Close Encounters – My Experience with Supraventricular AV re-entry Tachycardia

A heart rate graph
September 7, 2009

D3 Staff


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I have been an endurance athlete for almost ten years, but I am 1 year new to the sport of triathlon. Switching from road cycling to triathlon was the best decision I have made as an athlete and as a graduate student. The balance and satisfaction I obtain from training and racing has not only opened my eyes to a fantastic new sport, but it has also taught me new life lessons and skills. There are many skills I have learned from the sport of triathlon and from Coach Mike; the value of patience, discipline, the ability to suffer… my list could go on. Those are the easier things for me to practice. Listening to my body, however, is the most important and most challenging thing I have learned and what happened to me this July was a test of that skill. I was 4 days away from Vineman 70.3, my A race for the year and first HIM. I was feeling good about tapering, felt well-rested, well hydrated, and antsy as I’ve ever been before a race. In the middle of a 400 during my Tuesday morning track workout my heart rate spiked from 170 to 239 BPM in a matter of seconds. Aside from being freaked-out I felt fine, but when I couldn’t get it to go down, I began to worry. I stopped running, sat down in the shade, and only after doing so did my heart rate fall back down to normal. Being the stubborn girl that I am, I decided to finish the workout and completed 3 more 400s at a 10K pace. I felt fine running home, but later experienced chest pain and immediately went to the student health center’s urgent care. After a normal EKG, I was transferred to the local ER where I had further tests completed to rule out a blood clot. When I explained what happened with my heart rate to the Dr, he simply said “Well, there’s nothing we can do about that. If it happens again then just come back.” I was afraid to ask him if I should race that weekend. My training partner who kept me company at the ER knew that I wasn’t going to ask, so she did. “Jen wants to know if she can race this weekend.” I was partially relieved that she asked, but afraid that he would answer no. His response was, “Well, I dunnno just be careful”. I wasn’t sure what to do with that information, or lack thereof, so I ran again on Thursday. The same thing happened, and now I was terrified.

I emailed Mike when I got home from my run. As I read his response advising not to race, I could feel how concerned he was and I grew even more concerned after he informed me that the very same thing happened to Amanda Lovato at IMCDA. Her race ended early and was transported off the course. The last thing I wanted was to end my first HIM without crossing the finish line. I cried for a few minutes when I realized that I should not race, then I decided to take care of myself.

I immediately requested a referral to a cardiologist who took great care of me. I underwent numerous tests (stress echocardiogram, 48 hour EKG monitoring, blood-work, etc) and knew that if something was really wrong with my heart he would find it. Although the doctor at the student health center gave me the advice of “Well, just take it easy and don’t run until you see the cardiologist,” the cardiologist asked me to train hard, just as I would normally do so that I could duplicate the abnormal heart rate while being tested. When he asked me to do that, I was in love with the man. I was so happy to be able to continue doing what I love the most in life, enjoy the outdoors, and feed my endorphin addiction. I continued to run, ride, and swim, and I broke a new record on the treadmill stress test, but no luck in duplicating the tachycardia. The cardiologist finally diagnosed me with SVT (Supraventricular AV re-entry tachycardia). He explained to me that this is a harmless occurance due to a small amount of extra fiber in the portion of my heart that receives the electrical impulse during a heartbeat. In addition, the 48h EKG revealed that I have an extra heartbeat (which is harmless and occurs in 50 out of 100 people) The conditions had to be just perfect to allow the extra fiber to interfere and cause this tachycardia to occur. He said it may happen again, but it may never happen again. He then looked me in the eyes and laughed, “Do you know how fit you are? I’ve never seen someone last that long on the treadmill.” It was funny, but I was just so relieved to be told that I was healthy. He gave me the green light on training and racing. I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful for my health. This experience taught me a great deal about my body, my heart, and my desire to be a successful triathlete. Sometimes you have to come close to losing something to realize how important it is.

I’ve reorganized my racing goals and am now training for the Big Kahuna HIM in Santa Cruz this October. I’m training harder and smarter than ever, thanks to Mike for his wonderful guidance and coaching and my new appreciation for my health.

Jen Stern is an up and coming Age Group Triathlete living in Davis, CA and working toward her PhD at UC Davis

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