Asthma came into my life like an angry storm a year ago, but with hindsight it was brewing for a while before it raged and destroyed my lungs.
Having just had my annual review with both my GP and respiratory nurse which included more blood tests, spirometry (lung function tests), Peak Flow PF readings and a enough questions to match Mastermind finished off with the flu jab.
The best news is that like a hurricane my asthma has been downgraded from Severe to Moderate – to be honest it was only in the last few months I realised it was at the more serious end of the scale and I didn’t actually know I had been classified as severe – maybe the rainbow selection of inhalers & tablets, low PF should have been a clue to me.
Background – how did I get diagnosis of Late onset (49 years) Exercise Induced Asthma and manage to get an ironman triathlon PB of 30 minutes ?
The perfect storm – My first asthma attack – this occurred during Outlaw triathlon race, July 2016.
Swim – coughing started and I blamed the wash from the speedboat
Bike – trouble to get my breath, assumed it was me struggling against the wind ( it was a calm day)
Run – tight chest, hard to breath, bit of a wheeze and couldn’t talk, ended up walking last 12 mile of marathon, blamed sports bra for being too tight !
After Outlaw I felt washed out but assumed it was post race fatigue from 140 miles of an endurance race. However three weeks after the race I was having breathing troubles walking the dogs – which to me doesn’t counts as exercise, but a daily part of my life.
Time to get help or advice – doctor appointment booked for following week, but I got a call back in 10 minutes saying to get to the surgery immediately. My treatment has since been excellent and envied by many other asthmatic friends.
When the doctors don’t know your full background & fitness a 49 year old women experiencing breathing difficulties is going to ring alarm bells – the first storm warning.
The buildup – over the ten years I have suffered from bronchitis often a couple of times a year a few months apart and on a few occasions it has developed into bronchial pneumonia, each time killing off and scarring parts of my lungs. Mixed with dodgy family genetics in the heart & lung departments I’m lucky I got this far in life without any more serious lung issues. About 4 years ago I started to get hayfever which worsens each summer.
The warning signs – Whilst I was training for Outlaw, my second long distance triathlon event training was getting harder, which to some extent you expect. I was able to keep my distances up but not being able to push and get the extra speed I so desperately needed especially on the run. I had bronchitis in April following a training camp in Mallorca, I was coughing on the return plane and assumed it was the inflight air-conditioning. Since December the previous year I had been doing WATT bike 20 minutes FTP tests. From December to May my power levels were steadily dropping each test 185 – 155. I then had a second bout of bronchitis three weeks for Outlaw so enforced extra taper & rest.
The aftermath – I was wrecked after Outlaw, the first week I spent horizontal on the sofa watching the Rio Olympics. I’d drag myself out to walk Jango but he really had a free run to exercise himself, the smallest of inclines had me gasping for breath and just wanting to lay down in the lane. Harvest time was in full flow and the combines were out cutting crop and kicking up dust clouds. The elephant on my chest / high pressure was upon me whilst I was trying to breath through a snorkel stuffed with jelly and my nose sealed with snot.
Recovery operation – thank goodness the doctor called me in. I’d like to say it was an instant relief and life returned to pre asthma days, but no this was just the start of the raging storm for the next 12 months, and as it turns out the rest of my life.
Simply I had to learn how to live with asthma.
Awash with steroids to try and help settle and stabilise my damaged lungs, antibiotics to clear the still infected blood the first 3 months were hell – those that know me I also suffer from motion sickness as bad as having to get off a canal boat in Amsterdam ! I felt I was all at sea and as sick as a dog.
Reassured this was normal as my body absorbed the new alien drugs. I had weekly respiratory nurse appointments and was called at 7pm on a Friday night just after my initial diagnosis on the Wednesday to see how I was getting on ! The nurse obviously more worried about me than I was. After the first month I was then seen months for 6 months then at 12 months for my first annual review.
In the year as my lungs responded to the inhalers I was gradually given lower doses. Although I had managed to pile of 10 pounds of blubber due to limited activity & exercise. When I started training again it was hard to distinguish between asthma and general lack of fitness. The tide gradually swung in my favour and my fitness & PF started to improve & rise. In numbers I hauled myself up from around 220 to 350 in 6 months. Now floating around 440.
