barely pushing any more than 180w. As someone who was known for his sprinting ability, I knew this didn’t make sense. I bought every HRM strap that had a decent reputation - Wahoo, Garmin, Polar - and they all seemed to do the same thing.
Each time my HR would go that high (anything north of say 190), my power would completely and totally vanish. I would come to an almost stop on the ride, unable to produce any effort, but also not breathing hard at all. After a few minutes, it would just go away, and I could give it stick again.
With multiple ride files with 220bpm evidence over the course of a few months, I stormed into the cardiologist’s office and begged for an explanation. They did an ECG and couldn’t find a single thing wrong, so they sent me packing.
Months later, with even more evidence, I returned to the cardiologist, but asked for a different doctor. He understandably discounted my Strava files, I can concede that a Garmin strap is not an FDA approved device, administered an ECG, ultrasound, and a stress test. All tests were negative for A-Fib, although when I was at the max level of the stress test, comfortably at 167bpm, I watched my HR jump to 198bpm (which I can’t do). Despite seeing that, they discounted me and sent me packing again.
Nobody at this cardiology office took me serious because I’m young, strong and fit.
At this point, I resigned myself to assuming that I was paranoid and/or I was just going have a heart attack on the side of the road one day and I kept on with my life. For about a year, I just navigated around it – whenever I felt my heart doing the thing that the doctors said it wasn’t, I would just soft pedal for a while. Usually within 30-45 minutes, I felt like a lion again and I could get back to pace. I still ride with an HRM, but I don’t have the data field showing on my computer – it ends up controlling me.
Seems like heat doesn’t help either. I live in North Mississippi, which is inexplicably miserable, hot and humid in the summer.
It seemed to me that the symptoms were associated with my level of fitness and weight. Like many people, I fluctuate a few pounds every couple of years, tending to range from 210-224lbs (seriously, why the hell do I chose cycling if I weigh this much?!?!). When I’m on the lower end of that range, I don’t tend to have symptoms, which is coincidentally when I’m in better shape and able to manage a solid 9-10 hours a week.
This winter (2023), I’m at the upper end of my weight range.
Fast forward to March 10, 2023 – Mid South Gravel. I was actually having a pretty good day considering I was not in good shape. Despite that, check out my Strava file– see that crazy HR at the beginning? Yowza!
Unfortunately, my day was cut short by a crash and a couple broken ribs.
When I got home, I realized I couldn’t move enough to deal with my bedside alarm clock, so I began wearing an Apple Watch at night and using that as my alarm clock. Prior to that, I only wore it when riding since I thought they were extremely dorky and I cannot stand any more notifications in my life. But I loathe riding with a phone, the watch stores music on it, and it was a gift from my wife, so I went through the motions.
I quickly started receiving A-Fib notifications around the clock, despite not being able to feel it at all. The only indication that I had was that my Whoop was seeing my resting HR in the morning as 80-90bpm, as opposed to the 40bpm it has been forever. I was beginning to think that this was just normal recovery, but I was getting A-Fib alerts while napping, while eating dinner, while sitting on the sofa, you name it.
I went to my general care provider on March 29 for my bi-annual checkup, he ran a 12 lead ECG on me and could see that I was in A-Fib, despite not feeling any symptoms. He referred me to another cardiologist with a focus in Cardiac Electrophysiology who saw me on April 6. The cardiologist ran an ECG on me, and again, I was in A-Fib, and again, I was feeling perfectly normal.
I’m getting an ablation in two days – April 12. I’ll follow up with details and experiences around the procedure. I’m really hoping this leads somewhere positive, because I love riding more than anything else in the world and I’m only getting so much worse at it that I fee like I’ll have to stop forever. Hopefully this gives me a little more runway to end my riding chapter on my own terms.
In the meantime, some salient points.
-GET AN APPLE WATCH
-Don’t be a meathead and keep ignoring it
-GET AN APPLE WATCH
-I’m suspicious that the extremely high HR rates on Strava and the like are because the HRMs have a difficult time sampling the extremely irregular rhythms.
-GET AN APPLE WATCH
-Apparently, the younger you are, the more successful the procedure will be, so get off the fence if you’re on it.
-And don’t forget to go get an Apple Watch.