Liza Howard

Liza Howard

Liza Howard is a national champion runner with multiple records in distances ranging from marathons to 100 mile trail races.

November 2016
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Asthmatic racing

LizaLiza

I listened to the National Anthem at the starting line of the JFK 50 yesterday prepared to deal with anything the race threw at me —  besides an asthma attack that eventually had me on the ground covered in leaves committed to trading in my running shoes for a remote control and a premium Netflix subscription.
I don’t think of myself as an asthmatic.  Mostly because I don’t wheeze.   Yes, I was prescribed inhalers a few years ago in Leadville after a bike ride left me feeling like I was breathing through a straw.  (I put them in the back of a drawer when I got back to San Antonio and didn’t use them until I returned to altitude the following summer.)
And, yes, I used the rescue inhaler after a couple dusty races when it was difficult to catch my breath lying in bed.
And, okay, I was laid low (devastated, squashed, decimated, destroyed) after sandstorms at this year’s Marathon des Sables and was again diagnosed with asthma.
And maybe I have been carrying my inhaler on training runs lately because I often feel like I’m not getting much air in.
And maybe I’ve tried to use my maintenance inhaler more regularly to see if it’d help with that.  And even tracked the data of a peak flow meter.
Clearly, none of that makes me an asthmatic.  I just have trouble breathing and episodes of crippling fatigue and lightheadedness when I’m running … from time to time.
So I was entirely surprised to find myself on the pancake-flat C&O Canal towpath struggling to maintain a 9-minute pace, then a 10-minute pace, then an 11 and 12-minute pace.  I used my rescue inhaler.   Five miles later, I started walking.  I ducked into port-o-potty and sucked down more albuterol.  It didn’t help.  I sat down behind a tree.  I hoped other runners wouldn’t see me, but the ground was covered with leaves and my rustling always gave my hiding place away.
“Just an upset stomach. I’m good! Thanks!!”
I thought about giving up racing and running by the time I was hiding behind the third tree.  There were other things I could do with my time.  TV-watching. Donut-eating contests.  And maybe I was struggling because I was getting old and my talent for running had faded.  Going, going, gone.  Or maybe I was just really unfit (despite 80-mile weeks last month).  Or overweight.  Too much padding to lug around…(Save your lectures about healthy body image for someone who isn’t hiding behind a tree on the side of a trail.)  But I couldn’t quite accept I was dealing with asthma because I wasn’t wheezing.  I know that’s not required.  I’ve read all about atypical symptoms.  But I feel like a poser without the wheezing.  (Apologies to all the readers who are better at medical diagnosis and pattern recognition than I am, who have probably wanted to bang their heads against the wall a couple of times already.)
I got up and walked on.  Slow and lightheaded.  I still had over six hours to cover 18 miles.  It’d be boring, but doable.  It’d also be unpleasant, but six hours of unpleasantness seemed like a good trade for a little “I’m the kind of person who can see things through” self-image boost.
My friend Ricky was at the next aid station 38 miles in.  I had another hit of albuterol and laid myself on the ground.  Ricky blocked me from sight; I wasn’t up to pretending to be fine anymore.  I tried to cover myself up with leaves to stay warm.  A cold front was blowing in fast.  Ricky gave me two coats, so I wouldn’t have to use as many leaves.  Soon there were dark clouds overhead.  Six hours in the rain…  How much boosting did my self-image need?  I told Ricky how a guy wearing long basketball shorts had jogged past me.  He’d told me to keep going like I’d never run an ultra before.  “You can do this!”
The wind whipped, the clouds got darker, the temperature dropped and I got up to meet my fate.
Ricky hollered, “Time to go hunting!”
I rolled my eyes and walked away.
14 miles to go.
Then I started to feel better.  I walked faster.  I tried jogging.  It worked.  I jogged faster.  By the time I reached the road, and the last eight miles of the course, I was running.  I ran uphill.  I ran past  people.
It started to rain.  Nice freezing rain that numbed my cheeks.  I felt great!  I passed more people. A lot of people.  They said encouraging things like: “Damn!”

My splits from miles 42-50 were: 8:12, 7:33, 7:44, 7:32, 7:20, 7:31 and 7:16.  I was only only one minute slower than the first and second-place women on that section.  Obviously that doesn’t mean I could run anything close to their 50-mile times — they were running hard the whole time while I took breaks to play in the leaves, but it does help me believe that I should put off the binge TV-watching for a bit longer.
I’m an asthmatic, and, apparently, I need an expert to help me figure out how to run ultras.
I’m grateful the weather changed and cleared the air.  Otherwise, rather than writing this back-from-the-dead blog post in the Atlanta airport, I’d be certain I was past my running prime, out of shape, and making huge training mistakes.  It usually pays to finish and ultra — if you’re not injured.  Because you never know… there might be freezing rain.

 

Comments 27
  • Sabrina
    Posted on

    Sabrina Sabrina

    Reply Author

    You rock.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Back at you, Sabrina.


  • Brett
    Posted on

    Brett Brett

    Reply Author

    What you’re made of shines through: give me your best shot-ass kickery.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Thanks, Brett!


  • Allen Lucas
    Posted on

    Allen Lucas Allen Lucas

    Reply Author

    Wow – what a day! It’s amazing that bad weather turned out to be what you needed! Way to hang in there when it would have been really easy to drop. Your running prime is determined to keep hanging around for years to come!


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      My goal is to take down all the 90 year-old age group records. In the world. 😉


  • Kate Moga
    Posted on

    Kate Moga Kate Moga

    Reply Author

    Liza, I’m 48 and have been dealing with similar issues. Don’t have your talent but my jfk50 run was similar yesterday. Got off the AT and couldn’t maintain my planned 11 minpace. Miles 38-50.2 were my fastest, ending with a 9:20 pace for last mile. That last section felt so damn good. Asthma sucks. Kate


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      I wonder what was in the air on the towpath. Did you have any issues on the AT section?


