• Maex Ament

Breathe

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

My passion for running started at my best friend’s wedding. Our entire family headed out to Sitka, Alaska, to attend this event. It was August, and this would be the end of a three months sabbatical-like summer with lots of travel and adventure.

On the day before the wedding, the annual Sitka Half Marathon happened, and my friend and his now-wife, being avid runners, joined the race, dressed in fake wedding gowns. Several of the wedding guests joined as well.

Me — not so much. Twenty-one kilometers of running? I barely could do five, never trained, and really had no interest to change that. So no, I was a spectator, and as expected, witnessed my best friend and his soon to be wife win the race, holding hands.


Megan and Joe at the Sitka Cross Trail Classic (she won…)

While you might think that watching and enjoying the race was the trigger for starting life as a runner, you would be very wrong. The actual trigger happened a couple of days after, when I woke up in the middle of the night in our Airbnb, not being able to move, and barely managing to breathe due to pain in my neck. The pain was pretty intense, and the only thing that provided some relief was standing and walking, combined with Ibuprofen.

In the afternoon, I saw a chiropractor in Sitka, who performed her magic on me, with limited to no results. I somehow survived the next few days in Alaska pain-wise and was able to enjoy hikes, friends, and the glaciers. And yes, Ibuprofen raised to the top of my best friends list.

This was August 2016 and we returned to San Francisco, where we had been living for more than ten years. Over the coming days, the pain got somewhat better, but I realized something strange and very frightening when working out: I barely could breathe. Regardless of what cardio-related exercise my trainer tasked me to do, I struggled heavily. Even more so with exercises that involved pressure on my chest or back. Breathing was a bitch.

At home, I told my wife about it, and she dismissed it as the typical male exaggeration. I am likely just out of shape after three months of chilling in Europe and Asia. To her defense, I will admit that she was and is normally right with those assessments. As a “light hypochondriac”, you need sometimes those reminders and reality checks. Nevertheless, I was kind of convinced I am not making this up this time and saw my doctor at Kaiser. Her first assessment was unfortunately in line with my wife’s — likely just out of shape. It took me quite some perseverance and convincing to conduct a few more basic tests, one of them being an X-ray of my chests. I will admit that the picture below felt like a victory. At least I didn’t make shit up, as my wife or my doctor thought (and likely everyone else who cared).

Doesn’t look like a big difference…

Besides the short-lived feeling of victory for being right, I was shit-scared. Especially because the doctor ordered a variety of tests, most of them either involving big metal tubes, airproof chambers, or, worst of all, very long needles. I spare you all the details but, on a high level, we went from “something’s wrong with the lung”, over “that spine looks weird” to “what are those nodules in his throat”. After a few weeks of tests, I could clearly state being cancer-free and very healthy, besides the fact that my right diaphragm wouldn’t really move, causing my right lung to stay calm and never expand. It kind of explained the breathing thing. The doctors concluded that the most likely cause was a damaged Phrenic nerve, the connection between the brain and the diaphragm, potentially caused by food poisoning I had exactly a week before the pain started while visiting Portugal. The entire thing seems to be rather rare, but still has this “House-like” name of Parsonage-Turner syndrome.

As to how to fix this, there was no real answer. Time, maybe. How long? Twelve months, maybe longer. Maybe never. In addition, the doctors recommended not to exercise too crazy, because I only had one lung to support me with the air needed, which would mean any sort of exercise would be very hard and unpleasant. That’s exactly when I decided to ignore them and start running.

At the end of 2016 when I slowly began to log in the miles. As everybody who starts running knows, the first weeks and months are horrible. Living in hilly San Francisco, and only having limited lung capacity didn’t make it easier. But I survived. I made it a priority, that I keep to this day. First, my health, which first and foremost means running, then my family. Friends and work as the next priority. That decision helped me to avoid excuses for not having time to run.

Around that time, sometime in early 2017, we decided that it was time for a change, for a break. We had lived in California for almost 12 years, and my current company Taulia was at a size, stage, and setup where the contribution of a non-CEO founder was not as essential anymore. So we decided to move to Spain, the home country of my wife, where she hadn’t lived for more than 18 years. Spending a year close to her family, having the kids around their cousins and grandparents, and switching back the gear sounded like a really good idea. For me, it meant transitioning out of Taulia, and then hopefully do nothing or very little for a while. I was excited as well to have more time for running, which in the Summer of 2017 became even more important to me. I ran in the Spanish heat of 40 degrees Celsius and loved it. I ran for the first time through the largest park in Madrid, Casa de Campo, becoming immediately hooked by the size and calmness of it, not knowing yet that this park would become my best friend in the year to come.

After it cooled down (which is very relative in Spain…) in the fall, I ran a couple of races in the local villages around Madrid, 10Ks, and decided that I wanted to push myself a bit further. So I signed up for the half marathon in Madrid in the coming Spring of 2018. My lungs seemed to work much better, breathing tests showed that I seemed to have compensated for the missing diaphragm movement, which still didn’t perform as expected. But who really cared. I ran decent times and distances and didn’t feel any discomfort or disadvantages.

Before the half marathon, I became so confident with running that I signed up for a second one, just two weeks later than the other one. And I ran both at exactly the same time, which was a great success and motivator. And pretty much right after the second race, I decided to attack the final(?) challenge and signed up for the Marathon in Valencia later in 2018. I started training for the race after the summer, mostly in Casa de Campo, the vast and empty park I mentioned before, which is close to where we live.

Sometime between the races, I started to ask myself what makes this running thing so enjoyable for me. Yes, it felt good to be healthy, ignoring the doctor’s advice and getting my breathing in order. That alone was worth the commitment. But there was so much more, I realized. When running for a few miles, I get almost in a state of meditation, a feeling that I dearly missed, not being able to scuba dive anymore. The 60 minutes of scuba diving, without any talking, and the only noise being the air bubbles and the things in my head were always the greatest thing for me. The lung issue, unfortunately, killed that experience (for now, I am not giving up!), and I realized that long runs had a similar effect on my mind. Sometimes I added music, and for very long distances, before getting too bored, a book or a podcast. But the feeling I like the most is the non-thinking and at the same time thinking-about-everything state. This is the time when the best ideas come up, without actually looking for them.


Oh yes, I ran the Marathon in Valencia, in four hours, which for my age and being the first time I tried, is a decent time. Obviously, I signed up immediately for the next one, which I finished even better.

I am sure there will be more, because, to paraphrase Murakami: “I run, therefore I am.”

Close to the finish line at the Madrid Marathon 2019

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