Having an asthma attack feels like there’s an elephant sitting on your chest. Like your lungs are being squeezed by a hot metal vice. Like no matter how deeply you inhale, you can never get enough air into your lungs. At least, that’s how I think it feels. Population one. Sample size: me.
I’m one of the lucky ones, though. I don’t experience chronic asthma, the kind that can steal the breath out of your lungs in the middle of the night, or at any given, unannounced moment, sending victims to the hospital by ambulance.
I’m extremely lucky. The form of asthma I experience is mild. It’s called: exercise-induced asthma. Here’s a legit definition from mayoclinic.org:
Exercised-induced asthma is a narrowing of the airways in the lungs that is triggered by strenuous exercise. It causes shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and other symptoms during or after exercise.
The preferred term for this condition is exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (brong-koh-kun-STRIK-shun). This term is more accurate because the exercise induces narrowing of airways (bronchoconstriction) but is not the root cause of asthma.
For most people with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, treatment with common asthma medications and preventive measures enable them to exercise and remain active.
It took me a long time to accept that last part about being able to exercise and remain active. Growing up, I was the girl who got excused from the track and field unit in gym class, and opted to play goalie during the floor hockey and soccer units to avoid running up and down the field. I would do anything to hide from the types of exercise that produced the terrifying sensation that someone had balled my lungs up in their fists.
It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I decided to try to overcome my perceived limitations and give distance running a try. Sure, I was motivated by a desire to impress a new boyfriend—and by “impress,” I mean limit the embarrassment when he realized I couldn’t run more than a mile without doubling over and squeaking and wheezing like a baby bird. Still, it was a reason to grab my trusty albuterol inhaler, and force my seizing lungs to try to run further than my personal best, a 5K I had labored through the summer before.
The day we went out for a five-mile run, I was convinced I would die. I imagined an air ambulance carrying me away with an oxygen mask over my face. I cried when we finished, and I do mean I literally cried. Actual tears ran down my cheeks, and it wasn’t out of pride of accomplishment, it was out of misery. Not only was my chest on fire, my inhalations awkwardly shallow, my whole body hurt. My legs had never been allowed to carry me that far before, because my lungs had never given them the chance.
Yet, underneath the full body aches and restricted breathing, I had to admit that there was a sense of accomplishment, though muted by frustration and fear that my breathing may never return to normal.
What happened next should be no surprise to any runner.
I fell like dead weight for the runner’s high (the new boyfriend too). I found, despite the fact that I could barely breathe while running, that I loved everything else about it, especially the part where I pushed myself to run just a little bit further than the time before.
Over the next six years my running addiction continued to grow. I went from being a non-runner, to an almost daily runner, signing up for 5Ks and collecting souvenir t-shirts like they were valuable puzzle pieces helping to reveal a locked mystery.
Maybe they were.
If I could run a 5K, could I run a 6K? A 10K?
And so, the addiction grows like a craving for which you can never get enough. You start rationalizing the desire—no the need to run further distances, telling yourself, “If I can run a 10K, I can certain run a half marathon. That’s only another 3.5 miles. And if I can run 9.6 miles, then really, what’s another 3.5?”
The problem with escalating your distance running from 3.2 miles, to 6.4 miles, to 9.6 miles, to 13.1 miles, is that there aren’t many organized races that offer competitive distances between 13.1 and the infamous 26.2: The full marathon. The elusive dream. The unobtainable white whale.
Certainly, running 13.1 miles did not qualify one to run a full marathon. Certainly, a girl who had avoided cardio for 80 percent of her life couldn’t run a marathon. Certainly, someone with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction couldn’t complete with the ultra-athletes and real runners who signed-up to compete in marathons.
Even though I had now successfully completed dozens of road races, including a half marathon, I was still nothing more than a wanna-be runner, who could never earn that final, untouchable souvenir marathon t-shirt and accompanying medal.
Yet there was that familiar tug again, like a cord wrapped around my waist, pulling me forward inch-by-inch… maybe I could run a marathon. I didn’t have to excel at it. I just had to finish. Hell, even Oprah had run a marathon in 5 hours. I could certainly beat Oprah…Oprah and her team of personal trainers, and her adoring fans… Okay, scratch the idea of using Oprah as inspiration. She had way more of an advantage than I could ever have.
