A spade of health setbacks, the pandemic and other problems these past few years had all but wiped out any motivation I may have had about getting back into the marathon walking game, or for that matter doing anything physical or outdoorsy anymore. I was just too weak, couldn’t breath and was in too much pain to even think about it. I even considered looking for less physical and more intellectual activities that might somehow bring deeper meaning to my life. Well, that crazy notion lasted about 5 minutes. I thought to myself, you know what, you’ve been short of breath and have delt with major stressors most of your life. Chances are my breathing will only get worse, so why waste anymore time. Now’s the time, to do to the best of my ability, those things that make me happy. Taking part in endurance sports is one of those things. Its very hard, but it makes me feel alive.
That said, Im happy to finally write about something other than medical stuff….. well kind of. In mid November I turn the page and will embark on a 16 week stretch of endurance training to prepare myself for what I swore I would never do again. In celebration of the eventual recovery from my the spinal surgery, Ive decided to challenge myself to one more long distance event. This now 68-year-old, ridiculously severe asthmatic who wasn’t supposed to survive his 50’s, and who we all know has a screw loose, will be attempting another marathon. 5 short months from now I hope to do the Rome Marathon!
I chose this particular event, not only because I love the race and have done it twice before, but also to visit Italy. I figure if I’m going to put myself through the kind of torture it takes to prepare this older lung-wrecked body for a 26 mile race, there has to be some kind of reward involved. The reward for me is the destination itself, and unlike previous Rome marathon trips, this time Ill be in the country for the better part of a month. Plenty of time to discover new places visit with family and friends that I haven’t seen in a while, and still squeeze in a marathon.
But getting back to reality for a minute, wanting to do another marathon and actually pulling it off are two different things. I wish it were as easy as just jumping back in from where I left off, but in these early days of training Im finding that this 68 old body is not quite as forgiving as it used to be. My leg muscles are still pretty good, but my neck and shoulder muscles are still rebelling from my neck surgery and Im definitely more breathless now, which makes these workouts that much harder. Except for a couple of fun 5 and 10ks here and there, its been 9 years since Ive walked an entire marathon. Its also been 9 years of up and down health, and if my calculations are correct, 20 more intubations in that time span. Any way you look at it, this new goal is going to be a tough one to accomplish.
So why is walking a marathon such a big deal for someone like me? Imagine if you will, how difficult it would be to walk 5 miles as fast you can if you only had a half of a lung, or maybe you had a really bad pneumonia or even a severe case of Covid. Now imagine doing that same walk walking 5 times in a row without stopping for more than a seconds at a time. The whole idea sounds ridiculous, but that’s essentially what Im up against when I attempt to do a 26 mile walk. I don’t have any of the above conditions, but thanks to a life time of very severe asthma and a lung destroying condition called Bronchiolitis Obliterans, I have a functional lung capacity that is less than 1/3 of normal. Not only that, but within those narrow breathing parameters my airways have a tendency to collapse and/or constrict without warning. Out of necessity , I carry a portable nebulizer with me on the course and do albuterol treatments as needed along the way. This helps lessen the feeling of breathlessness and reduces the bronchospasm and air trapping that tends to get worse with prolonged exertion. I also have to know when to stop and get help if I get too tight. You would think that someone would know when they’re getting too short of breath, but sometimes our asthma brains are slow in making the connection. Remember this one?
While we’re on the subject of training, there’s one point Id like to make. When it comes to competitive endurance events like marathons, there’s a difference between those athletes who are mobility impaired because of missing limbs, neurological and/or muscle /skeletal disorders(ie wheelchair athletes and others), and those who have a conditions that impairs their ability to breath. Most professional sports organizations don’t even recognize those with breathing disorders as being disabled or mobility impaired. The reason being, is that its very hard to quantify the severity of a lung condition and how it may affect ones mobility. It seems crystal clear to me, that if you can’t breath you’re certainly not going to be able to walk or run very easy no matter how strong the rest of your body may be. Btw, on average it takes me around 7 hours to complete a marathon distance. In fact, Im usually among the last to finish. Its for this reason that Im not really competing for time in these races, but rather for distance. If Im able to complete the distance in under 8 hours I consider myself a winner. Its for that reason, that I look for races that offer extended course time limits, or those who offer early start accommodations for disabled athletes. Most of the larger venues offer this.
Just preparing for one of these events takes a lot out of you. It requires planning up the ying yang, including a well thought out training regimen, contingency plans for unforeseen problems along the way and then an enormous amount of mental discipline to get through it all. Its not just about getting from point A to point B as fast you can, but also about having fun and not killing yourself in the process.
Because this particular event takes place overseas, there are even more things to consider. Are the long flights or the local climate going to affect my breathing? What do if I get sick on the course, or loose my medications? Of course the same things can happen with races closer to home, but when you’re several thousand miles a way, its just not as easy to deal with. I can communicate well enough to get by in Italian, but when you cant breath, speaking isn’t always as option…. in any language. Still, this is all part of the marathon adventure and Im more willing to step out of my comfort zone to make it happen.
Over the next few months I definitely have my work cut ou. Im not exaggerating, this is a huge challenge to take on, but also a huge win when I succeed. So with that I say, here’s to Stephen 2.0!