Vocal Chord Dysfunction
I’m not a runner. Never have been. I run. For awhile, I got kinda good at it. I didn’t get “Olympic qualifying time” good at it, but I was able to hit the pavement pretty much anytime, anywhere and always finish with a pace between 8:15-8:45 per mile. The year my wife and ran about 8 half marathons, we were consistently finishing in the 1:53 timeframe. I was also blessed to get stronger as the race went on. Once I got through the first few miles, I found going long distances easier. During one stretch, I actually achieved my personal best time of 1:48 for a half marathon. It was consistent and I like consistent.
About a year and a half ago, I noticed that “consistent” was no longer the word I would use to describe a run. “Enjoyable” was also another word that became banned from my running vocabulary. I often told my wife that “good run” was an oxymoron. The reason why is because I began to feel as if I was breathing through a scuba hose like the one pictured. After noticing that it wasn’t getting any better, I finally broke down and went to a doctor. After a battery of tests (chest x-ray, stress test, breathing test), I was giving a “puffer” and diagnosed with “Sports Induced Asthma”. After about a month of hitting the puffer, I pitched it because it was doing nothing to help. I also noticed the issue was getting worse.
No longer did I feel like I was breathing through a scuba hose, I now felt like my air capacity was down to breathing through a straw. If you think that sounds odd, go give it a try. It’s no joy. As you can imagine, you start using other creative ways to get air into your lungs. Chest breathing became my new normal and that is no way to run. It was a spiral downward. By the 6th to 7th mile of half marathons and training runs, I was DONE. My chest muscles were tired and my throat felt like it would explode. There’s only so deep you can dig and only so much you can grind out. Frustration had set in.
On my most recent annual physical, I gave one final plea to our doctor. I explained my frustration and basically begged to get to the bottom of this. Fear was obviously there, but I just had to know what had happened to me. For a frame of reference, my last 3 half marathon times were 2:10, 2:11 and 2:05. My pace was a full minute to 1:30 per mile worse than just a year and a half ago. Something wasn’t right and the numbers didn’t lie. After an extensive exam by an ENT (which included a small camera looking down my throat) we finally had a diagnoses…
That long story (and this long post) is to explain it to anyone that might hit the site in a search. It is also to share it with my running friends. There’s no real cause and there’s no real cure. Acid reflux can play a part. Breathing improperly can also play a major role. The bottom line (as you can see from the diagram) is that your breathing is very difficult. The vocal chords don’t open as far as they normally do and can often fold over one another. The “spasms” can happen at any time, but most likely are triggered during exercise. Thus the reason it is often misdiagnosed as Sports Induced Asthma. Environmental factors can also trigger it. For me, it’s a combination of all of the above. We’re addressing the acid reflux and breathing techniques now. It’s helped a little bit, but might take time. You can do google searches and find all sorts of information about VCD. If nothing else, the anxiety of knowing “whats wrong” has certainly helped.
For a guy that’s competitive by nature, this is a struggle for me. I waved goodbye to winning races a long time ago. When I say “competitive”, I mean against myself. I always want to challenge myself to be able to go farther or faster. That’s something I enjoy about running. It’s you against yourself. Yet this new challenge wasn’t part of the original equation. I am learning to be okay with a pace that wasn’t my normal. I am learning to give myself grace on the tough days. This has not been easy. I often try to focus on the positive that it could have been many things far worse. This isn’t deadly. It’s just frustrating. If you think you might be dealing with any of the symptoms above, I encourage you to talk to your doctor. It’s worth the ask.
That’s the best a non-medical, non-runner, average dude explanation I can offer. I have no expertise in this area and am learning more all of the time. It’s causing me to make changes and possibly even ending my 1/2 marathon career. Blessed to have had it last as long as it did.
It was a good run.