Lyme Disease? So what is Lyme Disease? It’s a bit of a buzz term in the world of outdoorsiness. One of those diseases that we regularly hear about but know little about….
How do you get it, what it means to you as an athlete, how do you combat it, Is it contagious etc etc?
How can it be contracted? Bleedin’ ticks! That’s not a gobsheen that might have tried to chat you up in Coppers but an insect. They are a glorified mosquito that basically wants a quart of your blood and in doing so spreads the disease by biting into you.
The tick will most likely need to be pulled off your arm. There are methods of doing so. They key is to grab it by its head/mouth and not to squeeze the body. By squeezing the body you are effectively emptying its inside like an injection into you.
The bite, if infected may cause in some cases, a big bad ass white ring around the initial bite area. Like a mozi bite on steroids. The white area will turn the skin hard and sensitive to touch. You may also feel flu like symptoms in the days that follow. Get to the GP!
Although in some cases you may not even know you were bitten at all.
Ciara O’Neill, a keen triathlete and adventure racer spoke openly to us about her experience with Lyme Disease and how it has effected her life. Her Dip in form. Unexplained by so many specialists. Winning one day. Unable to finish the next day.
I left the session feeling deflated. I knew something wasn’t right and if I was honest with myself, it hadn’t been for quite a long time. I had convinced myself it was overtraining, it was stress, it was part of getting older, part of being an athlete… I had visited the GP many times with symptoms and I had in turn seen many different specialists but each one assured me that there was nothing clinically wrong with me. Each time I left a doctors office I felt as though I was acting like a hypochondriac as I was told it was due to stress, it was IBS, it was part of getting old, it was in my head or it was part of being an athlete. I decided that I was going to have yet more bloods checked and this time (thanks to google) I asked the GP to check for lyme disease. I didn’t really think I actually had lyme disease. I was just being a hypochondriac. But then the tests showed that I was positive for several tick borne diseases including Bartonella, Babesia and Ehrlichia.
My head was spinning at the news and at first I actually felt relieved. We knew the problem. There was a problem. And so we could fix it, right? I figured a few antibiotics and I’d be flying like I knew I always should have been. I didn’t even know what Lyme disease was before three weeks ago, Sure, I had seen a few references to it on occasion but these went right over my head as it didn’t concern me. I was healthy (or so I thought). Unfortunately late stage lyme disease is not easily treated with a simple course of antibiotics, as it typically is during the early stages of infection. Many people learn to ‘live with lyme’ but I don’t want that (of course). I want to kill every last bit of it and be able to train at a high level without wondering if each session will push my immune system that bit too far and bring back symptoms.
I can actually recall being bitten by a tick (not to be confused with a thick lol) although many people don’t recall a bite. It was around the time of the Dublin Half Marathon in 2015. I was out for a run in the Phoenix Park and afterwards I noticed several bites on my legs, but one in particular had me concerned. It was quite red and itchy and it developed a large red ring around it. I contemplated going to the GP but according to google i would develop severe flu like symptoms if it was anything to worry about so I decided to wait it out.
This was my first marathon and training had gone quite well considering it was quite ambitious to attempt to run a marathon with less than a year of running experience under my belt. I ran the Dublin Half at my planned marathon pace and was quietly confident that this was a pace I could hold for the full marathon. However, I remember doing a run a few days before the marathon at marathon pace and struggling to hold it, with my HR much higher than expected. Of course, I put it down to the taper and was reassured by several people that I should trust the training and it would all come together on the day of the race. Still no sign of a flu and to be honest all thoughts of the bite disappeared as the bite mark also disappeared from my calf. Marathon day day arrived and I felt good as i lined up to start. As I passed Christchurch (about 2 miles) I remember feeling hotter and sweatier than I would have expected to feel at that stage of the race and at that pace. I put it down to excitement and threw away the top layer I had been wearing. As we ran through the Phoenix Park, I started to just feel off and my right hip felt stiff. I couldn’t believe that my body was acting up on me so early in the race. I had done so many long runs where I felt amazing throughout and now at 6 miles on race day I felt crap. I wouldn’t say that I felt like I had a flu but my body didn’t really want to run and I was genuinely considering pulling out at the half marathon point. But I didn’t, and I finished the race in a blur of feeling crap, while pouring the caffeine gels into me.
I had heard people talk about the feeling of euphoria that you get when you cross the finish line of a marathon and indeed I had felt a ‘runners high’ in the past after races but when I crossed the line of the marathon I just felt crap.
