Collapsing in a race. A story of hope and returning to racing….by Kate Heyward


A few times on RMA I have seen messages about people collapsing in races, the worry and concern from other members. I know at the time it is a shock to everyone, and I wanted to share my experience so that you know it does happen, for a variety of reasons, to runners – but also that I recovered and have grown from the experience. I want to share this with you, it’s not easy, in fact it is really uncomfortable and embarrassing, but I want others in our group to know that (if you are given the physical all clear to run/race again) that you can come back, and you can come back smarter and stronger.

It’s actually happened to me twice. The first time was at the Twilight Half marathon in Brisbane, at 19km. Believe me, when I see “if I collapse, pause my garmin”, it really makes me cringe!! The reason it happened that evening is 100% my own fault. I accept that. I had a busy day travelling and didn’t eat or drink as much as I should have. I went out harder than I should have, and so my body was extremely stressed, and dehydrated by 19km. Without enough fuel to function in the extreme humidity as hard as I was pushing it, my body decided to shut down on me without my permission I just blanked out and woke up lying in the dark on the side of the road with the medical people pumping fluid into me, which was quite painful. I was delirious and yelling at them to do their job and crying that I can’t die because I have children. My girls! I still put my hands over my face when I think of my behaviour.

The second time, pretty much exactly a year later, I was intensely training for a triathlon and a marathon not so far apart. I hadn’t learnt the lesson I needed to yet. I decided to run a 10k as part of a team in a triathlon as my first race of the year. On the Wednesday beforehand I had a seriously red and photosensitive eye, and couldn’t open it pretty much. I went to an optometrist and he casually said I may have a virus. He gave me some drops. I thought nothing of it. Other symptoms I had that I ignored I can now see as both viral symptoms (including a rash I thought was from pineapple!) as well as other symptoms of overtraining. But I was so fixated on my training that I didn’t listen to my body. At 9km out of the 10k I collapsed again and this time when I woke up I had a massive panic attack on top of everything else. I was in hospital for 5 days while they checked every organ and function of my body. The virus that had caused me to collapse was attacking my liver and they were really worried for a few days. But I actually felt fine.

I came out of the experience, however, scared to lace my shoes up, I felt ridiculous and could hardly face what had happened, everyone was concerned, but I could see their looks of “you probably shouldn’t run again”. It was awful. The embarrassment of ending up in hospital is really something that was difficult to deal with, especially the second time it happened. What people say to you about your sport and whether it is safe or not, and taking those steps to get back to it is scary and confronting.

I was lucky enough to have a few more experienced triathletes and runners around me who assured me that it is rare but not unusual for people to collapse in races. Obviously it is to be avoided at all costs as it is your body shutting you down so that it can find equilibrium again.

And it wasn’t easy running again, racing again. There are moments even now when the thought crosses my mind, will this happen again??. Moments when I panic. I have great support around me, especially my Doctor, Alison, who is an athlete. One of the best people you can have on your side is a Doctor who runs.

I believe that I have learnt the things I need to learn now to keep myself safe and also do what I love. I did race again, I learnt to watch my body and how I am feeling in a race, and generally – learnt to trust again and look objectively, rather than bloody mindedly at how I am feeling, training and racing. I even went on to PB in 5, 10, half marathon and marathon since.

I guess I wanted to share this with you all as there are most likely other mums out there that this has happened to, that it may happen to, that I might prevent it happening to. I don’t want to scare you, it is fairly uncommon, but I wanted to stress the importance of a few things I have learnt with regard to racing and pushing ourselves…

– The importance of never, ever neglecting hydration and fueling. Watch the weather, take note of your pee, don’t eat like you are dieting, especially before a race.

– Knowing what you are capable of in a race is important – slightly undertraining is much better than overtraining in the long term. You MUST listen to your body and be aware of the signs that it is giving you. Find your own equilibrium.

– Never underestimate a race (no matter what the distance or event) – particularly if you are prone to pushing yourself to the limit.

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