Marathons

My Journey as an Asthmatic Marathoner – 25,000 Miles Down the Road

Mileage goals
Written by Charlie

This is a post of personal reflection about my journey from never being able to run much due to asthma to becoming a marathoner – and running over 25,000 miles!

This is a very personal post as I wanted to just put my thoughts all out in a post and relive some of the memories I have had as I realized I crossed the 25,000 mile mark for running. Hopefully, it will serve as an encouragement to others that may have things that stand in the way of reaching your own goals.

My Journey as an Asthmatic Marathon – 25,000 Down the Road

The Beginning

When I was 7 years old, I was diagnosed as having asthma. It was a bit of a trial and error process over the next few years as we figured out what my triggers were and we finally figured it was many of the usual suspects – dust, molds, strong odors like paint/glue, and exercise.

Those various triggers kept me from pursuing some things when I reached my teenage years that I had really wanted to try out. When I was 16 years old, I experienced the worst year of having asthma yet with multiple trips to the emergency room by ambulance due to different things triggering my asthma and the breathing difficulty.

Some of those experiences were complicated by anxiety. My doctor told me to tell anyone that wondered to take a straw and to try breathing through it to see what it was like to have an asthma problem. While I had not liked to hear that I was having anxiety issues, it did help me to be able to try and get the breathing and attacks under control before letting the anxiety of not breathing normal kick in. I was able to learn to deal with that a bit more and that helped me significantly.

Why Running?

My sport as a kid was baseball. I loved playing it and because it was not excessive exercise all at once, I was able to play it without any significant issues. But, I wanted to try running since I saw how much other people enjoyed it. The problem was that running even a few hundred yards would cause me to start wheezing after a bit. So, that was that – or so I thought.

However, one day a family friend ran 31 miles and I was talking to him later that day and could not believe that this was someone I knew that had just covered 31 miles on foot! This woke up the desire again to want to run.

How I Approached Running and What I Learned

So, I tried it again and found that I could not go more than half a mile without wheezing. Someone mentioned that maybe I was going too fast. So, I borrowed a GPS watch (this was when they just started coming around and boy, were they big!) and found that I was trying to run at like a sub-7 minute pace! No wonder I was having some breathing problems!

SLOW DOWN!

This thing may have been big and covered quite a bit of arm space but it helped me to get my pace under control!

So, I bought my own Garmin Forerunner 101 and started jogging at a much slower pace to see if I could practice regulating my breathing. I found that it did seem to work though I had to stop from time to time to get some deep breaths (I will note here that I was doing this with doctor’s approval – I strongly urge anyone else in this situation do the same). The longest distance I ran after a few weeks was 10 miles on a track and it took me about 2 hours due to stopping to rest, drink, and breathe more.

At this point, I was doing ok regulating the breathing – to a point. But, I still had to stop every mile or two to walk for a bit to catch my breath. This included when I was getting to run my very first race – a 5k. The day before, I could not even run the whole 3 miles without stopping!

Planning to Run My First Marathon

Around October of 2006, I started getting the crazy idea that I could train for a marathon. I was to be in Israel a few months later and they had the Tiberias Marathon taking place while I was to be there. I set my sights on that race and bought a book that I thought could help me – The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer. It not only gave stories but it also had a very helpful race plan that would not have me running more than 4 days in a week and not topping 40 miles in a week.

My First Race – a 5K

Racing toward the finish line of my first race – a 5K!

So, there was a 5K that was taking place in mid-October seemed to be a good way to kick off this training and to see what I thought of running a race. I did my own little training plan with the goal to run the 5K without stopping.

I ran it on a damp, chilly Saturday afternoon with my brother and we stayed together the whole time, helping to push each other through. Sure enough, we both finished without having stopped or walked once and did it a time we were both proud of – 24 minutes and 48 seconds.

That really got me fired up as I realized that I could run and even was able to put on a burst of speed at the end! Plus, I thought that now I could definitely just take what I had learned from regulating my pace and breathing and start an actual marathon training program.

My Second Race – a 10K

I did my second race in the middle of training and did it on the biggest race day of the year – Thanksgiving Day! My time in my first 10k was 49 minutes and 40 seconds and I again did this race with my brother. But, we agreed that we would start together but as we got near the finish, we would kick it out to see who would win. I won this time. 🙂

This race gave me a big confidence boost as I was able to do it in just a bit over an 8 minute mile pace and I knew that I was progressing in my training. This was also a help to me as I knew I had a big challenge coming up just a couple of weeks later – my first and only 18 mile run of the training program.

My First Marathon – Tiberias, Israel

I completed the marathon training program pretty well yet I was really, really nervous as the day of my first marathon came closer. The training program was essentially one to help a beginner just finish – nothing more. This meant that it was not packed with long runs and I would have to run 8 miles more on race day than I had ever run at one time before.

