At my peak
2004 for me was my peak year of running and fitness. Aged 33 years, I was running 5-6 times per week and totalling around 40-50 miles per week, with a traditional long run on a Sunday morning. I had completed the London Marathon in both 2001 and 2003. My love of running and endorphin addiction pushed me to enter an ultramarathon of 32 miles on Dartmoor in June 2004 – this was preceded, a week before, by my best ever half marathon time of 1 hr 29 mins and 53 secs. The ultramarathon took me 5 hrs 20 mins and was certainly a great challenge. I then went on to do my 3rd and final marathon in London in 2005, with a personal best time of 3 hrs 31 mins.For many reasons, after that time I ran less – I was very busy specialising in sports/exercise medicine from being a GP- so time was a big issue. I also developed a few injuries, but still managed to run a fair amount. I also started to enjoy circuit training with military colleagues that I worked with and discovered the world of rowing intervals and burpees! This mixture of activity really continued for many years with an occasional half marathon being run. I was enjoying the combination of running and circuit training, but things took a turn for the worse in 2015…
My diagnosis with ME
In March 2015 I suffered from a very nasty bout of bacterial tonsillitis – I had forgotten how unwell this could make you feel! I was treated with antibiotics and felt fine after a couple of weeks of treatment. However, I then started to feel unwell after exercising 2-3 months later; I could run and exercise but would feel awful afterwards, with aching joints and extreme fatigue. I could do my job without any difficulties and walk as much as I wanted – but any attempts to exercise harder would bring me back to square one.I was referred to a specialist who carried out some blood tests. They showed I had a low white cell count and low vitamin D, but this was marginal. He diagnosed me with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), the so-called “Yuppy flu” or “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”. This has also been called ” The Royal Free Disease” as many people in the 1950s developed fatigue symptoms. Having trained at the Royal Free medical school this was some irony!
As a GP, I had seen patients with this condition before, but of course, now I took a much more personal interest. It is very difficult to simplify ME, but I would just summarise the condition as meaning your body cells cannot release enough energy. I tried so many things to help and for 2 years was really unable to exercise at all. This was incredibly frustrating – I always relied on my exercise to help me feel good and relieve my stress. I had people telling me that I was not fit! From ultra-marathon to ultra-nothing. So incredibly frustrating. I needed to really focus on a plan and stick to it.
Turning things around
So 2 years ago I decided to start very small and build up gradually – rather than the “boom and bust” approach that I had been doing. I started swimming 8 lengths of a 20m pool twice weekly. I wanted to do 80 lengths but had to hold back and remain patient. Over the course of a year, I had increased to swimming a mile (80 lengths) twice a week. I would still feel tired afterwards, but if I rested for 48 hrs with no further exercise I would recover. Then in January 2018, I started to run again – my real passion. I began with small distances and used a walk/run approach. This worked well and soon I felt able to increase my running to 4-6 miles each time.This year it has continued to go well, so I entered the Hackney half marathon. I have developed a couple of injuries as any runner may do (mainly Achilles/calf soreness), but the very fact I am running far enough to get this makes me happy! A couple of weeks ago I decided to run on a treadmill for a softer landing. I ran for 2 hrs 3 mins and 3 secs – completing my first ever half marathon on a treadmill. As for the Hackney half, I was delighted to finish the race in 1 hr 52 mins, achieving the sub 2 hrs time I was hoping for!
How my story can help others
Looking back on my experience and how I got my fitness back, I’d like to share my advice with other patients with ME:
Be patient. It’s difficult to do, but things will improve – start slow and build up with recovery days
Manage stress – meditation and music for my work best
Sleep well – try and keep alcohol to a minimum as it affects sleep quality
Eat as well as you can. I also use vitamin D and coenzyme Q10 supplements for mitochondrial energy
Believe in yourself and keep going! Here’s to the London marathon in 2020!! I have entered the ballot and will consider a charity place for sure. Happy running and exercising all!
Dr Michael Burdon. June 2019