( This page updated 6-30-2018)
My name is Steve, I was born a little over 6 decades ago with wickedly bad asthma. Ive been hospitalized well over 100 times for the disease and was not expected to live past my mid 40’s.
Back in 2005 with limited treatment options available, I decided to take a different approach to living with this increasingly debilitating disease. I began to incorporate daily exercise into my treatment regime. In doing so, I changed the world narrative on physical fitness and chronic lung disease management. With hard work, discipline and sheer determination, I completed 21 foot races, including 9 full marathons in a span of just 8 years with a lung function of less than a third of normal.
That’s right, I have very severe asthma with a baseline FEV1 that hovers between 20 and 32%, and I’ve have completed not one, but 9 full marathons! But don’t just take MY word for it, or be swayed by all my shiny metals, take the word of some of the worlds most eminent lung specialists… many of whom are my doctors. My medical condition and fitness achievements are well documented and completely verifiable. So while its quite unusual for someone with severe lung disease to do marathons, it certainly is not impossible.
It’s important to note that I didn’t run any of these marathons. In fact, I can’t run at all…I just don’t have the lung capacity to do so. But what I found is that I could gradually condition myself to walk at a moderate pace for increasingly longer periods of time. That’s how I trained for those races and that’s how I completed them… by walking them! Of course, I can’t walk as fast as a fast runner can run, but I still cover the same 26.2 mile marathon distance and it only takes me about twice as long.
My walking story, and the birth of this blog, begins in Sept of 2004, when my asthma got so bad that I was forced to take early retirement from my career as a Respiratory Therapist. At the time I was depressed, constantly sick and totally out of shape. Then it dawned on me, would daily exercise help? People with severe COPD are encouraged to exercise and attend pulmonary rehab classes, so why not a severe asthmatic? As counter intuitive as it sounds, you need to exercise even when you have a disease that effects your breathing. So that’s what I did.
I put together a self-directed pulmonary rehab program that would hopefully, help me manage the viscous dyspnea cycle , maintain what little lung function I had left, shed some of the weight I had gained from years of prednisone use, and perhaps beat the odds, by living longer and happier than science and medicine says I’m supposed to.
At first, I tried swimming and jogging, but they left me instantly winded. By default, I took up good old fashioned walking. Little did I know what a profound affect this activity would have on my life. When I first started walking for fitness I was in such bad shape I could barely go a few blocks without feeling like I was suffocating; and on many days I was too short of breath to walk at all. Despite the concerns and doubts of some, I kept pushing myself to go a little farther each time. I even took up racewalking lessons to learn the science of walking and to improve my speed and technique.
A year later on 7-31-2005, I walked 13.1 miles in under 3 hours, successfully completing my first half marathon. Then just a little over a year after that on 10-1-2006, just 2 weeks after an asthma hospitalization and an FEV1 of 36%, I did what others said was not possible….. I completed a 26.2 mile walk and finished the Portland Marathon! Since then, I’ve gone on to finish a dozen other races, including the Rome marathon in Italy(twice), and on April 20th 2009, I walked my way into the record books by becoming the first person with documented severe refractory asthma, ever to finish the Boston marathon! In 2010 and 2011, I finished my 2nd and 3rd consecutive Boston marathons ,finishing each race appx 12 minutes faster than the previous.
I’m neither a natural born athlete nor a freak of nature when it comes to my physical abilities. Truth is, I’ve worked extraordinarily hard at conditioning myself and building up the endurance needed to reach the goal of completing a marathon distance. I’ve learned not to let my breathlessness make me overly anxious or dictate what I can or cannot do. I know the risks, but I take precautions, I learn what works for me, and then I try to adapt. The only advantage that I might have over others who have breathing problems, is that I’ve learned to live with mine since early childhood.
Alas, and much to the dismay of many of my friends, while I’m still a Badass-matic, I’m not superman. 63 years of constant asthma flares has taken quite a toll on my body. Since completing my last full marathon in the fall of 2014, I’ve had to set less loftier fitness goals for the future. I don’t see anymore marathons on the horizon, but still I get out there and walk a minimum 1-3 miles everyday unless I’m sick or in the hospital.
Walking hasn’t cured my asthma, but it’s certainly made me a stronger person and I believe it’s the main reason I’m still around to write about it. Getting out there and being physically active is difficult at times when you have breathing problems, but I do it because it makes me feel good about myself. It makes feel like I can take on physical challenges usually reserved for “healthy” people. I push on with life despite the difficulties, because when you get down to it there are really no other options. You find a way to adapt, or you let the disease take over and make your life miserable.
If you have asthma, please consider becoming a volunteer subject for SARP or some other Asthma research study. It’s so important.