How could I ever run a marathon when I was burdened by my unrelenting, omnipresent, personal enemy? The damn asthma?
I knew I really had nothing to complain about. There have been miraculous stories about heroic marathons completed by people who are blind, people in wheelchairs, even octogenarians. How could I possibly complain about a little bronchial constriction?
The problem, was that my enemy, the asthma, had an evil accomplice: my mind. The accomplice, was maybe even more powerful than the villain itself. My entire life, my mind had been telling me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I couldn’t run fast enough and couldn’t run far enough. It taunted me, warning that I would always be limited, always be the slowest, always be embarrassingly wheezy and weak. Together, the two had combined forces for years to hold me back and crush my confidence. I was slowly making progress in overpowering them with my shorter runs, but if I was going to run a marathon, it meant war. Me versus my arch enemy and its nemesis, and only one side could be victorious.
I’ll cut to the end of the story, because this is already getting long, and just tell you that I did go on to run a marathon. Three in fact. The second one being my best. This story isn’t about the outcome, however, it’s about what it took to get there. It’s about the battle against my mind and body, and most importantly, the three lessons it taught me:
1. When your enemy is your mind, be prepared to fight to the death.
What was I really worried about? What was honestly the worst thing that could happen to me if I ran a marathon? The evil voice in my head told me that I may pass out and die of asphyxiation. Okay, that seemed pretty bad. Then I asked myself what I gave up by quitting. I knew the answer. I would give up control. I would forfeit an accomplishment and a life experience, and the only thing holding me back would be myself.
Running the marathon taught me that my body wasn’t what was holding me back from accomplishing my goal. It was my mind. Anyone who has ever trained for distance running knows that it’s just as much mental as physical, maybe more. I learned I could train my body to withstand the physical discomfort of running a marathon, and that included the shin splints, cramps, busted toes, dehydration, and the asthma attacks. What was holding me back was the fear of failure.
To finish the 26.2 miles, I had to tell myself that it was worth risking my worst fear, because the outcome was fully in my control.
2. Don’t ever tell yourself you don’t deserve what you want.
I didn’t tell anyone outside of my immediate family that I was training to run a marathon. I kept the truth a secret because I felt if I failed, whether on race day, or whether I decided to quit the training altogether, I’d have to survive the humiliation of everyone knowing I was a failure. I also kept the truth inside because training for a marathon was serious business, only for serious athletes, and surely, I was not one of them. Me, the little girl who sat out gym class, clutching her inhaler, was not a runner.
What the marathon taught me, was that I was hiding from the label “runner,” because I didn’t believe I deserved it. What is a runner, other than someone who runs regularly? I had spent my entire summer running almost every day. I had run in the rain and the hail. I had been chased by dogs, I had fallen in the mud, I had blisters and aches, I had a cupboard full energy gels, and a closet full of Nike gear, complete with one of those belts that allows you to carry little bottles of water on your hips like some type of survivalist.
The only person telling me I didn’t deserve what I wanted was me. Everyone else who eventually found out about the marathon was supportive. Even impressed. From people I considered legitimate runners, to people who swore they hated running. If everyone else was willing to let me have my goal, why shouldn’t I? Especially when I had been working so painfully hard at it for so long?
3. Take each challenge in pieces.
I had trained for the marathon by slowly increasing my longest distance. I ran the 26.2 miles on race day using the same piece-by-piece mentality, each sub-goal becoming smaller and more tangible as I became more exhausted.
Just make it to mile 20.
Just focus on the next half a mile.
Just make it to that tree.
There was no other way to transform from someone would couldn’t run, who was held back by her flawed body, who didn’t deserve what she wanted, into someone limping back home with a free t-shirt, wrapped in something that looked like an enormous sheet of tinfoil (and believe it or not, that’s the moment every runner fights for—the blisteringly painful walk home wearing your free swag like battle armor).
Today, I try to focus every goal in pieces. Breaking them down into manageable chunks, always with my focus on the final end goal, but considering every step toward that goal a mini-triumph. I still wage war on the voice in the back of my mind that tries to tear me down by slipping fear and uncertainly into my thoughts, but I temper its power with the reassurance that I’m allowed to dream, and dream big, and that the only thing that can ever stand in my way, is me, nothing and no one else.
Will I ever run another marathon? Maybe. But only when I say I can.