I now had 6 months of serious training as I had entered ironman Hamburg in August, with an initial 15:15 cut off time it focuses the mind & body as I’d need a PB.
It was my 50th birthday in March and I set myself 5 endurance challenges to complete in the year, hard enough alone but now I had asthma for company ! So I decided to put them to good use and raise some money for Asthma UK to help pay towards some of the help and assistance their helpline gave me.
If you spare the time and a little please donate – Just Giving Zoe Forman
All challenges apart from Lakesman were completed, Lakesman was just too early in the year for me to safely take part. Luckily I had insurance and got a refund based on doctors note confirming I was diagnosed after I had entered the event and that my fitness level wasn’t where it needed to be.
ironman Hamburg was completed on 13th August 2017 with a 30 minute personal best long distance tri time – happy days. Take that asthma !
As my asthma is considered controlled and steroid levels required have dropped I’ve been issued a combination inhaler – steroid preventer & broncillator to keep airways open. I’m on a months trial, back in 4 weeks to respiratory clinic for comparison tests to see if suitable long term as one inhaler instead of two would be simpler. Still have my little blue Ventolin reliever inhaler with me at all times, hayfever/asthma/anti-imflaratory tablets too. Always wear an ID bracelet identifying asthma – just in case it gets bad and I can’t talk.
Alerts & Warnings – whist exercise has been highlighted as my main trigger for asthma on my voyage of discover this last year I have found a number of other triggers which when alined with exercise or even others can trigger asthma symptoms to raise their ugly head and interrupt my moment.
These additional triggers to create havoc include air conditioning units, cold & wet weather, cold rain, hayfever, smoke – bonfires, dust and polution. All quite common and occasionally if a solo appearance I’m not too badly affected but add two or more then I’m reaching for my little blue friend Ventolin inhaler. Maybe I just need to move to a warmer climate.
Since Outlaw I haven’t had as severe an attack, a few close calls mid races such as Devizes half marathon where hayfever and asthma were a really bad combination, night ride in London when temperatures dropped at 2am about 60 miles into the ride, then stupidly when I miss managed the timing of my inhalers, not taking into account that if I take my 12 hour inhaler at 4am I need it at 4pm even if in middle of Hamburg ironman ! But then I’ve learnt and put into practise, at LochNess marathon last weekend which was wet & windy, hilly & chilly and a long way to run I managed to keep my asthma under control.
I’ve learnt a huge amount about asthma, how it affects myself and how to plan, avoid and treat the asthma storm. Heres one blog that explained it well for an asthmatic endurance athlete.
Next Challenges – after a year my asthma has been downgraded, is controlled, I have achieved most of my endurance challenges, got an ironman distance PB.
Still work in progress as I’m bringing my fitness and PF back up to pre asthma levels.
So the next big challenge ? ironman Wales ! At the moment the course scares me, having supported at the race this year the crowds and competitors enthused me and the stormy weather was epic. Just hoping next year is so much calmer and not a storm in sight – weather of asthma.
I wont let asthma stop me doing ironman triathlon, but it certainly doesn’t make it easier. ironman Wales will be biggest challenge yet – with our without asthma, unfortunately I’m stuck with dodgy, damaged lungs.
Thank you to : Northlands Surgery Calne and the doctors and nurses who have taken care of me since 5th September 2016 a date I won’t forget.
Fellow asthmatic triathletes who have supported me, given advice, tips and time freely.
The Pirates who saw me suffer my first attack at Outlaw and have watched over me ever since during races and throughout the year from far and wide.
Asthma UK who have answered all my novice questions from traveling on a plane with a bag of drugs & inhalers to general advice.
Online community forums from Facebook, Twitter where experiences can be shared and questions asked to others asthmatics. Who are there across the world at all times.
All other friends, family and athletes who have helped & supported me as I’ve lived and continue to learn about asthma, especially Mike.
Finally Jango my lovable loopy lad who has stuck by me on dog walks when I’ve been slower than the growing corn around us.
I appreciate all the “Have you got & had your inhalers?” questions pre run, ride or race 🏁