Chris Harris-Watts on Tackling the Dragon Ride After Atrial Fibrillation
Few people look at endurance sportsmen and women and consider their health concerns – and why would they? Participating in endurance sport is known to improve a person’s health and reduce their risk of illness and disease. We often view athletes as almost indestructible – bullet-proof – which is why when health issues are uncovered, it can be even more shocking.
This is what happened to Chris Watts, a keen former runner and cyclist taking on the Dragon Ride after a long period off training this year. We spoke with Chris about a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation, which rocked his training in 2018 onwards. As a cyclist racking up the mileage during the time, we asked Chris how he coped with this condition, and what it means to now be back in the game at the Dragon Ride this year.
1. How did you first get into cycling?
Initially my cycling was just commuting into London as running was my main sport. Following a running injury I started triathlon and became hooked. I competed for a number of years up to Ironman 70.3. Following a PE (Lung Blood Clot) after a marathon I was advised to reduce distance running and switched to more cycling.
2. What is atrial fibrillation and how did it impact your life and your cycling? Does it impact your training for the Dragon Ride at all?
Atrial fibrillation (AFIB or AF) is a condition that causes an irregular and often fast heartbeat.
I have been managing the condition since June 2018 and this has restricted my ability to cycle, although it was some time before it was diagnosed. During an AF episode my heart rate often reached 200-223bpm making me very tired and continuing a ride difficult. My first episode was during a cycling holiday in the Pyrenees and this limited the Cols I could attempt.
Episodes did not follow any regular pattern so often I didn’t know what to expect from a ride or whether I would have to abort. This made training very frustrating and inconsistent. I joined a local cycling club Team Sidcup Cycling and they have been very supportive as I managed my condition.
I have not had an episode since May 2022 and am now able to build a more consistent training program, hence my decision to ride the Dragon.
3. Was there anything specific that you had to do to overcome the condition?
For the first couple of years I didn’t know why my heart rate went so high and simply managed by monitoring my HR on every ride and backing off (or getting a train home). Doing research on heart conditions and endurance sport I found a book The Haywire Heart by Case Mandrola Zinn which really helped me understand my symptoms. I was finally diagnosed as having AF and I was lucky that the blood thinners I took to prevent repeat blood clots is the exact medication they would prescribe to prevent stroke in AF suffers. I was allowed to continue training and advised to purchase a Cardia device that allows me to record an ECG (electrocardiogram) on my phone and which confirmed AF episodes. This allowed me to check before starting a ride if I suspected AF and abort if confirmed. I was also prescribed BetaBlockers to use as a “pill in the pocket” to help reduce my HR following an episode. I have had two procedures (AF Ablations) to correct AF in Sept 2021 and May 2022. Since the second Redo Ablation in May I have not had an episode of AF and have been signed off by my hospital.
4. Why is doing the Dragon Ride this year important / significant to you?
The Dragon Ride for me is the end of a 5 year struggle with the heart condition and will confirm that I am back to full riding. I have always needed a target to help focus my training and what better challenge then The Dragon. I did decide against the Dragon Devil (although very tempted) but recognise that the Gran Fondo is a tough challenge and will give me confidence that I am back in the game!
5. Do you have any other bucket life challenges on your list? If so, what are they?
The 2018 ride in the Pyrenees was part of my ‘then’ bucket list but I never got to ride the Tourmalet so I would like to revisit that challenge. Having had a disrupted 5 years of training and now being 66 I guess I have to review my original list with a realistic eye – I would still like to tackle a few more of the classic grand tour climbs but also some more local challenges. I rode LEJOG in 2017 and loved riding in the Highlands so NC500 has to be on the list. I completed a bikepacking trip on The Cantii Way last year and would like to do more similar trips.
Ask me again after the Dragon as I am sure that will confirm to me where I really am now! There is a part of me that is tempted by one more triathlon although I haven’t run since June 2016, jury is out on that one! Hopefully I’ll be adding The Dragon Devil for 2024…
Thank you Chris for enlightening us on this important topic, and we are glad that you are in the clear now. Enjoy the Dragon Ride 2023 and the rest of your challenges coming up soon.