Allergic Reaction

In the Fall of 2013, Kelly and I were traveling around Europe for a blitzkrieg tour — we were trying to manage Northern Ireland, Ireland, England, Scotland and France, all in about five days. We had completed a full trip around the perimeter of Ireland by car (definitely scarier for Kelly than for me, since I was driving), and we had flown to London from Dublin, and then driven out to Stonehenge for a fly-by photo shoot. We returned to Heathrow and sorely underestimated the time required to go through Customs (another photo shoot of sorts, where they take your picture upon entry and then take your picture when you get to your gate, and perform facial recognition comparison on the two versions of you, coupled to your passport photo for a final check). We waited in a line that seemingly snaked around 1/2 of the United Kingdom, and were finally released to our terminal. I was caught by the random bag checkers, and told Kelly to run to the gate ahead of me to see if he could bribe the gate attendant into waiting for us. We were carrying only backpacks but to say “only” backpacks is a bit misleading. My backpack, for example, probably weighed more than I did. As I watched Kelly hustle off into the distance toward the gate, I lamented the slow pace of the security check and quickly stuffed my things back in the pack as soon as they were done. I shouldered it up, and started off in Kelly’s wake. I was dodging thousands of fellow travelers, narrowly avoiding the aggressively-spraying Duty-Free perfume shop worker, and trying to follow the signs to a gate that seemed to continually recede into the distance.

I saw that I needed to go down one level, and the only options were packed escalators that didn’t allow for variable speed travel, and the stairs. I was starting to breath very heavy at this point, and I was running out of gas. My initial jogging pace had slowed to what probably more closely resembled a stop-and-go waddle, where I would try to muster up the energy to run, and then as soon as I pushed off to do so, I would find my tank empty again, and have to return to walking. I was also moderately panicking because Kelly and I didn’t have cell phones that were active in the UK, so I felt relegated to the Stone Age, and lost in a sea of strangers, starting to really gasp for breath, and drawing some funny looks and probably a few pitying stares. 

I arrived at what should have been the gate assigned to our flight, but there were disturbingly few people at it — approximately zero, in fact. A ran up to a gate agent at the neighboring gate with so many thoughts running through my head and so little oxygen with which to process them. Where was Kelly? Why was the gate empty? Had the plane departed? Why was there no plane visible outside? What was I going to do? Was I suffocating? Were my lungs failing? Would I die here? All of this combined to add crying to the mix of violent things my body was doing, and I gasped and fought for sufficient air to ask the attendant where my flight was. She informed me that this was a remote terminal, which required taking a bus to the plane, and the bus had departed five minutes ago. 

Now I was in full panic mode. Kelly would have known not to get on the plane without me, right? Would he have gotten on the bus? Did I hope that he had, or hope that he hadn’t? I couldn’t think straight enough to decide, and my lungs burned with every new fear that came to mind. I doubled over under the weight of my backpack, hands on knees, and tried desperately to fight for more air. In addition to the myriad immediate concerns I had, I wondered what the heck was going on with my body. Was I really this out of shape? Were my lungs so underutilized that I couldn’t manage to make it to my airplane gate without keeling over dead? I was in a full flop sweat now, no longer needing the fleece jacket and sweater that had barely kept me from freezing at Stonehenge earlier in the day. There was no time to take off the backpack or strip down to a t-shirt, though, when I still didn’t know where Kelly was, or whether he was unwillingly headed to Scotland without me. 

I spun around in circles, searching the area of any signs of that familiar face, and tried to think of a way to communicate. Was there an airport intercom? With so much noise and bustle, I couldn’t imagine one could be effective. And what was going on that I still couldn’t catch my breath? And why was I sneezing all of a sudden? 

The sneezing wouldn’t stop once it started. And I realized that in addition to sweating, my nose was running far faster than I had been. I had to sit down. Or to run again. Or to break through the barrier and run out to the plane to see if Kelly was on board. 

I don’t remember what happened next — it is all a blur of nasal congestion and tears and worries, but I remember the moment that I found Kelly (more accurately, I’m sure, Kelly found me), and we sat down to try to retool our plans for the day. Since we had intended to go to Scotland only for a few hours before flying to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées, our itinerary needed a pretty decent overhaul. We plopped down in a little seating area, and I felt three inches taller once I removed my backpack. After peeling off my wet outer layers, I started to breath somewhat regularly again, but the sneezing! I suddenly remembered back to many years before when I had taken up running out of the blue, in a desperate attempt to “get into shape” and learn the habit of daily exercise. I pushed myself far too hard out of the gate, and every time, ended up returning home with a runny nose and sneezing that would not quit. I counted six sneezes in ten seconds. People in the airport were starting to stare, and to shield themselves and their loved ones, with increasing certainty that I had a communicable disease that they did not wish to contract. Aha! I knew it! I was allergic to exercise! 

