At age 38, I ran my first 5K. Not everyone may believe that to be a tremendous accomplishment. To me, it was. Having grown up with chronic asthma, distance running was not my best sport. On and off, I ran - for sports practice, or even for a hot five minutes one summer in college. But that was just an excuse to stalk the guy I liked as I would run by his fraternity house at the same time each day in my skimpy sports bra when I knew he and his brothers would be sitting on the porch. If I made it 5 blocks, I would be surprised. Yes, i was that girl. (Didn't work anyway.)
I dreaded cross-country in gym class, because in order to get an A, i had to run an under 10-minute mile. Short legs and asthma were not the best combination to accomplish this goal. And of course my competitive nature forced me to not just meet this qualification, but exceed it. So I did it in 9 minutes as I recall and then my mom had to come to pick me up because I had an asthma attack soon after crossing the finish line, despite taking more puffs than advised of my inhaler. Painful and embarrassing.
If you have asthma, you know it is terrible. For me, it was often debilitating. It affected every activity and decision I made, even into college. I was sick, really sick, a lot. If I caught a cold, likely that would turn into bronchitis. In college, I was having trouble breathing for a few days, I could barely sleep or eat, and when I was gasping for air, I finally went to a doctor close to campus who took one look at me and sent me to a specialist. The specialist took one look and admitted me to the hospital where I remained plugged into oxygen and medications for more than a week. By the time I made it to St. Peter's hospital, my boyfriend had to carry me from the car because I was too weak to walk on my own. I felt like I was drowning in the ocean with a 1000 pound stone on my chest. A little asthma trouble turned into pneumonia. My doctor told me I was lucky I came in when I did, because I could have died. What? From asthma?
Luckily, I found the right specialist and he set me on a course with the right medications and treatment. Asthma was always annoying at the very least, but I didn't know it could be deadly. And once I was released from the hospital to rehab and bed rest, after already missing the first week and a half of my last senior semester of college, bloated and puffy from Prednisone and whatever cocktail of drugs they fed me, I decided asthma was not going to be the death of me. Not then. Not ever.
But I also became very cautious, probably overly cautious. I stopped exercising. I quit smoking (yeah, duh. Seems like a no brainer, right?) and made my boyfriend quit too. I stayed inside in air conditioning as much as possible. After all, allergens like pollen, mold and animals would trigger my asthma. Walking up stairs or walking outside in the cold also would trigger an attack. Activities like running and swimming were certainly out of the question. Forget soccer or hiking. Even my love of tennis took a hit. Ever have an asthma attack in the middle of sex? Oh, I have. It's not oh, oh, oh - awesome. (I hope my parents aren't reading this - oh well, bygones). I basically gave up doing anything strenuous.
So fast forward from 1998 to 2011. I organize and run the wellness and fitness challenges for my office. it's fun and I enjoy helping other people reach their fitness goals. We started them after I had my daughter in 2011. I had gained 45 pounds with her at the age of 35 and while perhaps 10 years earlier, losing extra weight was easy, this extra weight was not easy to lose. So I organized these challenges to help motivate myself to move. My asthma had been under control for many years so I had no other excuse than perhaps a lack of time. In the fall of 2012, I began training with amazing personal trainers and the weight started coming off. I started taking lyrical ballet classes. An extra 20 pounds I'd been carrying for a year disappeared in about 8 months. I was feeling pretty good. Sure I resigned myself to wearing "mom bathing suits" - one pieces and tankinis - because I may have been in better shape, but I still had a mom body. But I felt fit and I was.
In 2013, we started a running team at the firm as part of our wellness initiatives. We had some fairly fit people who enjoyed running, my youngest sister included. They all seemed to have a ball competing together in 5K races throughout the community, representing our law firm. They trained together after work too. Then the question was asked of me:
"When are you going to join us?" Me: "Oh, I don't run. I have asthma. I can't run. I don't like to run..."
