Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Haemoglobin is our Friend

As I sit here with a slightly sore bum, I feel I owe it to those whom I have been cranky with over the past months, to explain my behaviour, and to warn all the runners out there of the perils of low iron levels.

The reason for my tender gluteus is that I’ve just received the third of a course of 10 iron injections. After some shocking race results, including my worst ever finish at the Northern Cross Country Championships in January, I had a feeling something wasn’t quite right.   Apart from slightly heavy breathing every time I ran up a hill, and a general lack of progression in training, there was nothing at that stage to suggest that I was ill. Oh there was the extreme coldness all the time, but I had just put that down to loosing weight and not being acclimatised to sub-zero temperatures. Things got worse from there on though, and slowly, one-by-one, most of the common symptoms of anaemia started to rear their ugly heads – general malice (ok, so I’m not sure what exactly malice means, but it’s one of those words you see in the medical text books relating to just about every medical condition known to man), slow recovery from training, muscle soreness and heaviness, mild chest pains, paleness, viral-like symptoms, severe headaches, crying, a mildly depressed mood, crankiness, oh and some more crying. The one symptom that I didn’t really experience was tiredness.

A blood test revealed a haemoglobin level of 10.0, and a haemotcrit level of 30%. Add to that serum ferritin levels of just 7, and it’s a wonder that I could run at all. Altitude training is supposed to increase red blood cells, but after spending 5 of the past 11 months at altitude, I’m in a worse position that I was to begin with. Not only have I wasted all that training, but the pale complexion is ruining the tan that I worked so hard to get!!!

Almost 6 years ago my progression as an athlete was completely ruined by the same problem. I went from the shape of my life, to the shape of a Joe-jogger in the space of 12 months. Now, just as I was finally getting fit again, the cycle repeats itself. I knew I had to be careful, and I knew what to look out for, and so, I have to ask myself what went so badly wrong.

I had been getting my haemoglobin levels checked every time I was ‘back-in-town’, but these failed to highlight that my ferritin levels were dangerously low. I suspect that two weeks in Ethiopia, on a diet practically devoid of any animal products, may have been the cause of the decreased iron stores. Almost 1 month, equivalent to the life-cycle of a red blood cell, after returning from Ethiopia, things started to go pear-shaped. If I had gotten a full blood screen at that point, I may have avoided the situation.

Now that things are starting to return to normal, I realise just how much my low iron levels were affecting me. I was experiencing severe muscle soreness for 4 to 5 days after each weights session that I did; now I’m back to the more normal 2 days of soreness. I don’t feel so cold all the time. And when I look in the mirror, I’m starting to see myself looking back, not some ghost-like caricature of myself.

Six years ago, my anaemia was accompanied by burnout, and because of the symptoms I was experiencing I was convinced that I had a virus which three separate doctors couldn’t diagnose. I took a month off training completely, wallowed in my own self pity, and never returned to the shape I had been in the previous year. This time round I’m far more in control of the situation. I’m running most days. While that was just 15 to 20 minutes to begin with, now I’m managing an enjoyable 40 minutes regularly. Sometimes I don’t even wear a watch, and am learning (after 16 years) to ‘run how I feel’. While I know I can’t push things, I’m determined to maintain as much fitness as I can, and, unlike before, am motivated to return to my very best.

Normal red blood cell levels are vital, not just for endurance, but for life in general. Be sure that you get your levels checked at least twice per year, and have them even more closely monitored if you are training at altitude. Beware of the symptoms, but don’t expect them to be the same in all cases. Don’t necessarily expect to feel tired.

If you want to find out more, a factsheet on iron, haemoglobin and red blood cells will be uploaded onto the website in the next few days.

If haemoglobin is our friend, mine has deserted me.  But, hopefully, not for long.

One Year a Nomad

This time twelve months ago, I was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean aboard a rather cramped Continental Airlines flight to Newark, on route to St Louis Potosi in Mexico.  I'd had 20 minutes sleep (as I just finished work, and had my leaving do the previous night), had packed my bag in a massive hurry, and had not yet worked out where I was going to spend the next night.  Looking back on it all now, I can only conclude that I am indeed mad, and setting out on this adventure, as unprepared as I was, is probably the maddest thing that I have ever done.

Twelve months on, however, I realise that setting out to follow my dreams, even if I have not fully achieved them yet, is the best thing I could ever have done.  And what a twelve months they've been!  I've learned a lot about myself, though I'm not quite sure I could say that I've 'found' myself; that was never my intention.  I had hoped to have finished my travels by now, and to have the book in it's final stages, but nothing ever goes according to plan!  The fact that I'm only about 6 months behind schedule, must surely be seen as progress?  Well either way, I've had a ball so far, and just wanted to share some of the highlights:

5. That moment, about 2 minutes after finishing the Great Ethiopian Run, when I wished I could do it all over again.
4. Spotting a bear in Mammoth Lakes.
3. Surviving Mexico.  I couldn't possibly have been more unprepared!  Anything that could have gone wrong, did, and I had to put up with pretty much my own company for 2 weeks...and survived!
2. The best week of training I've had in 7 years, in Flagstaff.  It had been a long time since I last just couldn't get enough of running.  The Grand Canyon was an added bonus.
1. Though nothing to do with the Altitude Training, the 48 hours that I spent in Russia at my brother's wedding are probably the best of my life, not just of the year!  It reminded me of how lucky I am to have the family I do.

