Asthma – not just an excuse

Asthma. As a kid, what better excuse to get out of school cross country? You don’t even need to have an attack, just a note! Bring on years of happy, cross country free school days and zero expectations on sports day. I couldn’t have picked a more convenient excuse. Plus, you get to grow out of it, so it’s no bother.

With no symptoms as a young adult (one that smoked too), i wondered if my childhood asthma had actually just been the odd case of hyperventilating, misdiagnosed and used wholly to my advantage.

I was comfortable with that conclusion right up until the age of 28, when i was rather reluctantly talked into giving running a go as a way to lose my post-baby #3 excess weight. Initially I put the constant breathlessness down to too many cigarettes over the past 13 years. I had given up by now but knew it would take a while for my lungs to start functioning better. Several months of training followed, gradually building up my fitness, but at a much slower rate than the friends I had taken up running with.

The first 5k I ever did was a Race for Life run in Bedford in July 2012. I had put some effort into training but was still very unfit. I got around without dying and instantly the running bug bit. I wanted more of this!

Several months of running very short distances went by, each run as hard as the last, lungs refusing to  join the party. I’m not sure why I didn’t think to talk to a doctor at this point. I think I was just so convinced that it was down to the fact that I wasn’t designed to run, it never occurred to me that it might be a medical issue. Until October of the same year – my running friends and I were taking on our first “proper” 5k race. This wasn’t for charity, this was for us because we were now real runners…..well, this real runner got to about 2 miles in and had to stop and walk. And cry. Why the heck couldn’t i breathe? Seriously, i was only trying to run a flat 3 miles. I’d done it before, several times, but in the cold my lungs just said no.

It was after that experience I gave in to my bestie’s nagging and visited the doctors. Turned out it wasn’t because I wasn’t built like a runner that I was struggling, but because i did indeed have asthma. The very thing I had used as an excuse to not exercise was now doing it’s best to stop me all over again – except this time I really didn’t want it too. Life likes it’s ironies.

 

So that was the initial diagnosis early on in my running journey.  Initially I didn’t think it would be too much of an issue. Asthma is no big deal right?  The doctor gives you inhalers and you feel better and your lungs get stronger with exercise and eventually you forget you’ve even got it. Well no, turns out I got that pretty wrong. It actually took more than 3 years and a change of asthma clinic to find a combination of medicines that keep my asthma at bay enough for me to run without sounding like Sammy the seal and collapsing at the end, completely exhausted and leaving me with chest pain for days after.

I’ve been lucky recently that alot more research has been done into asthma and there are new medicines available out there. Ironically my asthma is exercise induced, but also triggered by hay fever, allergens, temperature changes etc It can still be unpredictable and triggered by new things as yet inexperienced!  I take a great steroid inhaler that worked very well for exercise induced asthma, use a standard reliever when needed, i take a tablet every night to prevent too much mucus production, a steroid nasal spray every night and an antihistamine every morning to try to keep the allergies at bay.

Most of the time this combination works well enough to keep me plodding on although it takes a few weeks with every season change to get used to the new temp/allergens etc.

One thing I learnt early on was that I was never going to be able to run at speed. The drying out of the airways from the excessive breathing irritates the lungs quite quickly. This was one of the reasons I started looking into long distance running quite early on. In fact I’d decided to run an ultra before I had even experienced my first marathon!

Turns out ultra running suits my style. Slower running, walking up hills and eating lots of food. What’s not to love? I’ve had to adapt – summer running has never been great for me as I’m allergic to tree and grass pollen – but 2 seasons of July ultras has hardened me up to it a bit.

A hug from the bestie at the end of my 1st ultra

 

I look for lots of advice and experience from other sufferers and people in the know. I got quite excited last year when one of the regular running magazines advertised that it had a whole piece on how you can still run in the summer with hay fever.  I bought the copy and went straight to the article, just knowing I was about to have the meaning of life revealed to me…..

“….avoid running outside in areas where there is a high probability of coming across pollen….”

Genius.

I’ve tried several things – a face mask that filters out allergens and makes me look like Hannibal Lecter; smearing odd smelling balm under my nose; refusing to believe I have asthma and not taking my meds.

None of them work.

There have been many runs where I have been reduced to tears, turning the air blue with expletives aimed at my lungs. They function at more than 20% less capacity than they should and sometimes I could really do with that 20%!! A cold can very quickly become a chest infection, which can take quite a long time to recover from and the first few runs post infection always leave me exhausted, frustrated and with a very see chest.