      • Patty
        Posted on

        Patty Patty

        Reply Author

        Mold in wet leaves, possibly? I haven’t had problems on runs but my allergies will cause a bark-y cough which goes away when I use an inhaler.


        • Liza
          Posted on

          Liza Liza

          Reply Author

          Maybe so. It’s going to be an interesting journey figuring this all out. And I hope a relatively fast one.


  • Richard
    Posted on

    Richard Richard

    Reply Author

    Well done for getting it finished Liza. Always an inspiration.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Hope to inspire other not to deny obvious symptoms and medical expertise. 🙂


  • JAcobsA
    Posted on

    JAcobsA JAcobsA

    Reply Author

    From one asthmatic runner to another – check out Advair Diskus. I take it once a day and usually prevents me from needing a rescue inhaler. I didn’t need the albuterol once during this weekend’s 50 miler (coldish, very windy) and often do not (100 milers are a different story).


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Thanks very much for the recommendation!


  • Joshua Hamilton
    Posted on

    Joshua Hamilton Joshua Hamilton

    Reply Author

    You’re awesome!


  • Angela Montoya
    Posted on

    Angela Montoya Angela Montoya

    Reply Author

    Hi Liza! I had a great time at the JFK 20! Yes, my JFK went on for only 20 miles. LOL. However, I have some chest congestion now; that is not normal for me. Maybe there was some funk in the pre-frontal air that hit us on the towpath. That is not why I stopped. I have a foot injury that wouldn’t let up. That’s ok! Will try again. I hope you find a good running pattern that accommodates your asthma! I’m sure that’s not fun to deal with. Good luck to ya!


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Thanks so much, Angela. Yeah, I really wonder — and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to figure it out. I’m so sorry to hear your foot gave you trouble. That course is hard on feet, for sure. Next year!


  • Justin
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    Justin Justin

    Reply Author

    Sorry about the asthma…I saw you out there. I plodded by and thought, that’s a pro-ultra runner lady named Liza Howard. I’ve read her blog and why am I passing her around mile 30. I almost said hi, but knew something had to be wrong. Then later about mile 45 I got in your way for a second as I looked out of the corner my eye and thought someone is really moving….(It was like, who is this?) I better get out of their way..Then it was you and it made sense. I seemed to have trouble deciding whether to go left or right, sorry about that! Then I watched as you ran off and passed all the people I seemed to be playing leap frog with for the past 10 miles. First ultra for me…it was fun… that wind and sleet/rain was something after such a nice morning.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Congratulations on your first ultra!! That is so awesome. Let me know if you come running down in Texas. 🙂


  • Tom
    Posted on

    Tom Tom

    Reply Author

    Hi Liza-

    I’m a lifelong competitive runner and I was diagnosed with asthma at age 6. Its exercise induced and generally doesn’t bother me much, but I take albuterol before every run. I’ve also found that being on a longer lasting bronchiodialator helps, such as Dulera, Advair, or even Singulair (which I’ve currently found works great without having to resort to steroids).
    I also do not experience wheezing, and in general when my asthma acts up I’m simply running slower and I feel like I can’t get a good breath. Very frustrating, and it gives me pause to book races involving lots of travel to places with allergens or other unfamiliar environmental stressors. This involved a move from the upper midwest to Colorado several years ago and my asthma has been much more manageable. I’ve also found that warming up a lot helps, and I always carry my rescue inhaler during ultras in my pack.
    Good luck! I’m sure you’ll figure it out!
    -Tom


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Thanks for this, Tom! I am also going to present to my husband as, “See! We have to move to Colorado.” 🙂


  • Lisa
    Posted on

    Lisa Lisa

    Reply Author

    As someone with asthma her entire life I would encourage you to work closely with an allergist or pulmonary specialist to get your medications dialed in for your needs! I used to just work with my primary for this issue but several years ago was referred to a specialist as both my primary and I felt my asthma control was not optimized. I also needed to start on a maintenance inhaler to keep the background inflammation in my lungs down, which helped reduce asthma flares. For some folks this means they rarely need to use a rescue inhaler. In my case, since I also have exercise induced asthma, I still use my resume inhaler before runs and carry it with me on anything longer then a few hours; just in case.

    My triggers are both allergens and environmental conditions (humidity; cold/dry air; poor air quality). This summer I ignored the early symptoms of a worsening in my asthma control in the weeks leading up to a 50 miler and on race day eventually dropped out as I couldn’t even walk uphill without coughing*, despite using my rescue inhaler prior to, and several times during, the race.

    I met with my allergist and together we worked out a plan to get my asthma back under control. This meant a switch in my maintenance inhaler (and a subsequent fight with insurance for coverage) and reevaluating my asthma triggers to see if there was something new that was making things worse suddenly. I am very fortunate that my allergist is focused on ensuring that I maintain my current lung function and takes any decrease, even though it would be acceptable under normal circumstances, seriously. He also respects my athletic endeavors and wants to make sure I can keep pursuing them, even though the distances baffle him.

    Kudos to you for finishing! Sounds like a change in the weather/environmental triggers- and use of your rescue inhaler – along with persistence paid off.

    *I have cough variant asthma and rarely wheeze – if someone can hear me wheezing I am in really bad shape.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Thanks so much for this information, Lisa! I really appreciate it.


  • Megan
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    Megan Megan

    Reply Author

    The Struggle is real. Having Asthma sucks… literally. I cant tell you how many mountains I’ve been huffing and puffing up before I went to a pulmonologist and got a better inhaler to suit my asthma.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      I have my fingers crossed for Monday! So glad you had good results with an inhaler change.