sometimes people, EVERYONE, needs some motivation to get their shit together. Life throws monstrosities our way every day. Sometimes we take them in stride and sometimes we don’t. All that matters is that, even when we don’t, we know that a day will come that we will move forward again
By Jeff Watters
This was never a question I asked myself. Not once in my years of competing at several different sports did I ever doubt my heart. I may not have been the strongest, fastest or even the best conditioned athlete. But nobody could ever beat me due to a lack of heart. I always took pride in that, above all else, nobody would ever out do me in that category. So what happens when the one thing you pride yourself on having the most of, suddenly and unexplainably, starts to fail you?
In April of 2009, I had just signed (at 37!) a three fight contract with a local promoter. I was excited to finally get a chance to fight in front of my hometown. Even at 37, I was in better shape than I’d been in my whole life. Much to my surprise, about three hours after my physical had taken place; my general physician called me and told me to report immediately to Beaumont because I was in congestive heart failure. I was 100% convinced that there had been some type of mistake made. Surely somebody in my condition, having just run the Chicago Marathon a few months ago, would have displayed some sort of symptoms if this were accurate. After about four hours of testing, we left and awaited the results. What we were told a few days later rocked my world, and not in a good way. My results showed my ejection fraction to be at 23%. For all you “non” doctors out there (including myself), a normal ejection fraction is 60%. Anything below 35 is cause for an immediate defibrillator/pacemaker implant.
Some of you know me but most don’t. Let me say that, in my infinite wisdom, I went into complete denial. Being told you shouldn’t be able to climb a flight of stairs when you’ve just finished sparring 12 rounds was a little too hard to wrap my mind around. Nonetheless, I began following the guidelines for the medical protocol. While under the close supervision of my Cardiologist, we ramped up the meds until we could hold the dosage steady for nine months, hopeful that the numbers would improve drastically. They didn’t.
I didn’t understand, nobody did. I was told time and time again that no one had ever seen this in someone so young and in such good shape. It kept bringing me back to the question of how this happened. I had no blockages, I don’t do drugs and I’ve not had a heart attack. These were all causes. I became so obsessed with how it happened, I kind of lost track of how I would fix it.
In the beginning, surgery was not an option, not for me. I refused to even look into it. All I wanted to do was train to get healthy and start racing, boxing, anything again. We were told that the chances of someone with an ejection fraction this low has a 50/50 chance of living 3-5 years. Those numbers made me focus less on what I wanted to do for myself and more on what I wanted to see in this life. My son’s graduate, my wife meet all her dreams and me… just live long enough to forget about some of the dumb things I’ve done. These thoughts made the choice quite obvious. I immediately booked the surgery for two weeks later.
Now that I’ve had the time to come to grips with the fact that I’m getting the surgery, I’ve come back to a familiar place. How did this happen? I’m quite certainly not a doctor, not even close. I do know a fair amount about how the body works. This, and speaking with some others in the sports performance field, has given me as close to a cause as anything I’ve been told otherwise. Throughout all my years of training, every single thing that I’ve ever done has been completely anaerobic. From boxing to weight lifting to bootcamp classes, mountain biking, hockey… you name it, anaerobic. The great thing about training that way is that your benefits come so much more quickly. You gain cardiovascular stamina even while training for a shorter time frame, if you really push it. For athletes, that’s the best spent time ever. Go as hard as you can for as long as you can. The downside to training that way? It puts a tremendous amount of stress on the heart. What if you trained that way, every day, two to three times per day? How long would it take for your heart to begin to fail? My guess would be sometime around your 38th birthday.
I’m never going to be the guy that says not to train that way, I’d be out of business. In Motor City Bootcamp, that’s all we do! As crazy as I am, I can’t wait to get out of the hospital and run great lakes relay next month. I will say this though, for every day that you really push it, especially anaerobically, you need to either take a recovery day or a slow paced and light cardiovascular day. I would STRONGLY implore those of you who train consistently in an interval format at least 4 days per week, to go get your ejection fraction tested. The reason I didn’t feel any symptoms was because they feel similar to those you get when you’ve had a long training day. The first symptom you might get is when you drop dead running. That would suck.
Jeff Watters owns Motor City Bootcamp and Watters Performance LLC. He’s a members of Brooks PACE and ID programs and is the head coach for Priority Health’s Endurance Racing Team of Southern Michigan. You can view some of his programs, or contact him, at www.jeffwatters.com