Athlete’s heart

In January 2014 I went for an annual checkup of blood work, urine checks and an electrocardiogram (ECG). I timed it after January 10 to let any potential “damage” from December 23 through January 1 settle down 🙂 This was also a requirement for my Medical Certificate to participate in TransGranCanaria. Entered my local test centre AVASAD with good spirits and expected everything to be OK.

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Blood work was super:

* low total cholesterol
* high good cholesterol (HDL)
* little inflammation – C-reactive protein count was low despite a strong block of training throughout January, which implies good recovery
* good hemoglobin (red blood cell) count and hematocrit percentage

Urine was all clear too. However there were some drastic changes in my ECG from 7 months of daily, yet controlled (8 to 10 hours a week of varied intensity), endurance training …

ECG false positives in athletes

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The ECG is primarily used to detect underlying cardiac conditions, especially those that can lead to sudden cardiac death (SCD) in younger athletes. However there’s a very good chance of false positives for endurance athletes, especially regular high volume training of more than 8 hours per week. Mine got flagged with as first-degree ventricular block , also a symptom of a condition known as athlete’s heart

Athletic heart syndrome

Athletic heart syndrome is a heart condition that may occur in people who exercise or train for more than an hour a day, most days of the week. Athletic heart syndrome isn’t necessarily bad for you, IF you’re an athlete. The benign structural changes to the heart needs to be checked to rule out any genetic changes that would imply a more serious condition.

The heart gets bigger and stronger with exercise, allowing it to pump more blood per beat. Thickening of the walls can also occur with intense exercise, further increasing pumping power. Common symptoms include a low resting hear rate of 35 to 50 beats per minute. Changes to the electrical system however show up on and skew ECG readings, which needs to be verified further in order to rule out life threatening conditions. It’s harmless and a testament to the body’s ability to adapt to training load.

First-degree Atrioventricular block

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In first-degree heart block, like in my ECG, the heart’s electrical signals are slowed as they move from the atria to the ventricles (the heart’s upper and lower chambers, respectively). In a normal heart rhythm, the PR interval is in the range of .12 to .20 seconds. In first degree AV block, that interval will exceed .20 seconds and can be as long as .50 seconds

Other physiological heart adaptions

Cardiac chamber enlargement and the ability to generate a larger stroke volume allows endurance-trained athletes to increase cardiac output, the ability to circulate blood throughout the body, by 5 to 6 times (!!!!). Most of these changes occur in the left ventricle.

Heart size

Muscle tissue increase in size, especially in the left ventricle which provides a more powerful contraction.

Stroke volume

If the left ventricle is larger, it can fill with more blood. If its walls are thicker, contractibility increases, with the ability to deliver more blood to the body.

Resting heart rate

An increased stroke volume equals a lower resting heart rate.

Cardiac output

A high stroke volume results in greater oxygen supply, waste removal and thus improved endurance performance.

Blood pressure

If you suffered from hypertension before commencing a training regime, it’ll normalise.

Note than none of these adaptions are permanent and the heart and circulatory system would revert back to “normal” during the course of several months.

Echocardiogram

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As a follow up exam to rule out any underlying changes not related to training, I had to go for an http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echocardiography . The results were fine and I was cleared with a medical certificate and a license to suffer until 2015 🙂

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As a recommendation, it’s good to establish a protocol with your cardiologist and keep an eye on the progression of physiological changes at least once a year with more frequent checkups if and when required.

Don’t plan, just prepare

For most ultras there’s usually a fair amount of homework to do – adjusting training for the race course and profile, required gear and sometimes travel. From where I’m standing however, there’s a huge difference between preparation and planning. Getting that line wrong can set you up for a less enjoyable experience and sometimes even failure.

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Preparation

A preparation phase would include the following, ahead of time …

Long / medium term

* Travel plans – flights, transfers, accommodation and also transport for race departure and finish.
* Race profile specifics such as terrain, altitude changes, medium altitude, distance and available aid stations.
* Expected weather conditions which affects shoes, clothing, food and water consumption and pace estimation.
* Adjusting training blocks for the profile, weather and altitude.
* Arranging mandatory gear ahead of time. I live on an island with limited stock and generally when ordering something online, it’s best to do so well ahead of time to account for delays and possible returns of clothing of incorrect size.

Short term

* Food, water and isotonic drinks. This will vary a lot according to weather conditions. I usually try to book an apartment close to a supermarket or fresh produce. Also remember sometimes thousands of athletes show up at locations with limited sport drink supplies etc. – buy early!
* Dorsal / bib collection as well as getting up to speed with race organisation through briefings, usually the day prior.
* Mandatory gear – get your bag ready. Check it. Check it again.

