I hadn’t felt right for a while, and while that’s pretty non-specific, it’s an important feeling to honor, especially for athletes. My feet had become almost completely dysfunctional in the spring after not having any previous issues with them whatsoever. After doctors’ appointments, physical therapy workups, way too many new shoes, and five weeks of barely being able to walk a few steps, the answer finally came from a young chiropractor just a few blocks from my house. Entrapped nerves in my calves were the culprit, and after he adjusted my ankles and did a couple of minutes of Graston technique (essentially a technique that uses metal tools to break up adhesions), I walked out of his office with a new lease on life. Nothing had been wrong with my feet at all— it was intense referred pain from my legs. I was able to resume workouts almost immediately, but something never quite clicked. It was a nagging feeling of something not being right, although I couldn’t put my finger on it or come up with a definitive description of symptoms.
As a nice spring rapidly turned to a brutal summer, as it often does in Florida, my running hovered around 30 miles per week. I couldn’t seem to break that number, which was both odd and frustrating. After group runs with friends, I was wrecked the entire day while they felt fine. My Sunday longish runs plateaued in pace and distance, and I felt almost flu-like afterward. I have significant pre-existing health conditions, and I began to fear that since I was in my late thirties, the symptoms I felt were a result of those conditions deteriorating with age. I couldn’t stay hydrated and would sweat buckets after only a mile or two. My runs soon required multiple breaks even during short, pre-sunrise miles, and the usual weights I’d lifted for years felt too heavy.
My feet started to hurt again, and foam rolling, compression sleeves, and calf massages only helped for a day or a few hours My body began to crash. I sensed my mind was joining the downward spiral, too. Simple work tasks took more effort, I was anxious and quick-tempered, and my insomnia was worse than ever.
Lightheadedness and dizziness came next. I dragged out my old emergency medical technician kit— I hadn’t worked as an EMT in over a decade—and manually took my blood pressure the next time I got dizzy. It was 82/58, which is way too low, even for a well-conditioned athlete. I felt very cold or very hot all the time and began hiding in the bathroom at work for a few minutes so I could take off all my clothes and try to stop sweating. It was almost funny, and perhaps one day it will be. My confusion over simple tasks escalated daily, and my short-term memory disappeared. Finally, one night, while shaking and shivering despite it being 92 degrees outside, I took myself to Urgent Care. I hate going to the doctor, in large part because of my history of health problems has required me to spend a big chunk of my life there, but I knew something was very wrong.
I was shaking so bad at Urgent Care that my body jumped off the exam table. An assistant brought me a warm blanket, and I soon got so hot that it was all I could do to keep my clothes on. My blood pressure went from 140/90 to 90/60 within a couple of minutes, and an EKG showed my heart was in atrial fibrillation. The Urgent Care doctor wanted me to go to the emergency room, but I refused. I’d spent way too much time in hospitals to ever go back, or at least that’s what I told myself. My brain was foggy at best and almost useless at worst. I went home and left a message for my primary care doctor, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time.
When bloodwork results came back, the story unfolded in a series of numbers highlighted in blue to signify abnormalities. My ferritin level was rock-bottom. If you don’t know what a ferritin level is— I didn’t— it’s essentially a measurement of the iron stored in your body. Without adequate iron storage, the body can become anemic and can suffer from a variety of unpleasant and potentially dangerous symptoms. The onset often shows up as diminished athletic performance, and if unchecked, can progress to serious illness. My absolute low point was losing consciousness in the hallway and reawakening on the floor without a clue of how long I’d been out.
Even though I could barely think straight, I understood that my spring and summer were largely explained by the low ferritin. I believe that my first major symptom was my foot/leg problem in the early spring. Since iron is vital for the delivery of oxygen to cells, it made sense to me that the extreme calf tightness I felt that led to entrapped nerves was caused by inadequate iron. I thought about my friends happily and quickly recovering from our spring and summer runs while I laid around like a post-run zombie and was sure the puzzle pieces were finally complete. My doctor immediately started me on heavy-duty iron pills four times daily and ordered me to stay out of the sun and heat, drink water with electrolytes, and cut way back on coffee and calcium. Both coffee and calcium (and several other things) contribute to malabsorption of iron. Ironically, as I felt worse and worse, I relied on coffee and energy drinks to make it through the day.
The moral of this story? Don’t ignore your concerns and feelings, and don’t skip your blood work. Female athletes, in particular, are susceptible to low iron due to monthly blood loss, and things like heavy sweating and an imbalanced diet can cause further iron loss. If I’d gotten my bloodwork on a schedule rather than putting it off for years, my doctor would’ve caught my iron deficiency before it got serious. I’m now exactly five weeks out from taking large doses of iron and changing my diet, and I still have a long way to go before I can run or bike or swim again. I’m making fewer dumb mistakes at work, but still forgetting simple stuff, and still getting winded on hilly walks. But I’m making slow progress and can do some light strength-training, and have started to sleep better. I’ve lost five pounds, the majority of which is probably muscle, but mostly, I’ve lost time. Knowing all of this was avoidable— every bit of it, from the passing out to the painful feet— is very frustrating but also empowering. I’ve been sick for half a year because I didn’t get a routine checkup with bloodwork. The good news is, I’m never making the same mistake again. And, hopefully, I’ll come back running and biking and swimming stronger than ever.
Victoria Stopp is the author of Hurting Like Hell, Living with Gusto: My Battle with Chronic Pain. She is a writer and editor and also works in the physical therapy department of a spinal rehabilitation clinic. She loves spending time in nature and is a passionate outdoorswoman.