Liv Downing is spending the winter nordic ski racing and training for the upcoming track and field season. But before that, it had been a trying few months for the Summit High School endurance athlete.
Downing, a senior, fainted while running in a cross-country meet in Bend in early October, and shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with autonomic dysfunction, a disorder of the autonomic nervous system with numerous variations.
After sitting out the last half of the cross-country season — in which the Storm won district, state and national championships — Downing says she is almost back to being herself.
“I’m just happy to be able to race again and get out there,” says Downing, who plans to walk on as a distance runner at Oregon State this coming fall. “I haven’t had symptoms for almost two months now. I’m definitely feeling better. It’s definitely a process, but I’m feeling better every day.”
Autonomic dysfunction (AD) develops when the nerves of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) are damaged, according to www.healthline.com. The condition can range from mild to life-threatening, and it can be temporary or chronic. Symptoms can include dizziness, fainting, digestive difficulties and fatigue, according to the website. Causes of AD are multifaceted, and Downing says hers may have been triggered by a sinus infection.
In Downing’s case, she says, her main symptom was a dramatic drop in blood pressure while she raced, which caused her to pass out at the Oxford Classic on Oct. 5. She says she had experienced dizziness in two races before that day, but nothing that alarmed her.
“I remember getting to the 1-mile mark, after that, not so much,” Downing recalls of the 5,000-meter Oxford meet in Bend’s Drake Park. “It happened around 1.5 miles, and I don’t remember … I collapsed and it just basically felt like migraine symptoms sort of, but it was coming so suddenly in the middle of a race. My blood pressure was dropping so low.”
It did not take long for doctors to diagnose Downing with AD. She was put on medication to help regulate her blood pressure, and while she was permitted to return to training during the fall, she did not race for the remainder of the Storm’s historic cross-country season. Summit won the Class 6A state title in Eugene in early November and the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland in early December, becoming the first girls team west of Minnesota to win the national event.
Downing says it was hard to not be a part of those triumphs, but she learned a lot about herself on the sidelines.
“I’ve been on varsity since freshman year, so not being able to race and becoming a cheerleader instead of racing yourself, it was a whole different side of the spectrum that I had never seen before,” Downing says. “And it definitely made me appreciate what I had and the experiences I had prior. But it was kind of just the belief that I would get better is what got me through. All my teammates were very supportive.”
Downing underwent a cardiac stress test to determine at what point her blood pressure dropped while running. She wore a blood-pressure cuff during workouts.
Downing’s father, J.D. Downing, has been a nordic ski coach for nearly 30 years and helps coach the Summit nordic team. He says he had never considered that low blood pressure would be a problem for endurance athletes.
“It was when she pushed past lactate threshold for an extended period of time,” J.D. Downing says. “You could see the blood pressure flatline and then go down on a cardiac stress test. It’s really fascinating. I’m convinced this isn’t something new to humans, but we’re starting to connect the dots. Everybody knows about it (AD), but they don’t know a lot about it. What’s triggering it and how many variations?”
According to an article on runnerspace.com, a runner for the 2018 Class 5A state champion Hood River Valley girls cross-country team, Lottie Bromham, suffered from the same type of disorder as Downing. Bromham would lose blood pressure while racing and would faint by the time she reached the finish line.
“I was like, holy cow, this is almost identical to what Liv is going through,” J.D. Downing says, referring to Lottie Bromham’s experience.
Liv says doctors told her to expect 12 to 14 weeks for the AD to run its course. She says she started feeling better at about 14 weeks and has had no recent symptoms.
She adds that she is aiming for a top-five placing at the Oregon Interscholastic Ski Racing Association state nordic meet at Mount Bachelor later this month and is hoping to help lead the Storm to a team title. She finished fourth in the 5K classic at the Teacup Race at Mount Hood on Jan. 12, and she was third in the 5K skate at the XC Oregon Invitational at Bachelor on Jan. 26.
Downing — who hopes to compete in both cross-country and distance track events at Oregon State — is also participating in winter workouts with the Summit track and field team and plans to compete in the 3,000 meters this spring.
Storm cross-country and distance track coach Carol McLatchie says autonomic dysfunction is “totally new” to her.
“I’m glad she got a local diagnosis,” McLatchie says of Downing. “We hear she’s doing a lot better. She’s really striving so hard for success. It’s amazing how she can push herself. … She does have high goals and I hope she achieves them.”
Downing says she hopes her experience might help others who could suffer from AD.
“It did take me out of an entire season of a sport,” she says, “so I hope by sharing this story and by getting more research done in this field, that other people can prevent not being able to race for a season.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,