Durango is known for its fit population; just look around on any given day and you will see bike riders on the streets and runners on the trails.
We are a health-conscious community in our activities and our diets, but we all have known someone who in spite of being fit and healthy had a potentially life-threatening health condition that totally took them by surprise.
In February 2011, 61-year-old triathlete Dave Rakita was on a training run preparing for the upcoming Xterra season when he felt a burning sensation in the back of his throat that radiated out to his shoulders. He thought: This is not fun; its not good today, so he slowed down the pace, and the feeling went away.
The next day, he didnt feel that well while swimming. It was like a general malaise, no real chest pains, just an overall discomfort that made exercise not fun and would make me stop, Rakita said.
After three days of this exercise-induced problem, his wife, Bobbi, a nurse, suggested he have a cardiac stress test, which came back normal. Over the next few months he had other tests to rule out stomach problems; they all came back negative.
Cutting back his training from his normal 10-15 hours per week to five, Rakita experienced some relief especially when he began using nitroglycerin tablets with exercise.
My symptoms could point to heart disease, but there was also a chance it was esophageal spasms, which would relax with the nitroglycerin, Rakita said.
Even with his family history his father died at 56 from heart disease he still wasnt sure that was the problem.
The first symptom of heart disease for most people is death, and luckily it wasnt mine, he said. My symptoms were not that bad and very intermittent; theyd go away if I slowed down. I waited to have the heart catheterization test because the pain wasnt that bad. You race in a lot more pain than I was experiencing; it wasnt what you would call crushing chest pain.
June 16, he got the heart catheterization test, which involves running dye through the femoral artery from the groin to the heart. The test showed a 95% blockage in his left anterior descending artery: At that level, there is no negotiating; you go on to surgery, he said.
The good news is he was a perfect candidate for a minimally invasive robotic heart surgery, which was performed by Dr. John Mehall at Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs.
The lesion was in the right place to do this mammary artery graft, where they cut the artery loose from the chest wall through a 3-inch incision and graft it back down below the blockage, Rakita said. This is all done visually with robotic cameras.
Recovery was swift, and he had no restrictions put on him as far as returning to exercise. A competitive athlete since 1977, Daves training schedule has been life-consuming. His résumé of accomplishments is long and admirable: four-time age-group winner at Xterra Nationals, World Xterra champion in 2010 and numerous Olympic-distance triathlon wins as well as foot-race victories of varying distances.
This training regimen requires fuel, and Rakita readily admits he ate all the time throughout the day to keep him going.
In retrospect, looking at current thinking for cardiovascular disease, I definitely ate too much sugar and simple carbs, he said. I definitely like sweets and would load up on these probably too much. I was metabolizing the calories and not gaining weight, but coupled with my family history, it contributed to my disease.
Since the surgery, Rakita has modified his diet and now takes cholesterol medication as well as a soluble fiber supplement.
I have cut out a lot of sugar and carbohydrates like pasta and bread from my diet; Im eating more of a Mediterranean diet of vegetables and good fats like nuts and avocados.
As far as his competitive plans, he has no immediate goals but has been thinking about his bucket list.
Competing takes so much time and drives your whole lifestyle, he said. Its a question of if its a good time to shift things and enjoy other parts of life, maybe getting a real vacation instead of it always being a Tri vacation.
Rakitas advice for others: Control your risk factors; get your cholesterol and body weight down; and avoid sugar. You cant do anything about your genetics, but the risk factors are out there, and people should take them seriously and control them. Being an athlete doesnt make you immune to these problems.
Marjorie Brinton is an avid runner and swimmer. She writes a monthly column for Outdoors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.