That had actually been the “diagnosis” I had gotten those years earlier. Or, more accurately, I was diagnosed with “exercise-induced allergies”. But it got me a lot further off the hook to say I was allergic to exercise, and that’s certainly how it felt to me. Throw in the towel, there’s no way working out can be good for me when it leaves me feeling like a sniffling, sneezing, I’ll-never-rest-without-cough-medicine caricature. 

I remembered that the trigger for this allergic reaction had been my heart rate going above 200 bpm. Once I entered that range, it was pretty much a guarantee that the next few hours, days, or even weeks would require a case of tissue boxes, and would result in a red, chapped nose and the annoyance of a general malaise that has lots of symptoms, but doesn’t feel terrible. I just looked and sounded like I felt terrible, so maybe it wasn’t so bad. I was sure that the running, plus the backpack, plus the stress had skyrocketed my heart rate into its highest range, which was probably around 220 bpm. This attack would not pass quickly. 

I managed to stop sneezing for long enough to book a new flight and avoid getting thrown in quarantine, and quickly went in search of the nearest pharmacy, to stock up on nasal spray, decongestant and the London-esque version of Chap Stick. 

We had an amazing trip to Paris and I was particularly thankful for the hot muller cider at the Christmas Market on the Champs-Elysées. But the rest of the trip, and even the long-haul flight home was punctuated my sneezing fits and an unimaginably runny nose. Needless to say, we weren’t working out in our hotel rooms, or committed to any kind of daily fitness at this point. 

But that’s not to say that we hadn’t been trying. This process, like this post, is very long, and winding, and has peaks and valleys. We had tried several times to make going to the nearby YMCA part of our routine, but the number of days per week that we were able to get out of the office, to the gym, and not feel tried and haggard by the end of the day were few and far between. And when we did make it to the YMCA, I shudder now to think about how I spent my time there — either mindlessly running on the treadmill, repetitiously stepping on the StairClimber, or randomly approaching weight machines and arbitrarily doing a few reps until I felt satisfied that what I was doing could be called “working out.” 

And I thought that was what you were supposed to do. I thought you were either supposed to know what to do, or that what I was doing was what you were supposed to do — what pretty much everyone else there was doing. Some limited, repetitive movement, without much variation in intensity, and lacking in much of any functional fitness benefits, and the only muscle confusion that I experienced was the confusion of not knowing precisely how to sit myself down on any given machine, or which lever to pull where, and at what weight. 

Fast forward to today (I promise this is going to tie together, and bless your heart for reading this far, if you have made it), and the same laborious breathing, the same intensity of exertion has a wildly different impact on my body. That trip and the resulting sneezefest was probably a significant factor in my choice — albeit six months later, in April 2014 — to purchase P90X3 and try out one of those “weird, home-workout programs from TV”. 

Because if I had a hard time getting to the YMCA down the street every day (and I definitely did), and even when I did get there, I didn’t have appreciable results that benefitted my daily life, maybe working out at home would help. 

Maybe clearing some space in the living room was possible. 

Maybe we could move an end table or push the couch to the other side of the room without disrupting the delicate consumption-based imbalance of its current setup, where its sole function was to hold our lazy butts when consuming television, or serving as a place to eat dinner when we were inspired by an advertisement to actually get up off the couch to go get something else to consume. 

And it wasn’t a straight line from there to here. 

It wasn’t a miracle cure or a magic pill or an instantly gratifying kind of thing, even though I had spent years searching for that. It took almost a year for us to get into a rhythm that could reasonably be described as consistent or habitual, and it took another year for us to solidify that habit to the point of shifting to something that it’s weird NOT to do, versus being something that was kind of miraculous if it actually got done.  At this point, I haven’t missed a day of working out (or intentional rest and recovery) in almost two years. 

And my allergy to exercise? 

I don’t know if I still have it or not, but it certainly isn’t any impediment to a strong, healthy, exercise-filled life. It turns out, being in shape makes it quite difficult to rocket your heart rate to anywhere near 220, because my heart and lungs are so much stronger now, and my muscles so much more efficient and powerful, that I can do almost anything I want to do with my body and still feel closer to the comfortable range of experience than to the holy-shit-what-is-happening-to-my-body kind of thing. I’ve been intensifying the new “Clean Week” workouts we’ve been doing this week in our accountability group, and I am breathing hard and fast and with just as much intensity by the end of the routine as I was that day at Heathrow, but there is no burning in my lungs, there is no weakness in my heart, there is power and strength and capacity. And thank goodness, there is no seriatim sneezery or Rudolph-esque red nose in sight. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about why I am so passionate about sharing the benefits of exercise, and so many of the reasons are so overly simple, but truly profound. The biggest of which is that we are mortal (Sorry, meant to say: spoiler alert!), and someday, we may have to fight for our lives, in a long and protracted battle, or an acute and intense one. And we don’t have to be resigned to losing those fights. 

We are warriors. 

The strength that I build in thirty minutes a day gives me the confidence to know that if there is a battle to fight, that I will be strong enough, conditioned enough, and brave enough to fight and win. 

If I can build this daily habit, with an alleged allergy to exercise itself, you can, too.