I was getting nervous about my breathing as well – would my anxiousness about the race cause me problems with my breathing? Or, would the exercise be too much for my asthma and would I get an asthma attack while running my first marathon – and doing all that in a  different country!

Marathon Day – and a Stupid Move

After my first marathon – yeah, I had a little more hair then. 🙂

The family friend who had run that 31 mile run that had inspired me was running this marathon as well. He was quite a bit older than I was but a lot more skilled at running and had many marathons under his shoes.

He could churn out 3 hour and 30 minute marathons fairly consistently. That was his goal for this one as well. It was an out and back course so I started secretly planning to surprise him by getting as close as possible to him when he started running back.

That was a stupid – and very rookie – move. I was not in shape to do a 3:30 marathon or anything close to that. Yet, I burned a lot of my muscle strength and endurance trying to get close to him. While seeing him just less than a couple of miles ahead of me at the turn gave be a big boost, I soon realized what it meant to hit the wall – and I hit it way too soon.

While the Tiberias Marathon is certainly beautiful as it runs alongside the Sea of Galilee/Lake Kinneret, it also is not flush with cheering spectators. That can make it very hard for a rookie marathoner. I began to go through some very difficult miles that included quite a bit of walking as I struggled against a headwind and the failing result of my own ambition.

However, I came back into Tiberias and started to run that last part. I was determined to finish running and I crossed the line in quite an emotional push. I had actually done it – I ran a marathon and my asthma had not been an issue at all. My time for this first marathon? 4 hours and 34 minutes.

Post Marathon

While I did not have any asthma problems, I did learn why it is important to do core workouts for a prime marathon performance! My whole body ached and hurt quite a bit. So much, in fact, that I told my wife to never let me run a marathon again! 🙂

However, I soon learned two things – the pain fades and so does the memory of that pain. 🙂 As a result, I told my wife she was not allowed to hold me to anything I said in the 48 hours following a marathon going forward. 🙂

I actually signed up for my second marathon, taking place just 9 weeks later, the same week that I finished my marathon. The next race would be in Washington, DC for the inaugural DC Marathon – I was hooked.

The Next Marathon

It was a cold, chilly day in March that I found myself at the starting line of my second marathon of my life – and the second in just 9 weeks. I didn’t have any great goal for this, I just loved the fact that I was able to run 26.2 miles without having a problem breathing.

At the finish of my second marathon, the DC Marathon

This marathon was a bit easier than the last one and I did even better this time – I finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes. What did I learn this time? Not to take too many GU energy gels. 🙂 I think I had taken like 6 or so during the race and immediately felt the urge to puke my guts out, post-race.

The First Year of Running

I did something that is certainly not the best in the first year of running – I ran 5 marathons and my first 50K (ultra marathon). Yeah, it was a little excessive but I was so thrilled with this new-found ability to run long distance when I had never been able to do it before – I just couldn’t help myself!

Post-Richmond Marathon – and post-race for my wife’s first ever (8K)!

I ran in Israel, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, New York, Dayton, and Richmond in that first year and had a great time. I found something that I really enjoyed doing and felt like I had finally been able to beat something that had limited me from many other things for almost 20 years.

The Ups and Downs for an Asthmatic Marathoner

However, it was not completely gone. I found that the asthma would hit me at different times, most of the time if I had been around a lot of mold recently or if the pollen count was too high. I also had some problems in very cold weather.

I remember one marathon, the Illinois Marathon, that took place in April. I had signed up for the Illinois Marathon challenge that had me run a 5K the night before and the marathon that next morning. I had no problem during the 5K but the next day, I started having some wheezing issues around the half-way point. The best I could determine, it was due to the pollen that was quite heavy at that time. I had to walk a lot and take my inhaler (something I carried on most long runs and all races). I was able to finish but it was not the race I had trained for or had thought would be run.

Another race was a 12 hour race. I had run some events longer than the actual marathon distance and found I really liked them as well – these are called ultra marathons (any race distance longer than the 26.2 miles of the marathon). Timed races in particular were quite interesting. This 12 hour race was one I had done the year before and I loved that it was in my hometown and that the course was a 1/2 mile loop around a beautiful pond.

The previous year, I had done 63 miles in 12 hours. This particular year, I had had a wonderful training program (including running almost 100 miles in my peak week) and was ready to try for 72 miles in 12 hours. However, again, the pollen was quite thick and I had to quit after 42 miles because I could barely get a deep breath. That was the first time I had actually had to pull out of a race due to my breathing.

