‘All I could think of was getting to the finish’

Posted on 1 March 2017

An abnormally high heart rate is dangerous no matter who you are. When elite mountain bike racer Jennie Stenerhag suffered an abnormal heart rhythm while competing in the 2016 Absa Cape Epic, Mediclinic’s world-class medical care saved her to ride another day.

The normal range for an adult heart rate is between 60 and 100 bpm; anything over 100 bpm is classified as what cardiologists call tachycardia – and if left unmanaged, it could be very, very dangerous. The day Jennie Stenerhag was forced to quit the 2016 Absa Cape Epic, her heart rate was 220 bpm.

‘There were about 40 minutes left on Stage 3 when the problem started,’ she says. At the time, Jennie and her Team Ascendis Health race partner Robyn de Groot were running second overall in the winner’s category. Jennie tried to call out to Robyn, but her voice was drowned out by the noise of an overhead helicopter, and she didn’t have the strength to shout again. The reading on Jennie’s Garmin fitness tracker was unmistakable: 216-226 bpm. ‘All I could think of was getting to the finish,’ she says, ‘because I knew there would be doctors there, and that someone would help me.’

‘You just feel your heart pounding, fast and hard,’ she says. ‘I could see the heart rate on my Garmin and I could feel it. It’s not a nice feeling, and eventually I started getting dizzy, because it obviously takes energy from you. All I could do was focus on getting to the finish line.’ When Jennie and Robyn reached the finish line 40 minutes later, Jennie lay down to rest, but her heart rate didn’t come back down.

She was immediately stretchered to the Mediclinic mobile medical tent, where the Absa Cape Epic event staff took action. ‘I have no clue who came to help me,’ Jennie recalls. ‘All I know is I was taken to the medical tent, where they took care of me. It took about 20 minutes for them to get my heart rate down to normal.’ By then it had been going on for a full hour.

Mediclinic’s Absa Cape Epic race doctor Jann Killops told Jennie that she would have to withdraw from the race. ‘They told me they needed to give me a drip, which is not allowed in racing,’ Jennie recalls. ‘I told them they couldn’t, because I wanted to carry on racing, but by then the decision had been made.’ For an elite rider like Jennie, it was a crushing disappointment.

Two weeks later, Jennie saw Dr Razeen Gopal, a cardiologist at Mediclinic Panorama. He confirmed that she had a condition called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), abnormal heart rhythm causing a fast heart rate. It is caused by improper electrical activity in the upper part of the heart. Specifically, she had atrioventricular nodal re-entrant tachycardia (AVNRT), a common form of SVT caused by an extra pathway in the heart’s atrioventricular node. Dr Gopal explained that she’d been born with the condition, and he performed an ablation to cauterise the extra pathway.

Jennie recovered quickly from the surgery and was back on her bike within a week. She’s been racing regularly ever since, and will be back at the 2017 Absa Cape Epic – this time with a new team-mate, 2011 Cape Epic winner Esther Süss. ‘I can’t wait for the race,’ Jennie says. ‘I have unfinished business.’

Back with a bang 

Almost a year to the day after having heart surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat, Jennie Stenerhag returned to win the 2017 Cape Epic Women’s category with her partner Esther Süss.

‘My biggest goal was to try and come back to win this race,’ Jennie told Sport24. ‘To pull through it is something completely unreal. I cannot believe that I am standing here as the winner.’


Published in Cape Epic

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