Running a half marathon nearly killed me, and that’s only a little bit of hyperbole.
A year ago today I attempted the Hackney Half Marathon and, to cut a long story short, found myself first with heatstroke and then with rhabdomyolosis, or rhabdo.
Caused by muscle exhaustion and heat (in my case anyway), rhabdo leads to a breakdown in muscle tissue and causes the release of a protein, myoglobin, into the blood. This kind of toxin would usually be flushed out by the kidneys, but myoglobin cells are too big for that, and lead to the kidneys becoming clogged up and ultimately – to put it politely – broken.
The symptoms, however, are pretty similar to those of dehydration – nausea, headaches, low energy levels – so, sitting at home, recovering from heatstroke and in a world of leg pain, I thought I was just suffering the effects of a half marathon that went badly. After three days with no improvement, I took myself to the walk-in at St George’s hospital in London, and soon found myself in the High Dependency Unit, a part of Intensive Care.
Just to give you an idea, doctors measure kidney function by the amount of creatine kinase (CK) in the blood. The normal upper level of healthy is around 200 units per litre. One doctor told me the highest he had ever seen was around 100,000, another had seen 3 million. At my worst, my CK level was over 6 million. It was ridiculous.
In total, I was in hospital for about two weeks, and an outpatient for another four. When I was finally discharged, I was advised that, while I shouldn’t necessarily swear off exercise, I probably shouldn’t try to run more than 5k.
And here I am now. A year on, finally ready to get back on the road, and to share my story while I do it.
My plan is to build slowly (very slowly) up to running that 5k. I don’t want to run it in under a certain time and I don’t want to get there by a specific date – I’m going to listen to my legs and do it all in as much time as it takes.
My case of rhabdo was pretty severe, which means I may be at a slightly higher risk of contracting it again. But I know the symptoms now, I know not to push myself too far, and I know that if I feel like I want to stop, it’s OK to stop. At the moment, the benefits outweigh the risks for me.
Those benefits are three-fold.
First, fitness. Before I got sick, I was cycling to work almost every day and running three times a week. I don’t expect, or want, to be doing that again, but I miss feeling strong. At the moment, my legs ache if I wear heels. My arms get sore from carrying the shopping home. I don’t know what I will be able to manage and what’s going to knock me for six, and I don’t like that.
Second – and this is a bit intense, so buckle up – this illness knocked my confidence to a point where I was feeling anxious over any kind of physical activity. I’m still occasionally struck with a crippling fear of pain, fear of incapacitation, and fear of a total loss of control. To overcome this, I need to learn to trust my body again. That’s not going to be easy. Running again will only be the first step in a long journey, but it’s a start.
Finally, when I was ill, no one I knew (aside from the specialists) had ever heard of rhabdo. I spoke to people who compete in triathlons, people who are total gym bunnies and people in running clubs, and none of them knew it was a risk. The only person who knew what I was talking about was a friend who is studying animal physiotherapy – because horses can get rhabdo too, apparently.
Rhabdo is pretty rare, but it is also dangerous. If I can raise awareness just a little bit, and get people looking out for the right symptoms, then that’s a job well done.
So, that’s where I’m at. Stay tuned to follow my progress, and for some funny and not-so-funny stories about rhabdomyolosis and me.
If you have any questions or feedback, leave a comment or drop me a line. You can also follow my brand new Instagram account @RhabdoToFabdo! Yay!