becoming an athlete with asthma: elisheva’s story

Several years ago I connected with Elisheva over our common bond of our occasionally spazzy lungs.  Since then, she’s become among my closest online friends, and we’ve shared in both frustration and celebration with one another. She is currently training for the Tel Aviv Marathon 10K and I’m excited to have here sharing her story about being diagnosed with asthma in middle school, growing from that point forward, and her current fitness goal participating in her first race.

I’d also like to add, that while Elisheva downplays her story with the “mild asthmatic” clause in her second paragraph, I’m thankful she’s sharing it because it’s a story that a lot of people with asthma can identify with, as somewhere from 50-75% of people with asthma fall into the “intermittent or mild” categories (Lieberman, AAAI), like Elisheva does.

Take it away, Elisheva!

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This is in response to the challenge Kerri posted in her post “exercise and chronic disease : sharing my asthma story“.  First off, I don’t like the term “chronic disease”.  The word “disease” makes me think of creepy crawly infectious diseases that are going to kill you.  And second I don’t like associating that term with myself.  I’m a healthy person.  I really am.  I’m lucky.  I spend the vast majority of my time not thinking about my health or feeling sick at all.  Hence the word “disease” is out since I don’t have any creepy crawlies.  And the word “chronic” is out since I spend most of my time feeling healthy.

Tho.. what’s the exact definition of “chronic”?  Can it also mean something that keeps coming back?  If so… okay fine.  I guess chronic is back in.  Then again, I spent about half an hour today hunched over doing body shaking coughs and taking a couple more puffs on an inhaler as a result of running in the cold this evening.  But hey, that’s normal, isn’t it?  That doesn’t bother me that much.  Tho this was my first (quite pathetic) run in two weeks, after an unscheduled hiatus due in part to my apparent inability to breathe like a human in winter weather, not that running in pouring rain and hail is all that great of any idea anyway.  Kerri expressed interest in me doing a post, and I don’t want to let my buddy down.  Tho I do feel a bit unoriginal writing about the same condition as has already been posted about.  Plus overall, I’m a pretty mild asthmatic, tho certain things – exercise included – will always be challenging for me.

Asthma is nothing new to me – I’ve been dealing with it since I was in fifth grade, back in 1996.  Pretty awkward age to get diagnosed with anything, but hey, everything’s awkward when you’re a tween.  And a teen.  Happy I never have to do those years again.  And at that point I was already pretty familiar with it since my little brother, who was six years younger than me, was asthmatic since birth and was a regular in the ER and did inhalers and nebulizer treatments at home.  That ended up being beneficial to me since (a) my parents were already pros and (b) I had his nebulizer available, which I attribute to my never having been in the ER myself.  Looking back at my middle school and high school years, I don’t remember asthma being a particularly huge deal.  I only have a few distinct memories of it really affecting my life throughout those years.  Carrying around asthma equipment in your school backpack is hugely awkward.  Actually using it is 100 times more awkward.  There were many instances where I had friends pleading with me to use my inhaler already when my breathing was clearly out of control but I insisted I was fine.  I think I even got kicked out of class once because my coughing was so loud and distracting.  In getting ready for gym I used to wait for all of the other girls to finish changing and leave the bathroom before I took my inhaler.  I think I did the same thing while I was on the volleyball team in high school.  Seventh grade gym class was interesting.  For probably the first and only time in history, the asthmatic kid was the teacher’s pet.  The teacher told me that her four year old daughter had just been diagnosed with asthma and she was going through the process of learning to properly cope with it and manage it.  She was extra nice to me and asked me questions now and then about asthma.  There was one time that year when I sat out on gym class because of asthma (I think I was getting over a cold then).  There was another girl who was also sitting out and she asked me what was wrong with me that I wasn’t participating.  I said “asthma”.  And she replied “Oh. I have asthma too. That’s not a reason to sit out of gym class.”  I don’t remember if I asked her why she happened to be sitting out that class.  Thinking… thinking… Oh, there was that time in volleyball when I guess I lost my inhaler and didn’t notice and suddenly one of the teachers was up in front of everyone waving my Ventolin asking whose it was.  I realized I was missing mine and had to go up and claim it, which I found to be highly embarrassing.  And… that’s it, I think, for schooltime asthma exercise memories.  School was a long time ago, man.

So anyway, fast forward to the present.  In an attempt to get in shape I swim once a week (which I’ve been doing for the past two years or so), do Zumba once a week (since January) and now I got it into my head to take up running (about two months ago).  In theory I’d like to be running twice a week.  I’m planning on running 10K in the Tel Aviv Marathon in March for a group of asthma awareness people.  I used to be good about running twice a week, but then the weather changed and whatnot and yeah.  In addition, I live four flights up with no elevator and don’t have a car.  So I spend a lot of time walking and going up and down stairs.

