Thursday, January 14, 2010

A breath of fresh air

Imagine yourself on a cool spring evening, running on your favorite tree lined route. It's about an eight mile day, and it's a day for 800's. The sun is setting as you launch into the last repeat, determined that it be the fastest not only of the night, ever. Your feet seem to move so fast they aren't even touching the ground. You feel like you are effortlessly gliding towards the end. Effortless - except for the fact that every muscle in your body hurts, your arms and legs pumping back and forth as if they might spontaneously fly off your body, and you are gasping for breath desperate to have enough air in your lungs. Now remember that feeling, the breathing part, as you finish the repeat and slow down to a jog. It is only a few moments before your breathing returns to normal. As you jog your cool down you take in nice full breaths and relish in the feeling of accomplishment. That's how running is supposed to feel, challenging at times but when it's all said and done you should walk away feeling amazing!
Now imagine yourself laying down - and someone is sitting on your chest. It is very difficult to get in a full breath and you feel like you spend so much energy just - breathing. Imagine this person sitting on your chest goes everywhere you go! Sometimes they wander away and can be lost for days but alas they always come back. That was my life and running for the past year.

I was running my second marathon the first time I remember it happening. It was a gorgeous October morning, the weather was unseasonably warm and I was having a great time running the back roads of suburban Hartford Conn. I was running just behind the 9:30 pace group and feeling surprisingly good most of the way despite having been struck with a nasty cold three weeks prior. And then right around the half way mark I started feeling like i was gasping for breath more than normal for my pace. I felt my body begging me to slow down, and maybe if I slowed down It would be able to breath. But I was pretty determined that this was going to be the race I would finish in 4 hours. So I pushed on for about another two miles, until I met up with Larry and I told him how terrible I was feeling. He let me slow down but looking back on it I don't know if that was a good or bad decision. In the end, at least I finished the race that day. I wasn't thrilled with a 4:45 finish time, even if it was 10 minutes of my PR. I had worked too hard for this race.
I would struggle with this fact on and off for the next year. I would see a handful of different doctors, I would be told I had asthma, I would be told I had anxiety, and I would pass all the breathing tests with flying colors leaving everyone including myself baffled as to what was wrong with me.
I hadn't given up running but I had definitely put marathons and long distances on the back burner. I was in a relationship now and spending time as a couple came to my mind more often than early Saturday morning runs. I began to feel as though I was loosing a part of myself and I used my breathing as an excuse. Sometime in the summer I decided I wasn't going to let myself get lazy for any longer. I had once been such a strong and fast person and I wanted that back. I gradually started doing four and sometimes six mile long runs. These felt pretty good most of the time but they were never very fast. 10mm at best.
One day, out of pretty much nowhere it had occurred to me that my old college roommate - whom I had run a few races with, the Broad Street 10 miler our senior year in college for one, and her first half marathon (my second) had been running a lot and increasing her mileage. Now that she had more experience under her belt, and I had let myself go a bit, we were probably very close in speed and ability. I texted her to ask if she would like to join me for a long run one weekend morning. As it turns out she was training for a fall half marathon and had just begun to work up her distance. It couldn't be more perfect. We ran seven miles that Sunday. It was hot and miserable but when it was over I felt amazing. I had the feeling back!
With that began a weekly long run ritual with us until well after her half. She had inspired me to sign up for the Philadelphia half, a race I was more than familiar with, and in turn I inspired her to sign up for the Philadelphia full. Our runs were a great change to catch up with each other, talk about our relationships, jobs, etc. and at the same time we logged more and more miles until we were into the double digits. I enjoyed it so much that I failed to notice how out of breath I seemed to get by the end of every run. We would start off at a pretty steady easy pace for both of us, feeling great and talking, but after nine or ten miles I constantly needed to slow down and catch my breath. After one particular run, which I needed to full on stop and walk the remaining two miles, I started to feel like things weren't ok.
Early in November, just weeks before the Philly Half, I was to take a last minute business trip out of the country. At first I was going to be tough and pack my sneakers, aiming to get in at least three days of running. But at the last minute they didn't fit in my suitcase and we ended up working such long hours, put that together with the near ten hour time difference and I was in no condition to run. The night I arrived back in the states I slept for nearly 13 hours figuring resting was better than dragging my body into the ground with a six mile run after 18 hours on two different planes.
The weekend of the race I was super pumped although very nervous. I reminded myself constantly that I was only doing this for the finish, and not to get upset when my time was slower than normal. I went with Heather (who by this time had gotten too busy to train for a full and had decided to stick with the half) to the Expo to pick up our numbers. A large group of us went out to dinner for pasta. And that night I laid out all my gear. Shorts, shoes, socks, top, warm ups, extra layers, gloves, my number, lucky hair bow. It all seemed so surreal. I usually took races so seriously and with such anxiety, the fact that I had not really prepared for this race and I was running it anyways was like I was breaking a rule. So how'd I end up doing? Let's just say it was not a success - and you can read about it in my separate post about the race.
So now I felt like my world was falling apart. I was ready to give up running all together, but just before that happened I was scheduled for one last lung test. Basically they would give me a chemical that in asthmatics, would cause an acute bought of symptoms measurable by lots of science stuff and computers. I had no idea what to expect when I walked in that morning. I knew I was not happy that I wasn't allowed to have coffee until this darn test was over. Unfortunaly it was not a quick one. There was lots of breathing through different tubes. Tubes that measured my breathing and tubes that administered the chemicals. Yum. What I hated more than the tests was the small talk. I was confined to a chair with the same lady who shared TMI about her life for an hour. And then on the fourth dose I hit the twentieth percentile. That means they stop testing me because I dropped too low. It's like failing out! It felt weird, like maybe I wasn't trying hard enough or something, maybe I had made myself fail. So she gave me one more shot. And I still failed.
So that was it. I had asthma. That meant nothing to me considering I spend months taking an inhaler, and taking preventative medications twice a day every day. What could they possibly do for me now?
I had to meet with Pulmonary to figure it all out. Ironically while I was sitting there I noticed the latest runners world laying on a table and began flipping through it. And when the doctor finally arrived and announced "well you have exercise induced asthma" I wanted to ask him what desperate measures he though I should try to get this fixed. To my great shock, he prescribed me almost the exact medicines I had been taken off of only ten months earlier. Ok crazy, so you think that just because I failed a test the meds are going to work now? And then he told me he wanted me to try taking the inhaler as a preventative measure. Take two puffs 1 minutes BEFORE running, because if I waited until I actually felt symptoms I was much less likely to feel relief. Well ok mister Doctor, I think maybe you are on to something.
The next time I entered the gym (because it's freezing in Philadelphia and I am too much of a wuss to run outside) I did as he said. I took two puffs of the inhaler - and did my workout. I felt the usual out of breath during faster intervals but the amazing difference came afterwards. Before, when I would do my runs, I felt as if it took days afterwards to catch my breath. I would spend the rest of the night or day feeling the same pangs of someone sitting on my chest refusing to move.
But now? now I felt like normal. I felt like a person. If it weren't for this freezing weather I would be jumping at the chance to try a run longer than four miles outside. But for now I will stick to my twice weekly four mile runs. This week will be my first week running three days a week. And in four months, a half marathon!

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