My excuses were embarrassing. So I took my co-worker's advice and started running that summer. It was very difficult for me and at most I could do about a mile in 15 minutes before wheezing, needing my inhaler and giving up. Running just wasn't for me. So that fall, I picked up tap dancing instead. But there was a bit of shaming going on in my office since I was asking others to participate as part of our run team, but I didn't participate.
"Fine," I said, "I'll run a race in the spring with you guys if you'll leave me alone. Don't expect much. I really can't run."
So that spring, I began working on my running with a wonderful app called Couch to 5K. It was exactly what I needed. It took me slowly from walking to running a full 3 miles. In my life, I think the longest distance I had ever run was 2 miles. Lo and behold another 7 pounds fell off my body. I was strong, toned and could actually see my abs again!
And then the second weekend in June, with asthma inhaler in hand, I ran my first 5K in 30:38. Not setting the world on fire. But I did it. And now I was hooked. I was a runner. I spent the summer running - not long distances, just enough to keep me in shape. I ran on the beach in Watch Hill and through the neighborhoods in Mystic, where I spent most of my summer. By my next 5K that fall, I had shaved a full 2 minutes from my time - I was able to run a 28:34 5K. Still carrying my inhaler like a security blanket, but running a little faster. By spring of 2015, I ran that same June 5K in 27:43.
This year, I could only participate in one race due to scheduling issues and I had a limited opportunity to train thanks to crummy weather and time conflicts, but I managed to run that June race in 28:19. Although I missed my goal of besting last year's time for that race, I accomplished another goal - I ran without my inhaler this spring.
Now to add to this story, I can tell you that just about every homeowner in the neighborhoods through which we ran decided that this was the morning to mow their lawn. Information I did not have when I started the race and forced myself to leave the inhaler in the car. Having battled allergies all spring, perhaps this wasn't the day to run without it, but for some reason I needed to prove to myself that I could - that after years of being on proper medication and being fit, I didn't need this crutch.
Unfortunately, I absolutely could have used it during this race. By mile 2, I thought I might have to stop running. I was getting worried. I was upset and I was having a hard time breathing. I was coughing and wheezing and working hard at convincing myself I would be ok. I had taken an inhaler hit before the race and all my medicine. But what if I had a full blown asthma attack? What if I had to stop running? I started to feel that drowning feeling in my chest.
And then a musical miracle occurred. My girlfriend, Felicia, had shared an awesome Dance Fit playlist with me, which I was enjoying immensely because it reminded me of our fun hip-hop dance class and not of how difficult running was for me. Suddenly, a dance version of John Legend's "All of Me" popped into my ear buds. The regular version of the song has special meaning to me because we dance to it often in my lyrical class while we are working on technique. I started to sing it - not loud, but out loud to myself: "You're my downfall, you're my muse, my worse distraction, my rhythm and blues..." and so on. I stopped coughing; I stopped wheezing and I picked up my pace. I took a deep breath in of the air around me and I kept going. I was a runner now and that's what runners do. Just breathe and keep going.
Even at the time, I recognized the life metaphor, and it's a good one. But even better, the Prince Royce song, "Back It Up," started playing and I started dancing a little as I hit the last half mile of the race, up a steep hill and through a cemetery (talk about metaphors!). I was "dropping' it down and backin' it up right" right to the end. And when I finally crossed the finish line, 36 seconds slower than last year, I was smiling (after I threw up - every race, I throw up at the end. I don't know why. But now it's a thing. A very gross thing, but my thing, nonetheless.) Big smile.
I found my soon to be brother in law, Mario who had completed the race about 5 minutes ago. He asked: "How'd you do, sis?" And I told him, "I think I did ok." But I knew I did better than ok. I finally, truly learned how to just take a breath and keep going.
Even when I can barely breathe, I know now, I can just keep going and be ok. I think it's funny that the co-workers who shamed me into running have no idea how they have changed my life. And I'm immensely grateful.