Original article on Runners World
“You just have to focus on what’s in front of you today, and breathe the best you can.”
When he was a kid, Michael Waltrip remembers getting bored at his brother’s soccer game, and asking his dad if he could kill some time running around the track.
Waltrip was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF) a few days after birth, so his father probably figured he’d last half a lap before breathing issues kicked in.
But he took so many laps that they both stopped counting. Since then, he’s never really stopped. Not even when the breathing issues really did begin a few years ago.
A progressive, genetic disease, CF tends to worsen with age, and mainly affects the lungs and digestive system. The condition hampers the cells producing mucus, sweat, and digestive enzymes, often clogging airways and causing frequent lung infections, inability to gain weight, and difficulty absorbing nutrients.
For Waltrip, the digestive challenges have been lifelong, but he managed to avoid breathing problems until three years ago, when he turned 21. His doctors told him this may not have been simple luck—his running may have played a part in keeping him healthy, he said to Runner’s World.
When you run, the vibration that results from basically micro-jumping over and over is beneficial for the lungs, Waltrip said, because it helps to break up mucus. (Something most runners tend to experience, necessitating the perfect “snot rocket” form.)
Since that first day of laps around the track, running had been a constant for Waltrip: After playing soccer himself as a kid, he switched to cross country in high school and logged 40 miles a week, then continued by joining the track team in college.
Running may have helped ward off the breathing issues for some time, but when they did start several years ago, it was frightening. Waltrip recalled an awful feeling of being unable to take a full, deep breath. And that freaked him out.
“Until then, I think I didn’t acknowledge that I had CF because it wasn’t affecting me as much,” he said. “But then I came to the point where I couldn’t fall asleep because I couldn’t breathe properly, and I’d have to sit up and calm myself down for 30 minutes with breathing exercises.”
His running, which usually averaged around 60 miles a week, became much more of a struggle. Some runs would be okay, he said, but most would be filled with constant coughing and shallow breaths just to get the miles in.
“I still kept training, though,” Waltrip said. “I was being stubborn. That went on for six miserable months, before I finally decided that this was a big life lesson in accepting what was happening and getting help.”
His doctor put him on a daily treatment that included a nebulizer geared toward breaking up mucus, as well as a saline solution designed to irritate the lungs. Basically, he explained, your lungs don’t like salt, so they excrete water to balance it, and that helps break up the mucus and push it out. Waltrip also needed to inhale antibiotics, since people with CF who get bacterial infections in the lungs find those super hard to kick.
At the same time, he’s worked to stabilize his weight—an issue that’s always been a challenge. He can’t break down protein and fat very well because of his condition, and adding 60 to 80 miles of running a week on top of that means near-constant eating to keep from being too underweight.
Despite these obstacles, though, he’s back in run-all-the-laps form.
Waltrip recently won the Fairfax, Virginia-based Run Your Heart Out 5K in 16:02, and last July, he qualified for Boston during his first marathon attempt in San Francisco. Ditching his stubbornness and embracing daily treatment has helped him stay regimented, he said, and he’ll be at the Boston starting line in April.
“Just to be able to run with CF is kind of crazy and awesome,” he said. “But, like anything, you just have to focus on what’s in front of you today, and breathe the best you can.”