Running on Empty: An AFM FITTEST Odyssey of a Different Sort

By Tim Zeddies, Ph.D. – August 1, 2014
Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons

Early on the morning of June 1, just six short days before the 2014 AFM FITTEST competition, I was sitting in my car at Camp Mabry feeling an intoxicating mixture of confidence, anticipation, and excitement. Sunday was my last hard training session with my teammates before the competition, and I was peaking physically and mentally. Just as in the previous week of training, I had set personal records as I practiced the AFM FITTEST events. I was ecstatic about bettering the previous year’s results, and I was beginning to think that my third age-division win—and perhaps even a top-five overall finish—was possible.
My training partners (Mark Cunningham, Justin Fischer, and my AFM FITTEST teammates, Dane Krager, David Braswell, and Terrance Simms) were, I felt, the best I could’ve asked for. I felt great about the sprint training I had done the previous seven months with Outright Training and Performance, and I believed that I had emphasized recovery and injury prevention with regular sports massages and chiropractic visits to Dr. Bockman. My muscles were ready, my joints felt great, and my mind was sharp and eager to compete.
And then, only hours after this shameless ego trip at Camp Mabry, in the span of several terrifying moments, I lost it all and frightened the people I most love. In a rather painful and humbling way, I would soon learn that, while I may have been the fittest I had ever been in my adult life, my approach and attitude toward fitness were unhealthy, and I might have actually been risking my life.

A Scary Sequence of Events

At 3:30 a.m. the following morning, I woke to the persistent nagging of one of our cats. As I bounded out of bed, I started to black out and lost my balance, falling hard against the wooden floor. My hip and knee bore the brunt of the crushing thud, and I fought to stay conscious; when I attempted to get to my feet, I fell again. Scared, confused, and disoriented, I somehow crawled back into bed. My wife and youngest daughter (who had snuck into our bed yet again) frantically asked if I was OK. I tried as best I could to reassure them, but the throbbing pain in my hip and knee was excruciating. Not knowing what else to do, I rested for a moment and then slowly limped to the kitchen for water—a fatefully bad decision. At the refrigerator, I lost consciousness completely. This time, I was not so lucky. When I fell, I split my head and lip open and awoke to the panicked and confused pleadings of my wife and three daughters. 

My wife rushed me to the ER, where I received several stitches in my lip, five staples in my head, and was told that I was in stage 1 kidney failure. The hospital admitted me for treatment and observation, and I was eventually diagnosed with dehydration, rhabdomyolysis, and a moderately severe concussion. What’s more, I would learn ten days after my hospitalization that I also sustained a fractured fibula in my fall. The AFM FITTEST faded into a murky pool of improbability; at this point, I just wanted to understand how I had fallen so far so fast.

What is Rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis has been most discussed within and outside the exercise and fitness community in reference to CrossFit, which has received a heap of criticism—some deserved, much not—for its supposed attitude toward the condition (see, for example, images of Uncle Rhabdo, a clownish-appearing figure in CrossFit lore who has been depicted hooked up to medical devices while standing in a pool of blood, his kidneys dangling from his abdomen). 

In spite of recent increased attention, there is still much confusion and misinformation about rhabdomyolysis. According to the medical community, this condition refers to a rapid breakdown in skeletal muscle, the damaged cells of which are released at a faster rate and at a higher quantity than the kidneys are able to remove from the body. If left unchecked, this process can result in a variety of symptoms: severe muscle pain and swelling, weakness, discolored urine, lowered blood pressure (which itself can lead to lightheadedness, dizziness, confusion, balance problems, and fainting), various forms of gastro-intestinal distress, cardiac problems, and kidney damage. If an individual afflicted with rhabdomyolysis does not receive immediate treatment—which includes rest and intravenous fluids—he or she is at risk for developing long-term and chronic kidney impairment that may require dialysis several times a week for an unspecified length of time. 

The most reliable diagnostic marker of rhabdomyolysis is the level of creatine kinase (CK) in the blood. Various factors can cause a steep elevation in CK, including certain medications, vigorous exercise, illicit drugs (such as cocaine), and dehydration. In fact, dehydration is often seen as one of the most prominent triggers for rhabdomyolysis in well-conditioned athletes who under-estimate the amount of liquid their bodies need. In retrospect, this seemingly simple oversight (i.e., lack of adequate hydration) was my downfall. What’s I found instructive from my experience is that, while I was probably sufficiently hydrated before, during, and immediately after my Sunday workout at Camp Mabry, I severely neglected to stay adequately hydrated for the remainder of the day. Two-and-a-half hours at the pool after lunch, two hours in late afternoon at the park, and an hour of yard work in the evening—all without ingesting enough water—proved to be my undoing.