In the days following the race, I remember feeling as though my HR was quite high and as though my adrenals were out of sync and I was constantly on edge. My muscles were a bit stiff, nothing major but just a feeling as though my body was in distress. In hindsight, the infection was spreading but I thought it was my body’s reaction to the marathon. My return to running was as expected after a marathon. I didn’t feel as though I had much of a pep in my step, but again that was expected after a marathon. I focused on hopefully feeling back to normal and reaping the benefits of my marathon training in the Jingle Bells 5k in early December. This should be plenty of time to be well recovered from the marathon, however, this race didn’t go well either. I think my excuse that day was the strong wind….. I had excuses for everything. It continued like this for months and eventually I left the athletics club that I was training with in the hope that a different training approach might be the answer as to why I wasn’t progressing. It wasn’t, and I continued to run at the same paces. My hip that had been feeling
stiff during the marathon started to act up again and I went for an MRI which showed significant oedema but no cause for it. I decided to go for ESWT and within hours my hip felt perfect again. I had no other symptoms apart from swollen lymph nodes for the whole of 2016 that I can recall, but I just didn’t have the same ability to push like I used to before the marathon. At the end of 2016, I decided to try and mix up my training a bit and train for triathlon. I started training with a triathlon coach and I finally felt like I was progressing. My run times were improving, I was learning to swim at a good rate and I took to cycling fairly well in a short space of time. I competed in a few races and even found myself on the podium in many of them. I was always drawn to long distance and at this stage I did seem to have particularly good fatigue resistance. Looking back now, I had probably entered a natural remission as I had a very healthy lifestyle and having eased off my training in 2016 my body had done a fairly good job at managing the lyme infection. I entered my first half ironman distance race in May, Lough
Cutra, and it went very well for me. However, after this race I didn’t feel right again. I would randomly feel fatigued and my body seemed to have different issues one after another, starting at my hip again and working its way from my lower organs up to my chest. I had several falls while I was both running and cycling but I put these down to tiredness from training and of course any pain I felt in my body I blamed on the falls. I then did my first full distance race in August and the night after the race I felt like I was dying. I was sweating, my heart was racing and I felt like I was losing my mind (all while sleeping in a tent with lashing rain outside might I add). I knew I needed to take a break from training after this race as I thought this was all due to overtraining, but I had already signed up for one last race that year, the Lost Sheep. I hoped that if I rested up for the few weeks between the races that my body would feel good again and I’d get one last race in for the season. As soon as I got on the bike in the Lost Sheep I knew I wasn’t ok. I had no energy and the rest of the race was torture. When I crossed that finish line, I really didn’t think I’d ever do another triathlon again.
I took a few weeks away from training with complete rest. During this time I ended up taking an antibiotic and I noticed a red rash which looked like stretch marks on my abdomen (a classic sign of lyme co-infection Bartonella). I rang the doctor and she changed the antibiotic to another one which caused no reaction. Following the antibiotic, I began to feel like my old self again and I remember commenting that I felt amazing, which I put down to taking a rest from my training. I realised that I’d actually been feeling quite anxious a lot of the time over the last few months and it was only when this lifted that I noticed how much it had been impacting me. Feeling well again and having taken a rest, I returned to training in November and while my fitness had dropped, I felt good and I felt that I was able to push in sessions like I used to. I remember a few track sessions where i really felt like I was hitting good times and the ability to ‘dig deep’ was there. It didn’t last though. I did a 53k ultra race (Art O’Neill) and again I didn’t recover well from it. Training was very up and down, some days I could push and some days I could barely drive to sessions with the tiredness. I constantly felt heavy and was adamant I had put on a lot of weight – I now know this was actually swelling. I started to also get a lot of brain fog but it was quite subtle and it was easy to put it down to stress. But as the year went on all the little symptoms got a little bit bigger and the fatigue was so up and down that I began to wonder if I should quit triathlon and return to just running. I still thought it was because I was training too much or under stress. Instead, I switched coaches and I started a plan which was tailored to my paces and we used training peaks to track my data. I guess using this software highlighted to me that the inconsistencies in my training weren’t in my head. I could run 10k one day at my easy pace and HR would be around 140 ish and another day the same run would have my HR close to 160, while sweat poured from me.
In hindsight, there were so many times that my body was screaming at me to listen to it and i ignored it.
When I first got the positive test result news that I did in fact have Lyme disease, I tried to continue my daily life as it was, in the hope that I could just step back during treatment. However, suddenly all the symptoms I had been ignoring were very real and joining the dots sent me almost into a panic of realisation at how much this disease has taken hold of my body. It felt like the scene in ‘The Usual Suspects’ where all the pieces in the puzzle join together to reveal Kaiser Soze’s identity. It was all there under my nose and i didn’t see it. I remember saying sentences like ‘I feel as though my body is constantly fighting something’ and ‘I feel like my insides are all full of inflammation.’ I had also noticed small things like my skin was looking older and thinner, my hair was also thinning and looked very dry. Some days I would wake up with a perfectly flat abdomen and on those days running felt like it should but other days I would feel so heavy.
Unfortunately, I didn’t trust my instinct and continued training in the hope that it was all in my head and the doctors were right. My first triathlon coach once said to me that I wanted it too much, and at the time I dismissed what he said and thought to myself that it wasn’t possible to want to be the best too much. Now I realize what he meant. I wanted to be the best at everything. Even now, I want to be the best at recovering from lyme disease lol.
I am still waiting to see a specialist but in the meantime I am also looking into options for treatment abroad. I’ve done a huge amount of reading on herbal protocols, supplements, treatments for gut health, diet and much more. I’m gradually making changes to my lifestyle to incorporate these and I definitely feel some improvements in a short space of time. I have had to take a complete step back from any sort of a training plan but thankfully I am still able to do some light training at an easy intensity. I’m also avoiding chemicals as much as possible so I’ve stopped swimming in pools with chlorine and instead most of my swimming is done in the sea, which my body seems to much prefer (unless there is jellyfish ha). I’ve also returned to Bikram yoga and I’m finding this really good, both physically and mentally.
I believe that the key to being a successful athlete is getting back up no matter how hard or how many times you get knocked back. Well, this is probably about the biggest knock back I could have imagined. But I will get back up.
Photographs courtesy of www.Clearskiesahead.com
We are not doctors, medical experts or anything near it. If you find you have come across any of these symptoms and are worried about it, contact your local GP at once.