Note that none of these steps are specific to you or someone else – everyone’s going through these same steps. Therefore it’s preparation, not planning …

Planning

Getting real with the numbers, let’s say you’d be out running for 14 hours. That’s the equivalent of 2 full workdays. Now, what’s your success rate of having 2 days at work playing itself out meticulously to that plan and agenda you setup 3 days ago? I’d generally consider running an ultra as having a lot more risk factors that would skew even the best of plans:

* Variable terrain
* Weather conditions (micro climates)
* Perceived distance between aid stations
* Unexpected obstacles like animals, rivers etc.
* Organisation failure at departure, aid stations, control and bag checks.
* Technology failure – hear rate strap, headlamp and GPS watch.
* Blisters, dehydration, upset stomach and other medical conditions
* Navigational errors – doing more than or less than a course, with possible disqualification.

And much much more. Race strategy therefore should always be very loose – rough estimates for timing, placing, expected food consumption etc. Expect everything, yet nothing at all. Sh*t happens.

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Reaction and attitude

Your reaction to and attitude towards the low points ultimately determines your success. During races, as with life, good moments don’t last very long and thankfully the bad ones also won’t 🙂 You need the one to identify and appreciate the other.

Critical for getting past a bad spot is to stop obsessing about how and why it happened. “Why the $%#& did I forget to take water there?“, “Dammit, my watch is gone – I’m flying blind!“, “Haven’t seen a signal for 400m, I’m lost!“, “Stupid rock. Twisted my ankle, my shoe don’t even fit!!!

What now? Or “E agora?” as we say in Portuguese. The only way out is through and sometimes the obstacle is the course.

Focus on next steps. Or catching up with another runner for help. The next corner. Or the next aid station. Go with the flow, fix your attitude. Take some risks, but let them be calculated. Us ultra runners are a special kind of stupid – the pain threshold is usually high and there’s a big chance of permanent damage in some situations. Be stupid, but not totally irresponsible and crazy.

Run your own race. Take the unexpected in your stride. And never, ever trust a fart towards the end of an ultra!

Attitude

 

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I decided to open the 2014 season with the The North Face Transgrancanaria Advanced 82km, 4500mD+ (having also participated in the 2013 edition) as it’s very early (March 1st) and also was the first race in the Spain Ultra Cup 2014. Participants almost doubled compared to 2013 and I knew it would be a very very strong field to vest preparation of the last few months against.

I arrived on February 25 by a comfortable one hour charter flight and checked in for 7 nights at Suite Hotel Jardín Dorado in Maspalomas to be close to the main race venue and finish line (aka “la meta”) in Meloneras. I travelled with another runner I sometimes train with, Leonardo Diogo, who opted to stay up north, in Las Palmas with a Spanish friend. The weather was great, so I decided to head to Playa del Inglés to catch some sun and get some work done before dinner.


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26 February

Woke up early for a light running session on flat terrain which thankfully was in abundance along the coast. I kept glaring up towards the mountains, with Roque Nublo out in the distance. A famous landmark for this race and one I didn’t get to see very well the year before due to some sketchy weather conditions before El Garañón. After a several thousand calorie hotel breakfast, I made my way down to Meloneras on foot, which was a few kilometres alongside the dried up river bed we’d be running along to the finish line at Meloneras Beach. Didn’t exactly look like fun to run in when fresh and well rested, so can’t imagine what the last bits on Saturday would feel like 🙂 Dropped that thought immediately. Picked up some last minute items from Shopping Boulevard Oasis – Immodium as SOS, a good waterproof sunscreen for the drop bag at El Garañón and negotiated a bunch of sealable small plastic bags on the side for keeping essentials during the race. Spent the afternoon migrating between several coffee shops, shipping a few hours of work. Bed. Early.

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27 February

Stepped out for a morning jog and the sun was already pretty feisty at 08:00 – the time we set out on Saturday. Strolled towards ExpoMeloneras again and got registration and bib collection out the way before noon – fast and efficient like the year before. Decided to scout the Trail Zone exposition area first before dropping my halfway bag in case of any missing required or “nice to have” materials. Resisted well and left only with some brochures 🙂 Left my drop bag, went for a walk along Boulevard El Faro and settled for lunch at an admittedly risky Chinese buffet, which eventually worked out pretty well. Met up with Leonardo later the afternoon, had dinner at ExpoMeloneras, attended some of the briefing and got a ride back to the hotel.

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28 February

Final gear check after breakfast, went for a reflexology massage and made my way towards the beach again to decompress and work until mid afternoon. Picked up water, Nutella and other items for “breakfast” @ 05:30 the next day. Napped a few hours before dinner, which was mostly high carb, lean protein and some fruit for dessert. Managed to doze off well before 21:00 and slept like a rock until the alarm went off @ 05:00.

