A few weeks back, several CCB members were participating in the Toguri Training Systems Time Trial at the Seaway when a tragic incident occurred. Nick Van Haeften was on his way to yet another personal best time, and in the last kilometer or so came across a cyclist lying on the road having suffered a massive heart attack. Not the least bit surprising to those of us that know him well, Nick stopped his race to come to the aid of a complete stranger to administer CPR in a valiant attempt to keep the man alive.
After about ten minutes or so, ambulance personnel arrived but could unfortunately not revive the cyclist. This was the second time I have witnessed a cyclist die from massive cardiac arrest. The first time was on a CCB ride in July of 2004, when a new member to our club suffered a similar fate in Les Cedres. This gentleman was a medical specialist at Rosemont-Maisonneuve Hospital, one of only 11 specialists in his field in Montreal.
Several days after the incident on the Seaway, I was shocked to discover that I knew the man who had passed away. Richard D. worked in the Wealth Management industry, and had sat in my office on several occasions. As did our CCB member, Richard looked like the total picture of health; lean, fit, and at the top of his game.
During the ‘70s, we all remember the James Fixx running and Dr. Kenneth Cooper Aerobics revolutions. The basic premise in both was that vigorous exercise was virtual guarantee against cardiovascular disease. Of course, Jim Fixx died of a massive heart attack during a run which only served to fuel the fires of controversy.
Today, we know that practically every medical study conducted on the correlation between endurance exercise and cardiovascular health suggests that endurance exercise significantly lowers one’s risk of heart disease. The not-so-good news is that exercise does not make one immune to cardiovascular disease. We all know someone who was physically active yet suffered a stroke or needed or quadruple bypass because of blocked arteries. In fact, for every 100,000 people participating in endurance exercise, statistically about 4-6 participants will experience a cardiac event. Those are great odds, and certainly not a reason to avoid physical activity. The risks to a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle massively outweigh the risks of red-lining during a TT or hammering up Camillien Houde.
The only message here is that cardiovascular health depends on many factors; age, genes, lifestyle, BMI, diet, and of course exercise. Our life’s passion certainly stacks the odds in our favor, and chances are if we are training hard we are probably paying attention to the other factors, further placing endurance cyclists way ahead of the curve. However, it is no guarantee as we have all too often seen.
The bottom line is to be closely followed by a family physician and go for regular check-ups. You and your physician should monitor all of your vital signs, and address any issues. But above all else, listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel right, stop immediately and request assistance. People close to Jim Fixx claim he ignored the classic warning signs in the weeks preceding his death. The beauty of high intensity endurance sport is that our bodies usually warn us if something is not right. When it does, listen carefully; your life may depend on it.