There was yet another race that comes to memory where my asthma kicked in. It was another timed event – a 24 hour race – and it was the 24 hour US championship race as well so there were plenty of very good runners on the 1 mile loop. It was after about 52 miles that I was having enough trouble breathing that my chest muscles hurt from the effort. So, again, I pulled out.

I learned something big during these and other difficult events – while I had been able to learn how to deal with my asthma to limit the affect the running had on it during runs, there were other elements that could come into play that could cause a problem as well. I had had to learn that sometimes it would be my asthma that would tell me when a particular race was done.

More Memories from the 25,000 Miles

So, back to that round-the-world number of miles. It was only recently that I realized that I had crossed that threshold (because I had not kept detailed records in some of the years but was able to figure it out from logs, activity charts, races, and other things). Most of those miles have been non-race miles but most of them were also preparing for races.

visit 6 continents

My view of the Sydney Opera House from one of my many laps over the Harbour Bridge during my run around the world

I wanted to take a top-down look at where those 25,000 miles have taken me over the last 13.5 years. To start, it has been an average of 1,850 miles a year. That works out to being 35.5 miles per week. But, there were some years I was quite a bit over 2,000 miles with a couple of years even going over 2,500 miles (and one year topping 2,600 miles).

Hyatt

A great sendoff – thanks to the great staff of the Grand Hyatt Santiago! | Part of my marathons around the world

  • Running over 100 races
  • Running almost 60 marathons or ultra marathons
  • Running marathons in:
    • New York
    • Canada
    • Pennsylvania
    • Virginia
    • Washington, DC
    • Maryland
    • North Dakota
    • Arizona
    • Utah
    • Georgia
    • Alabama
    • Florida
    • Massachusetts
    • Ohio
    • Illinois
    • and maybe one or two more that I have forgotten!
  • Running marathons in Israel, Iceland, UAE, Canada, and Serbia
  • Running 26.2 mile distances on 6 continents in less than 5 days
  • Running 26.2 mile distances on 5 continents in 5 days
  • Running in some of the most beautiful places in Europe, South America, and the US
  • Running beautiful trails
  • Running in temperatures well below freezing in almost 2 feet of snow and running in Death Valley at 128 degrees
Running and Relationships

At the finish of my son’s first race

That list is just places but does not speak about the relationships that I have enjoyed on the run. I have met some amazing people and had awesome conversations with friends and acquaintances during races or in runs in new cities. I have been able to run with my son in his first race and run with my wife as she trained for her races. I have also enjoyed running races with my brothers and training with them as well.

Running an 8 mile race with one of my brothers

Basically, that distance of 25,000 miles has literally taken me all over the world and has allowed me to make some great friendships that grew beyond just running. It has helped me stay healthy and to keep my weight in a place that was good for me. It has given me time and space to clear my head and get away from the bustle of life. It has given me a time to listen to dozens of books that I may never have read otherwise.

6 marathon

This was our finish in DC, the final run. Glenn from Military Frequent Flyer ran this leg with me

Running with Asthma

Does this mean everyone with asthma should try to run a marathon? Absolutely not – following a doctor’s direction is of utmost importance. But, for me, the number of 25,000 miles means more than just a distance or experiences or memories – it stands for something that I had years ago thought would never be possible.

14 years ago, I was unable to run half of a mile without having breathing problems. Has it gone away completely? No, I had one year a few years ago that was especially difficult and I lost months of running much at all as a result of it. But, I have been able to deal with it and it has not been able to keep me down. I have not been reckless with it but did my best to learn how to manage it. Sometimes, that meant dropping out of an ultra or ending a long run. But, in the end, I was able to complete something I never thought I would (a marathon) – and then do it again and and again.

This post is certainly not some kind of puff piece as there are thousands of runners who have run more, run faster, run harder. Instead, it was me just wanting to put down some memories of what the last 25,000 miles have held and to help me be thankful yet again that I have been able to do it in spite of being an asthmatic.

What’s Next?

Well, there is one item on my bucket list that I haven’t been able to do yet! That big thing is to run a marathon on the actual continent of Antarctica! Someday, I hope to do that!

Other than that, I want to qualify for Boston (I really need to run faster – my PR is 3:29 and I need a 3:05 for another year and then I need a 3:10). I also want to run the Western States 100 mile race (the Boston Marathon of ultras) and the Spartathlon – a 246km event in Greece that recreates the route of Pheidippides.

But, until all of that happens, I just want to continue to be able to run and explore new places! It is such a different thing to experience a new city or wilderness on foot than by vehicle! There are still some days I have some breathing struggles but the memory of being able to have so many miles already keeps me pushing to be healthy and recover.

Please share your experiences that running has brought to you also! It can be such a personal journey so I know everyone has a story!

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About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

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