The whistle blows. I'm racing along with the pack, keeping an eye on the jersey in front of me, barely aware of the rider behind me. My pace is steady and the obstacles are manageable. Then suddenly I notice that my breathing is a little forced. I'm taking larger gulps of air and trying to calm them down by breathing through my nose. I ignore the discomfort and keep on. Half a lap later my gasping is so loud that spectators can hear it. Instead of cheering they pause and listen. They know that something is wrong. They might even spot the problem before I do.
In my mind I'm thinking: It's a race. It's supposed to be hard. There is supposed be pain. I'm pushing the pace. I'm focused on a goal. It is within this mentality that I am often the last to acknowledge what is happening, I was hyperventilating. My lungs were restricting, closing up, depleting the oxygen that my muscles desperately needed. I was growing weaker, getting slower. The obstacles became too much. I had to churn the pedals to make it through the sand and mud. People were passing me. Then I was off the bike, pushing it up a hill and suddenly I couldn't even do that. I couldn't take another step. It was over.
Exercise Induced Asthma is not uncommon among athletes, especially cyclists. Perhaps more than 10% of cyclists deal with the occasional attack. There are many theories as to why but the most likely is that cyclists breath in large amounts of pollen and pollutants from the air as they ride. These allergens narrow airways starting a negative reaction cycle. However, the true source of EIA is still largely unknown and its triggers vary greatly.
Of the ten bike races I have participated in this year, only two have been interrupted by EIA. Both of them were on particularly hot days so in my case that is the most likely trigger. As for treatments, there are many suggestions from Albuterol inhalers to corticosteroids to the Buteyko breathing method. The one that works best for me is running intervals. On the day of the event I need to open my lungs up, so to speak, to lessen the chance for an episode. Even so, it can come out of nowhere.
EIA is not a new development as noted in a LiveStrong.com article that came out earlier this year:
In a study published in 1998 in the “Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology,” researchers studying athletes at the 1996 Olympic Games found that U.S. athletes participating in cycling and mountain biking had the highest rate of asthma. A later study published in the June 2006 issue of the “Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness” tested the pulmonary function of a professional cycling team and found that 72 percent of the subjects had upper airway or bronchial symptoms.
Many great athletes have suffered from this condition and managed to move forward in their careers. The most notable in our sport is Katie Compton. She has suffered from a number of illnesses but most notably allergy induced asthma. Some attacks have been so serious as to land her in the hospital. Still, Katie has managed to perform on the highest level. How? Her response is, "I'm stubborn and I hate quitting." Thanks to her unstoppable attitude she has won the USA Cycling National Cyclocross Championships 11 times. We couldn't ask for a better example.
I wrote this to reach out to anyone battling the same challenges and remind you that you are not alone. Take the best steps available (Warm-ups, meds, breathing exercises), keep yourself educated and watch for the signs. Most importantly, don't give up. I put in three months of training and yet still could not overcome the effects of a particularly hot afternoon. It all felt like such a waste. My frustration was beyond words but I've been down this road before. It was only one race. My happiness depends, not on winning, but on participating. I'll be back and so will you. The season has only just begun.