After being diagnosed with CF at age 21...I had spent the better part of my life telling myself that I was an exception to the rule, that my case of CF was mild and falsely thought there were probably no others with the disease that were doing so well. Sure, I had my moments during exacerbations when I worried and wondered if I’d get to see my daughter grow up...but for the most part I did as I pleased and was hospitalized on average once a year. I’d been a runner since h.s. track and when my daughter was young I had a sign taped to my alarm clock that read “RUN OR DIE” so I’d get up and run before her Dad went to work. But over the years my FEV1 had inched down slowly and I’d left the world of the moderately affected and dipped under the 50% FEV1 level and into the world of the severely affected. Life got harder. It became difficult to jog. I’d get so winded after just a quarter mile jog that I took to doing a jog/ walk type of workout and even that was so hard I began to skip more and more days. My daughter had asked me to run a 5k at a 1/2 marathon she and her dad were doing and when I told her I couldn’t even run a mile she gave me a bit of a hard time saying “anyone can run a mile...you’re just using CF as an excuse”. Ugg. So a week later when my nurse coordinator forwarded a Jerry Cahill video where he was running with oxygen...I was all over it!
I contacted Jerry through Facebook and he told me about using a wrist oximeter and putting the “tank” into a camelback backpack for jogging. I asked my Doctor who always had a witty sense of humor if I used oxygen for exercise if I would become oxygen dependent...his reply “we are all oxygen dependent” haha. But “no, it won’t mean you’ll need to supplement O2 for everyday things”. It took a few weeks and a little experimenting, first with liquid oxygen (not good it can’t take the jarring of the jogging and all the O2 would expel after just a short distance). I exchanged 3 back packs until I got one that had more padding and was comfortable to carry the M6 tank. And then I got in a routine...quickly running 3 and 4 miles at a time. I decided to train for the first annual “Run to Breathe” that Jerry was organizing for BEF in Central Park and invited my daughter to join me. Jerry provided encouragement to the jogging posts I would make on Facebook and we joked about being the last ones on the 10k course. Raceday came and the adrenaline and crowds had me jogging at a pace much faster than home. Central Park is relatively flat in comparison to the Fox River Valley where I trained. I was pleased with the time and my daughter and I had a fabulous 4 day trip to NYC.
Back home from the trip and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. When I went to the clinic I had the worst PFT results of my 49 year old life with Cystic Fibrosis. FEV1 was 36%. It scared me. Badly. I had been getting to know other CFers through social media and a few were on the transplant list. One was at 30% FEV1 so a personal score of 36% was alarming. I did not understand it. I’d been running about 20 miles a week and instead of getting better I was getting worse. I’d lost a lot of weight which had never been a problem as I am pancreas sufficient. But with all that running I could not eat enough. I got a tune up and recovered to 42% where I stayed for a couple years.
Chicago winters can be rough and long. This one has been the worst in my memory with temps dipping down to -18 degrees F at times. I was sick in October, choosing to do a 21 day tune up, and then mid December a bug that was going around at work settled in which took me six weeks to get over with Cipro and Prednesone. January rolled around and I still wasn’t myself and I looked at the option of IVs again and turned around and literally ran in the other direction. I decided to hire a running coach and see if having someone with expertise in building a program could help motivate me. I’d been reading the journey about those pre and post transplant go through with a mandatory “rehab” period both before and after. So Coach GP and I embarked upon a Running Rehab program for these old CF lungs of mine. He said “I’m going to be in your pocket”. By that he meant he would hold me accountable for the workouts and text me and ask me what I’d done each day. Coach is in the NYC area and travels a lot, so I’ve never met him...but working virtually worked very well. We spent a couple weeks seeing what I could do and just getting used to the idea. It was all on the treadmill as cold air is not my friend. My knees hurt, I was tired...but determined. Then he gave me regimented workouts that included interval training and progressive runs. I chose to just “do as I was told”. It made things simpler to just be assigned a workout and do it and not have to make a daily decision on what to do and how far to go. Wimping out was not an option. I let him be the boss of my schedule. The schedule was tough as I work two jobs but I fit it in most days, sometimes getting to the gym at 8pm, sometimes awakening at 5am to fit it in. A month went by and my knees no longer hurt. One day I started running without hooking up to the O2 tank (just forgetfulness) and thought, wow, my O2 sat seems ok...lets see how far I can go without it. I made it a full mile before the O2 sats dropped below 90%. Psyched!!! I hooked up for the rest of the workout and considered that bit of un-supplemented running true progress! Days that followed when I tried it again did not fair so well only making it to 1/4 mile before I needed O2. Every day is different, I learned. Storm and weather shifts affected my lungs, stress at work affected my lungs, but I started to see that pushing myself to run on the worst of those days ALWAYS had me feeling better after the run.
Then, the day came around I’d been training for. The clinic appointment. The day before I’d come home from work to do treatments and had a terrible coughing fit that lasted 30 minutes. It wore me out and my lungs reacted by tightening up. I thought ugg, I’m going to do terrible on my PFTs tomorrow. The next day arrived and I jumped a train and headed down to the city for my appointment. My lungs felt really tight and my expectation was that I may need prednisone to open them up again and if my FEV1 was low...I might even have to do IVs. Ugg. But, my first blow into the tube....showed 52%. Wow. Even though I wasn’t feeling particularly well, my airways were far more functional than before the running rehab. I’m optimistic my score would have been higher if not for those storms rolling in and putting me in a funk.
So, “what have you learned...from the past month Miss K?”, Coach asked. “I have good days and bad days” I said. He said “you respond well to multi tier training on many levels but it has to be very carefully measured between both not overdoing it and undergoing it”. It had become apparent that just running long, slow runs and adding more and more miles as I had done previously was not the right approach. My current program has me running a mix of intervals and progressive runs Tu, Th, Sat. On MWF & Su I am doing weights and some cross training. I plan on working out 7 days a week, knowing I may miss one as I listen to my body and may need to take a day of rest when muscles and resolve are fatigued. Running more and running longer didn’t seem to pay off the way varied running has and please note: it’s also way less boring :-)
I’d recommend if you’re having trouble kick starting yourself to find a coach to work with. Athlete training programs used for healthy folks can also do great things for those of us with CF. A coach that can understand that there are some limitations but also not be afraid to push may be just the thing to get you started in the right direction. Exercise IS medicine!