The Joys of Cycling with Exercise-Induced Asthma

I’ve now met several people who don’t like my calling this blog — and by extension, myself — “Slowpoke on a Bicycle.” For most it’s an issue of pride. They can’t understand how I would embrace the idea that I ride slowly, rather than feeling embarrassed and working hard to ride faster. Others are concerned that the name gives me permission to be lazy, instead of trying harder. They’re surprised when I tell them that a lot of thought went into the name. I’m a bicyclist. I’m slow by most people’s standards. And I’m (finally, mostly) glad to be who I am, doing what I can do.

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My rescue inhaler gets me through the rough hills.

The “try harder” mentality is especially hard for me to swallow. See, I have exercise-induced asthma. It’s a fun little condition that constricts my airways and inflames my breathing passages, and makes it really difficult to breathe. Hills are especially difficult. I’ve climbed a few tough hills at 4 mph, a speed I did not even realize you could ride without falling over, and I’ve walked up more than a few when my lungs weren’t up to the task. On BRAG 2012, my motto was, “I’ve never met a hill I can’t walk up.” Walking up some hills is just a fact of life for me. No matter how hard I train, no matter how diligent I am about taking my maintenance meds, using my inhaler before riding and when I get wheezy, and warming up well, there are hills I just don’t have the air-power to conquer. I don’t like it, but I’m learning to be okay with it. It’s just a part of what my body is like.

But what bothers me is the attitude of some cyclists who ride past me as I walk up that hill. Most people are supportive and ask if I’m okay, but I’ve also received a whole variety of advice– that I just need to lose weight (probably true), that I’d have more lung power if I trained more (maybe, maybe not), and that “real cyclists don’t walk up hills.” Most of them mean well, but they just don’t get it. Because the disease I have is invisible, except when I’m doubled over my handlebars trying to catch my breath, most people don’t realize what a struggle hill climbing is for me. It’s not just a matter of trying harder, or training harder, or losing weight (although all of those are useful, to a point) — I have to manage the asthma, and learn to read my body.

Even on the best of days, hills and I are not usually friends. Nothing can set the lungs off more than a good — or even moderate — climb. Even if I’m feeling good and riding strong leading up to the hill, I usually start feeling the effects on my breathing within the first 8 or 10 pedal spins. Even in my lowest “granny” gear, it’s a chore. And because it’s a chore, and all too often I “fail” and have to walk, I usually get anxious approaching a hill. I know it’s not helpful, and probably brings on the asthma more quickly, but I can’t help it. That hill is associated with so much emotion that I tense up and expect it to be hard. What’s funny is that I’m surprised when I make it up without wheezing, coughing, or having to stop and walk up.

Some people have asked what riding with asthma feels like.  I’ve heard many different analogies, but the one that fits my experience best is the straw analogy. When my lungs get inflamed and my airways narrow, it feels like I’m taking every breath through a straw. No matter how hard I breathe, I can’t take in more air than that straw holds. On a mild day, the straw is pretty wide and I can cope. When the asthma is worse, it feels like I’m breathing through one of those little coffee stirrer with the tiny hole in the middle. No wonder it’s hard to climb a hill!

Over the past several years, my pulmonologist and I have tried a bunch of different combinations of maintenance medications to control the asthma. Two different lung inhalers. A combination nasal inhaler to help me breathe through my nose better. A double dose of Prilosec to keep the reflux from affecting my windpipe. Antihistamines. Pills. A rescue inhaler for riding. Each one helps — but only to a point. and we’re still working on the formula.

In the meantime, my biggest wish is to find a professional who can help me with the practical side of managing asthma while riding. I don’t need more medicines. I’m looking for someone who knows how to help me manage my breathing. Do I breathe harder, deeper, or more shallowly? When do I need another puff on the inhaler, and when has it stopped being effective? When should I keep going, or push a little harder? When should I stop, to avoid doing something dangerous that will set my riding back even further? I’ve asked around in the cycling community, the triathlon community, and the medical community — but so far I haven’t had any luck. And I’d love to find other cyclists who ride with asthma, because it would really help to share experiences and know I’m not alone. I don’t want to quit; I love riding more than I ever expected to. But I’m hoping the expert(s) I need will somehow show up in my life. My lungs and I could really use them!

Day 6 of BRAG: The end of the line

It’s hard to believe BRAG ended a week ago. It seems like yesterday that we were on our bicycles and our main concerns were cool fresh water, sore muscles, and traffic. I have to admit I miss it!

top of the Sidney Lanier BridgeThe trip from Brunswick to St. Mary’s featured the biggest hill of the ride, a long climb to the top of the Sidney Lanier Bridge. It was a beautiful ride, sunny and breezy, but the climb was too strenuous for my lungs. Even in my lowest gear, the exercise-induced asthma took over and I had to finish by walking. I was frustrated and disappointed that I had to walk, but one thing I’ve learned from cycling with asthma is to know my limits. And once I got to the top, caught my breath, and looked around, I was awed by the beautiful view.

top of the Sidney Lanier BridgeThe rest of the ride was challenging but enjoyable. We rode through pretty rural areas and some neat small towns, including one with a consignment store sign that read, “Dead People’s Things for Sale.” Our final rest stop was at the submarine museum outside the Naval Submarine Base at King’s Bay, where we explored the partial submarine.