Training and Caring for the Body Responsibly

Intense training requires attention to the details of how we live our lives as a whole, not just during the hour or two of workouts. In this vein, I have been forced to take a long, hard look at various aspects of what I have reluctantly come to accept as a somewhat obsessive or over-zealous pursuit of extreme forms of exercise and levels of fitness. I implemented all the customary things recommended by leaders of the exercise and fitness community to eke out as much as I could from my body (e.g., no alcohol, clean diet, 8 or more hours of sleep, mobilization and stretching, adequate recovery, etc.). But in my quest to push my body to the limits, I also began to supplement with creatine monohydrate last fall. This product has been widely shown to be safe when taken at prescribed dosages. However, what is unknown is how this substance interacts with other over-the-counter products, and I was also dabbling with substances such as glucosomine and chondroitin, fish oil, cordecepts, allergy medications, and blood builders. It’s the interaction effects of the items we ingest that are the big unknown.

One of the main questions I have been forced to confront was why I was so motivated to experiment with over-the-counter exercise supplements. There are doubtless many ways I can answer this question, but at this stage in my self-exploration, the most fundamental answer seems to be that I was quite simply reluctant to accept the changes—especially limitations—of my aging body. In the parlance of psychotherapists, I have been afflicted with a nasty case of denial. True to form, even as I write these sentences, I find myself wanting to justify or exonerate my efforts to push back and re-define the conventional boundaries of what a 44-year-old body can do. But in my more sober moments (which are not infrequently promoted by the patient wisdom and boundless concern of my wife), I realize that I simply cannot train like a 25-year-old without some sort of negative consequence.

Lessons Learned

So now, in the turbulent wake of all I experienced, where do I go? I’m not exactly certain, as my understanding of what fitness will (or should) mean for me on a day-to-day basis is a work in progress. In other words, I’m still very much in the process of figuring out what is healthy for me. And by “healthy” I don’t necessarily mean a training program that will increase my pull-up max and burpee reps or decrease my mile time. While chasing numbers is a well-worn way for athletes to set goals, chart progress, hone focus, and stoke motivation, it can also create fertile soil for obsessive attachment to rather arbitrary standards that, if not achieved, can bring on unnecessary self-criticism, self-scrutiny, self-questioning, and even elevated anxiety and depression. 

One of the truisms I have learned in my life’s path is that talking to people is a good thing—a great thing, in fact—but only if we listen attentively and non-defensively to what is said in response to what is shared. Talking in an open and searching manner with others who care helps define who we are, what we want, what motivates us, and what holds us back. Along these lines, I am talking to a lot of people in the Austin fitness circles, many of whom have become some of my best friends. Gathering information from people I respect—the wonderful gentlemen I trained with as well as physicians, chiropractors, massage therapists, and my wife and family—is a tried and true way to keep myself honest. I have found that, when I keep my thoughts to myself, whatever plan I develop has important holes in it that (more times than not) can be spotted by those in my life who know better—or differently.

But I have also realized something I was only somewhat aware of prior to this year’s AFM FITTEST—competitions are merely one-day events; exercise and training, by contrast, reflect a lifestyle and are activities that are enjoyed and shared year-around. I trained in a focused, effortful, and diligent manner for AFM FITTEST for the seven months prior because I felt that I had something to prove and because I wanted to out-perform what I had done the two previous years. What I learned, however, over the course of many 5:30 a.m. sprint sessions with David and Mark, Saturday morning strength sessions in my garage gym with Mark and Justin, and on Sunday mornings with David, Dane, and Terrance, is that it’s the relationships that have made exercise and training special for me, not where I place in a given competition. 

Don’t get me wrong: I have a fierce desire to win whenever I compete, and I thrive on the psychological aspects of competitive atmospheres. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, nor do I think it needs to.  But it would be truly unfortunate if I failed to adapt and grow in response to the set-back I experienced before the FITTEST this year. In this spirit, I plan to emphasize the relational aspects of training and fitness while not literally knocking myself out to achieve certain objective markers of improved fitness (e.g., faster running times, more reps, heavier weights, lower body fat percentages, etc.).  In other words, in a more conscious and intentional way I will cherish and appreciate the wonderful people in my life.  If I can PR in this event, greater and more sustainable levels of happiness, satisfaction, health, and love are sure to follow.


Related Articles

Learn More