Cathy Stephens was born not breathing. And since that day 47 years ago, breathing has periodically been a struggle for her.
By the time she was a toddler, Cathy was diagnosed with severe asthma. But that didn’t stop her from being very, very active!
“Most of what I do is physical,” says Cathy. “That’s what I’m drawn to. I’m athletically inclined. Even my learning style is very physical.”
However, asthma has affected Cathy’s choice of sports. As a child she always had to choose sports, such as softball, that are not high impact. She had to avoid basketball, soccer and other sports that involve continuous running.
Asthma management has always been part of Cathy’s daily life. “I was the kid who always had a note for P.E.,” Cathy explains. “I looked fine, but I knew that if I participated in some sports I would have an asthma attack.”
Cathy’s Love of Cycling Started Early
“I remember learning to ride a bike when I was four,” Cathy recalls. “I thought it was the greatest thing in the world." She started riding longer distances as a teen.
As an adult, Cathy enjoys riding really long distances. “My favorite is to do a ‘century,’ which is a 100-mile ride,” she says. “I just get in my zone when I cycle. I feel free and I love the challenge. It’s lower impact, so I’m able to do it. And it’s so satisfying when you finish, especially when you’re with friends!”
Cathy also swims, which is also a low-impact sport for people with asthma.
Taking on the Triathlon Challenge
When Cathy was a teen, she started thinking about doing a triathlon. A triathlon is a competition where athletes complete a long swim, a long bicycle ride and a long run. All three are done on the same day, one right after the other.
Cathy’s thoughts about triathlons started when she saw what used to be the “big” triathlon in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where she lived. She thought it was an amazing thing, and wanted to figure out how to do it.
Cathy started with a “sprint triathlon,” which is a shorter-distance triathlon. Then she built up to Olympic distance. Then she learned about the Ironman Triathlon competitions.
For the Ironman, athletes complete a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bicycle ride and 26.2 mile run. Assuming the Ironman would be beyond her abilities, she set her sights on the Half Ironman. After training hard for a long time, Cathy successfully completed a Half Ironman competition in Boise, Idaho.
Although she was always one of the last to finish in races and training, Cathy felt that it was a victory to finish at all.
The second time Cathy did the Boise Half Ironman, she faced 30 mile-per-hour head and cross winds. Afterwards, another competitor spoke to her. He said that he had done a few Ironman races, and that day’s race was the hardest Half Ironman he had ever done. “If you can do that,” he told Cathy, “you can do a full Ironman.”
As Cathy explains, “When someone issues a challenge like that, it doesn’t take much before I go for it! I signed up a couple weeks later.”
Shooting for an Ironman
Cathy trained for the Ironman competition for a full year. Then, five days before the race, she got ill.
Cathy has a few triggers that set off her asthma. Her biggest trigger is sinus infections. Pollen, smoke and poor air quality are also triggers. When her asthma flares, Cathy is often quite ill for about 10 days.
“The pollens had been very bad. I was on prednisone (a prescription steroid) praying for a miracle,” Cathy remembers. “I entered the race, got in the water, and a little over halfway I couldn’t exhale any more. I was the first one in the medical tent. It was heartbreaking to get sick after training for so long.”
Even so, she was thrilled. “I had succeeded in working myself up to the point where if I hadn’t been sick that day, I would have been able to finish an Ironman! After all, I grew up in and out of hospitals. When I’m sick I can’t walk across the room without being completely winded.”
Cathy remembered the many times she had laid in the hospital thinking, “If my body could, what would I do?” On her training sessions, she would go through those lists in her head. She would say to herself, “You’re doing it right now! You’re working through your lists!” Yes, Cathy got ill for the actual race. But what she had been able to accomplish in training for this race was far beyond what she thought she could do.
The Second Time is the Charm
Cathy hadn’t originally intended to give the Ironman a second try. But then everything lined up and she decided to go for it again. She trained hard. And on June 26, 2012, Cathy completed an Ironman Triathlon in spite of her asthma!
"I missed the cutoff by 23 seconds, but it didn't matter. Watch all the way to the end and see what happens!" - Cathy
Although she finished the race 23 seconds past the official cut-off time, Cathy’s finish was a huge and very emotional victory. As the sign that she carried for a victory lap proclaimed, “Dear Asthma: I WIN!”
Her victory was also a win for the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America (AAFA). She registered with the Ironman Foundation to fundraise for AAFA. Her efforts raised over $3,700.
Staying Healthy Between Bouts of Illness
Cathy knows that she will continue to have episodes of illness all of her life. She cannot always avoid her triggers. But she does do everything she can to stay healthy in between bouts of illness, and always takes her asthma control medications.
Don’t Let Asthma Stop You
Cathy’s advice for others who have chronic disease, like asthma, and want to set goals is to start small. After all, not every goal has to be Ironman sized! Set attainable goals and then build from there:
- Know your limitations
- Listen to your body
- Know when to back off
Plus, surround yourself with people who really understand your illness and will support you.
If your goals involve physical exercise, build up slowly. People often say to Cathy, “Your asthma got better because you exercised more.” The reality is, to be able to exercise at all, she had to get healthy enough so she could exercise a little. Then she exercised a little more. Then a little more. Then, in turn, her asthma got a little better, and she was able to exercise a little more. She couldn’t just go out and run a marathon. She had to start with much smaller goals and then build up.
Live Every Moment to the Fullest
Finally, Cathy advises that you take full advantage when you are well. “Enjoy every single moment that you’re able to do whatever it is that you want to do,” she says. “Because you’re going to have bad days. And you’re going to have episodes. So get through the episodes and then start back up again. Four years ago I did an Ironman. I literally exercised for 17 hours and 23 seconds. Two weeks ago I was horribly sick and struggling to breathe. Now I’m okay again so I’m getting back to the things I love. Never ever give up. Enjoy every minute that you can!”