One of the best parts of BRAG any year is that final approach to the finish line. When we started down the main street in St. Mary’s and knew we were almost there, I started singing “The End of the Line”  again while Doug laughed. With a cheer and a celebration, we rode across the finish line, and took the traditional end of the line photo with the Team Vaughn School of Bragging.

St. Mary’s had the best end of the road meal I’ve ever had on BRAG — fish, shrimp, hush puppies, slaw, and brownies from St. Mary’s Seafood. You may already know how I feel about brownies — the BEST food ever! On the ride home, we compared notes and agreed this meal topped most of them. Hooray for Vicky (or whoever on the BRAG staff chose the food)!

All in all, it was a fun and successful BRAG that helped build my cycling confidence. The ups and downs we’re worth it, and I’m already looking forward to riding again next year.

Team Vaughn at the end of the line 2013

Day 5 of BRAG: Goodbye, Andrea — Hello, traffic

One of the major forms of entertainment on BRAG during a storm is trying to forecast the next day’s weather. The optimists, like me, look at the range of different forecasts hope for the best. And the pessimists find the worst, most dire weather forecast and make it their job to share the grim news with others. One Wet Blanket informed us that we would be in the middle of a hurricane with 60 mph winds and rain the whole way.

Luckily, Wet Blanket was wrong. (Equally luckily, I had the self-control not to mention it when I saw him.) The weather was delightful – overcast in the early morning, followed by a clear, sunny day. The ride was a 70-mile endurance challenge, but the flat terrain made it easy to go quickly. We passed the time with long, rambling road conversation.

The ElliptiGo

The ElliptiGo — you have to see it to believe it!

The day was interspersed with five rest stops — including one with sulphur water. My favorite moment of the day came at the second rest stop, where my buddy Jeremiah noticed a dog carrying off his cycling helmet. I also got to see the ElliptiGo up close — part elliptical, part bicycle. One brave guy has been riding (walking? climbing? running?) that thing the entire BRAG!

Today’s ride took a challenging turn about 5 miles from the end, when we rode the rest of the way into Brunswick on busy 4-lane highways. Most motorists were courteous and moved over a lane when approaching, but one woman crowded us from behind and then honked loudly when she finally passed us. Vehicles, folks — bicycles are classified as vehicles and need to be treated as such.

Tonight ended with the annual performance of Moonbase. Ah, Moonbase. People wonder what Moonbase is. People ask for descriptions of Moonbase. But Moonbase is simply not describable. It happens at night in a field far, far away, and it can feature anything from light-up armadillos to glow sticks to a stuffed E.T. arriving in a mailing box. Giant light bulbs arranged to make the big dipper, a lighted head of Woody Woodpecker. Performance art at its best.

Tomorrow’s our last ride of this adventure called BRAG. I’m going to miss my team (the Team Vaughn School of Bragging, to be specific) when it’s all done, but I’m starting to look forward to truly clean clothes and my own shower and bed. And of course, the cycling adventures will continue….

Day 4 of BRAG: Awash in acid green

Some people I know think this whole riding-a-bicycle-day-after-day thing is craziness on my part. If you’re one who thinks that, hold onto your hat. We rode 56 miles today — not that unusual — through the outer rain bands of Tropical Storm Andrea. The first 15 miles were overcast and cool before it started sprinkling, then drizzling, then raining, then pouring. So for 37 miles, we got wet. Really, really wet.

And what really IS crazy is it was fun. I wasn’t all that cold, the asthma didn’t cause problems, and we rode strong. There’s a point when you’re so wet that you can’t get any wetter, and it’s time to just enjoy it. So we did. My theme song was a slightly altered version of “The End of the Line” by The Traveling Wilburys. “it’s all right / ridin’ around in the storm / it’s all right / our jackets will keep us warm/ it’s all right / everything will work out fine / it’s all right / we’re going’ to the end of the line.”

Acid green cycling jacketsThere was also a theme color for today: a lovely shade cyclists call acid green. It’s the most common color for cycling jackets and many jerseys because it’s easily visible. By the time we arrived in Waycross, we were dripping wet but still very bright green.

At the school this afternoon, EVERYTHING has become an improvised drying space. Every floor, doorknob, locker, table, and chair is draped with some piece of cycling gear. The women’s locker room looks like a laundromat. And my personal favorite are the improvised shoe drying stations in front of every air mover fan in the building. I doubt any of it will be dry by morning, but we are aiming for more dry.

My favorite quote of the day comes from buddy Kay, who declared that she spent a lot of today “fluffing.” When I inquired, she explained that after long hours of riding, your butt gets that smashed-down feeling, and you need to occasionally “fluff it up” by raising up off the seat. So happy fluffing day, everyone. I’m off for a well-deserved BRAG sleep.

