This is our second installment in our "Inspiration" series. The response from our first post was amazing, and we are thankful to Dan Markowitz and everyone who shared their experience racing, training, working, and even growing up with Dan. For this post, we spent some with a Boise native who has found a way to overcome a rare heart condition to continue doing the things she loves to do. We found her story inspiring, and hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as we enjoyed writing her story.
Interview by Antonio Gonzalez. Pictures by Scott Conover.
I first met Susan 9 years ago while leading a training program for the Boise 70.3. In any group, there is always the fast person, and there is always the last person. At the time, Susan was often that last person, but you wouldn't have guessed it from her positive attitude and level of commitment. As far as I can remember, she showed up for every workout, every cold and wet ride or run, and never complained. Even back then, Susan had the characteristics of all successful people and great athletes- they show up and get the work done, everyday. What I didn't know at the time was Susan had a rare heart condition, and soon before the training program began her doctors had said she would likely never run again. In addition, she had been prescribed a beta-blocker that she said made her feel like she was running through sand. Here is how she overcame these challenges and found a way to continue doing the things she loves to do.
Tri Town (TT): I understand you grew up here in Boise?
Susan: Yes I moved here in kindergarten. I graduated from Capital High School, then moved out of town for college. I eventually moved back to Boise in 1993 after finishing nursing school. At the time I literally had a roll of quarters to my name, and moved in with my parents for a while when studying for my nursing exams.TT: Have you always been an active person?
Susan: My family has always been active, and my dad put me on skis by the time I could walk. As a kid I played every sport imaginable, with a focus on dancing and swimming. As a teenager I was swimming with Jim Everett (prior CEO of the YMCA) but started to developed chronic respiratory issues, and decided to try racquetball. I eventually went on to play semi professionally for a short while.TT: When did you decide to try triathlon out?
Susan: For years I mostly focused on running due to how time efficient it is, but after having a rough race at the Maui Marathon my friends Donna Barrieau, Toni Ramey, and I decided on the plane flight back to give a triathlon a try. So I bought a bike, and literally was only able to ride it once before the winter weather hit. It was that same winter in 2007 on the day after Christmas when I collapsed on a training run (having a Sudden Cardiac Death Event).TT: What happened?
Susan: At the hospital I was diagnosed with a rare cardiac conduction disorder called ARVD. So essentially on that run my heart began beating way too fast and arrested.TT: And so that is why you have this device sewn into your skin below your collar bone?
Susan: It's a ICD (Implanted Cardioverter Defibrillator). It paces my heart, it has the capacity to cardiovert me, and as a last resort it could defibrillate me.
TT: Its sounds like it would be risky to exercise after going through something like that? How have you managed to continue training and competing after all this?
Susan: It took years to get moving again at a level I was use to. Ultimately I decided that I want to live a life full of quality- doing the things that I love and enjoy. It is a risk, and it was not necessarily fully recommended, but I have a great cardiologist who is willing to work with me and my mindset.
Nonetheless, I cannot train or race the way I once did. I can not go to 100% anymore. Initially, I use to nervously watch my heart rate monitor during every workout (editor note: to keep her HR down), but soon realized that I couldn't obsess over it, and instead had to focus on training at an intensity that felt sustainable and right for me. Most importantly, I had to train smarter.
In the first 6 months after getting my ICD installed, I went into about 15 arrhythmias. The next 6 month period I had maybe only 12. And about every 6 month period the arrhythmias were decreasing until I stopped having them all together for about 2 years. My cardiologist couldn't quite explain it. I believe that my heart and body were adapting to my condition and my training was making me more fit than I had ever been before.
Now when I go to races and compete against other people in my age group it never once crosses my mind that I have wires in my heart, and a device in my chest.TT: You were recognized as a Medtronic Global Hero in 2012 (a recognition given to runners who have used advanced medical technology to continue living active and healthy lives). How was that experience for you?
Susan: Being one of the 2012 Medtronic Global Heroes was one of the best weekends in my life- I was Queen for a Day. I spent a weekend in Minneapolis and ran the twin cities marathon. It was amazing to meet 25 other people from around the world who have endured much worse things than me.TT: So your start with triathlon was a bit interrupted to say the least. When did you actually get to do your first event?
Susan: My first race was the Olympic tri at Pacific Crest in 2008. I think it took me twice as long as it would now. For my parents I ordered the race photos on a plaque. Those were about the only photos I have ever ordered. I look at it occasionally and it even has my time on it (cringe).
TT: Since then I know you've done a lot of other races too. What is it that you enjoy about the sport?
Susan: I actually like to train more than I like to race. The people, the coaches, the fact that you're always leaning and trying to improve yourself is what draws me to the sport.
I also enjoy having three different sports going on. The goal is to be proficient in all of them.TT: So do you have a favorite race?
Susan: The 30th Anniversary of Ironman Canada (the last year in Penticton was my first Ironman and my favorite. It literally felt like I was at Disneyland: I remember getting off the bike and having to start the run... and seeing all these people with smiling faces cheering us on... it removed any doubts in my mind that I was now about to run a marathon.TT: That's pretty cool, the energy at races is contagious. Is that the race you're most proud of?
Susan: Not necessarily, I think it would probably be the third Boise 70.3. The Idaho Statesman did an interview with me and about my disease. After completing the interview, Statesman told me the interview would not be in the paper if I didn't finish the race. The extra motivation must have made a difference, because I improved upon my prior best time by 30 minutes.
Susan: Years ago Harold Frobisher (TT co-founder) introduced me to perceived exertion, since I couldn't train by heart rate anymore. Currently Matt Humphrey (TT Coach) has expanded my understanding of training and cycling further than I could have imagined. But honestly every coach and athlete I've worked with or trained with have all been a wonderful part of learning and growing in the sport.
Susan: Mostly my friends and the laughter that comes with being around great people. I also enjoy seeing improvements in myself and in others.TT: Is there something you'd like to add that we've missed?
Susan: It has been interesting learning how to be a masters age athlete. You have to be smart, wise, and learn to remove the 'filler' workouts. Everything should be purposeful and mindful, while still having fun. If done right, health setbacks or aging do not have to be limiters- I've actually had my fastest run times since my incident!
I sometimes look at young people and don't see them as different from me. I feel like I can be right there with them (in workouts or whatever). But that doesn't always happen (!), and you have to learn to accept that, and just enjoy being out there.