Heart attack was not the end for Phillipa Humphreys
01 January 1970
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Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live, fantastic to have you on board once again. I’m so excited to share our next story because I think it is phenomenal and I think you’re going to love it too. It’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the podcast today Phillipa Humphreys. Phillipa, welcome, thanks for joining us today.
Phillipa Humphreys: Hi Brad, thanks very much for having me.
BB: Phillip, before we get into the year that you’ve had, you’ve been a runner for a large part of your life. Running is just you, you love it, you probably can’t imagine your life without it.
PH: Yes, I’ve always been very sporty, growing up, it’s something we’ve always done as a family. I’ve always loved running and so it’s just part of it, especially after kids, getting back into longer distance running was really exciting.
BB: Phillipa you say ‘after kids’ you’ve got two boys, I believe the one is 14 and the other is a pre-teen, he’s 11, you’re married. You’ve run what’s to be run in SA, you’ve run Old Mutual Two Oceans, you’ve run Comrades, Cape Town Ultra Trail, Puffer, you’ve pretty much done what there is to do on the running calendar haven’t you?
PH: I’m always keen to try new runs, get longer distances, try different things. I started out mainly doing road races/road running and the moving here to Cape Town got the trail. But and that’s really my aim at the moment. On the wish list is Sky Run, that’s where I want to go. But for reasons that I’ve now found out, I had quite a large altitude problem, but hopefully that’s rectified now.
Suffering a heart attack on the trails
BB: Let’s talk about the challenges you’ve had this year with just health in general and not just your running, but middle of the year, June, you had a heart attack out on the trails.
PH: Yes, for sure, it was a massive curveball, a massive surprise. I’ve always been the fittest one in the family, eating well, running, keeping active and we really never saw this coming. I was at Newlands Forest, just out on a run, by myself and about an hour in, had a heart attack on the trails. That was huge and things just snowballed from that day and ended up with open heart surgery a few days later.
BB: That’s phenomenal, out on the trails, on your own, something like this happens, how do you deal with that? Tell me about it, what goes through your mind when this is happening?
PH: Actually, I really didn’t think it was my heart, to be quite honest, because I never thought there was any issue with my heart. I thought I was having almost an asthma type attack, something was going on, very hectic. But then my arm goes numb and the whole symptoms of angina attack really. It was an activity sports induced angina attack.
So as soon as I eased off and just sat down, the symptoms went away, well, a little bit, I could move a bit. I slowly but surely made my way back down to the car knowing that something hectic had happened and then went to the doctor and she just sent me straight to the cardiologist and said: No there’s something wrong.
BB: Wow, Phillipa, had something like this happened before?
PH: No, no, I had had no symptoms that would red flag anything. Looking back now there were slight little pains that maybe, I know now the reason but I wouldn’t have put it as that. After you’ve been running for 4-5 hours all sorts of things start aching and paining but nothing too extreme and everything went away you see, so I really didn’t see it. I wouldn’t have known there was a heart issue at all.
6 weeks after surgery I was back running
BB: Open heart surgery a few days later, as you said, but it hasn’t stopped you. It wasn’t long after that you were back in Newlands Forest, I believe it was six weeks after the op, you were out there once again?
PH: Yes, you know, I was really desperate to not have this whole heart situation affect me in a negative way. But for me it was make little goals along the way and one was to just keep moving. I thought I had to get this running back because that was the one thing I always had for me, as a mom, full-time work, you need that time and I loved it on the mountains.
I thought no, we’re going to get back there, so the main thing was to start walking and keep doing it. I started yoga, stretching, basic things, even in the hospital, out of ICU, just to walk was good. The nurses were irritated with me because I wanted to try some stairs, so I just kept going and going. Everyone said no you’re mad and aren’t you scared and you’re going to have this whole thing again.
I said: No, you can’t go with that attitude, you’ve got to go in a positive way and I think the body heals better when we’re in motion, within the boundaries of our injury, to put it that way. You don’t want to stress it out even more. But I helped a lot, so as soon as he gave me the all clear to actually run, I was back out there. First with some mates, they were really concerned about me!
BB: They didn’t have to ask you twice if you were going to go and run, I’m sure.
PH: No, I was there!
BB: We mentioned six weeks after the op you were back in Newlands Forest, but 11 weeks post you were taking part in the Table Mountain Challenge, 44km trail run, how’s that? That’s just amazing, I can’t believe someone can bounce back that quickly. That path couldn’t have been easy though? I know, I’ve got family members who have had heart attacks and how difficult it is. Especially when you are active, to come back to any sort of fitness, it’s hard, it’s a tough journey.
PH: Yes, coming back, it feels like you’re running with lead weights on the legs, the whole body has been through a lot, but my thing was, take it slow. At the moment I run now and all the little things really matter, the speed and time is not there, it’s go the distance, enjoy the route. To be honest, I was just so happy to be out on the trail, the euphoria took away any negative side and I just took it slow.
I thought if I make it halfway within the cut-off and then I’ll go ahead, but I had no, I had the entry and I wasn’t going to waste it. I hate missing out on that race, it’s so much fun. I was really happy to make it at the end, it was a great experience, I was really happy.
Listen to your body and don’t take life for granted
BB: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned out of this whole episode Phillipa?
PH: The biggest lesson, wow. You don’t take anything for granted. I was given a second chance, so I’m going to really not waste a day now in terms of life, but in running. So I look at it quite differently. But yes, you must never give up, because you get these curveballs coming in that you really didn’t see. You must just move with it and embrace it and give your body a chance to show you what it can do.
BB: Knowing what you know now about the condition and the causes or reasons behind why it happened. Is there anything you would do differently or anything you would suggest other ultra runners do that could be putting themselves at risk?
PH: It’s a difficult one because you always do all the usual checks to yourself. I think listen to your body really well. When there’s a niggle or there is a little pain, give it a chance or if things do continue for a little while, even though they are small.
You see, I put those at the back door and maybe I should have, in retrospect, actually gone in and said why am I getting this tiny little pain quite often, that sort of thing. Maybe listen to ourselves a little more, which I’m definitely doing now. I know my heart beat and heart rate, I don’t need a monitor, I know when I’ve had enough.
BB: As far as what’s next, you talk about not taking anything for granted, but you seem like the person who sets big goals, you mentioned Sky Run. Is that a possibility after this or is that something you might have to look at doing possibly a bit further down the line?
PH: Definitely further down the line. But as I said, one thing that I now know what the problem was, I had a great difficulty in going in altitude-wise. I would just be so out of breath, no matter how hard I trained or did, I was just finished. I thought wow, I really must be so unfit that I can’t do these high up runs. Now I know why, from the heart condition.
So hopefully I can, I would love to do a Sky Run or two, so that’s definitely on the books in the future. Next week, a week and a bit I’ve got Three Peaks which I still have these entries to these races before my heart and Ultra Trail Cape Town. Ultra Trail again, so I’m going to give them a bash. I’m not expecting great finishing times or anything, but just the fact of being there and being able to run is just sheer amazement at the moment.
BB: Phillipa, your story is incredible, congratulations on bouncing back and pushing yourself to get back and I look forward to seeing you out on the trails. I’m sure our paths will cross, I run those trails fairly often too, so looking forward to seeing you out there.
PH: Thanks very much and hope we do, that’ll be great and thanks for the time.