Quite alot of people discover that they have exercise induced asthma when they take up sport as an adult. The best thing you can do is talk to your doctor, keep an open mind and accept the help offered. I resisted the idea of asthma for quite a while, it felt like such a naff excuse. When your muscles stop working because you haven’t got enough oxygen going around your body, you realise that it’s no excuse, it’s a pretty scary reality.

Running with asthma isn’t always fun but it is absolutely possible and should not be used as an excuse not to try.

If I can do it, I promise you that you most definitely can!!

 

When things have to change…

Being in pain makes you miserable. Fact.

Actually, I don’t think that comes as any surprise to anyone apart from me. I’ve had joint pain for nearly 25 years now but only recently been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and treated with disease modifying drugs. For the 6 years before that I lived on heavy duty NSAIDs and before that on anti depressants as I was misdiagnosed.

 Me at the Bedford Race for Life in 2010

My first attempt at running – race for life

 

I started running in my 30s, as a way to lose weight. The dodgy ankle was very much present even back then and the lower back pain was usually there reminding me of my extra 4 stone that I tried to limp around with me. I lost weight but the pain continued. I don’t know what it was back then, I suppose it was the fire in my belly that drove me on through the pain and through several marathons.
It’s different now. The last couple of years the game changed. The pain was still there; a mix of throbbing bones keeping me from sleeping and muscles so tight and sore that I struggled to stand in the mornings. The pain didn’t change. But something deep inside my being asked me to stop and re-evaluate what I was doing.

So I did, for a minute. And then decided to sign up for one more half marathon.

 

As you do.I trained through the summer, I would even say that with the help of Methotrexate I relatively sailed through 6,7,8 and 9 mile long runs. As the season started to change, my last long run felt more uncomfortable and left me feeling flu like for days. It was a timely reminder of what my body had asked months before- stop and re-evaluate.
So I ran the Royal Parks Half.
It was harsh, right from the start. Sometimes it takes me 4 miles to warm up, so I held on to that. 4 miles passed and I still felt out of sync. 5,6,7 miles. “This is flipping ridiculous” I thought “I shouldn’t be doing this”. I then passed a man who had fallen and who was receiving CPR. I can’t put in to words what that did. Suddenly I just wanted my family. I wanted to stop this stupid race, a race I knew I shouldn’t be doing because my body had already done so much for me. I was tearful and emotionally drained.
I saw my husband just a few minutes later and cut across the runners to grab a cuddle. He told me to hang on, to get round however I could and to keep smiling. He gave me renewed hope that I still had enough fight in me to finish what I’d started. To do my last half and to get that medal.
I walked most of the last 3 miles, tears in my eyes, praying that the man I’d seen would be ok. I later learned that he died. It shook me to my core. Long distances are not to be messed with. It had become so easy for me to say ‘oh it’s only a half’. It’s 13.1 flipping miles! 13.1! It’s a long way and it puts our bodies under a lot of stress. It’s no time to be a hero if you’re not in a fit state to finish. For the first time ever, I considered myself so lucky to have finished.
That race has played over and over in my mind ever since. I have begun to realise that I don’t need to prove anything to anyone (including myself). I just need to be here for my family and friends. I can’t lie, it’s going to be tough not putting the miles in with my friends, eating what I like because I’m running 30+ miles a week and enjoying the post marathon buzz. It’s easy to get caught up in the marathon excitement, especially when the London Marathon ballot results are first out and when fellow runners start upping their miles in the spring. It would be easy to sit and wallow in self pity that I can’t and never will be able to run another marathon. But I’m refusing to allow myself to think that way. There must be something else, I suppose the next challenge is finding it.
At least with no marathon to train for, It gives me time to re-evaluate. On to new things and new challenges. I’m often asked (usually by non-runners) why I run when it hurts so much and makes me feel so poorly. Truth is, I don’t like it much. But what I do love is the running community and in particular the SheCan… tribe. It’s not just about running, that is such a small part of it. It’s about sharing good times and sad times, running off the angst, building self confidence, self worth and resilience. It’s about cake, diet coke and really grim gels. It’s about having a group of people around you who know why you run stupid miles, in stupid weather and understand that when you can’t run it’s the worst feeling in the world.
As we approach the peak of the spring long distance race season, I am choosing to reflect on how many miles I have run, not how many miles I’ve missed out  on because I have the body of an old lady. It’s about choosing to see the positives, not wallow in the could have beens.
I may be down but not out. Not yet.