Monday, January 18, 2016

Busting out?

I spent a week Googling and brooding on breathing issues, only to become more and more perplexed. Not only do I feel more stupid and crazy, but aimless Internet research also strengthened that tinge of anxiety that my problem is terminal or something that requires a grain/dairy/fruit/sugar/cat/exercise/winter/outdoor-free existence that might feel terminal. I did reach a reluctant conclusion on three things: 1. Regardless of the cause, breathing difficulties are something I will probably experience again. 2. It will likely take some time to figure out which treatments/lifestyle changes (if any) will remedy the problem. 3. In the meantime, I need to figure out if and how I can cope.

My breathing felt limited during my hikes in Utah, and fully strained while running in California on Thursday. I thought about taking two weeks off from any cardio exercise. Taking a long break at this time would probably be my last gasp, so to speak, for any hope of participating in even a short-distance Iditarod this year, but I was starting to feel desperate. Meanwhile, I had signed up for this 50-kilometer trail run that started in Stinson Beach on Saturday. There was much quiet yo-yoing about the thing before my thought pattern ended on an upswing: Why don't I just go out there and see what happens? If it goes south and I'm still gasping, that will be the answer I need. That will mean I don't have the lung capacity for a long effort, at least anytime soon.

The Steep Ravine 50K started at 50 degrees under light drizzle, with a forecast that called for steady rain picking up throughout the day. The Marin Headlands received a healthy dose of precipitation in the preceding weeks, so the hills were vibrantly green and the trails were saturated with mud. The fog ceiling hovered only about 200 feet above the sea, and visibility above that altitude was reduced to a few feet at times — not the most appealing scenery for a course that boasts nearly 7,000 feet of climbing. Despite the foreboding weather, the race director announced that nearly 50 people had checked in for the 50K — not a bad turnout. I quite like running in cool, moody weather, but my heart was filled with dread. The parameters I'd set for Steep Ravine had harsh implications — if I failed, I not only had to withdraw from Iditarod, but also risk falling deeper into the rabbit hole of questioning and uncertainty.

My strategy for the run was to focus entirely on controlling my breathing: take deep, steady breaths, keep my heart rate in Zone 3 or lower, and slow down — or stop if necessary — the second I felt that "sharp edge" pressure in my chest that seems to precede an attack. I also brought my trekking poles because I realized that the steep, rooty, muddy trails would put me on my face more than once if I focused too heavily on my internal affairs, unless I had crutches to prop myself up. I've run three or four local 50Ks with trekking poles, and yes, I'm always the only one, and yes, the people I'm around usually express envy later in the race. Running crutches are awesome. I'm still waiting for them to catch on in the U.S.

So it went from the start — breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, which such focus that I almost forgot I was running. My Zone 3 — which is what I consider 145-160 beats per minute — doesn't afford a satisfyingly speedy pace, but it does make for a relaxing, meditative experience. Breathe in, breathe out, up Steep Ravine, over Cardiac Hill, down the endless switchbacks, slip-slide on the horse trail along Redwood Creek, up the Dipsea roots, down the Dipsea stairs. Repeat.

Rain continued to come down, and the trails deteriorated into channels for flowing runoff. It was slippery, often steep, and reasonably technical — conditions that would normally stress me out during a trail race. On this day, however, mindful breathing put me in a dreamy, Zen-like state, and I felt no fear. On the second ascent to Cardiac Hill, around mile 11, I splashed into a puddle and felt a sudden surge through my chest, as though my lungs had burst open. It's difficult to describe the sensation, but it was startlingly invigorating — almost alarming. At first I confused the sensation for the beginnings of an asthma attack, but as I slowed to a stop, I could feel all this warm, humid air moving in and out of my lungs. It genuinely felt like a higher volume of air — or perhaps a more oxygen-saturated version of the atmosphere. I commenced jogging and felt great. I could have sprinted up that hill, but I wouldn't let that happen. This little runner's high wasn't going to derail my commitment to Zone 3 and steady breathing. At this point, I was steadily floating.

Breathe in, breathe out, along the socked-in return to Stinson Beach, then once more along the raging creek in Steep Ravine. After I successfully descended the infuriatingly endless hairpin switchbacks and the shoe-sucking horse trail a second time, it occurred to me that I was something like 24 miles into this run, and felt no negative effects. Not only was I breathing normally, but I didn't have any foot or muscle pain, no tightness in my IT band or ache in my quads, not even chafing. I hadn't even tumbled or slipped onto my butt, not even once! I was actually having pretty much the perfect race.

