|Photo from Jamye Chrisman Photography|
Although I moved away five years ago, Bill and I still manage to reconnect about once a year at endurance races. It reminds me what I value most about this hobby of mine — the community.
This week I have been questioning my future in this realm. Endurance racing has been a struggle, and for the most part a failure, for the better part of a year now. Starting with my "altitude sickness" in the 2015 Fat Pursuit (same symptoms I had this past weekend, though slightly less obstructive), the "kennel cough" of my Alaska coast tour (It was a lung crud. I was coughing up gunk left and right), the Tour Divide pneumonia, more breathing attacks during UTMB, and finally the 2016 Fat Pursuit. It's an ongoing problem. But it's not exactly a typical medical problem. I'm faced with having to go to a doctor and say, "I'm having a lot of trouble with my breathing, but only when I engage in strenuous efforts for 12 hours or more."
"Um ... so don't do that."
Next week I'm returning to see the allergist I visited in October. She's a highly recommended asthma doctor, but when I went to see her a few months ago, I was starting to come around from the Tour Divide crud and believed I was on the mend from illness. She listened to my assessment about having pneumonia during my summer "bike trip," being wheezy and weak from July through September, and feeling much better in October — which would be consistent for recovery from pneumonia. Then she tested me for allergens and determined I was highly allergic to grass pollen and cats. Since those allergens were absent from my life at the time, she recommended I return in April to start immunotherapy.
Clearly there's more to it than a one-time illness. Ahead of my visit next week, I wrote out the long saga of every breathing attack I can remember over the past year, the contexts, and my reason why I'd like to seek aggressive treatment as soon as possible. I'm only hoping this allergist takes me seriously, or can refer me to a pulmonologist who'd be willing to conduct more tests. Even if the tests reveal something, it's doubtful there's a quick cure-all. Asthma medications could be helpful, or not. My symptoms have many of the markers of exercise-induced asthma, but because they've only happened in extreme situations, a doctor might not be convinced there's anything wrong with me. To be honest, I'm still a slight skeptic that there's anything actually wrong with me. I'm a believer in placebos and I also believe in the power of psychosomatic symptoms. Maybe my primitive mind/subconscious finally found a way to stop me from engaging my oddball adventurelust — by making me feel like I'm trapped in my worst fear. My worst fear is drowning. I fear this so much that I would give up endurance activities permanently, without regret, if I believed breathing difficulties were an inevitable part of the landscape. Regardless of the physical dangers — and yes, of course those matter — the experience of this state is the biggest de-motivator of all.
I stayed with my parents in Salt Lake City through Wednesday morning, and then returned to California. On Monday and Tuesday I was able to get out for a couple of short hikes with my dad. Besides a desire to get out in the mountains, I also wanted to test my breathing in high-altitude, cold air. It wasn't too bad. At a moderate pace I did not become winded, although my top end has been lopped off entirely. Moderate paces are really the best I can do right now — I can sense there isn't enough oxygen to push any harder. This is what I experienced for weeks after the Tour Divide as well. As long as I kept my breathing and heart rate under control, I was fine. Any surges into Zone 4 quickly pushed me over the edge, into the gasping zone, and it tended to deteriorate from there. I feel that hard edge in my breathing again now.
This was reinforced today when I went out for a run at home in California, elevation 300, temperature 57 degrees. I tried my routine, hilly loop that I've been running each week at sub-9-minute pace. Today I felt winded at 11-minute pace. Just the way it is. This is how I unravel my fitness, one endurance race at a time.
But at least I went to some very nice places while hiking with my Dad:
I remain hopeful there's a better solution to my breathing problems than "Um ... so don't do that," and that I'll know more next week.