I lost five stone to get back in the game
Asthma can cause great distress to those who experience its symptoms. Here, Colm Murphy tells Joy Orpen how playing sport has not only strengthened his lungs — it has given him a whole new lease of life
Colm Murphy (29) plans to compete in a gruelling Ironman event in the not-too-distant future. What makes this statement intriguing is the fact that he suffers from asthma, a condition that causes difficulty breathing, and which deters some people from playing sport or exercising. But Colm knows from personal experience that exercise improves his quality of life, and decreases the impact of his asthma.
Colm spent the first seven years of his life in Canada. He then moved to Kerry with his family, when his mother, a doctor, got a job in Listowel. His father, who is also a doctor, works in the public health sector in Cavan.
Soon after the family settled in Ireland, Colm developed persistent chest problems. “For the first couple of months, I was coughing and wheezing,” he explains. “It was mostly at night, and I used to wake up a lot.” Given the fact that his parents were both doctors, while several members of his extended family suffered from the condition, it didn’t take long for a diagnosis of asthma to be made. “It affects your bronchial tubes,” Colm explains. “These tubes feed air into your lungs. When you have an asthma attack, they start contracting and you can feel the air just isn’t flowing. So you end up in a state of disarray, and that’s when you start to panic.”
Colm believes the smoky atmosphere in Ireland more than likely triggered his chest problems. “In Newfoundland, where we lived in Canada, the air was very clean. It was also very cold in winter, but it was crisp, and dry, too,” he explains. “One winter, we had 16 feet of snow. There were mounds of it everywhere and you’d have to wait for the snowploughs to come and clear the road. Ireland, on the other hand, is very damp and wet, and there is smoke from open fires in some places.”
In his first few months here, Colm’s constant coughs and colds caused him to miss school quite often. Following his diagnosis, he began using a ‘reliever’ inhaler, which worked well for him. However, he now understands that this was not an ideal solution. “They’ll help stop the spasm and relieve the attack,” he says. “But ideally, you should be using a preventative inhaler on a very regular basis, and a reliever only when you have an attack.” He says he was able to avoid being hospitalised, thanks to timely medical interventions, especially at night, from his mother.
Colm, like most boys his age, was mad about sport, particularly football, roller-hockey (a substitute for the ice hockey he had played with his brothers in Canada) and swimming. But his asthma put a damper on things. “In primary school my football team got into the finals, but I couldn’t play that day because of an asthma attack,” he recalls. “My team lost, and I thought it was all my fault.”
As time went on, Colm began to shun sport, because he was worried the other players would make fun of him if he started wheezing and coughing. The situation got even worse when he became a teenager, so he began to lose even more confidence. “Sure, that goes with the age,” he concedes, “but asthma certainly exacerbates it.” Then, when he was 14, Colm and his family moved to Newcastle West, Co Limerick, causing additional feelings of isolation. By now he had become so sedentary he was steadily putting on weight. “It doesn’t help your asthma when your lungs are already stressed,” he points out. “The more weight I put on, the worse I’d feel. I even gave up swimming, which I loved, because I couldn’t bear my friends to see me in a costume. Back then, I was very unhappy, and this continued until my early 20s. I had issues with my weight, my health, and my lack of a social life.”
In the interim, Colm did a degree in applied ecology and a master’s in marine biology. He’d also spent a year in Vancouver, Canada. But with jobs in his chosen field hard to find, he changed tack, and enrolled at University College Cork (UCC) to do a master’s in information systems for business performance. He also met Aisling O’Halloran, who was in Cork doing a post-graduate degree in film production, and they have been together ever since.
When he was 24, Colm decided it was now or never, when it came to accomplishing his personal goals. He wanted to run marathons, go travelling, and climb Carrauntoohil in Co Kerry. “But first I needed to lose weight and get my asthma under control,” he says.
His major obstacle was his breathing, which at that time was made worse by the fact that he was unfit and overweight. So he began to exercise — very gently at the beginning. “The first time I went running, my lungs gave up after 100 metres,” he admits. “But three months later my legs gave up before my lungs did! I also began to watch my diet. I still had three meals a day, but instead of pizza, I’d have fish and veg. Fizzy drinks were the hardest thing to give up. Overall, I was eating far fewer calories and exercising a lot more.”
In time, Colm lost more than five stone, and is absolutely delighted he did. “Some of my hoodies from that time look like huge dresses,” he laughs.
It took Colm about two years of gradual training to run his first marathon, which he did in Dublin in 2013. Now, it seems there’s no stopping him. Last year, he did three marathons: “They almost crippled me, but my lungs have never been stronger,” he volunteers. He also summited Carrauntoohil in three hours, although most people take four to six hours to do this strenuous climb. “We took pictures at the top and I have a big grin on my face,” he says.
‘You can feel the air isn’t flowing. So you end up in a state of disarray, and that’s when you start to panic’
Currently, Colm runs several times a week, plays tag rugby, cycles and swims. Next year, he will take part in a triathlon, which will involve three of those disciplines. In a few years’ time, he hopes to compete in an Ironman, comprising a 3.9km swim, a 180km cycle and a marathon (42.2km). Not bad for a boy who, once upon a time, was devastated when he couldn’t play a football match because of his asthma. Colm says since he became active, his breathing has improved significantly, he has far fewer asthma attacks, while the quality of his life is very much better.
That is why he is fully behind the website makeasthmapersonal.ie, which features an online toolkit to help people manage their asthma more effectively. It encourages them to track their symptoms and triggers, as well as outlining the important first steps in developing a personal asthma management plan with their GP, nurse, or pharmacist.
Surely a great first step to better health.