Shoes drying in front of the air mover

An improvised indoor clothesline

Layover Day at BRAG: Rest, relaxation, and road conversation (and brownies)

Layover Day is a special time during BRAG – a one-day respite where each rider chooses whether and how far to ride. Some use the day to catch up on sleep. Others visit our host town and/or do short rides, and some brave souls “rest” by riding a century (a 100-mile ride in a single day, for those not yet familiar with cycling lingo). My riding buddy and I did “just” a 28 mile loop ride. We agreed that we felt like slackers, after our two previous long days. But it was enough to stretch our legs and get our lungs working again.

One of my favorite parts of long rides, and especially BRAG, is road conversation — those long, rambling discussions that chew up the miles. Sometimes it’s about nothing at all, and sometimes we solve the world’s (or our own) problems as we roll along mile after mile. Sure beats sitting in the saddle and worrying about problems at work!

20130605-155114.jpg20130605-155125.jpgLayover day is also catch-up-on-laundry day. There’s a standard of clean after several days of riding that we call BRAG Clean — meaning washed in the bathroom sink and dried in the “solar dryer” outside. BRAG Clean clothes would not be acceptable to wear anywhere else, but they’re a little better than totally unwashed. And laundry gives us lots to worry about all day — what’s dry and what’s not, when to bring things in, and whether any expected rain might get the drying clothes wet. It’s amazing what absorbs your attention on BRAG.

One more good note from today before I take my BRAG Layover Nap: we stopped at the local bakery after lunch and experienced the most incredibly yummy brownie. Chocolate. Road conversation. A nap. Good friends around me. The Beatles on a nearby radio. What could be better on Layover Day?

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Day 2 of BRAG: Cool, refreshing water

Hot and “hilly” (but not really) was how most people described today’s ride. Lots and lots and lots of farmland, from just barely growing peanuts (we think) to shoulder-high field corn. My riding buddy and I spent quite a few miles taking turns sharing things we are grateful for – from specific people to smells to accomplishments to things we get to do. What a great way to focus on the good.

My funniest moment today was at the second rest stop, when the man in the Powerade line next to me said, “I know you. We showered together yesterday.” I laughed and whispered that we weren’t supposed to discuss that. (For those of you who haven’t lived BRAG, it’s definitely G-rated. We were waiting in the line for the shower truck together. Individual shower stalls; no coed bathing.)

20130604-220116.jpgBut the highlight for me was a stop at the city pool in Douglas, about a mile before the ride’s end. For $3, we showered and hopped into the pool in our bike clothes. What a bargain! I haven’t experienced such heavenly cooling in a long time. They even had a waterfall, which I stood under for ages.

Tomorrow’s a layover day – shorter ride and plenty of rest. My sunburned face and I are ready. In the meantime, I hope this picture helps you feel the cool of that waterfall.

Day 1 of BRAG: Snacks at the Crime & Punishment Museum

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The giant peanut. A delightfully overcast day with a nice breeze. A mostly flat route. A father and two daughters on a triple bicycle. Showering in a steamy hot truck after standing in the hot sun for 30 minutes. Chatting it up with long-time buddies I only see once a year. And the quote of the day, from a new friend from Alabama: “I prefer my fruit in pie form.” BRAG is definitely on.

20130603-163506.jpgA highlight of today’s ride was our rest stop at the Crime and Punishment Museum in Ashburn, GA. It was the county sheriff’s residence, with the county jail upstairs. It includes the Last Meal Cafe, decorated with lists of various prisoners’ last meals before execution (not in this jail) – including one who had liver and onions.

Now I’m chilling out with my friend and best riding buddy Doug, listening to live music and swatting away gnats. With that nice mellow post-ride feeling, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

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At the start of BRAG 2013 — the traditional starting-line photo

On my way to BRAG

Imagine using a week of your vacation to ride 300+ miles across Georgia. Along the way, we sleep on gym floors, shower in high school locker rooms, and subsist on peanut butter, bananas, Powerade, and fig bars. We get up around 5 a.m., ride most of the day, and relax in the afternoon and evening.

Most of my family and friends don’t get it at all, but this experience called the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia (BRAG for short) is one of my best weeks all year. That’s not to say it’s easy — I’ve fallen and scraped skin off my leg, have had to give up some days because of asthma, and have gotten dehydrated at least once. But it’s a ride that engages all of me in a way I don’t often experience. It takes all my time, my attention (a slip in attention is how I fell), and my lung power. But it’s also a chance to connect with the natural world, to reconnect with good friends, and to be surprised by what I can do.

So I’m on the way to my seventh BRAG since 2006. I’ve worn myself out packing and I have some butterflies — as I always do. But what I love about BRAG is that no matter how any one day goes, there’s always something new to see and someone new to meet. I’m excited and ready for this adventure. BRAG, here I come!

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