On my last visit to Cardiac Hill, I stopped to eat a few handfuls of soggy Shot Bloks and savored the experience. I posted this photo from my friend Chuck so you can see the beauty of Cardiac Hill in this weather — it's exposed, windy, and very wet. This guy actually volunteered to hang out here for 8+ hours doling out much-appreciated but waterlogged snacks and drinks in disintegrating paper cups. This is why volunteers are lauded as the true heroes of any trail race. I stood here nibbling on Shot Bloks as though they were fine pieces of cheese, and marveled at how great I felt. "It's all this moisture and oxygen in the air," I thought. "It's like crack."

As I floated down the Dipsea Trail, I passed two women who pulled over to let me pass. "We can't keep up with you and those poles," one commented. "You're fast with those things."

"Thank you," I beamed, even though I wasn't sure they meant it as a complement. (I think trekking poles are to the ultrarunning scene today what Hokas were five years ago: For the frail and Europeans only.) But I felt unstoppable, clickity-clacking down the slimy wooden stairs, down the gray-washed trail to Stinson Beach where there's normally a spectacular ocean view, and across the finish line. After hanging out with friends, eating chili from a tiny paper cup, and gradually becoming wracked with shivering, I noticed a chart indicating I was the first woman to finish the race. Clearly this was a result of attrition, as a few women probably dropped down to the 25K after the first loop, and there weren't many to begin with (I was first out of eight to finish the 50K.) Still ... winning a coffee mug is a nice cherry on top of a perfect race.

I'm really not sure how to make sense of this experience, since this is probably the easiest finish I've ever had in a 50K, just one week after the exhausting aftermath of a failed snow bike race. I can't gauge my health on this, because conditions were dramatically different — sea level, warm, humid — compared to the cold, dry, and high-altitude air I struggled with last week. I'm seeing my doctor on Wednesday, and I now have another confusing variable to add to the equation. But I think there's something to be said about mindful breathing, as well as the power of positive thinking when there's an entire passion at stake. 


  1. Excellent! You know that your body is capable of this. The answer is in there somewhere.

    No shame using poles on a slimy course like that.

  2. Hooray, I was on tenterhooks as I read this. Glad it worked out. :-)

  3. so glad you could breathe!!!

    (what poles do you use?)

  4. Way to go, Jill! Awesome accomplishment, attrition be damned. You tried, you hung in there, that's what counts. As for "if you can cope", of course you can cope. What other choice do you really have? As for "how you can cope", that's what you need to figure out. That's your challenge. And, longtime blog reader here, you are good at those.

  5. Way to go, Jill! Perhaps your lungs just do better with humidity nowadays instead of dryness. Just listened to your conversation with Fatty. Nice to put a voice to what I've been reading for so long! I hope you can figure out things and hit the Iditarod with no breathing issues.

  6. Very cool. I must have run by you on Saturday as I was in town for work and stayed over to do a long run from Stinson beach back to Sausalito. I remember someone rocking the poles. The guy on Cardiac Hill was great. Hope you figure out the lung thing.

  7. Jill, my observation is that people who develop asthma as adults have a far harder time dealing with it than those of us who've known no other life. You've not had the opportunity to evolve anticipation and mitigation strategies. Your current presentation is the same as my adult disease form: induced by exertion, only on cold/dry days, or on the rarer occasion of illness. See if these help:
    1.) Acclimate to the cold on race day by being outside in it for hours before competition (no exertion allowed.). Don't jump out of a heated car and start running.
    2.) Use your inhaler, at least two good puffs, maybe with a spacer, at least 15 minutes before you do any exertion.
    3.) Use your buff.
    4.) You can use your inhaler repetitively during the race if it seems to continue to have a positive effect. We'll give patients continuous nebulized treatments of Albuterol for HOURS in the ER until they finally break. If it's only effect is to make your pulse faster or make you jittery then stop it.
    5.) This sort of hyper-reactive airway disease can disappear just as mysteriously as it first appeared.
    6.) Fully 25% of our last Olympic team was on inhalers. It's so prevalent in endurance sports now that you no longer have to have a TUE to use it in competition. You don't hear of Olympic caliber athletes retiring from competition because of their asthma. That slacker Lael Wilcox had never had to use an inhaler before the '15 TD, either. I can almost assure you she'll have to revisit it in some future race.
    7.) You will have been to your doctor by now and hopefully they will have convinced you of this: You will race again - unencumbered.

    Mike McElveen

    1. Thanks for the suggestions Mike. Much appreciated.

  8. The way you describe your breathing issues lead me to think of Chris Horner, the professional road cyclist, who suffered from antibiotic resistant bacterial lung infection.


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