1 March

Showered, dressed, applied some kinesio tape to a wonky area on the right lower leg and ordered a cab from reception to be on time for the bus departure @ 06:00 from ExpoMeloneras. They were a bit late, but the atmosphere was super with a lot of folks tracking the primary 125km race, of which a large chunk already passed our start location at Fontanales. Had some more water, a sugary drink and food on the bus, but also slept another 30 minutes on the drive amongst a really animated crowd. Definitely worth doing – getting on the group busses – especially when running abroad.

Fontanales -> Valleseco (7.5km)

Due to the slight bus delays, we arrived very close to the departure time of 08:00. Most runners went for a quick coffee or scouted for bathrooms, checked in and lined up with a really nice and loud ambient. We were off at 08:04 with a huge group of around 30 up front, which soon split up about 3km into the race. It was a nice rolling section, with fast and technical downhills and then some climbing. I was in position 10 to 20 for most of this leg and felt very good, although my heart rate was on the high end, which is normal from adrenaline at the start of any race. I kept the heart rate mostly in check and my legs responded well, so I stopped worrying too much about it as it would just make things worse. There was a lot of slippery rocks and mud, but thankfully no crashes 🙂 I arrived at the next aid station, Vallesco, around 40 minutes after departure.

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Vallessco -> Teror (13.6km)

Mostly a downhill section, went down at a nice rhythm and didn’t force very much. My legs felt good although heart rate was still high. I bumped into another Portuguese runner, Ester Alves from the 125km race, just before Teror, we exchanged some words and then parted ways. Probably the fastest checkpoint of the course – just grabbed water and some fruit and consumed along the way.

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Teror -> Talayón (20km)

Well. “Teror” – should have known 🙂 A nasty nasty climb up! I started to control my heart rate better – climbed at a comfortable pace, with heart rate just below anaerobic threshold.  Was passed by a few guys on the way up – they were breathing very heavy, so I didn’t follow. I missed a signal, climbed 100m the wrong way, realised I was off course and had to go back down and reconnect the route. Took in more liquids, fruit and some really really sweet tea at Talayón. I was still feeling good and strong, legs were responding well despite the heart rate.

Talayón -> Tejeda (28.2km)

More climbing in the forest – with some really really high gradients. The descent was quite nice and runnable, but I noticed it was going to be a hard day on the quads. Descended with a lot of confidence the whole day and only once lost a position on the way down. The sun started to beat down pretty heavy on areas without much tree cover. Regretted choosing the black thermal shirt for the first half.

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Tejeda -> Garañón (39.2km)

MORE climbing – I remembered some of this section from the year before, Roque Nublo etc., which wasn’t very visible then due to bad weather conditions. Not a particularly easy section with perfect weather either 🙂 Started to feel the altitude slightly towards the top –  heavier breathing and it was more difficult to maintain a high heart rate. There were some stairs to climb, but was not too bad and nothing like we have back home in Madeira 🙂 I remember El Garañón with huge crowds in 2013, but it was very very quiet and not too well signalled for a halfway point this year. I spent 10 minutes here – changed clothes, applied sunscreen, had some pasta, other solid food, hydrated well, swapped gels etc. but had a bag check that took almost 3 minutes, evening opening the frontal to see if it had batteries! Took in some additional salt, about 5 hours in.

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Garañón -> Tunte (51.7km)

We had a short climb up to Pico de las Nieves and it was already pretty hot out, despite being at the highest peak in Gran Canaria. Rocky, but runnable descents. Started feeling a lot of muscle damage in the quads and first signs of light cramps / contractions in them. There were some soft terrain, but the rocky terrain had very high impact, probably even more so than on street and pavements. Had a lot of liquids during this section – 1.5l from water bottles and additional fluids from my camelback reserve. It was 14km long and the sun was very very hot. Again was confident and descended well without anyone passing. Started feeling 2 big blisters on the balls of my feet. I decided not to look – sometimes what you don’t know, don’t hurt / harm you 🙂

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Tunte -> Arteara (65.8km)

Interesting food at this aid station – typical small Canarias potatoes, with salt and some fairly hot sauce 🙂 Had a few of them, other food and refilled water bottles, one with water, the other with isotonic. Steep climb out to the mountains and had some cramps in the right leg – quads – dissolved some more salt / electrolyte supplements in my water container. My mp3 player also kicked the bucket before the climb – totally awesome, especially for the last section. Lots of “gentle” up and downs and then what Leonardo would call a “goat trail” of a descent into the next checkpoint. Stayed a minute or 2 longer here and for the first time started to take in a few cups of Pepsi. Coke / Pepsi is really good for getting back into gear when a bit washed out, but not the best choice on downhill sections as pretty quick you’d have a washing machine effect in your stomach and could spend more time off, than on, the trail. Ate a lot of fruit and had a lot of water in some shade.

