I’m starting to think about MdS as a restful vacation with a bit running thrown in. I’m not underestimating the desert...
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.