Posted by: thehungryrunner | January 16, 2008

Why I run, reason # 2,846: To hear my own breath!

It’s true.  I have a bit of an infatuation with my breath.  No doubt it’s partly because I earn my living focusing greatly on it:  teaching yoga, leading clients through their training sessions, etc.  And without question, my work in fitness and yoga has made me all too aware of my own breathing — the effectiveness in properly focusing my breath when performing an exercise or yoga or even when sitting in the steamroom or sauna.

But it actually goes back further than that.  And it may just be the leading reason for my passion for movement.

I had double pneumonia as a child.  Eight years old, got sick (very sick), recovered….then did it all over again (apparently even back then my body was intent on “practice makes perfect”).  Every year thereafter until senior year of high school, I’d experience my annual bronchial infection, often around the same time (February, gee, what a shock).  It’s no small miracle I managed to graduate on schedule; at the end of my 6th grade I “won” the award for the highest number of accumulated absent days for all my grammar school years, and things didn’t improve much for the remainder of my schooling.  And being the quintessential nerd who loved school, I still remember the distress I’d feel upon hearing my mom call the school to report my need to stay home due to illness, and the small relief I’d feel upon having one of my schoolmates show up at the doorstep with the day’s “care package” of homework.  Yeah, I was that much of a geek.  Sheds some light on why I was picked on, I suppose.

But I especially remember the distress of not being able to breathe, of wimpering at night as the bright, hot nausea and fever would swell and then abate in cycles.  The endless coughing, trying desperately to clear the throat, the crackling wheezes of whatever breath could squeeze by my clogged windpipe.  And that horrible cough syrup!  The trauma of having to take that medication alone was no doubt one hefty incentive for trying to keep my health in check; I’d note the time after each dose and just dread knowing that I was only a mere few hours away from having to go through that all over again.

The pain of that memory is mitigated only by the intensely comforting recollection of my dear father, who tirelessly kept vigil at my bedside when I felt too ill to sleep alone, accommodating my need for distance (when I felt that nauseated and dizzy any contact only worsened it) while patiently sitting alongside the bed, watching over me and at the ready if I needed anything or if something happened suddenly.  And my mom, the day shift, working inexhaustively to keep me comfortable, warm, fed (“Just one more bite!”), hydrated (“Just one more sip!”), cradled by my favorite soft pillow and surrounded by my cavalry of beloved books and stuffed animals.  Not to mention the endless trips to the doctor — no easy feat when having to bundle up the sicky in zero degree weather.

Still.  It’s hard to imagine, when you’re that sick, that the body could ever be well again.

But amazingly it can, and it did just that — recover to its full, healthy self each time.  But the doctor felt quite certain I’d be limited in my lung functions, what with the repeat damage I’d been through so many times.  For years I avoided running, thinking it was out of my lungs’ reach.  Interestingly, I exercised — quite intensively — in almost every other capacity with no issue, so why I thought this lone, unexplored activity was not even an option, I don’t know.  But that’s what friends are for.  One in particular managed to persuade me to give it a try, seemingly knowing me even better than I knew myself at that moment.  And lo and behold…..<leaving out my running story for another time>…and the rest is history.

But back to the present, and my love affair with my breath.  It’s something I inevitably come back to every time I run.  Sometimes it’s my primary focal point, sometimes it just gets casual, passing acknowledgement.  Most of the time it’s somewhere in between.  As I stride, I monitor my breathing.  It’s my bottom line, the one constant that remains the guiding force behind the intensity of my workout.  Am I going too fast?  Too hard?  I don’t know, how is my breath?  Am I breathing okay?  If I’m breathing hard — harder than I could sustain for an hour, how long can I go at this pace/grade before I need a recovery jog?  Am I breathing too deliberately?  Breathing forcefully can easily cause a stitch in me.  I have found that I am happiest, strongest, when my breath is moving in and out very naturally, albeit harder than when at rest.  That’s my barometer, my personal trainer.  My breath tells me everything I need to know about my run; where to go, how long to go, how fast to go.  It’s the one force that takes me out of my need to be “in control”; I’m not in control, my breath is.  I hand over the reins and let its wisdom tell me what to do.  Sure, sooner or later my legs and feet may have something to say, but the dialogue is between them and my breath, at that moment I’m just the referee.  Or the mouse in the corner.  Or the student, dutifully absorbing the lesson from her esteemed mentor.

My breath is also the sweetest of songs, a smooth and percussive cadence that lulls my mind into a rhythm of quiet, monotonous happiness.  Thoughts of the day bounce off my scull, unable to penetrate the forcefield of steady contentedness that takes over once that initial brainstorm/mental reboot has surged through its cycle.  While I’ll admit to resorting to the pre-programmed rhythms of my Ipod when I’m on the treadmill (I’m convinced U2 produced “Vertigo” expressly for the purpose of psyching up runners), outside of the gym there’s nothing that can compete with that breathful affirmation of being alive, and the harmonious reminder that my lungs have come a long way since that bedridden third-grader’s struggle to get through another night of shivers, hallucinations and choking.  My breath is my miracle.

And in every race, I have that moment, that lump in the throat, that tear in the eye, as I give thanks to that miracle, and whisper to that eight-year-old:  “This is for you.”



  1. Awesome story!! My brother suffers from asthma.
    Everytime I run I think of how horrible it must be not to be able to catch your breath. Not being able to breath because your in a race is one thing,
    but not being able to breath simply because this is every day life is another.

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