Out of breath
I was eight years old when I had my first bout with asthma. I can’t recall anymore exactly how I got through it, but I still remember waking up in the middle of the night breathless, gasping for air, as if the surrounding darkness were swallowing me up. At first I feared that some bad spirits were after me. When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I complained to my grandmother (may her soul rest in peace!).
Later we learned that I had asthma. The subsequent attacks came periodically. On some nights I could feel an attack coming, and my family and I would solemnly troop to the town doctor to get my medication.
My teachers were informed of my condition, and I was exempted from physical work (i.e., gardening). While my classmates were sent to rid the garden plots of weeds, or to fetch water, I had the privilege of peacefully sweeping fallen leaves under the cool shade of the mini forest. I was happy, of course. But I was also forbidden to participate in games requiring the physical exertion that children my age normally enjoy. Even my classmates were cautious of my condition. And while I relished the special treatment, I eventually realized that this had affected my psyche: It spawned a deeply ingrained belief that there were some things I simply could not do.
My last asthma attack occurred when I was 11 years old. For several days in a row, the breathlessness came at the almost exact time in the evening. I came to know the drill. Then one day it didn’t come. And not ever again. But I was left with a scar. I was never the healthy and glowing child able to chase after balls and kites and playmates for hours on end. In high school I shunned sports, thinking these were beyond me. In college I quit the tryouts for the varsity football team because I was out of breath within the first 10 minutes of running back and forth. It reinforced this haunting belief until I graduated and began working as a financial auditor—a job that didn’t exactly require physical fitness.
Then, three years ago, I started running. At first it was just a feeble attempt to counter the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. My daily run was a half-a-kilometer run-walk routine. I would stop myself at one point, still wary that the next huffing would trigger the dreaded breathlessness which abandoned me long ago but which I will not forget for a long time. But it didn’t come. The 10-minute runs got longer and longer, and after a few months I decided to join a fun run, the 2010 Run for Pasig River. It was a 5-km run that eventually made it to the Guinness World Records as the largest footrace with over 116,000 people running simultaneously.
I crossed the finish line alongside thousands of other runners, but in that moment I felt surprisingly light, freed of a burden I didn’t know had been weighing me down for a long time. It’s as if I had come face to face with an unknown darkness but found the light switch. And I decided I would never look back. I went from 5k to 10k, 16k, and then my first half marathon. I became passionate about running.
And then, a year and a half after the Run for Pasig, I finished my first full marathon, a gruelling 42.195-km at the 2011 Milo Marathon. It was one of the proudest moments in my life, perhaps even prouder than when I bagged my license as a certified public accountant. I had proven to myself that I can do anything, as long as I want it.
Now I am taking my running to ultra distances, having recently completed two 50-km road races. I do not belong to the fastest kind. I am a quiet, middle-of-the-pack type who knows exactly why I am running—not for medals or bragging rights, but to remind me that every time I feel out of breath, I am going beyond my self-imposed limitations and constantly challenging what can and can’t be done. And I intend to keep doing so.
Mark Jerson Pulohanan, 27, is an accountant at Deutsche Knowledge Services. He describes himself as “a young professional who’s trying to overcome the noise of the busy world and live his life fully.”
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