And because I haven't put any photos on here in a while, here are my 5 favourite shots from the travels so far.

To celebrate the first year of Egan's Altitude Adventures, the sister website: AltitudeTrainingCamps.com has just been launched.  It will contain additional information, news and advice about altitude and the forthcoming book.  Please save the link to your favourites, check back regularly, and circulate to all your running crazy friends.

I had a dream, and I followed it.  I have no regrets. 

If you have a dream, follow it today!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Da Feckers

Unless you've recently rocketed in from another planet, you'll be aware of the current state of financial and economic crisis in which Ireland finds itself. For the past two years all we've heard is 'credit crunch this', 'credit crunch that'. Then there was the whole banking crisis, the government stepping in to guarantee depositors, and the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank. Back in November the Irish bailout was the hot topic across the world (it seemed to be all that I heard about in Ethiopia), and the EU/IMF deal is still making news headlines. With taxes and unemployment on the rise, everyone's complaining about having to emigrate to find employment (last I checked going to Oz to work was the cool thing to do). Then, the government fell, and for the past 4 weeks all we've heard about is the election, and how Fine Gael are going to put things right again. As if Ireland isn't enough of an international laughing stock, Jedward have been selected to represent us at the Eurovision. But today, as Fine Gael and Labour are deep in coalition talks, the main headlines drastically changed. News from Bangalore of a certain shock sporting result has got the nation talking, in only a way that Ireland's participation in a World Cup can.

I'm too young to remember Ireland's qualification for Euro'88, but I do know that their defeat of England at those championships was one of the great moments in Irish History. And I do remember learning shortly before Italia'90 that soccer was played with a round ball, which the players couldn't handle. The following year, during the 1991 Rugby World Cup I was finally able to distinguish it from rugby, the game that was played with the oval ball. Over the course of the Italian World Cup I, like the vast majority of Ireland, learned about throw-ins, corners, penalty shoot-outs, and the sheer heart-racing excitement of following a national team.

In a book entitled Feckers: 50 People who Fecked up Ireland, John Waters examines 50 influiental Irish people and details how they have each contributed to Ireland's perceived downfall. From DeVelara, to Bono and from Charles J Haughey to Louis Walsh, the rich and famous are each tried for their part in Ireland's demise. Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen are implicated in the dying stages, and the final culprit is not an Irish man, but a French one. As the Hand of God II ended Ireland's hopes of another World Cup trip, so too it killed any sense of moral and pride left in this country of 'jump on the Ireland-success-at-a-world-cup bandwaggon' sportsfans.

While understanding the off-side rule in football gives me a great headstart over most females in a football conversation, any knowledge of cricket whatsoever marks me as a near expert among the Irish. And so, while everyone is excited about Ireland's dramatic and historic win over England in the Cricket World Cup today, it is the fact that we got one over on the old enemy, rather than the greatness of the achievement itself, that has the nation talking. Wickets, overs and innings mean very little, not only to the general Irish population, but to most of the sporting media too. In turth, had I not been living in England during the last World Cup, I would be as lost as the rest of them. Latith Malinga's historic 4 wickets from 4 balls in the West Indies made me want to understand this game, and 2,000 questions later I think Chris, my former landlord and housemate, has just about thought me the basics. In sport, knowledge truly does feel like power. In her excellent book, Get Her off the Pitch, Lynne Truss talks about the joy she felt when she was first able to decipher Match of the Day chat and determine who was playing who and where from club nicknames, grounds and managers. Today I got that same buzz from being one of the few to understand what 'Ireland 329-7 (49.1) bt England 327-8 (50 ovs) by three wickets' actually means!

Not only is the win over England a significant result, but the manner in which it was achieved and the never-say-die attitude of the Irish suggests that, while Thierry Henry put the final nail in Ireland's coffin, this beast may well have been burried alive. After the wicket of captain Will Porterfield was taken on the very first ball of the innings, and given that nobody has ever successfully chased a target of 328, an Irish win didn't look bleak; it looked impossible. During play, bookies were offering 400:1* for Ireland to win (of course, Ireland being the betting nation that it is, someone had €25 on at that rate), but with Ireland's Kevin O'Brien achieving the quickest century in World Cup history (50 balls), and a determined display by the rest of the team, Ireland were in with a shout. With 5 balls remaining, Ireland achieved their target, and sent Irish sports journalists, news reporters and radio deejays running straight to wikipedia to try and workout what it all means. Thank goodness Duckworth-Lewis didn't have to come into play! 

When asked, many have proposed Stuttgart, June 12th 1988, as the birth date of the Celtic Tiger. If that be so, mark Bangalore, today, March 2nd 2011, as the day that the ageing feline gave birth to cubs. I have no idea whether or not they should burn the bondholders, or even what that means, but I do know that today the Irish public found a new bandwaggon to jump on!