Sunday, May 9, 2010

New Age Group, New Disaster

Who would have thought that at the age of 45, I would develop what appears to be asthma. Yes, I've been dealing with three or four sinus infections per year and seasonal allergies that began later in life... like, in my 30s. But asthma? That's just a disease that "other" people have -- my husband, my mother-in-law... Asthma? It would surely ruin me. I'm an endurance athlete. I LIVE to breathe large.

Alas, not only have I suffered what appears to be an allergy-induced asthma attack, but, being the Disaster Magnet, it happened in the worst possible way (for me) -- DURING a race.

The race was the Kinetic Half (Ironman) at Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania, VA. I had several goals for the race, none of which included an asthma attack. I had written them down before the race in my trusty split book:
  • practice nutrition for Ironman Lake Placid
  • practice transitions (or, as the case may be, learn how to do transitions again)
  • have a decent run leg (taking into account the Pittsburgh marathon six days earlier)
  • assess my bike training
The day started out like most race days... no - wait! The day started out BETTER than most race days. Why? Because I got about five or six hours of sleep the night before. No panic. No anxiety. Just sleep. We got to the site early, I picked up my chip, got body-marked, and set up my stuff in transition. Athletes were discussing the weather -- the wind was expected to pick up to about 20 mph by the time we were on our bikes. The one thing to remember: it's everyone's problem. This race was windy last year too.

The 1.2-mile swim was a single loop in a triangle shape. My wave, the over-40 women, was second to last -- that took a little pressure off. The water was 74 degrees. I warmed up in my wetsuit and decided to keep it on just in case the water further out was colder (it was). Jim mentioned I was smiling at the starting line -- my response was that it was the first time in ages I wasn't mentally frazzled from lack of sleep at a start. I lined up in the front (mostly because the women in my age group were not jockeying for position), the start horn blew, I hit my watch, and we were off.

I should have known in the first few strokes that something wasn't right. As usual, I went out fast to get a good position in the water, but within a few strokes, my lungs felt like I was swimming all-out. You know that feeling you get when you swim a whole pool-length underwater and just barely make it? When you come up for air and your body is screaming for oxygen? THAT'S how I felt. It was very scary, weird, and confusing and I slowed down to try and catch my breath. Not knowing what to do, I eased back and pressed on. At that point in the race, I thought the mistakes were all in my pacing and never considered that something was physically wrong.

The last leg of the swim was directly into the sun. I stopped several times to spot the buoys and shoreline only to realize I was the one people were drafting off. It went by quicker than expected, and I got out of the water second in my wave.

My transition was a disaster. I should have expected that with no practice. I had to sit down and struggle with my wetsuit at my ankles for what seemed like hours. When I was finally free, I took the quickest way around the racks and out of transition. Atypically, I ran in my bike shoes because the T1 exit was on gravel. It was an uphill bike mount, and mine felt like a comedy of errors (note to self - PRACTICE which side to run on and which pedal needs to be UP).

The two-loop 56-mile bike course is very rolling with some great downhills but the wind was a huge factor on the bike -- we went out and finished against it. Getting speed and rhythm on the bike was hard with the lingering (hilly) marathon fatigue in my quads. During this race, I wanted to get comfortable with my new bike and aero position and practice fueling. Because it was hot and dry, I drank 20-24 ounces per hour with about 250 calories/hour from E.F.S. Liquid Shot (which includes electrolytes) and Carbo-Pro. Bike fueling was dead on -- no dizzyness, no feeling of dehydration.

It was my lung problem that came into focus on the bike. About halfway through the first loop, I took a deep breath and found myself coughing. Thinking I had sucked in a bug, I was surprised that the sensation continued, and I felt the need to cough every time I breathed deep. After considering dropping out at the end of the first loop, I decided to keep going, take shallow breaths and hope it went away. I wondered if it would affect my run. I also kept getting "stuff" in my eyes and tried to wash it out with water but couldn't (I would find out later that there wasn't "stuff" in my eyes).

I knew my bike leg was slow, but I passed many women and I knew I was winning my age group. I would make it up on the run. If I COULD run. But I was losing concentration on the race with growing concerns about my breathing problems. Coming into transition, I forgot my navigational route, went the opposite way and overshot my bike rack. I had trouble getting into my running shoes (note to self -- FIX the insoles of racing shoes), then fumbled with my hat and gel packs before getting on my way.

I started the 13.1-mile run out of breath on the first short jog out and back before the three-loop course. My immediate breathing difficulties centered around the inability to get a lungful of air. When I saw Jim, I stopped and told him I couldn't catch my breath. I started coughing. A race volunteer asked me if I needed help. I did, but my biggest concern was dropping out. In a moment, medical personnel were there to help me assess what was wrong. I was coughing. I couldn't stop. I was almost choking by the time they put me in the ambulance. Someone said "emergency room" and my worries skyrocketed. I was still hoping to finish the race at that point. (I was leading my age group for crying out loud!) I answered a bunch of questions about medication and my lungs and after about 30 minutes of breathing-coughing-breathing-coughing I decided, with their urging, to end my race. One of the EMS personnel informed us that because of the dryness, the pollen count that day was close to 4000 (whatever that means) instead of the usual 250. They think I may have had an asthma attack triggered by allergies and that my body was unprepared for the difference in Latitude. The only relief from coughing came when I was given humidified air through a breathing mask. Even the oxygen tube didn't help (but that might have been because I couldn't breathe through my nose). So much for spring races in the "south." I had noticed the blooms were MUCH different in Spotsylvania than in Cleveland this weekend.

After I got out of the ambulance, I went to the bathroom and noticed my eyes were swollen and I had the dreaded hives on my eyeballs that I get when I go running in the first two weeks of spring blooms. That explains what felt like sand in my eyes on the bike. We got back to the car and to find it covered with pollen. It still bothers me and I keep wondering if I did the right thing or if I should have just backed off my pace and toughed it out. And why me? Why didn't anyone else have this problem?

The questions persisted on the drive home with one respite. Jim wanted to stop and see the Civil War battlefield of The Wilderness. And we got lucky because a National Park Service historian was just about to give a short tour describing the battle. Before I went to last year's race, my friend Curt told me that the area in and around Spotsylvania played a huge part in the Civil War but I didn't know about it until yesterday. Walking the field and hearing how thousands of Americans lost their lives in a horrific battle has a tendency to put everything in perspective. If I weren't so concerned about breathing, I might have broke down in tears. It was humbling and spine-tingling and sad. The photo at right is a memorial to one of the Union volunteer brigades that charged into battle first.

It took many hours before I was able to breathe deep without coughing -- the coughing stopped on the drive home when the weather changed to wet and colder. Another data point in the disaster chronicles. Jim says it's better we know now than to find out in a more important race. (And maybe my spring training will benefit.) I'm still struggling a bit with the disappointment, but I know he's right. And I did learn some other lessons from this race like what I need to work on (transitions) and what is working (bike nutrition). So all is not lost. But my first order of business for the coming week will be to see an allergist.

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