The last time I had a really good run was in July 2016 in Tershelling Island, The Netherlands. I recall most of that run - it was on a flat terrain, sea level, barely off-road, fresh island air and beautiful surroundings – really fantastic setting. I did the 20 kilometres without much effort in 01H55 and this was not really surprising. Weeks prior to that, I had been consistent and focused in my training as I had set my goals to running Comrades 2017 in under 10H30.
The training ahead of that has been going so well that I recorded on the morning of the 30th April 2016 a personal best pace of 5.08 min/km over 10km. My hard work was paying off and it was really great. For the first time in a while I was feeling like my sweat was actually yielding results, unlike in the past where the link between hard work and results was often a huge blur. I had accepted some time ago that my level of talent as an endurance athlete requires me to train a lot harder than others only to just make the cut into the back end of the field. It was a fact of life that I had no issue accepting.
In hindsight, with my level of training, especially in early 2016, I should have been showing a lot more decent performances. In essence, my training was for some time, sufficient to just beat by a small margin, the effects of a condition that was brewing in my arteries.
For many years I had no reason to believe that there could be a much more profound explanation for my “slight” underperformances. For starters, I could still enter ultra-distance races and complete them. In February 2016 I entered the 7 stage TransCape MTB and finished, but right at the back of the field and taking maximum stage time almost every day. At the beginning of every stage, I always noticed how everyone seemed to be riding fast; yet I would catch up with the last groups and sometimes even drop them before halfway.
It turns out that I have been suffering from a condition called External Iliac Artery Endofibrosis and unlike many athletes that developed the condition, it took me about a year to get diagnosed. Others took as many as 5 years and many professionals were forced to abandon their careers just as they were taking off – serious matters of full potential never reached; dreams forsaken – but I think the worst is not knowing what is wrong and being forced to abandon your aspirations under those circumstances.
My story is not at all unique – I and many others share identical stories of a long, difficult road of misdiagnosis, painful physiotherapy sessions, dry needling, expensive scans, endless blood tests and referrals to a wide range of medical specialists. What we also have in common are stories of DNFs, despair as performances drastically deteriorate and the gloom every time we reach a dead end. But the most common thread is that out of desperation we’ve all had to spend many hours doing our own research to get to the answers. I have come across many stories of athletes that took piles of journal articles to their sports medics to shed some light; and yet many others who were still told “Impossible!”
This is because a fit athlete is not supposed to have symptoms associated with what is called Intermittent Claudication. This is a vascular condition more common in the elderly, people that smoke, people that are overweight and those that have high cholesterol. The least understood cases of intermittent claudication are those that appear amongst fit athletes that train for and participate in endurance events such as ultra-marathons, long distance cycling and triathlons. The condition is often described as rare, but I think it is a matter of serious under-diagnosis, especially amongst recreational athletes. I think that athletes that are not professional simply choose to move on given that the stakes associated with giving up on endurance are not high.
I still fantasize about my return to my normal self; I cannot wait to go on long runs and rides across the mountains, on rocky single tracks, in the forests, crossing the rivers and up the steep hills. I would like to take a second shot at climbing Aconcagua and then move on to conquer climbs over 7000 metres . My Comrades Marathon medal counter came to a scratching halt at number 7 in 2015 – I would like to get my green number and now that I have been diagnosed, I am optimistic and upbeat. But in the mean time I would like to share my story in the next few blogs – with the hope that many other athletes learn from it and that no one has to go through the trial and error that many like me have experienced.