Meet My New Friend, Asthma

5:11 AM

We were about five minutes into the first lap of the race when it started.  I had just charged my bike up a steep incline that had my legs in complete and total revolt (we are so totally out of here…) when I heard the first faint whistle in my inhalation.  My chest started to tighten up, and my throat felt like I was wearing the worst turtleneck ever.  I had a good hole shot run, but now one woman and then another two passed me.

In the next couple of minutes my legs went hollow, then my arms.  The feeling in my hands was reduced to a painful tingling.  All of my competition was somewhere ahead of me as I churned at the pedals, and as the gap grew so did my desperation.  By now my breathing was a loud, high-pitched wheeze.  When the world started to brighten as if someone was turning up the exposure on the film, I knew I was in trouble.

And though it would be another three months and $1,700 later before it was confirmed (no, nothing at all wrong with the American medical system…), I had just experienced my first major exercise induced asthma attack.

To be fair, most of that money I spent was on tests my doctor wanted to rule out other, scarier possibilities.  She was concerned about someone my age (ahem, decidedly not in my twenties) who had been active for so long suddenly having this rather dramatic turn.  During my first visit she outlined four areas she wanted to investigate: 1) asthma, 2) a host of concerning heart/lung problems, 3) anxiety, 4) Merry*Death just getting old and slow (yes, that last one was a bit difficult to swallow). 

The reality, though, was a bit more complicated.  Yes, I have been very active for most of my life, but I had only started to get back into competitive efforts three years ago, and this was my first summer of competitive mountain biking.  A summer where we experienced excessive dew points and no rain.  And while the attacks were new, I had experienced their beginnings for over a year – it wasn’t uncommon for me to be on a group ride chatting with a fellow teammate when I would get out of breath and feel a tightening in my throat.  I just figured I was out of shape…

It has now been five months since that awful mountain bike race, and while I would like to say I have the whole asthma thing worked out, I don’t.  The DNFs that pepper my race results have all pretty much been because of an asthma attack.  I’ve got the standard inhaler of Albuterol, but it isn’t the quick fix I would like it to be.  It turns out that possibility #3 is also at play here – I suspect an asthma attack coming on and start to get upset, which brings it on even harder, which ramps up my anxiety – it is a vicious cycle that I haven’t quite discovered how to stop before it starts.  Instead of having fun racing, I find myself frustrated with my confidence shaken.

The good part of this experience is discovering how many other cyclists are dealing with asthma.  Getting a routine dialed in and experimenting to see what works is something they have all gone through, and their advice has been valuable as I feel my way through the new diagnosis.  Though not there yet, I do feel that I’m getting closer to putting all the puzzle pieces – medication, routine, and mindset – together.  

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