I’m not going to lie.  Exercising with asthma is hard.  And it’s frustrating.  The frustration is probably the worst part.  You take your inhalers like you’re supposed to.  Before exercise.  Sometimes during exercise.  Often after.  Sometimes you’re totally fine (I’d say about 50% of the time I’m totally fine).  Sometimes you cough your way through the exercise session.  Sometimes you’re fine during the exercise and fine right after and then an hour later you’re doubled up emitting these body shaking coughs.  And it all seems worth it (Okay it seems worth it to me.  Not to most of my real life asthmatic friends.  I guess they’re not masochists.) because you’re always improving.  Your speed is better.  Your endurance is better.  Your breathing often is better.  You get minor frustrations here and there about why you STILL get so out of breath in the pool after two years of regular swimming and changing up your meds, when you take them, etc.  But whatever.  Swimming makes you happy (okay, I don’t know about you.  I love swimming.  Even when it’s hard.)  You start believing in yourself and looking up asthmatic athlete forums online and reading articles and interviews with famous asthmatic athletes (How cute is this?) and then you get your period or a cold or the weather changes and suddenly you can’t even sit quietly on your couch in your house without the body shaking coughing and the breathlessness.  You take what seems like a billion inhaler breaks throughout the day and wonder how the hell you’ll be able to run in that damn Tel Aviv Marathon if you can’t even take a deep breath or laugh or yawn without setting off uncontrollable coughing.  I honestly don’t know how people with constant asthma symptoms deal with it.  My main coping mechanism is telling myself that it’ll be over soon.  Of course it will be back later, in weeks or months if I’m lucky.  But this specific episode will always be over soon.  Cuz things end.  Periods, colds, rain… it all ends.  And then I’ll be fine.  Back to my regularly scheduled breathing well, taking exercise and other things into account.  But those things don’t generally last long.  Or are particularly disabling.

The biggest frustration is the time lost.  Like now.  Missing two weeks of running doesn’t just keep your training from moving forward.  It actually moves you backwards.  You end up losing some of what you’ve gained and have to start all over again.  And I’m actually worried that something will happen and I won’t be able to run the 10K.  How do I know I’ll be okay specifically on that day?  Worst case scenario I can walk it.  The chances that I wouldn’t be able to even walk it are pretty slim.  But I really do want to run it.  Like really really.

I think for me at least, asthma serves as a driving force for getting in shape.  Some of my friends have pointed that out to me.  I tend to use it sometimes as a guilt card to get people to come to Zumba or to swimming with me.  Or to train for the marathon.  I say something along the lines of “I have an incurable lung disease (make it sound as pitiful as possible, eh?) and I do _______.  I have to take drugs in order to breathe well enough to do ____________ and I cough while I do it and I still do _______.”  Unfortunately for me, such tactic doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to.  A lot of times they’ll just say I’m nuts or if they’re smart, they’ll tell me that I exercise because I’m asthmatic.  Because I want to prove to myself – and others – that I can.  The first time I heard someone tell me that I was impressed.  I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

I hope this gives you some insight into what it’s like to be an asthmatic athlete (even tho there have been a couple before me already).  I’d really like to read what it’s like to exercise with other conditions and what kinds of things you have to take into account and what your feelings about the whole thing are.  Kerri – I know you have friends with diabetes who read this.  And people with other stuff too.  Also, Kerri thanks for coming up with the topic.  Challenge accepted.

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Thanks for sharing, Elisheva, and best of luck with your race!  I can’t wait to hear about the rest of your training and read the race report.

Elisheva lives in Jerusalem and blogs at Ramblings of an Occasionally Oxygen Deprived Mind about whatever strikes her–whether it’s asthma and exercise or the situation in the Middle East, posting recipes to her favourite dishes, or general updates about what she’s up to.  She loves coffee, beef and chocolate, is currently on a muffin baking kick (sometimes making me want to get on a plane to Israel to share!) and exploring her community.  She’s also mom to a hamster named Boten [which translates to “peanut”–awwww].

15 thoughts on “becoming an athlete with asthma: elisheva’s story

  1. This Elisheva sounds like some awesome cookie. Thanks for posting her story! (Tho I don’t think she calls herself a hamster mom. Just has a hamster. That’s all. :))

  2. Great post, Elisheva. If you hadn’t already written about it, I definitely would have ranted about the frustration of all the interruptions… So many times I’ve started finally feeling like I was making progress only to end up back at square one.

    Also, the whole issue of committing to things and never knowing how you’ll feel on the day. I’ve give myself so much stress over that, especially signing up to do things for charity, because I never know if I’ll have to pull out. In all honesty, when I did the 16K, only the fact I needed to prove to myself that I gave it everything took me to the start line, and it probably was not the smartest move I ever made!

    I can’t wait to run your first 10K with you, it’s going to be an amazing experience for both of us!

    1. Lol but I don’t feel like I have conditions put on me ;). Conditions are like limits, and those don’t exist! :]

      [Except they won’t let us go scuba diving. But that’s it mostly.]

      1. A condition's not a limit. And I'm gonna go scuba diving one day. Gonna make sure to try it. Once when I was 15 or so I went rafting somewhere in Israel and they had a sign with rules at the beginning. One of the rules had a list of medical conditions they didn't want on the boats and one was asthma (not sure why). I went anyway and that was some of the clearest, cleanest air ever.

        1. Condition: “a restricting, limiting, or modifying circumstance”

          I know liability and all they have to cover their butts about everything, but that just seems silly to not let asthmatics go rafting.

  3. It’s slowly dawning on me that I really am travelling. Gonna leave my comfortable and familiar Hebrew speaking surroundings and go off into the world. And hang out with cool people! (Not that we don’t have cool people here. We do. But… ya know…)

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