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Arteara -> Machacadora (76.7km)

Started feeling the hamstrings getting a bit tight, most likely from a compensatory action for the quads getting hammered on the downhills. Took in some more salt and kept a nice rhythm ticking over. Mixed with a few runners from the Marathon distance. It wasn’t as hot anymore, I looked back and didn’t see anymore from my race so I just continued in my stride.

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Machacadora -> Meta (82.2km)

Quick stop, just refilled isotonic, had more Pepsi and a few pieces of fruit. Felt comfortable and pushed through @ 12km/h again without much difficulty. We entered the dry river bed section about 5km from the finish which was quite runnable, but one had to pay very careful attention to some rocks sticking out. I could hear music and talking in the distance and just focussed on El Foral (the finish line) after getting out of the river. Epic reception as with most Spanish races and was nice having some drinks and words with Fran Godoy, a Vegan runner from Tenerife, who I went back and forth with for most of the race. 27th place out of 344 classified in 10:11 (Movescount)

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After effects

Besides an almost immediate “penguin walk” (or “andar novo” in Portuguese), my feet were pretty fubar from the heat, lack of prior protective measures and super thin “racing socks”. Never. Again. All in all, it went pretty well with minimal damage. Even avoided any serious sunburn 🙂

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2 March

A few of us met up at Meloneras Beach for the prize giving ceremony and then made our way back to ExpoMeloneras for lunch and isotonic, also known as BEER. Sunday afternoon was spent lazily, a recovery run of 30 minutes went south because of my feet and a group of Portuguese met up in the evening for dinner. We. Walked. Ssslllooowwwwllllyyyyy 🙂

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3 March

Naturally slept in, but timed it as such to still make breakfast in time before 10:30. Went to the beach area again and walked a U shape from Playa del Inglés to El Foral and back to the hotel. Pro tip: if you walk past the dunes, mostly look left, towards the water and waves 🙂

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4 March

All good things come to an end. I had a spectacular time at this years 2800 athlete headcount event: made many new friends, got to explore sections of Gran Canaria I didn’t yet know on foot, had great food and got to run alongside and talk to idols such as Timothy Olson, Seb Chaigneau, Scott Jurek and many many others.

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Lessons learned

  • Thou shalt respect thou feet. Wear proper socks and apply lubricant liberally in hot weather.
  • Eat well at aid stations before hills – you’d have time to digest well. It’s easier going up than downhill with a bunch of food in your stomach.
  • Careful with heart rate early on in the race – you’d pay back dearly for dipping too much into anaerobic zones.
  • Consume food and liquids in small amounts. Bites and sips here and there works best.

Recommendations for this race

  • Arrive a few days earlier – there’s a lot of things to explore and it would be vital to acclimatise to the heat especially when from zones with a harsh European winter.
  • Use the bus transport options – they’re well worth getting into racing spirits.
  • Definitely try to stay near the “meta” – you’d be close to event registration and it’s easy to clean up and just crash when finished.
  • Buy isotonic drinks and other sport specific items a few days prior – 2800 athletes seriously dents that market and item availability 🙂
  • Train in heat where possible. 2014 was a particularly hot race, but 2013 however was quite different …
  • Book hotels and other transport early – there’s some really good deals about.

Thanks for reading and happy running!

Sharing is caring

During almost 12 months of regular training and specific preparation for 6 ultras, I’ve gathered up a bunch of stats, content, media, but most of all, experience. Experience in making training, a career, social life and other aspects of life balance out. I also learnt many things about my body and mind. Observed the changes it’s gone through, how much better (and sometimes worse, depending on training blocks) I feel day to day on so many different levels.

Having worked with a professional coach, Paulo Pires ( Armada Portuguesa do Trail ) during this time, my approach to training changed from sporadic harder efforts to a sustainable and injury free one that emphasises spending time in the most important heart rate zones. I very much like the Maffetone Method ( also see Mark Allen’s article ) as a base staple, with specific training depending on upcoming objectives or races. A few other books introduced me to exercise science and physiology and I’ve been fortunate to be able to also learn from friends linked to exercise studies and others in the ultra running community.

The best things in life is shared and therefore I’d like to convert a bunch of content I have archived on my laptop and head into a series of blog posts. It’s best to learn from real, open and brutally honest experiences – I’d like this to be a resource that others with a regular life and other obligations can relate to. I promise to cover the good, the bad and the mediocre and to be always true to myself and the audience. Opinions here are my own.

Follow along this path of experiments, evolution and wide emotional ranges. Happy reading!

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