So today I am going to blog about running and asthma. Its not something that i’ve ever read or really heard anybody talking about. My perhaps ignorant assumption is that there aren’t that many running asthmatics although I do know that my ultimate running idol Paula Radcliffe suffers from asthma. I know hashtag #icantbreathe has been used a huge amount in recent weeks due to the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. I don’t use it to make light of what he experienced or the injustice he suffered (which breaks my heart). Its just that as an asthmatic, I 100% understand how that feels, how it feels when you can’t catch your breath and you can’t talk because you just can’t breathe.
I have had asthma for over 20 years, I was diagnosed when I was 7 or 8 years old. Before that, I had a succession of chest infections and seemed to be constantly at the GP. I also remember distinctly when I was at primary school going to a athletics selection session when we had to try out at running 800m, I came last, my poor little lungs couldn’t cope. Instead, I got selected for the 100m relay team but the main point was I couldn’t run decently for 800m. About a year later, I had an asthma attack where I was hospitalised and almost died (that is what the doctors told my parents and that I was a very brave little girl). I still remember really clearly what it felt like on that day, not being able to breathe, everything being exhausting and finally trying and working hard to talk to the doctors whilst I was on a nebuliser. I was hospitalised for 3 weeks and when I came out I was put on both steriod and preventer inhalers.
Being diagnosed and treated for asthma changed my life, with my asthma properly controlled, I discovered I could run and run fast and during school, I became the school champion in 800m and 1200m later 1500m and competed for my town and later my county. Ironically, despite hating mud I was also pretty good at cross country. Being good at running was a huge deal for me, because it meant I was generally good at sport. Hockey, football, basketball even if you lack skill if you can run fast up and down the pitch you at least appear halfway decent.
I never wanted my asthma to be able to beat me. I saw the other asthmatic kids not doing PE and generally sitting on the sidelines not doing exercise and I just refused to be that person. I refused to let asthma stop me but I guess I was fortunate because apart from short periods when I would catch a cold and generally being a lot more susceptible to chest infections, my asthma didn’t affect me that much. Yes, I would have random asthma attacks and very occasionally I would suffer on the track but I wouldn’t let asthma define me. I didn’t want to be regarded as an asthmatic, I wanted to be seen as a good runner.
University saw more of the same, more track some cross country and not being unduly affected by my asthma. When I left university, I decided to start running half marathons, knowing that I wasn’t ever going to be properly competitive again at 800m, I couldn’t see why I would continue with 800m when it would be possible to improve with age over longer distances. Importantly, when I started running half marathons and marathons my asthma didn’t hold me back. Yes, I had to take my inhaler beforehand and carry it with me but it didn’t stop me. (Injuries did- as I have previously mentioned).
For the last few years, my asthma had actually improved, my GP told me I could stop taking my brown steroid inhaler if I didn’t need it. I happily complied and hoped that maybe I was finally growing out of my asthma.
Since October this year, I have really been struggling. I have struggled more with my asthma than I have struggled in the last 20 years and I have been trying so hard to fight it but right now it seems to be winning. I ran the Berlin marathon in September without any training and the important thing was I could breathe, breathing wasn’t a problem, I felt like any healthy normal person. It was after Berlin that the problems started. I was due to pace a half marathon at quite a slow pace, I think it was 1:55 and I tried to run 5k at the required pace and I struggled, I couldn’t understand what was going on and thought maybe it was a bug as I couldn’t understand how I had got so unfit in a couple of weeks. The next week was the Cabbage Patch 10 miler (one of my favourite races) and the same thing happened and I pulled out of the race. That was when I started my running streak as I was so worried I was somehow unfit. As time went on it became clear that the colder it was, the more I would struggle. I didn’t struggle on warm days and it was better once the initial icyness of the morning had subsided. I quadrupled the dose of my steroid inhaler (on the advice of Dr Hubby) and for a while this was helping. However, in the last few weeks my asthma has flared up worse than ever before, This weeks and last weeks parkruns were some of the worst runs of my life, not purely because the times were crappy but more because throughout I couldn’t breathe. I was wheezing loudly after less than 100m- in what world is that OK? I tried to fight and maintain my pace despite the breathing but the reality is that the feeling of not being able to breathe is unbelievably unpleasant. I don’t think its possible to describe it to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, its totally different from running off too fast in a race and breathing heavily, you have to work so hard to get air into your airways and you can’t catch your breath and you can’t talk certainly not in full sentances. Clearly it makes you panic when you can’t breathe properly. I try not to let it get the best of me and I KEEP RUNNING but it is far from enjoyable. The worst thing is when you are in this state and struggling so much to breathe, your body uses up all its energy just trying to breathe so you have no energy left.
Unfortunately, there is as yet no happy ending to my story. I am stressed about how much worse I am running, I am worried that I am not going to be able to do marathon training. I am worried that my asthma might always be like this. I am going to see my GP this week and there is a possibility I will be put on a long acting beta agonist inhaler. a second blue inhaler. At the moment, I don’t feel like a runner, I feel like the poor little asthmatic girl who couldn’t even run 800m.
The irony is that last year I was diagnosed with Vagotonia, a rare heart condition generally only found in elite athletes and apparently like an extreme form of athletes heart. Once I was told that this wouldn’t affect me exercising or generally at all, I felt slightly pleased. My heart had adapted well to all the exercise I had been doing. At the time, I was doing a lot of boxing. I don’t feel like the same person anymore and its all because of this horrible asthma. If i’m honest, it seems really unfair. When I’m at Parkrun I can’t help but notice that I am the only one breathing like that, it makes me feel like a sick person.
However, I am not going to give up, I am going to go back to my doctor and get this sorted. I refuse to be defined by my asthma, I will be a runner until I die, even if I have to run on the despised treadmill. Roll on summer and lots of hot days for me to run races on :). #sooniwillbeabletobreathe