Re-learning to Breathe


by JJ Mackwood

While active and healthy my entire life, I had never been a runner. At the age of 31, seemingly overnight, it became increasingly difficult to breathe without pain, escalating to where simple daily tasks such as blow-drying my hair would leave me out of breath. Multiple appointments with physicians left me without answers and on one unforeseen day of hemorrhaging, ambulance transport, admittance to ICU, multiple tests and treatments I was left with a diagnosis of extensive bilateral pulmonary embolisms.

Fast forward seven years, and life had returned to a new normal. I had resigned myself to seeing a specialist yearly, taking blood thinners for the rest of my life and accepting that any amount of cardio activity would result in pain from the scarring in the top of my right lung. Still, it seemed like a small price to pay so long as I was alive. I mean, who needs cardio anyway?

And yet…on a day no different than any other, I made the decision to go for a short (and I mean short) run. This unexpected resolution initiated a metamorphosis of sorts to where I find myself today. I would like to tell you it was a beautiful and graceful process…like becoming a butterfly…but I’m sure if you asked anyone who was within earshot of me, they will tell you it was not an easy journey for me, or for them. I complained a lot. It was painful, I didn’t feel like it would ever get any easier, and I’m pretty sure my mantra was along the lines of “I hate running.” Nevertheless, perhaps due in part to my stubbornness, and in part to positive influences, the transformation was happening with or without a constructive attitude. I began experimenting with my breathing. The “trick” to bypass the pain was to focus on breathing deep into the base of my lungs. This was significant in shifting my beliefs about my lungs’ limitations. I became a buff connoisseur, as running in the cold (or even crisp) air was not an option initially. As time went on, I found myself being able to remove the buff for shorter and then longer periods of time.

Metres turned to kilometres and kilometres turned to long runs in knee-deep snow, blistered feet, missing toenails and “real runner” type injuries. Every finished run felt surreal. Somewhere along the way, I can’t say exactly where, I began to embrace running, and in turn, it began to restore me.

Over the last few years, I have achieved personal best times and distances, and continue to set new ones. This year, the year I turned 40, I committed myself to Running Room’s sub-two-hour half marathon training plan and in May accomplished this goal in 1:56:25. When I crossed the finish line, I recognized that I am no longer merely grateful to have lived. The pain in my chest has been replaced with a sense of fulfillment and love for a life well lived.

Thank you to my running (and life) partner for encouraging me every day just by example, and thank you to all of the incredible people I have had the honour of meeting at the Red Deer Running Room. They have inspired me with their own stories of accomplishment. What an extraordinary gift this journey has been.


One Reply to “Re-learning to Breathe”

  1. What an awesome article! Congratulations to JJ for her accomplishment of becoming a “real runner”. I have watched this transformation and find it truly inspiring – Way to go!

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