Two races, two DNFs (“Did Not Finish” at a race), two chances for me to feel like a weakling or a crazy person. And an unbelievable blessing in the circumstances to unlock a problem I had no idea so many women face.
I traveled to Los Alamos, New Mexico in May to participate in the Jemez 50K. While it was a tough race, with 7000 feet of elevation ascent and descent over the 31 miles and altitude to deal with for the first time on top of it, I had trained well and was ready to spend a long day climbing mountains. So when I started to seriously struggle at mile 11, and was pulled off the course at mile 20 when my oxygen saturation dipped way down to 88%, I just couldn’t understand what was happening. The medic told me it was the altitude, that I just didn’t metabolize oxygen well in my cells – that it was a luck-of-the-draw thing in our genetics and not a reflection of fitness level. But it was still a sad day, and I had my good 10 minute cry as I sat with my oxygen mask on.
Back home, another runner suggested I get my iron (ferritin) levels checked since low iron can make altitude sickness worse. In early June my numbers came back below the normal range. I was told to schedule to see the doctor to see what treatments would be needed.
However, I still thought I had an altitude problem, made worse by low iron now. So off I went that same week to Tennessee for the Chattanooga Stage Race. 3 days, 3 mountains, 60 miles. Again, I had trained for this, and independent counsel, my running coach and my trainer, said I’d be okay.
So when a smaller version of the trouble breathing and extreme fatigue hit halfway through Day 1’s 18 miles, I was so confused. I pushed through and finished in a great time, made the cutoffs, and went off to rest for Day 2. I woke up the next morning and my muscles felt good. All the pre-fatigue training used for stage race prep had paid off. But 8 miles into the course, the same symptoms, but I was way more tired this time, and I found myself caught by the sweeper by the mile 11 aid station. Out of time and feeling near death, my second DNF emerged.
At home, I headed off to the doctor. I was not crazy, I was not a wuss; I found out I had textbook symptoms of severe iron deficiency! 3 iron pills a day, with an expectation I would start to feel a little better in 2 weeks and much much better in 4-6 weeks. I had probably always had low iron but a super hard training season all spring, along with weight loss, small diet changes, and menstrual cycle changes, and I was in trouble if I wanted to perform to the capability of my training.
I am 2 weeks into treatment now. New blood tests will confirm if I’m getting better with the supplements, especially as a lack of improvement could signal bigger medical problems.
As I’ve shared this story on my Facebook status, via Twitter, and in personal blog posts, many women runners have emerged to tell me they had the same thing occur at some point in their running. So why hadn’t I heard of this? This is why it was so important for me to share this story. We’re busy women, busy business professionals, busy moms, high mileage runners, and if you’re like me, you’re ALL of these things at the same time. Of course we’re tired a lot of the time, so don’t try to ask me what’s normal if you are active and constantly running around! No, I told the doctor, I didn’t notice I was unusually tired – I’m so involved in living my very full, happy life!
I advise everyone, for your next physical or annual exam though, it wouldn’t hurt to ask a doctor to add those panels of bloodwork. In my case, a simple bloodwork would have shown no problems. My red blood cell count and cell volume all look normal. I am not anemic (for which a major cause is iron deficiency). Instead, additional screenings for ferritin level and iron saturation percentage tell the full story of what my body was trying to tell me. We must be our own health advocates, and I have learned this the hard way!
I look forward to reporting back to you all before the San Francisco Marathon with hopefully high passing grades in my iron tests, as I look to that as my next race. A race that will NOT be a DNF. And a celebration since the San Francisco Marathon was my very first marathon just one short year ago! I’ll see you out on the course, and I just might have the energy now to pass you!