“I Was The Fittest I’ve Ever Been & Then I Had A Stroke”

Ultra runner AJ Calitz on what it feels like to push past your limits


Jess Nicholson |

“I always look forward to Impi. It’s just so much fun: 22 kilometres of running and obstacles. Even as a professional athlete, tackling this race takes me out of my comfort zone. I am used to pushing my body beyond the red… sometimes into the purple. It’s like driving a car with the revs on the rev limiter for as long as you can – until the engine blows up.

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“This year after the race I felt a bit woozy, but I wasn’t worried. You often feel tired after a race. In the afternoon I was jumping on the trampoline with Emily, my daughter. Suddenly I went cross-eyed. My wife, Paulette, said my eyes split apart: each looking in a different direction. I went to rest. Everything was fuzzy.

“A doctor friend advised us to go to hospital, and a mate took me to the ER. By now I couldn’t walk properly or stay upright. I couldn’t see or co-ordinate myself. I felt as if I was buzzing in and out of a dream.

Fact: Signs that you are having a stroke include trouble seeing and walking, says physiotherapist Dr Saul Cobbing. Think of the acronym FAST: face numbness or drooping, arm numbness or weakness, speech difficulty, time – act fast to get help

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“The next morning I was still cross-eyed and feeling strange. My wife told me I’d had a stroke. The doctors differ in their opinion of what happened, but one of the most logical explanations is I tore an artery in my neck, probably by carrying a 50kg bag of sand during the race. My blood clotted around the tear and then a small clot moved up and lodged in my thalamus, the part at the base of the brain responsible for co-ordinating and processing sensory input.

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“I was the fittest I’ve ever been, and am probably one of the least likely candidates for a stroke in the world, but it still happened.

Fact: It is unlikely for a fit person to have a stroke. Other systems will cause you to stop exercising long before any risk of a stroke. However, in people with increased risk factors for stroke (obesity, smoking, high blood pressure) very high intensity exercise may increase the risk of a stroke, potentially due to increased blood pressure.

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“Most of my training is pure running. I don’t want bulk up with too much weight lifting. I did a silly thing, lifting such a heavy bag, without training. I was in a bad way. I couldn’t co-ordinate myself, I couldn’t feed myself. I didn’t know if I would be able to play with my daughter again. My short term memory has been affected. And, according to my wife I’ve become a much nicer guy! She says I’m more docile. I care less about little things.

“Being fit helped me recover. With the help of my coach, Christoff Smit, I exercised: my body, and my brain. I forced new neural pathways to develop. I started slowly, walking with my mom and the dogs; and I juggled to improve my balance and co-ordination. Then one day I phoned Christoff and said ‘I’m sorry but I’m going for a run. I feel like a trapped animal.’

Fact: This will depend on the severity or damage of the stroke, but generally premorbid fitness will aid recovery.

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“When I first ran again, my brain couldn’t cope with the sensory input. I kept falling. So I found the most technical terrain in Cape Town and spent hours running on it. I forced my brain to adapt and understand and learn. You can think yourself strong or you can think yourself weak. I saw my stroke as a hurdle that I could get over.

Fact: The brain reorganises itself after a stroke through a complex process known as neuroplasticity. This can be greatly helped by regularly doing the rehabilitation exercises taught by a qualified professional.

“Six weeks after the stroke, I got on a plane and went to StrongmanRun Germany. I went under strict instructions not to race. My sponsors understood and supported me. I promised my wife and the neurologist I would take it easy, that I was just going to participate. But I must participate better than 15 000 others, because I cruised over the finish line first. The organisers said, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ They made me run in again for photos.

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“At the start of Strongman I thought to myself, ‘What are you doing here? You’ve just had a stroke.’ I honestly didn’t intend to win, but once I was in the lead, I thought, this feels familiar. This feels like home. This beats lying in hospital. This is where I belong. The stroke warned me that I am not invincible, but when your profession is to run across mountains, you have to convince yourself every day that you are. You have to think yourself strong. As human beings it is our only choice.”

Fact: About 10% of people will recover completely from a “full stroke”, with around a third of people recovering with minor impairments. If it is a Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA, or “mini-stroke”) the symptoms last fewer than 24 hours and there is generally full recovery.

To reduce your risk of a stroke, says Dr Cobbing, stop smoking and get exercising. “Aim for a BMI below 25, manage blood pressure and reduce your stress levels.”

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